In democratic times, political power is decided by how many people you can get to stand on one side of the see-saw or the other. When you want change, you need to mobilize a personal army of people who are “concerned” about some issue or another, and it does not matter whether they are intelligent or not. Only a high number of warm bodies matters.
This gives rise to the concept of “useful idiots.” These are people that you can recruit to do your bidding, and they are most valuable when they are cultivated among the citizenry of your opposition. The term comes to us from the Soviet Union, who cherished its American useful idiots:
I certainly donâ€™t mean to discount the very real occurrences of violence against any woman but all this reading of non-proven incidents of rape brings to mind the term â€œuseful idiot.â€ Itâ€™s a term I heard used in a 1984 news program featuring Soviet KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov. In that interview, Mr. Bezmenov described how our country would be demoralised and ripped at the seams by useful idiots who parrot in news articles tripe fomented by those with larger agendas…The conjectures without victims, witnesses or other proof make a mockery of the very real subject of abuse and the people who copy and paste such nonsense in blog posts are either well meaning idiots or idiots with an agenda, but idiots nonetheless.
The term has now entered the language to mean anyone who can be used as a reflector for propaganda purposes, or someone who is easy to manipulate for political purposes:
useful idiot, n. (derogatory)
(Originally) a citizen of a non-communist country sympathetic to communism who is regarded (by communists) as naive and susceptible to manipulation for propaganda or other purposes; (more widely) any person similarly manipulable for political purposes.
Origin: 1940s; earliest use found in The New York Times.
Useful idiots are like a chorus that one can count on to chime in once they recognize the right cues. They are familiar with something called the narrative, which is a story being told repeatedly by media that stirs something in the useful idiot and makes them want to respond.
In most cases, the useful idiot finds the narrative resonates because it explains away the failures of the useful idiot as in fact being something done to them or otherwise unavoidable. Feeling blameless for their own lack of capacity or poor choices, they then feel entitled to more of the wealth and power of society.
This means that the narrative is a scapegoat and an excuse, and the useful idiot is an opportunist. Governments and media cultivate useful idiots because they make it easy to whip up a crowd that is highly motivated to see change within the next couple weeks, like banning guns or legalizing gay marriage.
As a phenomenon, useful idiocy points to a human ecosystem: there are few leaders, or those who can independently analyze a situation. There are many parrots who lack the capacity for analysis, and they repeat the dogma, which then stirs up the angry and pointless to riot, vandalize, rage, and otherwise compel action.
The media plays into this because it makes its money by selling emotional excitation to an otherwise bored and directionless audience:
Imagine I show you a list of 30 words. One of the words is written in green ink. The rest are blue.
Half an hour goes by and I ask you to recall the words on the list. Which word are you most likely to remember?
The one written in green ink, of course. This is the “von Restorff Effect”: Novelty grabs our attention.
…When a story breaks, grabs the media’s attention, and gets people talking, something else happens. The story ceases to be about a single incident. Instead, it creates a narrative.
The absence of a narrative means a story must stand or fall on its own. And when a story runs contrary to a narrative, it is positively resisted.
A story without a narrative will not win anyone a wide audience because it presents data that has not been publicly interpreted by each social group. This means that, for an individual, making a comment about this data is risky because they could accidentally choose an interpretation that goes against the narrative.
On the other hand, when they know the refrain, they can join in with their repetition but also add some cleverness of their own so that the group will clap for them in recognition of how brilliantly they have fulfilled the duty of expounding the narrative.
When a story fits into the narrative, everyone has a role. One side can affirm the narrative, and the other can partially rage against it, but either way, both affirm what the mob rule mass is thinking, and so this is socially acceptable and allows each person to be able to participate.
People love to participate; it shows them that they are part of the group and therefore safe.
In the case of politics, useful idiots can be counted on to enthusiastically affirm and promote any variation of the French Revolution narrative, which is the idea that all of our problems occur because we have naturally talented people in charge, instead of “people power.”
In the French Revolution narrative, any natural elites are bad, and people power is good, so the mission never changes: the people must unite, overcome their differences, accept each other, and then go crush the elites with superior numbers and cleverness, because then we will have Utopia.
This narrative displays egalitarianism in its most potent form. People need a scapegoat for the results of their bad decisions, and they need an excuse to behave badly, so they want to blame their leaders and then replace them, which allows “the people” to behave like a Roman holiday, over-indulging as if the bill were never due.
When you have a democracy and a government, the bill seems to never really come due, since you can rack up debt and defer the consequences of any activity, so that it will all come crashing down long after you are dead. To your average idiot, this seems like a very clever thing to do.
Some years after this first version of this article was written, others began to pick up on how important useful idiots were to the Left. From American Thinker, an analysis of how useful idiots control American politics:
Among the mysteries confronting those of us who have immigrated to the United States from countries that have experienced the devastating outcome of socialist/Marxist ideology is why seemingly successful and educated people could be so easily swayed to support those whose end-game is to transform the country into a socialist “utopia” and to control the day-to-day lives of all Americans. Among these “useful idiots” are a seeming majority of the Jewish population as well as many in business, and nearly all in entertainment and the media.
The answer appears to be that despite the hardcore left accounting for less than 20% of the population, their influence extends far beyond thanks to the apparent inability of their peripheral supporters to use any modicum of reasoning — as the left in the United States has been able to identify and manipulate those susceptible to emotional arguments.
Traditionally, the age-old Marxist strategy of fomenting class warfare and demonizing capitalism has been an effective tactic with those in the lower-income and education strata, who can be easily swayed to blame others for their perceived misfortune.
Humans not only love novelty, but they also adore conformity. Useful idiots are very effective because even far more intelligent people, upon seeing what looks like a stampede, will join in so that they are not left out or forced to take an unpopular opinion and thus, lose social status.
