The present decade of a “post-American world” (how some scholars call a system of international relations marked by the relative decline of US global influence) has been seeing its share of highly publicized conflicts – Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia, Egypt, Libya, Thailand, Syria and Ukraine, along the continuous Israeli-Palestinian struggle. The aforementioned one’s have had a limited, thought dominant presence in the public eye, unlike more permanent situations in the “failed” North African states. In relation to them, one of the terms whose resurgence I’ve noticed in Western media’s op-eds and analysis is “useful idiots“. This term is used to refer to western public intellectuals and human rights advocates, critical of their own societies’ cultural intolerance, human rights standards and foreign policies.
As the term suggests, the useful idiots’ self-criticism is unbalanced by scrutiny applied to judging the “Other” – whether it be Putin’s Russia, Middle Eastern dictatorships or radical Islam in general. In this, useful idiots provide, perhaps unintentionally, an useful apologetic for what Christopher Hitchens called “the enemies of civilization” (e.g. Islamic fundamentalists) – the most explicit opponents of the useful idiots’ liberal democratic credos.
I’ve come across two columns that discuss this concept – “Putin’s Useful Idiots”, a NYT op-ed written by a Polish left-wing intellectual and leader of Krytyka Polityczna, Slawomir Sierakowski, and “Hamas’ Useful Idiots”, Rich Lowry‘s analysis on Politico. Both discuss useful idiots in very similar terms – as Western European and North American “bleeding hearths” whose criticism of EU and USA’s stance on the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza is underlined by their disdain for the Western “global policeman” approach, anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism.
Here’s an excerpt from Sierakowski’s article:
Writing in The Nation, the Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen argued that Mr. Putin was largely blameless for the conflict in Ukraine, that he had tried to avoid it but that the West had forced his hand. In Mr. Cohen’s eyes, the West has unnecessarily humiliated Russia by inviting countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to join NATO.
Ukraine, he wrote, is part of Russia’s sphere of influence, so why can’t we just accept Mr. Putin’s proposal that Ukraine be federalized, with neutrality guaranteed in a new constitution?
Mr. Cohen’s defense of Russia’s sphere of influence overlooks the question of whether the countries that fall within it are there by choice or coercion. Ukraine is willing to be in the Western sphere of influence because it receives support for civil society, the economy and national defense — and Russia does nothing of the kind.
The author brings up a very good point here. One of the chief narratives that useful idiots employ is a criticism of Western hypocrisy – “we [The West] have been acting imperialistically, perceiving whole regions as spheres of interest, hence who are we to deny Putin the right to do the same?”. This narrative is wholly dismissive of national/state sovereignty, which useful idiots seem to greatly value when advocating non-interventionism in, say, Libya or Syria.
The point Lowry made in his article is a bit more problematic. According to him, the useful idiots who support Hamas in the ongoing Gaza conflict do it solely on the basis of the discrepancy in civilian deaths (which, as I write these lines, number around 1100 on the Palestinian side, of which most are civilians and 60 on Israel’s side, of which 3 are civilians). Simply put, Hamas’ useful idiots view the conflict as a David vs. Goliath struggle, assuming that the obviously superior force automatically carries the bulk of moral responsibility. Quoting Netanyahu (““We’re using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles”), Lowry furthermore argues that Hamas is deliberately creating the image of a victim, sacrificing its own civilians in order to feed the victim image that useful idiots buy into. This is a pretty big accusation and, in all honesty, I’ve heard the “they are all sacrificing themselves willingly to make the World hate their enemies” line too many times as an excuse for war crimes to be persuaded by a single op-ed article. In fact, Noura Erakat has challenged this claim in her recent op-ed for The Nation.
International human rights organizations that have investigated these [Lowry’s] claims have determined that they are not true. It attributed the high death toll in Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon to Israel’s indiscriminate attacks. Human Rights Watch notes:
The evidence Human Rights Watch uncovered in its on-the-ground investigations refutes [Israel’s] argument…we found strong evidence that Hezbollah stored most of its rockets in bunkers and weapon storage facilities located in uninhabited fields and valleys, that in the vast majority of cases Hezbollah fighters left populated civilian areas as soon as the fighting started, and that Hezbollah fired the vast majority of its rockets from pre-prepared positions outside villages.
Whatever the truth-value of Lowry’s claim, here’s an excerpt of his pretty straignt-on pro-Israeli point, referencing useful idiots:
Hamas is a miserable excuse for a government. Its technical proficiency is smuggling. Its infrastructure program consists of building tunnels for acts of murder and kidnapping. Its civil defense system is to admonish endangered civilians not to heed Israeli warnings to flee buildings about to be hit. Its peace plan is annihilation of the Jewish state.
It can’t achieve that by force of arms. Its objective is, with support from fellow travelers and useful idiots the world over, to make Israel the new South Africa, to isolate it and morally delegitimize it toward its ultimate destruction. If it takes countless dead Palestinians to do it, so be it.
