[The following is a transcript of a talk I gave at a conference on Intellectuals and Terror, a month ago. I held back publishing it because I wanted to give some good examples. The Flotilla offers precisely that "in spades." I will add links later on.]
Lenin allegedly referred to Western intellectuals who so supported the communist experiment that they disguised its horrors from the West as “useful idiots,” because their idiotic romantic attachment to communist dreams made them highly useful allies in deceiving the West and preventing it from opposing the Soviet Union when it was still vulnerable.
Today observers use the term to describe liberal intellectuals who enjoy freedom and prosperity, yet undermine both by giving moral and material support to revolutionary movements hostile to such bourgeois values. But that’s actually a mild accusation against useful idiocy. By covering up the engineered famines in Ukraine and in China, by dismissing evidence of the Gulag Archipelago or the Cambodian killing fields, all of which killed tens, even hundreds of millions of people, useful idiots have been responsible for aiding and abetting the terrifying death machines.
Given that history itself revealed that they had been dupes of the most staggering sort, even such brilliant ones as George Bernard Shaw and Jean-Paul Sartre lost their credibility. One would think, therefore, that with the lessons of the last century still fresh in our minds, these memories would immunize us to the appeal of useful idiocy in the late 20th, early 21st century.
A fortiori, one would expect the wisdom so painfully gained in the course of the 20th to insulate the West from serving as useful idiots to a revolutionary movement with none of the idealistic appeal of communism, but rather with a record of regressive, gynophobic, authoritarian, and nihilistic traits that virtually guarantee that any success such a movement might have would be a catastrophe for those so unfortunate to have these revolutionaries “liberate” them.
So why would a late 20th century progressive sympathize with, support, run interference, even lie and deceive, for a movement that manifested all the worst traits of totalitarian megadeath from the 20th century – the cult of death, the embrace of nihilism, paranoia, and genocidal hate-mongering? At least the fellow travelers of the early and mid-20th century had a noble ideal for which they carried out their campaigns of misinformation. But now, we have intellectuals from a wide range of fields running interference for Islam, even in its most regressive forms.
And of course, at this asymmetrical stage in the war that Global Jihad wages against the West, nothing is more critical to the capacity of Jihad to mobilize – to recruit, indoctrinate, train, and deploy – its forces than a cognitive victory in which its targets in the West are kept in the dark about its real intentions. And given the yeoman job that apologists like John Esposito, Noah Feldman and Juan Cole perform in this sense, I think it worthwhile to use the expression “useful infidel” for this new breed of fellow travelers. Nothing is more useful to Jihadi ambitions to subject the entire world to Sharia than non-Muslim intellectuals who insist that Islam is a religion of peace that is perfectly consonant with democracy, and that the terrorists represent a tiny, marginal, deviation from true Islam.
I want to argue that this astonishing paradox – Islamic Jihad is the last thing one would expect reasonable, progressive intellectuals to support – strips away the pretence of naïve good intentions that the older “useful idiot” used to plead. Once we confront the “irrationality” of useful infidelity, and realize the urgency of trying to understand a phenomenon that pushes us in the direction of cultural, even civilizational suicide, we must confront the underlying (self-destructive) emotions.
Demopaths and their Dupes
It seems to me that the phenomenon of useful idiocy revolves around a particularly dysfunctional relationship, that between demopath and dupe. Demopaths arise in response to democratic cultures, which they target in a cognitive war suited only to assaults on such societies, that is, ones that embrace principles of a human right to freedom. They themselves embrace authoritarian principles of dominion by force, what Lee Smith has chronicled so chillingly in his latest book, The Strong Horse. Their line of attack: “you (democratic target) do not live up to your commitments; and in particular, you violate our (demopathic belligerent) rights in preventing us from participating in your democracy.”
The key to demopaths is their hypocrisy: they have no commitment to democratic values or human rights. On the contrary, they despise these values, and they have no intention of, once in power, respecting the rights of others. Their motto: “Use democracy to destroy democracy.”
Normally one might expect such hypocrisy would get challenged and driven from the public sphere, especially by intelligent, perspicacious observers, committed to building a better, more peaceful and more just society. And certainly, one would think, after the abject intellectual failure of geniuses on both the “right” (Jung, Heidigger, Schmidt) and the left (Shaw, Malraux, Sartre, Hemingway), intellectuals in subsequent generations might have hesitated somewhat to plunge down the same path.
But for reasons we must understand better, the demopathic hypocrisy has returned in an even cruder and more transparent form, and yet many Western progressives seem hell-bent on becoming dupes. Indeed, when I first developed this notion of demopathy, I remember describing it to an acquaintance who had worked for 20 years in the UN. Her response: that is the prevailing principle in UN: authoritarian elites using the dominant human rights discourse to their own ends.