In addition, shopkeepers and merchants follow what the useful idiots do because they sell products to these people, and every manager and MBA hopes for the total score of having one of their products become a runaway fad: a Rubik’s cube, Cabbage Patch Kid, Tetris, Beanie Baby, Iphone, or BMW. “This season, everyone is doing it!” means that whoever created the product will be living on Easy Street forevermore. People will speak in hushed whispers about the guy who made four billion people buy sugar water at a thousand percent markup. He will be a legend.
And so we have a big game of follow-the-leader. The masses — remember, these are the people in power since the French Revolution — follow some trend, fad, mania, stampede, cult, gang, or other activity. The merchants chase after them, followed by the media, the politicians, the book authors, and even academia. Everyone wants some of that good lemming gold rush.
Historical note: lemmings do not actually commit mass suicide. That was a forgery dreamed up by Disney for a 1950s-era documentary. However, lemmings stampede, and sometimes they end up committing accidental suicide when the leader of the herd gets drunk with power and accidentally runs over a cliff edge.
The original version of the article that you are reading came out in 2009, but after a few years of Barack Obama having the media cover for his mistakes and whipping up even his mediocre actions into success stories, others were thinking about useful idiots. Consider this historical analysis:
In the 1930s, as millions were being murdered in Stalinâ€™s terror-famine and Great Purge, Walter Duranty was assuring readers of The New York Times that the Soviet ruler was â€œgiving the Russian people . . . what they really want, namely joint effort, communal effort.â€ The renowned literary critic Edmund Wilson extolled Stalinist Russia as the â€œmoral light at the top of the world.â€ Upton Sinclair, who later won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, vigorously defended the integrity of the â€œconfessionsâ€ extracted by the secret police from many of Stalinâ€™s victims: It â€œseems obvious,â€ Sinclair wrote, that they would not have â€œconfessed to actions which they had not committed.â€
The adulation of left-wing dictators and strongmen by Western intellectuals, journalists, and celebrities didnâ€™t begin with Stalin (in 1921 Duranty had hailed Lenin for his â€œcool, far-sighted, reasoned sense of realitiesâ€), and it certainly didnâ€™t end with him. Mona Charen chronicled the phenomenon in her superb 2003 book Useful Idiots, which recalls example after jaw-dropping example of American liberals defending, flattering, and excusing the crimes of one Communist ruler and regime after another. Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, the Khmer Rouge, Leonid Brezhnev, Kim Il Sung, the Sandinistas: Over and over the pattern was repeated, from the dawn of the Bolshevik Revolution to the collapse of the Iron Curtain â€” and beyond.
An old poster for the television show The X-Files bears the slogan, “I Want To Believe.” The problem with humans is that we are not so much rational animals as rationalizing animals; we choose what we need to believe, and then like a kid filling in the “show your work” portion of his math homework when he already knows the answer, we invent some reasoning that justifies what we assume is true as actually being true. Our favorite method for doing this is to exclude any data that conflicts with whatever narrative we want to prove, explaining it away as defective or an exception or irrelevant. That way, we can pare out the non-conforming data, level it off and cram it into tiny identical boxes, and then proclaim that logic has won the day because the math proves we were right all along.
Western intellectuals have demonstrated a vast capacity for useful idiots because to intellectuals, being “right” in the sense of saying something that others find appealing and thus being socially right instead of correctly describing reality is how they earn their keep. Basically sophists, they figure out what the crowd wants to hear and then invent arguments that make it seem like it is true, to the applause of many. This is true of academics, journalists, scientists, managers, politicians, and even law enforcement. In a time where everyone is equal, mass politics rules, which means that he who says what is popular is king (for a day).
We forget how effective the feedback loop between useful idiots, intellectuals, and media can be, but back in the hippie era, it created near-total ideological conformity in the West:
In 1968, when Worcestershire-born Conquest first published his ground-breaking account of Stalinâ€™s atrocities, the world was a very different place.
Back then, the Soviet Union appeared in rude health and the old men in Moscow ruled an empire based on fear.
It is easy now to forget just how terrifying the Cold War seemed. Across the Western world, many doubted Communism could be defeated without unleashing nuclear Armageddon.
What is more, many Western intellectuals â€” from Marxists such as Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm and his friend Ralph Miliband (father of Ed and David, a political theorist at the London School of Economics, a devout follower of Marx and an unswerving believer in revolutionary socialism) to woolly, well-meaning Lefties in universities across the country â€” were quick to defend the regime whenever it was criticised.
From the 1930s through the 1960s, most Western people believed what their newspapers, politicians, professors, and writers told them. The narrative was winning, and any news article about the failures of the Utopia in the Soviet Union was viewed with suspicion as some kind of Right-wing hate screed.
The useful idiots suppressed a vital truth for thirty years. That was long enough for them to win the culture war in the 1960s. At that point, they felt free to discard the old lies and move on to new ones. They were busy promising us racial, sexual, class, and religious unity instead.
Another word for narrative is “script,” as in, “since we were looking for guys dressed in black carrying bicycles, he fit right into our script.”
The media uses these means to control you: novelty and its stepchild, negativity — since evolution has primed you to first look for threats — and a script into which all news must fit. We could call that script a “justification,” as we do in our manifesto.
When those who have money and power want you to jump, they make a few calls to their friends and business associates. They put out the meme: X is the new threat, or Y is another instance of the current script of threats, whether it be global warming, hackers, racists, Satanists or godless Communism.
That’s how you keep a nation in line when they don’t have much in common as far as ideologies, values, etc. go. You manipulate them with carrot and stick: we free, they bad.
Much as democracy relies on having a horde of people who don’t read or think very deeply about issues, modern society relies on useful idiots to bleat out that the sky is falling any time such a meme comes around.