On the subject of useful idiots there is a very thought-provoking academic article written by Richard Landes of Boston University (“From Useful Idiot to Useful Infidel: Meditations on the Folly of 21st Century “Intellectuals”“, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 25, Issue 4, 2013). Professor Landes makes a systematic effort to analyze the useful idiot as a 20th and 21st century phenomenon and makes a valid point of distinction between the contemporary “useful idiot” and what was called “champagne socialists” (e.g. Sartre, Shaw and De Beauvoir). The “champagne socialists” or “Stalin’s useful idiots” did not subscribe to communism in its Stalinist form, but did have sympathies for Marxist philosophy. Today’s useful idiots don’t seem to share any theological views with radical Islam, or Islam in general – hence, they don’t defend a derivative of their own ideology, but a wholly different “Other”, in relation to which they indeed are “infedels”. That said, Landes’ article is flawed on many points. Here is one excerpt:
One dimension of the problem appears in one of the early cases of useful idiocy, that of the “pacifist” Roger Nash Baldwin, the founder of the ACLU in 1920. So even as he spearheaded an organization severely critical of civil liberties in the US, he could, a decade later, write a book of fulsome praise entitled Liberty under the Soviets. Here we find featured a characteristic tendency of useful idiots towards ferocious self-criticism of the culture that allows them their freedoms, and a refusal to apply those standards elsewhere.
To better understand this “hyper self-criticism,” consider what Charles Jacobs terms “the Human Rights Complex.” Western Human Rights organizations – groups like AI and HRW – operate according to a consistent if unconscious formula: moral indignation is a function not of how badly the victim suffers, but the perpetrator. If the perps are “white” (i.e., part of the culture that has developed the principles of “human rights”) then indignation waxes; if they are of color, an embarrassed silence descends. Thus, to take a particularly salient example, the UN Conference against Racism at Durban – which was itself the summit of demopathy – condemned Western countries for slavery even though they are the only ones to apologize for and outlaw it, while falling silent about the current practice of slavery in the Arab world.
At one level, this pattern derives from an unofficial, sliding scale of expectations: progressives committed to the highest standards of civil liberties and human rights naturally demand more from those prepared to make those sacrifices. [Goldstone]. And on some level, such an attitude makes sense. Self criticism doesn’t come easily, so let those with more practice get the ball rolling.
The problem here emerges when self-criticism begins to substitute for reciprocity: criticizing oneself first takes courage and commitment, but it’s only meaningful if it’s based on reciprocity, on the principle that the concession away from a hardline “my side right or wrong” will bring a similar move among one’s foes. But all too often, reciprocity does not come.
On the contrary, as at Durban, rather than feeling in any way contrite or intimidated, Arab countries where the most blatant racism continues unabated, led to the pack in assaulting a suitably contrite Western world. Far from reciprocity, we have headed in a radically different direction, towards a kind of “Masochistic Omnipotence Syndrome” in which we believe that everything is our fault and if we could only perfect ourselves, we could fix everything.”
The entire text of Landes article can be found here. As for the above quoted excerpt, it’s point about useful idiots being inherently racist in their overt self-criticism is just plainly wrong. “Putin’s Useful Idiots” describes the attitudes of Landes’ useful idiots towards Russia, a predominantly white country. However, the most problematic part of Professor Landes’ article is its conclusion:
This brings me to my last remark. Behind much of this suicidal advocacy lies fear. The dupes of demopaths love to accuse critics of demopaths of Islamophobia. Actually, this is a classic case of projection. They are the ones afraid of Islam; they are the ones who dare not challenge their Muslim allies. On the contrary, they do everything to help Muslims save face.
That is why, rather than demand reciprocity, the left turns to masochistic self-reproach. Not only do they not want to test the limits of their moral paradigm, they know that they will provoke violence. In this sense, the parallels with Neville “Peace in our time” Chamberlain are particularly salient. How much easier to declare peace, than to pay heed to the old Roman saying “si vis pacem para bellum.” How much easier to blame the Pope, or Sharon, or Bush of having provoked the Muslims, than demand some signs – even faint signs – or moral responsibility from Muslims!
Much of the MSNM’s treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict can be explained by the following observation: if you criticize Israel, even dishonestly, there’s no price to pay; if you criticize the Arabs, even honestly, there’s a high price to pay.
In this sense, much of the moral dysfunction of the left, much of their predilection for useful idiocy comes from fear of Islamist violence. Having taken the cowards way out, why not admire those do not hesitate to use it. In the final expression of the moral inversion involved in “their side right or wrong,” a self-castrated, atheist left that embraces the meme – War is not the answer and despises its own culture’s religious fundamentalism – ends up siding with the most alien of others, men and women for whom war is the best answer, for whom the most ferociously destructive death cults are willed by God.
So: useful idiots are lenient towards radical Islam because they fear conflict. This conclusion fundamentally contradicts the profile of the “useful idiot” which Landes described: a moralist indulging in masochistic self-criticism from the position of unquestioned power. Its treatment of the “Other” is the treatment of an obviously inferior non-threatening potential victim who is incapable of asserting its rights. The criticism of useful idiots in this context is basically arguing that this secretly malevolent “Other” will sneak in, abusing our benevolence, and “use democracy to end democracy” – even this criticism assumes the West’s position of power. Landes’ conclusion, therefore, doesn’t make much sense.
Moreover, Landes’ article seems a bit too one-sided and lacking a sense of proportion – if the “enemies of civilization” by which he encompasses radical Islam, oriental dictatorships and non-democratic regimes do “prosper” in the next few decades, it will hardly be because of a few op-ed writers. The relative decline of Western economic hegemony, the rise of China and the dis-functionality of the UNSC sound like a better bet.