Whataboutery, Part 1 August 18, 2006Posted by smiffy in Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Middle East, Palestine.
Did you see the article by Alan Shatter and Rory Miller in the Irish Times earlier this week? I hope so. Apparently it was the best opinion piece to appear in an Irish newspaper all year. Who but a fool would have missed it?
Of course, I’m lying. It’s not the best opinion piece to appear all year (that’s just the view of Richard Waghorne, the increasingly cartoon-like Anthony Blanche of Irish blogs). It’s not even the best opinion piece to appear in the Irish Times that day? What it is, in fact, is an entirely predictable example of one the laziest arguments put forward not just by those who defend the actions of Israel, but by an array of conservative wannabe pundits – the old ‘ah, but what about them?’ appeal.
Shatter and Miller’s ‘argument’ (to be generous) is that those who, like the Lord Mayor of Dublin or the organizers of the Festival of World Cultures, criticise Israel during its recent military action in Lebanon, are guilty of hypocrisy, as they don’t apply the same scrutiny to other regimes which breach human rights, such as Saudi Arabia in its treatment of Palestinian refugees or Russia in its actions in Chechnya. It’s not a particularly original point (and it’s hard to see what it was that made Waghorne so giddy). Indeed, it’s the same criticism that was leveled at those who participated in the mass anti-war marches in 2003: why are they only protesting against the war in Iraq? Why aren’t the marching against the genocide in Darfur?
On the face of it, there may be some substance to the allegations. Certainly there are those whose attitude towards Israel borders on the obsessive and whose criticisms of that state are so over-the-top they can be readily dismissed (such as Nobel laureate José Saramago’s opinion that the attack on Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah by the IDF was ‘a crime comparable to Auschwitz’).
On the other hand, there may be good reason for marching in protest against certain violations of human rights, when other, more heinous, ones are occurring elsewhere. Champions of Israel are fond of lauding its democratic credentials. Surely, then, the Israeli government would be more sensitive to world opinion than, say, the Taliban, making protests against Israel more likely to achieve a positive result than those against other regimes. Similarly, while the likes of the SWP might disproportionately criticise Israel, that state also receives far more support from Western governments, particularly the United States, than the other regimes mentioned. It’s difficult to imagine any other state taking military action against another state and violating international law and receiving the same backing that Israel recently did, from both governments and commentators (unless, of course, it was the United States itself). Apart from a minority of die-hard Stalinists, I don’t recall many people making the argument that the Serbian government had ‘the right to defend itself’ by committing ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, even among those who opposed to NATO intervention. Contrast that with the ‘Israel right or wrong’ attitude adopted by many in the past month and a half.
Those who, like Shatter and Miller, seem to feel that pointing to hypocrisy on the part of others, and the fact that some conflicts receive more coverage than others, is an argument in and of itself fail to grasp that the same criticism can be made of them. Alan Shatter thinks that the Lord Mayor hasn’t been vocal enough about the Ethiopian incursion into Somalia? Fine, perhaps he can point us to the protest he himself has organised about it, or the outcry he has raised about Chechnya or the Congo. The same applies to the criticism of the 2003 anti-war marches; how many of those who complained that those marching against the US should have been concentrating on Sudan actually marched against Sudan themselves? It seems that, for many on the right, violations of human rights which the ‘Stoppers’ aren’t particularly concerned with are only important as a stick which they can beat critics of the US with. Is anyone adopting such a position really entitled to take the moral high ground?
Finally and, perhaps, most importantly, the crucial weakness of Shatter and Miller’s apparent attempt to defend Israel is that it doesn’t work as a defence at all. It falls into a rather obvious trap of the ad hominem fallacy. Even if one was to accept that everyone who has criticized the recent actions of the Israel military is a complete hypocrite, and possibly anti-Semitic to boot, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the criticisms themselves are invalid (as any fule no!). By ignoring the substance of the charges, Shatter and Miller are implicitly conceding them. Sure, Israel might be guilty of war crimes, but what about the crimes of A, B or C? Is this really the kind of point they want to make? And, if so, where it does leave them in attempting to answer those who genuinely do criticise human rights violations wherever they occur?
Funnily enough, what this article serves to show is that Shatter and Miller, as well as many other defenders of Israel, are simply a mirror image of the likes of George Galloway, clown prince of the anti-war movement. For Galloway, any criticism of Hezbollah, Hamas or the Iraqi resistance can simply be answered (well, ignored but responded to, to be more accurate) by pointing to the crimes of what he describes as the ‘little Hitler state on the Mediterranean’. Similarly, Shatter and Miller respond to charges against Israel by ignoring them and pointing to the actions of others. ‘Whataboutery’, it seems, is not confined to any one side.