There are many ways you can become a useful idiot, an active defender of the interest of some autocrat, who would – to put it mildly – not defend you back. Like Putin. Or Orbán. Or any random populist to whom you are just another pawn on the chessboard.
A useful idiot sees someone who reigns over a territory, steals and intimidates, someone who captures the infrastructure of a state to enrich and empower his own family and allies – and all he finds is a counterintuitive, clever little reason why this strongman is actually right. And unafraid to share it.
In the meantime, the useful idiot doesn’t get paid. Otherwise he would just be called ‘useful’.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of ways you can join this sad bunch of otherwise intelligent people.
1. Be afraid!
Be very-very afraid! Of anything, really.
For common foot soldiers the gateway to the ancient profession of useful idiocy is usually fear. And when they are afraid they adopt the non-solution suggested by the politician who points out the scariest things.
Because if you fail to find something to dread, you can always rely on politicians. They love it when you’re afraid. It softens your brain, deteriorates your critical thinking, clouds your mind and makes you vote your own freedoms away. And makes you argue for it on Facebook.
What’s more, political cowardice is best fueled by an imaginary threat that never materializes – and politicians are best at exactly that (and not much else).*
2. Be flattered!
The most common cause of useful idiocy among the intelligentsia is being flattered by authority. But they would never admit. Journalists and academics, celebrities and opinion makers go out of their way to signal their indifference and critical stance towards authority – but even the most independent and autonomous minds can be secretly impressed by a flattering gesture.
Imagine a state secretary (like there aren’t thousands of them) or an ambassador (OMG, a real ambassador!!!) who invites you to talk about your genius thoughts and share your invaluable insights – like anyone cares. Status-whores live for these moments and the feeling they get when they nonchalantly mention it to their friends.
…that guy I know at the ministry…
Just as these women lamely let their pussies grabbed because it was a state secretary – serious pundits and academics relapse into authoritarian little boys and let their lady parts fondled when they get an official invitation or a photo op with [insert fancy title] of a real country.
And indeed, autocracies are putting extra emphasis on information warfare these days – and it includes impressing Western opinion makers. Especially the ambitious ones who feel undervalued – which is all of them. And what money cannot buy, flattery can.
And this is your way into whitewashing dictatorships. Because once you’ve been flattered by them – they better be prestigious. So you will be very much invested to make said government look prestigious and relevant – and not at all a condemnable bunch of murderous cronies who silence dissent and steal their people’s future.
It is not a bloody dictatorship at all! I allows political dissenters to leave the country, so…**
So if you find just one little excuse to defend them – you will. Otherwise your photo with the minister could not go on Facebook. You will use your full professional authority and authoritative, native accent to whitewash and rehabilitate the regime. Again, simply because they flattered to you.
I believe that you actually convinced yourself that they are the good guys – the Western media just got them all wrong. After all, there are alternative facts in their favour. Which is exactly why they invited you and told you that counterintuitive (and let’s face it) irrelevant bit of information you built your entire defense on.
3. Fixate on one irrelevant factoid!
It feels great to be the hipster of politics who had praised autocracies before it was cool. But you will need something to base your counterintuitive opinion on. So you must find one, tiny factoid to build your defense on. Like the flat tax. How great it is that Hungary has a 15% flat income tax rate. So obviously, everything else must be alright in the economy.
Or take the wall. You may build your entire political world view on your fear of nasty outsiders and support anyone who builds a bloody wall to soothe you – but the world is not so gloriously black and white and you can easily end up making a useful idiot of yourself.
4. Look down on people like yourself!
Ignore people who live in actual dictatorships, and how their lives are lived on a forced track, their expression silenced, their economic opportunities stolen.
Most of the time you don’t even need to ignore them because your mind genuinely blocks out uncomfortable thoughts. You simply don’t think about these people. Things you would find unacceptable in your own (blissfully free) country are ignored in others – because you adopt the perspective of the dictator. Losing your own perspective and regarding others from the viewpoint of the king is a staple authoritarian mind trick – I’m sure you will manage.
And as a consequence of this, you will find that any aggression, atrocity or even genocide committed by the kings will fall on a blind spot of yours.
5. Never find fault with a strongman!
Another basic authoritarian trait is that your mind never rests on the uncomfortable topic on how the aggressor might have done something wrong – not just the victim.
So when something is obviously wrong, that autocracy is all but unlivable, its population may or may not be able to escape it – just focus on how its people have been asking for it, or how other countries have caused it. (Advanced idiots can start bashing their own governments for it – it is definitely safe and their governments have definitely done something. What else do political cowards need?) But the unmovable leader who oppresses them and treats his country as a family heirloom is beyond reproach and played no part in the state of his own country.
6. Use the lesser evil argument to support the greater evil!
Moral relativism is the refuge of political cowards. It is, for instance, so much more comfortable to point out that no one is perfect, than it is to admit that there are degrees of evil. And you should perhaps lash out on the greater evil as well – not just your safe, home-grown version of sexism, cronyism, or authoritarian tendencies.
But who cares about objectivity when it is so delightfully clever and counterintuitive to argue that the dictator is not worse than the Western leader you passionately hate (because you have actual information on what he or she does). But those Eastern czars, you have no information about them.
7. Actually, this may be time for some critical thinking!
For the first time in your life, critical thinking may get you what you want. The comfortable answer.
After all, how do you know they are bad? You only really know that it is habitual to condemn them. And then you inspect how exactly you know they are murderous – and that’s it! You found your excuse: you were just told so. You just assumed. It is no longer your moral capitulation speaking, no sir. It is your critical thinking, and it is compelling you not to dismiss a poor dictator without hard evidence.
And who delivers hard evidence against a dictator? Exactly.
8. Fail to understand the significance of information warfare
…and pretend we still live in the 20th century when only tanks could do real harm and spies knew that they were spies.
And now that you’ve learned the theory of useful idiocy – let’s see it in practice!
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* Politicians are clueless about real problems – i.e. the ones they did not cause. So they don’t mention real problems. They point out scary, fake problems and do a lot of damage with their gut-level solutions to those fake problems. But you must not be disturbed by these pesky nuances. As a useful idiot you can safely pretend someone can scare you and it is totally in your interest.
** “…” is the best way to finish sentences when you’re someone’s useful idiot. The most hair-raising conclusions can be implied if you don’t say them out loud.