Updated: May 1, 2022
Trevor Noah's tribal whataboutism sparks my own. Whatabout your own moral blindness, Trevor?
Ukrainian refugees crossing into Poland. CC0 4.0 image by Міністерство внутрішніх справ України on Wikimedia Commons
I'll call what Trevor Noah expressed at the beginning of the Russian war on Ukraine 'tribalism'. He accused both journalists and news consumers of racism for viewing the war differently from wars in other parts of the world. He isn't wrong, but he blithely ignores other important reasons why the West is more het up about an illegal invasion by a fading superpower of a prosperous, democratic, and yes Trevor, civilized country like Ukraine. Gas prices didn't shoot up when Rwanda broke out in massacre. Maybe we paid more for coffee for awhile. We're about to pay a lot more for wheat-based food since Russia is the world's largest wheat exporter and Ukraine, until the war, was the sixth-largest global and a top producer of rye, sunflower seeds and barley.
Rwanda wasn't producing much of anything except drought and internal tribalism.
More critically, cultural differences help explain the concern disparity.
"And beyond the war itself ... there's a really interesting thing that I learned. And that is: A lot of people on TV didn't expect a war like this to happen in, let's say, certain neighborhoods."
You're right, Trevor, we didn't. To put it into perspective for a New Yorker like you, this is like a crack gang war in the Hamptons.
"You do realize that, until very recently, fighting crazy wars was Europe's thing? That was Europe's entire thing. That's all of European history."
Yes, it was, and it's why the United Nations was created. One of its primary raisons d'être was to prevent another world war, as the last two had been exceedingly brutal, and the next would be nuclear.
Today, less than a century after the end of the last world war, western Europeans have conspicuously been not killing their countryfolk for many decades. (Eastern Europe is another story.)
The Middle East and Africa, on the other hand....
Noah played clips in his viral rant in which various reporters and commentators said things like, "...Ukraine is not a place—with all due respect—like Iraq or Afghanistan," and "This is not a developing third world nation—this is Europe."
That didn't play too well with our man. "What were you going to say if you weren't choosing your words carefully? 'I just hope the next time this happens, it happens back in the Middle East where it belongs.'
No, more like, we hope one day they'll decide to stop murdering each other over political and religious ideologies. You know, the way Europe once did.
Maybe the Middle East could form their own United Nations, or something.
"Now people are going to be like, 'Ugh, to see this in Europe!' To see this, I don't know about you, but I was shocked to see how many reporters—around the world, by the way—seem to think that it's more of a tragedy when white people have to flee their countries. Because, I guess, what? The 'darkies' were built for it?"
No, because...that's how certain non-First World cultures do, in the 21st century.
Like mass shootings is how Americans do.
Like blowing things up with your body is how Middle Easterners do.
Like gang rape is how Indians do.
Like mutilating baby girls' genitals is how Africans do.
FGM (Female Genital Mutilation FCC0 3.0 image by Nederlandse Leeuw on Wikimedia Commons
Whatabout everyone's misogyny?
I agree with Noah's racism charge. Racism is one of many tribalisms: My people before yours. Black Lives Matter formed in response to high-profile killings by white police officers of often unarmed, sometimes innocent black men.
Of course, who knew back then that cops kill unarmed, sometimes innocent white men more than black men?
Noah watches the West rally behind the uber-white Ukrainians with a tribalist eye as the conflict re-engages old Cold War enmity, making the left blush and wonder whether ol' semi-senile Ronald Reagan was right about that whole 'Evil Empire' thing. After all, thirty years ago we had better things to do when one set of Rwandans began hacking up another set of Rwandans and the latter fled the country in droves.
I don't think we'd have been quite as sanguine had it been, rather, the French filleting Germans, but that's because frankly, we expect better from them now. France and Germany haven't gotten along since at least ol' Caesar's day, back when they were known as the Gauls and the Germanic tribes. This ain't the first century BCE, mes amis!
Public domain cartoon by John Tenniel, Punch magazine, August 6, 1881 from Wikipedia.
On the other hand, I don't know how sanguine I'd have been had Kim Jong-Un invaded South Korea, for the same reasons I'm outraged by Russia's naked attack on Ukrainians: South Korea is a prosperous, civilized country, dammit, and they're total technology geeks! And the North Korean government is a totalitarian nightmare run by a fat psychopathic dictator who starves his own people!
That is NOT how the South Koreans do.
Social media critics, drunk on critical theory about racism, oppression, and Western ethnocentrism kick-started directly into whatabout mode: "Where was your concern for the Palestinians? The Rohingyans? The Chechnyans? The Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenians?"
Yeah, let's--talk about those folks.
When I listen to Noah and his supporters whatabouting, I respond as a woman and look at the always-overlooked victims of those same conflicts: Women.
