The Attack on Historical Perspective

The US media’s conflation of dissent with disloyalty regarding the supposed Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is the latest manifestation of the establishment’s attack on Historical perspective in order to “manufacture consent”. Attempts to explain the hypocrisy inherent in the US criticism of Russia are often labeled “whataboutism”. Consequently, vital lessons regarding the US role in manipulating elections from Guatemala to Iran to Russia itself are being sacrificed as those in the press corps who detest the democratically elected president self-righteously engage in dangerous “red baiting”.

In an August 2017 Washington Post piece, Philip Bump defines “whataboutism” as “a cheap rhetorical tactic that relies on drawing false or sketchy comparisons between two things which may not actually be all that comparable.”  “Whataboutism’s” roots are usually ascribed to Soviet leaders and disparagingly linked to Trump.  Merriam-Webster states: “The tactic was developed by the Soviet Union, but is seeing more attention as it is frequently used by the Trump administration.”

Although “whataboutism” is often used to mask or justify a nation’s actions, current use of the term is further deteriorating the value of using History as a guide to the present.  All History students know that George Santayana famously quipped, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  However, since History is influenced by political, economic, ethnic and religious particulars present in any country at any one time it is more likely that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” as Mark Twain famously noted.

Currently, “whataboutism” is being scurrilously used to stymie important Historical discussion regarding US interference in foreign elections. The importance of this Historical perspective is not in justifying or excusing alleged Russian actions but in providing a rational way to understand the present that considers scale and impact. For example, a journalist referring to the 1953 US-British coup in Tehran to topple the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadegh is not necessarily cheaply justifying Russian interference in the 2016 election. He or she simply may be providing perspective to help citizens understand that US and British interference led to the catastrophic Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the current nuclear tinged tension between the Islamic Republic and the US.  That some in the US mainstream believe 13 Russians’ alleged meddling in the US election is comparable to this or worse, Pearl Harbor, betrays a poor reading of History.

Rather than serving Russia or the Trump administration, Historical perspective is vital in combatting reactionary claims made by the likes of MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace, who recently distanced US meddling from its nefarious Russian counterpart’s by stating, “Sometimes it’s standing up for the Iranian dissidents who are being hung from cranes for being gay. I mean, America’s role in supporting democracies is stated US policy.” Maybe. But it is also, in the Iranian example, designed to place the despot Reza Pahlavi on the Peacock Throne for 25 repressive years.  By squashing this discussion, journalists are engaging in the Soviet measures they claim to be resisting.  In the same segment Wallace cited a tweet by former US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, criticizing Fox News’ Sean Hannity: “Didn’t know he was [talking] about American alleged interference in other countries’ elections as an excuse for Russia violating our sovereignty. That’s exactly the whataboutism argument Putin’s tv channels make.  Exactly.”

Hannity’s and Putin’s aims in citing Historical examples may in fact be to manipulate the present.  But painting all attempts to understand the present through the past as cheap and exploitative is dangerous and counterproductive to the free expression needed to maintain a robust marketplace of ideas.  Moreover, it marks those making such hypocritical statements little better than the dad in the 1986 Beastie Boys classic “Fight for Your Right to Party”: Ya paps got ya’ smoking man he says “No Way”. That hypocrite smokes two packs a day.

The American record in ignoring the past and silencing attempts at gaining greater Historical perspective have been decimating.  By ignoring the French experience in Vietnam, the US got bogged down in an unwinnable war of national liberation. More recently, the US press ignored the Soviet (and British) experience in Afghanistan, opting instead to rush to support a violent and impossible adventure to unite diverse Afghan tribes under a corrupt Pashtun government.  The Iraq debacle speaks for itself.  Little cultural, Historical or religious understanding of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish Muslims gave rise to the extremist groups that have turned the Middle East into a Hobbesian jungle.  Every step of the way the media backed government actions and cast wicked judgment on those asking uncomfortable questions or trying to draw essential Historical parallels.

To retain the self-righteous moral high ground, the US media needs to engage in an unprecedented level of Orwellian “doublethink” that allows for statements like Wallace’s above that “America’s role in supporting democracies is stated US policy” to stand side by side with stories about US support for Saudi bombing of Yemen or direct US bombing of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Libya and Somalia.  Presently, even questioning which democracies Wallace is talking about might get one labeled a Putin stooge. But, for sure, we know she isn’t referring to Saudi Arabia or Egypt or even the beloved, though perhaps fascist, Ukrainian patriots resisting “Putin.” Moreover, in Syria the US population is led to believe its tax dollars are being used to support “moderate” rebels.  A thinking person is tempted to make a connection between US support for the most barbarous of jihadist holy warriors in Afghanistan in the 1980s and maybe, just maybe, conclude that the US still supports such elements in Syria. But that type of Historical perspective is simply cast off as “whataboutism”.

Legend has it that Hitler refused any mention of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia after Operation Barbarossa began on 22 June 1941.  The current attempt by the US mainstream media to crush discussion of similarly useful Historical connections echoes that short-sighted approach and promises great disasters. The ghost of McCarthy is alive and well as the media report that those who dare make unsavory Historical connections do not understand that the US simply has other’s best interests in mind.  That said, discussing past US actions in comparative perspective might help sharpen one’s understanding of another’s best interest. But that would require long thought and open discussion and debate.

Instead, in a clear blow to Enlightenment ideals, many in the media have decided to rely on baseless rhetoric and label those who ask questions Russian agents.

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Dana E. Abizaid teaches European History at the Istanbul International Community School.

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