Radio Yerevan was asked by Voice of America: “Is it true that there is nothing to buy in your shops?” Radio Yerevan answered: “And what about you beating the Blacks!”
I loved this communist-era joke. Because it was the epitome of an old Soviet propaganda technique. In the 1950s Americans coined the term “whataboutism“. It was after William Averell Harriman criticised in 1947 the spreading Soviet imperialism and Ilya Ehrenburg advised the Americans in the Pravda newspaper “to mind their race segregation and inequalities”.
There is no Czech word for “whataboutism”. In Czech, we would probably call it ”avyzasismus“ but a Czechified “vodebautismus” sounds funnier to me. Whataboutism is basically a technique one uses to avoid answering an uncomfortable question by discrediting the opponent by pointing to flaws of the opponent or of the system the opponent believes in. It is the whataboutist’s goal to question the existence of morality. It is cheaper than shooting movies about beautiful and messianic Russia. Nobody would take the bait these days anyway.
Do you remember first online discussions below articles and blogs on the Internet? In the Czech Republic, which served many times as a testing field for methods to be used later on globally, it was a real ordeal to read them.
Every other comment abounded in offence, coarseness, hatred, negation, questioning all you had believed to be good. You can always find something stinking about anything, and the users posting their messages were – unlike us who have to work – super-sedulous in searching for dirt and pouring it on every single article. The extreme emotionality of their outburst paralysed my capacity to realize that it was the same twenty or thirty people writing and writing tirelessly. Statistically, the number is irrelevant. But this irrelevant group of people managed to convince me and thousands of other readers that Czechs are a bitter, malicious, frustrated mess. It must have been these people who coined the term a “truth-loveist” to make fun of those who believe in Havel’s: “Truth and Love will win over Lies and Hatred”.
The word truth-loveist discredits enemies of lies. Truth and love do not exist and those who do believe in them are idiots. At first, we, Czech cynics from the city, found it rather cool. Moravians and village people were a bit more reserved, mocking traditional values is not exactly their domain. But before long it spread like the plague. Scepticism and cynicism are our nature, so before long, a killing refugee with an iPhone became the incarnation of our fear, nourished generously by articles from Russian servers. We did not hesitate to come to believe that “city intellectuals, café bums, goodmongers, havloids and truth-loveists” are enemies of common-sense common people because they are sponsored by Soros, the billionaire. Fear switches off our capacity to ask logical questions and to check facts. Human limbic system whose role is to make us ready either for running or fighting, without mulling over it too much is the best ally of propaganda operations.
And so we could follow discussions of thousands of users in our first direct presidential elections. Anytime one stated a fact, such as “But Zeman said his political career was over” or “Zeman lied about Schwarzenberg’s wife’s past”, they “whatabouted” promptly: “And what about Kalousek?”.
The notorious reaction by Donald Trump when interviewed for the Fox News only shows that use of whataboutism is very common: when O’Reilly said “Putin is a killer”, the president of the United States answered: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”
Whataboutists, and Russian trolls, are aimed at questioning fair order of things. Do you believe in truth, facts, good and evil, morality, peace and regard for human being? Don’t! As they do not exists. That is the main thesis of the new propaganda.
And what about the war in Iraq? And what about the transgender toilets? And what about gay marriages? And what about torturing prisoners at Guantanamo? And what about the thousands of terrorists invited by Merkel? And what about Hillary? And what about the cut off heads in the Islamic state? And what about the stolen billions? And what about Kalousek?
To whatabautists, anything that makes people justly angry or understandably scared comes in handy. Trolls are soldiers of moral darkness. The goal is to develop the feeling that good does not exist and that only complete idiots would strive for it. That good government and good state have never existed. That defending the corrupt world is not worth trying. That death of the old and birth of something new would be better. It will bring security and peace to work.
This is what Germans thought in 1933. In 1945, they were cleaning up the debris and coming to the realization that passing the genocide of six million Jews in silence probably was not right. But they were made believe that the Jews were working towards global rule and that they were killing children. That’s what the Völkischer Beobachter wrote. “We were scared, we were scared…,” German women kept saying. Hitler sorted it out.
If all decent people give up believing in truth, love and good, whatabautists will win and the world will become a darker place to live. Let us not forget that.