Editors note: Irshad Manji, a bestselling author and founder of the Moral Courage Project at the University of Southern California, has a new book: Don't Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times. It is structured as a series of conversations with Lily, a.k.a. Lil, her blind, older rescue dog.
Three weeks after Donald Trump took office, my friend Jim and I went out for ice cream. We sat in the car, talking about the Muslim travel ban and polishing off our trashy soft serves. I'd been wanting to discuss how annoyed I felt with him. His blanket condemnations of Barack Obama bugged the bejeezus out of me. Was he a racist, pure and simple?
If my question comes off as dense, Lil, I ask it because Jim's complicated.
On the one hand, Jim radiates civic virtue. Among other volunteer gigs, he works with a local group that houses low-income families, immigrant and not. In fact, he's counseling the group to respect those families, to stop seeing them as charity cases and start viewing them as agents of change.
On the other hand, Jim sprays bile at Obama--actually, at all Democrats. I don't know what he'd do without them. If I bring up Trump's latest lie, Jim mechanically fires back, "What about Hillary?" Partisans of every cause share the "what-about" reflex. But no practitioner of what-aboutism has perfected it quite like the Soviet Union.
For decades, it's what Moscow mouthed whenever reporters investigated human rights abuses in the U.S.S.R. "What about racial segregation in America?" the Kremlin's flunkies regurgitated as a way to deflect accountability. What-aboutism solves exactly nothing. It only sharpens the claws of negative polarization. In its grip, we're obsessed with crushing Them instead of improving Us.
I was busting to hold the mirror up to Jim. Knowing that he labels Barack Obama a socialist and therefore a treasonist, I put it to Jim point-blank: "Do you realize that your addiction to whataboutism is more socialist than anything Obama ever did?"
Crickets, Lil. Ice cream in my right hand, I curled my left hand into a fist, lightly punched Jim on the arm, and risked a rather brusque question. "Who's undermining American democracy more: Russian trolls or patriots like you?"
"What about liberals?" Jim replied without irony. "You're right," I attested. "Liberals push the 'what-about' button all the time. And I say so all the time. But you don't say it about your side. Why not?"
Jim bit into his cone and stared out the...