Useful idiot

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The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.
—Edward Gibbon[1]

A useful idiot is someone who supports one side of an ideological debate but who is manipulated and held in contempt by the leaders of their faction or is unaware of the ultimate plan driving the ideology they subscribe to. The term originated in early 1950s America in reference to members of the Socialist Party, allegedly promoted by the malevolent KGB to weaken America as a nation.[2] The closely related term fellow traveler (Russian: спутник, sputnik)[note 1] refers to one who sympathizes with and is willing to support the publicly stated goals of the Party while not being a dues-paying, card-carrying member. The phrase's origin has often been attributed to Vladimir Lenin,[3] but there is no evidence that Lenin ever said or wrote it.[4][5]

Co-optation[edit]

The term co-opted is often used when this phenomenon occurs on a sufficiently large scale that a group, movement, or cause has been appropriated and subverted to a hostile and destructive purpose.

This may be a conscious and organized effort in the case of agents-provocateurs; indeed, this would then be more or less precisely the aim. Alternatively, it may simply be the extreme natural consequence of Poe's law in operation when trolls and edgelords (for lack of more precise and neutral terminology) enter the community of interest in sufficient numbers to distort its aims, methods, and publicly-visible message.

The distinction, of course, is only one of conscious intent; the practical outcome for the community in question is essentially the same.

Citing specific examples is a contentious exercise, particularly in the second case.

Misuse[edit]

As a subjective label, the term is often abused. There are reasonable differences on matters of rhetoric and tactics in any ideological movement, but these differences can be unjustly smeared as idiocy with this label. Nor are all poor representatives of a position necessarily useful idiots: a useful idiot is a poor representative raised as a figurehead by a third party with malign intentions. VenomFangX might be a spectacular failure at Christian apologetics, but he's not a useful idiot because his popularity derives from other Christians, not atheists.

Alleged examples[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. It is not clear whether this usage originated in the CPSU or was coined in the West among anti-Communists familiar with the Russian word for traveling companion and later imported in a "hey, that's useful, we should have thought of that" moment. The CPSU did originate the very similar term podkulachnik — which means the same thing in relation to kulak — at the time of the "liquidation of the kulaks as a class". This suggests a continuity of ideas, but that does not resolve the question.

References[edit]

  1. [1] Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  2. Useful idiot, Oxford English Dictionary
  3. Becket Adams (January 26, 2012). "Soros ‘Supposes’ He’s One of Lenin’s ‘Useful Idiots’". 
  4. William Safire (April 12, 1987). "ON LANGUAGE". 
  5. Paul F. Bioler Jr., They Never Said It : A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading. Oxford University Press, 1990.
  6. Kathy Lally and Greg Miller (April 17, 2014). "Edward Snowden asks Vladi­mir Putin if Russia spies on its citizens". Washington Post. 
  7. Snowden, Edward. "Vladimir Putin must be called to account on surveillance just like Obama." The Guardian, 18 April 2014.