Whataboutism: How false equivalence ruins nations
“Stealing in public office? Please, post-Edsa presidents make him an amateur by comparison,” Teddy Boy Locsin thundered in one of his signature “Teditorials” early into the Benigno Aquino III presidency.
Locsin’s commentary proudly adopts a dismissive tone vis-à-vis Marcos’ human rights violations during martial law, the systematic rigging of elections, the all-out war and destructive counterinsurgency in the peripheries, and the utter emaciation of our body politic during those “lost decades.”
The surreal commentary, an unabashed downplaying of the Marcos regime’s titanic crimes through a symphonic rant against its successors, is a telltale sign of our helplessly cynical politics. The commentary adopts what can be termed as the poisonous logic of “whataboutism” — a toxic combination of logical fallacies and factual acrobatics that can exculpate, even valorize, the worst of tyrants.
Under the illogic of whataboutism, any criticism of the dictatorship, or any political act of unmitigated infamy, is automatically met by the selective and distorted “but what about the crimes of…” response.
Though I usually steer clear of tabloid-like literature, I couldn’t help checking the “Teditorial” after online trolls and enthusiastic revisionists kept bombarding me with it. In effect, Locsin’s commentary implies that there should be no big issue with having the former dictator buried among our national heroes, prefacing his notorious Twitter persona, which should make Trump’s mindless online rants “amateur by comparison.”
In retrospect, one shouldn’t wonder how Cory Aquino’s former speechwriter and legal counsel ended up as President Duterte’s chief diplomatic defender.
As an Ilocano, born and raised in Baguio City, I am more than familiar with historical revisionism. And to be fair, we in the “Solid North” did receive disproportionate infrastructural benefit and political access during the martial law period.
But anyone with a minimum scholarly bent and factual temperament knows that much of the rest of the country descended into atavistic chaos and developmental decay. Many, even among the supposedly educated classes, tend to forget that the Philippines was among the most developed nations in Asia “before,” not “during,” the martial law period. In fact, the true “golden years” were in the early 1960s, when our country upstaged other rising nations such as South Korea (then under General Park) and Iran (then under the Shah) to host the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
By the time the ADB was built, however, the once-promising country was well on its way to self-destructive kleptocracy. It was precisely in the 1970s when the Philippines lost its pole position in the region, first irreversibly to Singapore and Malaysia, and later even to Thailand. By the early 1980s, the Pearl of the Orient had been reduced to the “sick man of Asia,” as millions of Filipinos desperately sought greener pastures overseas. This is the chronology that many seem to ignore, willingly or otherwise.
Mind you, while dictators such as Park Chung-hee and Chiang Kai-shek built world-class industries for their impoverished nations, the Marcos regime failed to build even a single tech-industrial dynamo after 21 years in power. Instead of LGs, Samsungs and Hyundais, our “best president ever” left us with unbearable debt, which we are still paying to this day. Without the 1986 revolt, we were likely well on our way not to becoming a Singapore, led by the enlightened Lee Kuan Yew, but instead to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, where an eloquent early hero turned into a hapless kleptocrat.
We are chained to our past, precisely because of whataboutism, which fosters a cynical discursive environment where there is hardly any space for a balanced assessment of the many shades of leadership. It even deprives us of a place for hope about genuine political reform.
Whataboutism is fundamentally a reactionary state of mind. It squarely belongs to the pre-Enlightenment Machiavellian world, where political life was a cycle of abuse and corruption by the ruling elite, rather than a Hegelian march toward a better future under progressive leadership. It leaves no space for even a conception of cumulative progress and patient, gradual yet consequential change. Whataboutism is the perfect ideological preface for most reactionary forms of populism, if not worse.
No wonder partisanship of the worst kind—unmindful and contemptuous of factual nuances—dominates our political discourse. Whataboutism is the cousin of Fake News and authoritarian populism.
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