“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.” – Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism
Since it was bought it in 2010, the World Cup in Qatar has been criticized by many people the world over. At the onset, people were angry that bribery was at the heart of the decision to award the cup to Qatar, with 11 of the 14 members who voted in favor since banned from football or jailed for corruption. And when Qatar backed down from their promise of air conditioned stadiums (made during the bid) and asked instead to move the cup to the “winter”, that also sparked more frustration and for some to call for a re-vote of the award. That anger subsided until it was revealed that somewhere around 6,500 migrant workers were killed making the stadiums for this tournament and that many migrant workers were paid very little and held in virtually slave like conditions. Qatar sort of addressed this, raising the minimum wage, telling employers that they couldn’t let their employees work in midday heat during the summer months, and (de jure) abolishing the system where employees weren’t allowed to switch employers. And of course, there’s the most recent outrage where a spokesman called homosexuality a “disease of the mind”, which reminded everyone that LGBTQ+ Qataris are jailed, tortured, and forced to undergo “treatment” for their “disease”. Qatar reacted to that latest outrage by pinky-promising that “everyone is welcome” in Qatar (as long as you follow their rules, which include a ban on homosexuality).
In that context, yesterday, Gianni Infantino took center stage at the Qatar World Cup and made a chilling speech in defense of the Qatar World Cup in which he told Europe to, essentially, “examine the log in your own eye before you comment on the speck in mine”.
Infantino spent an hour defending the Qatar World Cup and Fifa and did so with something that has become very commonplace in modern rhetoric, by saying simply that critics are hypocrites. “What we Europeans have been doing for the last 3,000 years, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons” he said. I’ve heard variations of this line of reasoning 3,000 times on this blog and on social media, and it crops up nearly every time I criticize anything but especially if someone from the USA or UK criticizes anything any other country is doing.
Criticize China’s treatment of the Uighurs? What about the US war in Vietnam?
Criticize Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine? What about the British invasion of Afghanistan (1838)?
Criticize Israel’s settlements? How about the way Canada treated the Native Americans?
You can literally do this farcical rhetorical argument 1,000,000 over. Unless, as far as I can tell, the speaker is from Finland. I believe that the Fins are the least genocidal of all countries and one of the few countries not involved in slave trade. Oh wait, I’m just now getting word that Finland didn’t recognize same-sex marriage until 2017. I guess the Fins are also in the bin.
It is, of course, the argument an infant would make. The idea that only the purest of pure could ever level any criticism of anything is absurd beyond belief. And I’m always surprised that the person making these arguments doesn’t suffer a self-inflicted embolism, their brain revolting at the idea that they could walk around a living, functioning, human and truly believe that simple tu quoque is a legitimate argument.
Is genocide good or not?
Is racism good or not?
Is homophobia good or not?
Is misogyny good or not?
Is bribery good or not?
Is slavery good or not?
Do workers’ conditions matter or not?
Is the destruction of the planet through the runaway consumption of fossil fuels good or not?
The twisted rhetoric of tu quoque* attempts to end debate about a topic by arguing that all crime, all morality, all truth, is irrelevant because the speaker isn’t 100% pure. And it only works because people are all too well aware of their own country, family, or personal faults and failures. People don’t like to admit that their own country committed atrocities. So, it seeks to end debate.
My counter to that argument has always been to acknowledge the atrocities of the United States of America, a country founded on genocide and slavery. A country where women rights have never been fully realized. A country where gay rights are not fully realized. A country which is in many ways very undemocratic. A country which continues to abuse workers rights around the world, where migrants are treated with contempt, and the children of migrants are jailed. A country which has murdered its own citizens on foreign soil without due process. A country which refuses to curb its own fossil fuel consumption and is the largest contributor to the death of the planet. A country which jails people indefinitely without trial. And a country with a long history of military conquest, colonialism, and genocide around the globe.
The counter to the argument of “what about your country???” is to simply say, “yes, we did that and I know that these things are wrong. I try to do my best in my country to stop these things from happening. I speak out. I vote for candidates who I think will do fewer of these things. Do you agree that they are wrong or not? If you do, then you’ll join me in saying that it’s wrong.” Because only that way, only by speaking out together, can we stop these atrocities. By refusing to speak out or by giving comfort to autocratic despots, we only embolden them more. This is how the death of truth gives rise to totalitarianism.
Our liberal beliefs, our desire to see many sides of a truth and to uncover new ways of seeing and understanding the universe and mankind’s place in it, is often used against us by illiberal forces. People who control money and power want to make truth and reality untenable. Then can people be molded to do whatever they want us to do. Because nothing really matters.
In her incredible essay on the destruction of truth in 2018, Michiko Kakutani closes with the ultimate danger inherent in the anti-truth, anti-fact modern world:
“There are no easy remedies, but it’s essential that citizens defy the cynicism and resignation that autocrats and power-hungry politicians depend on to subvert resistance. Without commonly agreed-on facts – not Republican facts and Democratic facts; not the alternative facts of today’s silo-world – there can be no rational debate over policies, no substantive means of evaluating candidates for political office, and no way to hold elected officials accountable to the people. Without truth, democracy is hobbled.”
And yet, we saw exactly what has happened since then. The pandemic exposed the world to our real sickness: the sickness of anti-truth. And millions of people died.
I don’t have all the answers but I do know that we need to stand up to people who try to tell us that reality and truth are completely relative and that there is no truth.
*which goes by the name of “whataboutery” or “whataboutism” which debases the real issue: that no one – neither the person accusing the original agent of forgetting about some other crime, nor the person uttering “whataboutery” – is talking about the real topic at hand which is whether the issue being complained about is right or wrong.