Reede, 17 August 2018 19:00
Laas Leivat - Estonian Life No. 33 2018
This writer suggests that a sub-set of the genre ‘agents of influence’ could be known as ‘useful idiots’. The term has been attributed to Vladimir Lenin who was known to hold in contempt those the Soviets used as tools for dispensing communist propaganda. It’s also a term describing those who blindly supported the likes of Lenin and Stalin while they committed unspeakable atrocities.
In a more general context the term refers to people supporting causes without understanding the goals and who are exploited by the leaders of the cause. (There has been no full consensus on Lenin as being the term’s initiator.)
William Duranty, the New York Times correspondent in Moscow in the 1930’s has probably been used as a ‘useful idiot’ example more than most others who equally fit the bill. His columns ridiculed the notion that there was any famine anywhere in the USSR, while millions of Ukranians had been deliberately targeted for extinction. Although he publicly denied it, Duranty knew exactly the severity and the deliberateness of the famine targeted at Ukrainians. British diplomats stated that in private at the British embassy in Moscow Duranty said that about 10 million had died overall due to starvation. The Soviet government made available to him a spacious apartment, a luxury car, sumptuous meals, seductive women. Duranty could be called the founder of ‘fake news’ with his outright falsification and suppression of facts. He was certainly guilty of deliberate journalistic malpractice. In 1932 Duranty was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Soviet Russia. In the early 2000s appeals were made to the New York Times to have Duranty’s award revoked. This was rejected with the explanation that Duranty had been misled by the Soviets and was ignorant of the real facts – a falsehood as attested by British diplomats. Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, reporting the real story from Moscow at the same time as Duranty has referred to him as the ‘quintessential useful idiot’.
Even more publicly visible than Duranty, but not as often equated with ‘useful idiocy’ is George Bernard Shaw - yes, the man honoured by a festival every year at Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada, the man who has enjoyed critical acclaim for nearly a century. He was a founding member of the Fabian Society, a British socialist movement promoting a ‘progressive’ socialist ideology. Shaw had visited the Soviet Union. He was aware of the appalling and brutal suppression of basic rights. Yet he was an unabashed supporter of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini. He idolized ‘men of iron nerve and fanatical conviction’. (One is reminded of a current leader who has often admired similar styles of governing.) In a trip to Russia in 1931, Shaw callously hurt victims of Soviet crimes by praising forced labour, joking about torture and genocide, and rejecting any famine in Ukraine. “I have seen all the ‘terrors’ and I was terribly pleased by them,” he flippantly said at his 75th birthday party in Moscow. Unlike many who were initially mesmerized by the Bolshevik revolution but became committed to fighting any form of totalitarianism after witnessing its organized brutality. Shaw remained a stalwart champion of the Soviet Union to the end. Useful idiot par excellence.
For those few described above and untold others, Soviet Russia and the current regime remain perennially fascinating. It’s argued that Putin boosters and apologists are driven more by a disdain or contempt for their own societies than anything positive they see in the Russian regime.
One can view the useful idiot notion from a different perspective. Fast forwarding from the useful idiots of over 90 years ago, the Kremlin-funded international broadcasting network RT (Russia Today) is an excellent example of the clever recruitment of Western useful idiots who help promulgate, directly or indirectly, a pro-Putin agenda. It’s all conducted under the guise of ‘free speech’ and ‘alternative journalism’ that RT claims is counteracting the alleged bias of mainstream media.
RT’s approach is straight forward: invite mainly Western, publicly visible people of influence for interviews on various programs. The individuals may be unaware of RT’s political agenda or they explicitly support it. A European study concludes that over 2300 of these people have taken the bait, some numerous times. The include politicians, military leaders, writers, journalists, commentators, academics, entertainment personalities, professional athletes, media celebrities etc., all highly recognizable and considered credible.
They represent a wide spectrum of political views. Many of us in the West believe that Russian propaganda has to be blunt. But that would not be convincing even with a most naïve audience. However if you mix in some op[inions that obviously counter Moscow’s stance, Russian propaganda can work.
The Westerners that lend their authority, who participate in RT’s charade validate Moscow’s propaganda. They are a valuable cog in Russia’s disinformation machine. They peddle their good name in helping to embolden an authoritarian regime.
An upcoming segment will explore the question of conspiracy theorists being possible agents of influence and/or willing useful idiots. Laas Leivat