Those victimized cultures are, well, problematic.
I wasn't happy when my prime minister, Justin Trudeau, vowed to bring in 50,000 Syrian refugees after the shock and awe of the famous rescuer carrying drowned toddler Alan Kurdi. It wasn't that my heart wasn't moved by the photo, or the plight of Syrian refugees--Bashar Assad, for Darwin's sake!--I just didn't want all Syrian refugees.
RIP. CC0 3.0 photo by Defend International on Wikimedia Commons
Most specifically, their misogynist men.
Gender-based violence is rife all throughout the Middle East, where women have fewer rights and recourse to escaping male violence. Syria had a high rape rate before the Syrian conflict, and as is the case for any woman living in a truly patriarchal culture, they don't report not only for fear of not being believed, but of being murdered in an 'honour killing'.
Spousal rape isn't a crime in Syria, and a rapist can escape prosecution by marrying his victim, which relieves the family of the inconvenience of murdering her. And of course you can always count on terrorist groups like ISIL to wield sexual violence as a weapon.
"Can we allow in 50,000 women and children, not including boys over, say, ten or twelve?" I thought. You know, after it's probably too late to cleanse them of cultural toxic masculinity.
Chechyna? Same ol' story, different part of the world. Wahabbism, an 18th-century Islamic movement to restore 'purity' to Islam and behind pretty much every extremist Islamic government today, also infected the Chechnyans leading to little bon mots like this from president Ramzan Kadyrov in 2011.
"I have the right to criticize my wife. She doesn't [have the right to criticize me]. With us [in Chechen society], a wife is a housewife. A woman should know her place. A woman should give her love to us [men]... She would be [man's] property. And the man is the owner. Here, if a woman does not behave properly, her husband, father, and brother are responsible. According to our tradition, if a woman fools around, her family members kill her... That's how it happens, a brother kills his sister or a husband kills his wife... As a president, I cannot allow for them to kill. So, let women not wear shorts...".
Yeah, that's the ticket. Make sure she doesn't make him kill her. Ban shorts.
The Rohingyans? When mass rape by an invading army occurs, Rohingyan men do what patriarchal men do, blame the victims. My heart was hardened to the plight of Rohingyan men when I read of one who castigated his wife for 'not running away' when the soldiers came and raped her. She was eight months pregnant with a terrified toddler wrapped around one leg as her husband took off with the other children.
The Palestinians? They want freedom, a country of their own? Freedom for whom, exactly? I'm guessing not their women, for whom it will be brutal business as usual.
Afghanistan? Women's rights predictably slid right back into the medievalism of their pre-9/11 world. It's only because of 9/11 that they were granted a twenty-year respite.
Iraq was a totalitarian mess under Saddam and remains a violent and unstable part of the world. The US's illegal invasion didn't help, most specifically because countries have to fix themselves. It's like Alcoholics Anonymous: They have to want to change.
You do realize, Trevor, that even before European contact, African, Middle Eastern, and most other human societies were a patchwork of raiding, massacre, sexual violence, slavery and oppression? That was Africa's thing. That was the Middle East's thing. That was all of humanity's history, with the only exceptions a half-handful of societies so remote they didn't have anyone else to fight with.
Oh, and they all demonstrated how much they hated women.
Revolutions aren't for girls
Revolutions are first and foremost for men, who don't give a fig about women's rights until forced. The American women's liberation movement emerged directly out of the New Left in the '60s and early '70s, once the chickie-boos realized their part in the democracy and civil rights struggle was to fetch the coffee and part their legs.
I'm reminded of revolutionaries' blindness to women's lives as I read Nelson Mandela's autobiography Long Walk To Freedom. Inspirational for his civil rights fight as well as his insights into power--over one's self and from where it derives--it also starkly highlights how obliviously he ignored African women, especially South Africa. (Listen up, Trevor!)
Mandela only cursorily mentions women's rights, mostly references to how his wife Winnie fought against the system and paid for it with constant harassment, banning, arrest and occasional imprisonment. He acknowledges how his struggle, and his 28-year imprisonment, were far harder on her than it was him. But otherwise, so removed from women's concerns was Mandela that he pondered what an 'odd sensation' it must have been for his mother to show up at his sentencing at which he was expected to get the death sentence.
"Try 'emotionally devastated,' you emotionally constipated twit," I thought.
'Odd sensation', indeed.
Mandela divorced his wife three years after his release, citing infidelity. He was still married when he met and fell in love with her at a Soweto bus stop. Would he have remained faithful for 28 years if the roles were reversed? Nelson Mandela was utterly blind to his male privilege. CC0 2.0 image by Archives de la Ville de Montréal on Flickr
South Africa has made a lot gains in equalizing women yet remains a frightening place to be a woman, regardless of color. It's no picnic for children either. Child murders have climbed by 'nearly a third'. Rape and domestic violence are up, and have been described as 'like a second pandemic'.