Self Criticism and the Human Rights Complex
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.”
Of course, the consequence of this move is to absolve the “other” of all responsibility. If he strikes at us, it must be our fault. 9-11? What have we done to make them hate us so? Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount provoked the Intifada, just as the Pope’s citing a passage about an inherently violent Islam provoked a wave of rioting that killed over a dozen people. “They” have no agency; they only react to our deeds. Ultimately, people with HRC treat people of color like animals, with no moral agency: just as we don’t scold our cat for killing mice, so they do not scold Muslims for engaging in terror. It must be our fault.
And of course, this “puts a sword in the hands of our enemies with which to slay us.” Why on earth, if we’re willing to take responsibility for every violence that Jihadis inflict on us, would they not press the advantage, and both attack us and blame us for the attack? This is demopaths’ paradise.
This phenomenon seems to cry out for analysis. After all, on the one hand it’s suicidal – it empowers the enemies of human freedom – and on the other, it’s racist. One would imagine that in the anti-racist, progressive circles of the late 20th early 21st century, such an approach would find few takers. And yet, the opposite is true.
Indeed, one might argue that this masochistic self criticism, what Pascal Bruckner calls the “tyranny of guilt,” has become the dominant Zeitgeist, a kind of default approach to culture clashes. We embrace a whole series of rhetorical tropes as if they were real, especially moral relativity – Gitmo is like the Gulag – or even moral inversion – the US is the worst terrorist state in the world, Blair is worse than Ahmadinejad, Bush worse than Bin Laden.
But these are, at origin, prophetic tropes, aimed at moral exhortation, not as descriptions of reality. When Isaiah compares Israel to Sodom and Amorah, when Jesus challenges those who complain about the mote in another’s eye while they ignore the beam in theirs, they spoke to highly sophisticated and self-critical audiences, and used prophetic rhetoric to castigate, to whip these sensitive souls into shape. It wasn’t because the Israelites really were as bad as Sodom, or that those attending the sermon on the mount really were focused on their neighbor’s speck of sawdust while ignoring their own heavy lumber.
And yet, contrary to common sense and self-preservation, such figures of speech are taken literally to refer in real life. The results can be summarized in the following history of humankind, on one foot:
Memes and Social Development
Identity meme: invidious formation (pre-modern) “My/Our side right or wrong”
This meme involves sharp boundaries between the good “us” and the bad “them” who receive no empathy. As Mel Brooks’ 2000 year old man put it humorously: “tragedy is when I cut my finger. I cry a lot, I go into Mount Sinai for a day a half; comedy is if you fall in an open man hole and die. What do I care?” On some level, every human being shares this perspective, and only by dint of serious effort does one even temporarily transcend it. On both an individual and a group level, it constitutes perhaps the most fundamental meme in human evolution, the solidarity meme: my side – or me – right or wrong.
Justice meme: (modern, civil polities) “Whoever is right, my side or not.”
Self-denial meme: (post-modern, suicidal) “Their side right or wrong”
The “other” in Levinasian-Derridian post-modernism, the epistemological priority of the “other” in post-colonial activism. To atone for our colonial past we must embrace the rage of the wretched of the earth.
Perhaps the most eloquent expression of this last meme was uttered by one of the UNHRC appointed Goldstone Commission. Asked about the reliability of Palestinian testimony accusing Israel of war crimes, Hina Jilani, the Pakistani Supreme Court Judge, “internationally known for her expertise in human rights investigations,” commented: “It would be cruel not to give their testimony credence.” The fact that it is cruel to believe vicious slander does not occur to her; nor that, in believing such accusations and ignoring evidence of Hamas’ systematic use of civilian shields, she has empowered the very people who abuse the Gazans, does not seem to even occur to her.
Now she may be a demopath, and she is certainly enabling demopaths; but Goldstone, whose “fact-finding” Mission actually acted as a venue for accusations against Israel, is a first-order dupe. And his style – as a Jew it is incumbent upon me to bend over backwards to be self-critical – illustrates the psychology of the dupes. I must embrace the demopath’s attacks to prove my good faith.
Here we touch on the role of hyper-self-critical Jews in this dynamic. Masochistic Omnipotence Syndrome is a messianic affliction that strikes particularly those attracted to the notion of “Tikkun Olam,” people like Michael Lerner, who’s organization, Tikkun, just awarded their annual Ethics award to Judge Goldstone for his stellar work… as the most prominent dupe to demopaths of the year. Instead, we should be giving out the annual “Ayn ani li” awards to the Jews who push self-abnegation to the extremes of masochism.
