Politics & Policy

Whataboutism and Misdirection: The Latest Tools of Dumb Political Combat

Jeremy Christian in a Portland, Ore., courtroom, May 30, 2017. (Photo: Beth Nakamura/Pool/Reuters)
‘Resistance’ partisans and Trump acolytes share the nasty habit of letting themselves off the hook and blaming the other side.

All that matters now is misdirection.

On the left, all major issues can be ignored by pointing to the evils of Trumpism. Are Americans concerned about the rise of radical Islam? Well, it’s Trumpian Islamophobia that poses the real threat. Are Americans worried about college-campus free-speech crackdowns? Well, Trump is a threat to the First Amendment! We’re about to bring about The Handmaid’s Tale! Resist!

On the right, all scandals can be excused by “whataboutism” — what about Obama? Or Clinton? Where were you when the Democrats did X? And hey, if you’re worried about that thing President Trump did, what about that far more horrific thing some leftist did?

It’s all dumb.

And it’s making us all dumber.

Last week, an Islamic terrorist in Manchester, UK, attacked Ariana Grande concertgoers, targeting children and teenagers. The Left quickly responded by moving quickly to tamp down worries over Islamophobia. Their chief tool: Jeremy Christian.

Who is Jeremy Christian? The same week as the Manchester attack, a white supremacist named Jeremy Christian murdered two men in Portland, Ore. Christian’s Facebook page included comments about “cutting off the heads of people that Circumcize Babies,” and sending “All Zionist Jews, All Christians who do not follow Christ’s teaching of Love, Charity, and Forgvieness And All Jihadi Muslims . . . to Madagascar or the Ovens/FEMA Camps!!!” Police considered Christian mentally ill; he had a rap sheet including robbery and kidnapping.

Christian had been berating two Muslim women, one wearing a hijab. Three men attempted to stop him: Ricky John Best, 53, a military veteran with four children; Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, a graduate of Reed College and an environmental consultant; and Micah Fletcher, 21, a student at Portland State University.

The Left called Christian an emissary of the Right: a Trump-supporting violent maniac intent on acting out Trump’s unstated goals. The website Heavy noted that since Trump’s election, “hate crimes against Muslims have continued to rise.” Jill Stein tweeted, “Another heartbreaking tragedy in Trump’s America, as a white nationalist shouting anti-Islam slurs murders 2 on Portland, OR subway.” The media condemned Trump for not speaking up about Christian’s attack — and after Trump spoke up, they condemned him for not speaking out sooner.

But Christian wasn’t a Trump supporter, or an emissary of Trump’s ideology. Trump supporters booted him from a free-speech march just a few weeks ago. His Facebook page showed that Christian was actually a Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein supporter.

Will we respond to the ouroboros of untruth by rejecting untruth, or by doubling down on it?

Now, this isn’t to let the Right off the hook for its willingness to look the other way on alt-right racist or violent rhetoric. Turning a blind eye to bad behavior by erstwhile allies became commonplace during the last election cycle on the right. The habit continues to this day, with some conservatives demonstrating a troubling blitheness about a Montana congressional candidate’s apparent body-slam of a journalist, audio-recorded on the journalist’s phone.

But blaming the Right for a nut job who supported Sanders and Stein is reprehensible — and it demonstrates why those on the right won’t take the Left seriously when it comes to fighting Islamic terror. The Left grabs eagerly at even the thinnest reeds to misdirect from the ubiquity of Islamic terror and instead blame the Islamic-terror-hating Right for similar crimes.

Meanwhile, on the right, some sort of defense had to be mounted against the onslaught of anonymous leaks about the embattled Trump administration. As Americans became more and more concerned about questionable connections between the Trump team and the Russian government, Trump acolytes began tweeting incessantly about Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer murdered in 2016 in what police termed a botched robbery. Trump supporters alleged that Rich was actually murdered by John Podesta or Hillary Clinton or Huma Abedin or Bozo the Clown for having leaked material from the Democratic National Committee to Wikileaks. Conveniently, Rich’s body had to be exhumed, debunked evidence had to be paraded before the cameras. Why would the media cover the alleged Trump–Russia collusion — no evidence! — but not Seth Rich? Why would they attempt to scuttle Sean Hannity’s television show for covering the Rich allegations? What did the Democrats have to hide?

Now, never mind that no evidence has yet been provided that Rich sent material to Wikileaks, let alone that he was murdered by nefarious Clinton henchmen — an act that would boggle the imagination of anyone but the most ardent Clinton conspiracy theorist. Rich was a convenient distraction.

When both sides play the distraction game, all we have are distractions. There are no facts, merely alternative facts. There can be no crystallizing events from which we emerge more unified — there can only be dueling narratives. There can be no common facts for us to agree on — there can only be a series of faux scandals, building on one another like a game of Jenga, until the entire edifice comes crashing down.

But will we respond to the ouroboros of untruth by rejecting untruth, or by doubling down on it? Instead of recognizing that two things can be true at once — that there can be facts that cut both ways — will we continue to embrace the strategy of ignoring evidence for opposing viewpoints by presenting sketchy evidence for our own viewpoint? If we do that, politics is bound to come to a crashing halt. Those who believe that Seth Rich was murdered by Chelsea aren’t going to be having any useful conversations with those who think Jeremy Christian was in the pay of the White House. They’ll scream at one another, and eventually, they’ll get down to the business of punching each other if forced into proximity for long enough.

So, enough of the misdirection. Not every story is good for your side. That’s okay. The world is big enough for lots of stories. Truth will win out in the long run, even if your cause had a bad-news day.

READ MORE:

Manchester-Style Terrorism Will Not Be Stopped by Love & Unity

Extremism on the Left & the Right

Portland Defenders: Courage & Sacrifice on Display

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