Martin: The danger of 'what-aboutisms'

David Martin

A friend recently told me over lunch that unless he knew me personally he would have a hard time believing I leaned right politically.

Sort of surprised, I asked him if that was because I'm not a card-carrying Republican. Given today's tribal climate, it's natural for some to equate a non-GOPer with being a Democrat. And vice versa, of course.

But he said no, it wasn't that.

Instead, he continued, it's because he feels I spend more time critiquing fellow conservatives than I do liberals and progressives.

photo David Martin

I considered his response for a moment and then conceded that he made a good point. Though I haven't done an audit of all my written pieces - I can think of about 5 million other things I'd rather do - I confess that I do spend plenty of time wagging my finger intramurally.

Naturally, I spent my drive back to the office ruminating over what my friend brought up. Why, I pondered, do I dedicate so much time to friendly fire? And am I kin to Judas for doing so?

The short answer to the latter question is "no," though I can completely understand why other conservatives might think differently. The answer to the former question, however, can't be summed up with such brevity, for there are two ways to explain it.

First is the fact that there is no shortage of conservative writers who have their sights trained exclusively on the left. Adding fresh insight to that already sizeable barrage of cross-divide criticism is tough to accomplish, and many writers enjoy thinking they're offering something of unique value.

The second reason - tied in some way to the first - is that I feel it's important to constantly hold our own side accountable. Yes, I am aware that may come off as if I believe the conservatism I have in my head is the end-all-and-be-all; the authoritative version. Trust me when I say that's not the case.

It's simply that while there are thousands of folks out there consistently calling the left to the carpet, we must also take time to make sure that we conservatives are carrying on as actual (drum roll, please!) conservatives.

It is completely fine - necessary, really - to call out inconsistencies and imposters when they present themselves among us. An aversion to doing so will lead to an ideology unmoored, a hollow and dangerous thing.

Which reminds me of a passage from a book I'm currently reading about the Spanish Civil War. A reporter of socialist persuasions had arrived in Spain from Stalinist Moscow as the fighting began in 1936. When talking to a friend, she said this of Communist Russia, from where she'd just left:

"The thing you have to do about Russia is what you do about any other 'faith.' You set your heart to know they are right ... and then, when you see things that shudder your bones, you close your eyes and say ... 'facts are not important.'"

But facts are important, as are principles. Even if that means, say, losing a Senate seat, held by the GOP for an entire generation, to the Democrats.

All this is not to say that calling our political opposites into question isn't worth our time. There certainly is a place for that. However, turning a repeated blind eye to our own missteps and overcommitting to deflective "but what-aboutisms" is beyond lazy and ultimately degenerative.

It's like being dedicated to an ice cream diet: It might feel good in the here-and-now, but in the long run it will only make you soft, out of shape, and give you an unappealing aesthetic.

Contact David Allen Martin at and follow him on Twitter @DMart423.