For anyone who has a bias toward one major political party, which is to say anyone not cryogenically frozen or running for office as a Green or Libertarian, the knee-jerk inclination to take a fast train to “Whatabout Town” when your side gets caught misbehaving is overwhelming.
I mostly see Democrats as being more correct than Trumpublicans these days, and that urge to whatabout struck me like a 1988 Mike Tyson uppercut Wednesday morning. That’s because I awoke to find my right-wing friends crushing social media with pictures of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi getting illicit San Francisco hair care.
My urge was as misguided as Pelosi’s actions. What she did was wrong and, in this case, should be judged alone, without being compared to the most grievous recent sins by President Donald Trump or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Pelosi, for those of you who’ve been trapped under a salon dryer all day and missed the news, got her hair done at a San Francisco salon Monday. That’s illegal there. Outdoor hair care became allowable the day after her appointment, and indoor service is still, while not a follicle felony, banned. And video of Pelosi in the salon shows her without a mask on, which isn’t the kind of behavior she’s demanded others embrace, including Trump.
Pelosi says the hair caretaker, who rents a chair in the salon, told her it was legal for one client at a time to be cared for there. What Pelosi was told is not true, and the owner of the business is reportedly furious. Pelosi says she was set up, but her admission that she sought the appointment after the stylist who has been coming to her house could not make it weakens that argument, and reinforces her privileged lifestyle.
How big a deal is this? Opinions will vary, and will vary mostly by political preference. That’s just how our current tribalism works. But the action should not be compared to the sins of other politicians, except perhaps those of her only general election opponent, Democrat, jungle primary survivor and London-born rapper Shahid Buttar.
It does make sense to compare the sins of people running against each other for office, and it made sense for voters to compare the behaviors of Trump and Hillary Clinton during their battle.
What was never justified, what was true “whataboutism,” were the attacks on Barack Obama, the Bushes, Bill Clinton, Maxine Waters and Pelosi herself that were used as attempts to minimize Trump’s various horribles. “But those emails though,” was, whether you thought it silly or not, fair game in measuring Trump’s sin against his opponent’s. “But Bill cheated, too,” was irrelevant whataboutism in a race against the wife he cheated on.
The sentence “Nancy Pelosi was hypocritical and careless and she needs to own it, apologize and do better,” stands alone, and is the right thing to say today. It does not need to be modified with shrieked screeds along the lines of “Oh sure, they make a big deal of this, but where was the outrage when George Washington got his dentures refitted during the measles epidemic of 1788?”
Morality is not relative. While it’s true that the importance of various mistakes, and even sins, varies greatly, you can’t excuse Pelosi by bringing up Trump’s failings. And you can’t ignore the transgressions of the folks on your side while bellowing about every misstep of your opponents.
It’s dishonest. It’s as much a cause of tribalism as a result of it. And the best way to stomp it out is by starting with our own behavior.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.