Obviously, I could go on forever charting and exposing the insanity of our principled dupedom in the face of a grotesquely hypocritical and lethal demopathic assault, and many books about the tyranny of politically correct principles have done just that. What I’d like to do in closing is address the theme of this conference: what makes intellectuals behave in so astonishingly idiotic and self-destructive ways. Here I’d like to invoke three basic issues:
1) Cognitive dissonance and the Year 1989:
This psychological mechanism, first identified by Leon Festinger in the study of an apocalyptic UFO cult’s response to the failure of prophecy, clearly plays a central role in the fellow traveler’s response to what Arthur Koestler called, “The God that failed.” And yet despite a series of incidents that could have led to a final break with the monstrosity of the Soviet Union, many intellectuals continued to maintain a low-key loyalty, an idiocy no longer even useful to a failed totalitarian state. But, as Hillel Stavis points out, in 1989, useful idiots the world over took a heavy blow. When the Wall came down, followed soon thereafter by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the mother-ship had vanished, leaving dependent space modules floating free.
1989 also happens to be a key year in the ascent of global Jihad. It was the year the Russians left Afghanistan, giving Bin Laden his first and most spectacular victory against the Infidel; and it was the year Khoumeini issued a fatwa calling for the murder of Salmon Rushdie for blaspheming against Islam with his novel, The Satanic Verses. In both cases, Islamic Jihadis (both Sunni and Shiite) struck blows against the West. For all those radical, revolution-at-all-costs, modules floating in the distressing outer-space of cognitive dissonance, a new ally had just appeared on the horizon.
2) Envy and European/Progressive Anti-Americanism and Anti-Zionism
One of the great and disturbing revelations for me of the “progressive” left response to the outbreak of the Intifada and to the attack of 9-11, was the role of envy in their responses: the politics of envy, Paul Hollander calls it appropriately. The palpable resentment of the US in Europe is nearly suffocating for anyone who does not thrive on such an atmosphere of self-indulgence, especially given the enormous debt the Europe owes the US for its freedom and prosperity. But, as the expression goes, “no good deed goes unpunished,” and as an unusually honest French woman commented, “France will never forgive the US for saving it twice.” Perhaps nothing illustrates so strikingly the Europeans’ desperate need to dump on the USA than the widespread perception there that Noam Chomsky is one of the great intellectuals of the age. How the mighty have fallen.
But even their hatred of the USA pales beside the resentment of Israel. Why? Unlike the USA, Israel is not a great power, not a crushing cultural entity whose movies and fast-food chains do not displace the once-great European entertainment and restaurant industry. Why the animus towards Israel?
To those who would argue “Esau hates Jacob,” I’d like to comment: “Do not read ‘Esau’ bit rather ‘envy’.” Why the envy? Because Israel – i.e. the only openly Jewish revolutionary leftist endeavor of the 20th century, constitutes the only case of an egalitarian revolution that, when attacked from without and criticized from within, did not turn totalitarian. Unlike the French with their terror, the Soviets, Maoists, Khmer Rouge, etc., the Israelis did not respond to the threat with paranoia and the suppression of dissent as treachery.
As a result, their 60+ years of democracy under conditions that no other democratic revolution had sustained for even a handful of years, constitutes the most exceptional record of commitment to genuine democratic values in the history of mankind. And the Europeans and other leftists, for whom their own past weighs heavily on their claim to greatness, the example of Israel shines a harsh light on their failures.
But for “Moral Europe” the need to preen on the world stage as the cutting edge of global morality is apparently so great an addiction that they cannot “just say no” to life-threatening postures. Thus, despite all the “moral” protestations, their driving passion is anti-Zionism. They can despise the US for its barbaric use of the death penalty, but when they turn to the Middle East they despise Israel, the only country without a death penalty, and lionize the Palestinians, for whom executions without trial for “collaboration” are a way of life. Apparently the moral Schadenfreude of being able to accuse the Jews just tastes too sweet.
All of this makes Europeans particularly susceptible to Muslim hate-mongering about both the little Satan and the great Satan. Like some grotesquely overweight man with a cholestoral count of over 300, they continue to scarf down the cheese-burgers of anti-Americanism and wash them down with the chocolate truffles of anti-Zionism. Who would have thought that a civilization could commit suicide from an addiction to moral Schadenfreude?
3) Fear and intimidation
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.
Can a civilization destruct from stupidity? Stay tuned and find out. Or start fighting back. If not now, when?