Useful Idiots and the Defense of Totalitarians

Why do smart people support dictators?

Usually, they don’t defend a murderer, and probably oppose wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or drone strikes in Pakistan. Yet, when a foreign leader opposes “American imperialism” or upholds a socialist vision, all is forgiven. Who needs freedom of speech, a bourgeois virtue that protects capitalists? What’s horrifying in domestic affairs becomes holy abroad.

When Paul Hollander analyzed the Western defenders of Cuba, China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union in Political Pilgrimshe rooted the attraction in alienation from liberal democracy:

Intense alienation is the single major factor that produced the pilgrimages and the attendant suspension of critical faculties in each period; and as long as alienation persists, emotion will continue to overpower intellect. This is so because intense rejection of one’s society leads to (or entails) such anger, despair, and hostility that it becomes imperative to find alternatives to the social system the critic lives under—hence the growing susceptibility to the claims of other social systems opposed to that which he so despises.

When one country fades as a model utopia, another replaces it. One country will always posture against the United States or the European Union. Venezuela has been a recent country of choice, but similar fools on the Right admire Vladimir Putin and Russia. Or Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Instead of confronting the failure of the United States to adhere to its professed values, a foil is sought. The narrow binary of good/bad countries prompts the search for a magical foreign land, which leads to otherwise sane people defending dictators.

Just as partisans listen to a politician’s speeches and ignore the action, the alienated lose their skepticism when a foreign leader confirms their bias. Saul Bellow wrote that “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep,” and political discussions would bear more fruit if the desire for a moral absolute in politics were resisted.* Politics might be the most difficult arena to live in by truth, but it’s better to attempt the challenge than defend a madman with a red book in his left hand and a gun in his right.

The alienation of individuals within society reflects the society more than the idealized country. Projection doesn’t require an accurate understanding of an imagine society; it only needs a disappointing reality. Hollander again:

…Both the popularity and unpopularity of the Soviet Union among Western intellectuals have more to do with the state of Western societies than with that of the Soviet. Admiration of the Soviet system peaked not when its performance was the most impressive or its policies most humane, but at the time when a severe economic crisis buffeted the Western world (in the 1930s), which helped create a perception of the Soviet Union as an island of stability, order, economic rationality, and social justice. Likewise the attractions of China, Cuba, and North Vietnam emerged and intensified during the 1960s when, once more, a crisis of confidence shook the United States (this time on account of Vietnam and racial conflict), and when both in the United States and in Western Europe rising non-material aspirations were unmet by new spiritual resources. Clearly it is possible to admire countries when one knows little about them political systems can also be detested when there is scanty knowledge about them.

Is it any wonder that Venezuela looked appealing when Hugo Chavez bloviated about defending the poor while the United States sank into economic recession and stagnation? Or when conservatives who worry about moral decline pine for Putin’s defense of conservatism and support of Orthodox Christianity? Never mind that the reality in Venezuela and Russia is abhorrent.

It’s easy to admire the underdog or what failed to be. “Admiring defeated revolutions has the same advantages as worshipping from a distance a beautiful woman (or man) whose charms have never been tested by sharing a bed, bathroom, or kitchen,” Hollander noted. Identifying with the poor and the oppressed does not a just order make. Swallowing propaganda gives you stellar arguments, but it divorces you from reality. To avoid the shame of becoming a useful idiot, any level-headed person must judge action, not rhetoric, and contemplate the causes of alienation in their society.

*Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back.