One of the vilest rape-murders I've ever read was the horrific case of Anene Booysen in Bredasdorp on the Western Cape. (WARNING: Extremely graphic content.)
According to the African Health Organization, "Femicide is five times higher in South Africa than the global average, with South Africa having the fourth-highest female interpersonal violence death rate out of the 183 countries listed by the WHO in 2016."
Noah's yardstick for measuring the civilization of a culture may be how it treats its minorities, particularly its darker-skinned ones. I accept that. It's a good yardstick, but it's not the only one. My yardstick compares one half of a so-called 'civilized' society to the half that almost always gets thrown under the bus when the cow patties goes down. Mahatma Gandhi's yardstick was how a society treats its animals.
We could count many more moral progress measures, extending beyond other species to how we treat our environment.
Sadly, we all fall short at some point.
Whatabout what's right about whataboutism?
Europe's nearly century-old commitment to end intra-continental violence is still in its infancy, and may be sorely tested in the coming years with the far right's global rise. The United States, a country coming up on its quarter-millennial birthday in 2026, is arguably flirting with a second civil war as the identitarian far left and right work to divide America further.
To be honest, Trevor, I don't really think of my mother country as very much civilized anymore. And certainly not Russia.
I consider Canada a civilized country. For now.
First World countries fall short for the same reasons others do: Hatred against colors and ethnicities, hatred against women, an increasingly violent society.
Europe has spent most of its existence fighting each other. Other parts of the world still haven't won that precarious battle.
Like Africa. Like the Middle East. Like Russia. Like the United States.
'Where were you when...?" is a fair question we should ponder and discuss.
Why didn't we care as much about the Rwandans? Or the Chechnyans? Or the yadda yadda yaddas?
More importantly, why don't we care--or not--only when we frame it in identitarian terms of how much the victims look like us? And how much 'my' tribe is victimized by 'your' tribe? Regardless of what color they are, what part of the world their ancestors initially invaded or what's between their legs.
Why do I consider Ukraine--or South Korea--more 'civilized' than South Africa or most parts of the Middle East? It's not like racism and misogyny don't exist there. Ukrainians themselves demonstrated racism trying to cross borders.
I don't like how the latters treat one-half of their population.
We can't move forward as a global order until we abandon our tribalisms.
One reason why I don't support slave reparations for African-Americans is because they only help one small group of Americans, and it's hard to see how handouts for grievances they haven't themselves suffered will 'help'. A more balanced, just, equitable society benefits everyone, not just black Americans.
It's nothing but tribalism, as has become the #MeToo movement which ignores women's grievances when they happen to men (domestic violence, abuse, custody battle child abductions, rape, sexual harassment).
Whataboutism is annoying to those trying to fix a problem - like the swift destruction of Ukraine - but it forces us to think about our own biases. Trevor Noah is biased towards darker-skinned people. I am biased towards vagina'ed people. Others are biased towards marginalized groups like transfolk, religious communities, the disabled, or people in certain age groups.
Our biases serve real purposes. I thank Trevor Noah for making me think a bit about my bias regarding the Russian-Ukrainian war.
Revolution: It's best when it's personal
I know people affected by the current war. A good friend and my neighbor's families are Ukrainian, with family members there. My cousin's children are half-Ukrainian. And, I live in Ontario, with Canada's largest Ukrainian community. We have a Ukrainian festival every summer not far from my home. We have Ukrainian banks and credit unions. Ukrainians, literally and figuratively, are my 'hood. So's everyone else. My street is a United Nations of humanity.
I care more about today's war than I did when the Rwandan conflict occurred, because I hadn't yet become friendly with a Rwandan refugee I worked with years ago and with whom I maintained a friendship until we grew apart. I care more about Rwanda, I know more about it now, because of her.
I think of South Korea as more 'civilized' than North Korea, but but forgot about my niece when I first pondered the question; I don't think of her as South Korean, she's just my niece. Racism against Asians in America seemed remote to me last year until weeks after the infamous spa killings in Atlanta. After I remembered the family Asian.
Point taken, Trevor. I need to think about my own moral blindness, but I hope you and your tribe will ponder your own. African men, especially black Africans, have a lot to answer to women for, and I didn't even get into how Africans likely invented female genital mutilation (and I can't imagine it was originally a female idea).
The true path to progress, like all revolutions, is a long walk to freedom, but if we can move beyond our own personal identitarianism, we can make it revolution for everybody, not just the white set or the guy set.
It'll be a huge improvement for everybody.
Yeah, even for white guys.