Anthony DiMaggio: Who are the Useful Idiots?

By Anthony DiMaggio 

While Vladimir Lenin may have originally popularized the label "useful idiots" in reference to Western sympathizers with the Soviet Union, the term may be more relevant today when applied to those within the American media who unconsciously (and through their own ignorance) further government propaganda.  But we shouldn’t deceive ourselves when we talk of these useful idiots by pointing exclusively to reactionary right-wing pundits.  Increasingly, those who identify themselves within the "respectable," "fair-minded" and political "middle" use the similar types of distortions, with minimal public accountability.  A recent Op-Ed in the Chicago Sun Times by Mary Laney is a case in point, as the article symbolizes much of what is wrong with mainstream media punditry that masquerades as "moderate" political analysis.  

Laney’s February column, "Quit Blaming America: We Didn’t Earn Islamofascists’ Hatred," relies heavily on not-so-subtle racist stereotypes against Muslims, as well as a series of distortions and blatant lies against what she calls the "Extreme Left."  In this sense, the piece is not important so much for its uniqueness, but for how extraordinary representative it is of the generic, vitriolic rhetoric often disseminated by the punditry.  Such rhetoric is useful in downplaying, ignoring, or attacking substantive challenges to U.S. foreign policy (most specifically the Iraq war), while saturating Americans with superficial debates which have little practical relevance to their every day lives.  

In the tradition of media personalities such as Michael Medved, Christopher Hitchens, and Michael Savage, Laney expounds upon the dangers of "Islamofascists" who hate American freedoms and engage in terrorism against the United States.  Supposedly, "Islamofascists hate us because we are not Muslims.  They hate us because they do not rule us.  They hate us because we live with freedom and equality."  Such an argument, of course, conveniently neglects the fact that Muslims themselves also died in the 9/11 attacks, and that Islamists (sometimes referred to as Islamic fundamentalists) have not hesitated to kill fellow Muslims in pursuit of their own radical political goals.  Of course, to point out such facts takes us out of the world of pure fantasy in which Laney and others would prefer Americans remain, and into the realm of real, reasoned discourse. 

As with other uninformed pundits, Laney would prefer to rely on racist anti-Muslim stereotypes rather than to engage in a constructive dialogue about major issues of day.  She explains, erroneously, that "In the Quran, Islam’s holy book, the Prophet Muhammad tells his followers to offer non-Muslims three things: conversion, second-class citizenship, or war."  The attempt to frame extremism and terrorism as characteristics intrinsic within Islam itself, should be rejected out of hand, as anyone with even the most basic familiarity with the Quran knows that Islam is based upon the importance of one’s voluntary, rather than coerced acceptance of the faith.  Furthermore, Islamism itself represents merely one strain, or interpretation within the religion.  It no more represents what is "essential" to Islam than does any interpretation within Christianity or Judaism inherently represent a single "core" of what it means to be a Christian or Jew.  Any attempt to conflate Islam as inherently terrorist makes about as much sense as efforts to portray pro-lifers who murder abortion doctors as representing what it "means" to be Christian. 

Aside from the systematic misrepresentations of Islam, we should also note that any equation of Islamism with Fascism represents more of a racist scare tactic than an exercise in legitimate intellectual thought.  The notion that Islamism and Nazism are somehow interrelated is, to put it simply, fraudulent.  As American journalist Eric Margolis explains: "There is nothing in any part of the Muslim World that resembles the corporate fascist states of western history…The Muslim world is replete with brutal dictatorships, feudal monarchies, and corrupt military-run states, but none of these regimes, however deplorable, fits the standard definition of fascism.  Most, in fact, are America’s allies." 

The notion that terrorist Islamist movements and corrupt governments throughout the Middle East have been wholeheartedly supported and nurtured by the United States is rejected out of hand by many American pundits, not because of a lack of evidence, but primary due to ignorance regarding the nature of U.S. foreign policy.  As Laney herself argues, "I will never agree with anyone who blames America for the rise in Islamofascism or radical Muslims’ violent and inhuman actions or their hate-filled rhetoric."  Such intransigence is difficult to defend when one understands that the United States has supported Islamist movements against secular governments in covert operations throughout the Middle East over the last half century (the Taliban and the Mujahideen being only two examples).  Such facts are best left unmentioned within much of media commentary, as they are of little value for propaganda purposes. 

Laney’s misrepresentations also target the political left, which she and numerous other pundits lambaste for failing to support the troops and blaming all of society’s woes on the Bush administration.  She would rather cite Saddam Hussein’s gassing of thousands of Kurds (U.S. financial and military support for which, is conveniently omitted from her arguments) as a justification for the war in Iraq.  Never mind the false pretenses upon which the war was based, such as the long debunked ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and the long refuted conspiracy theory that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction which threatened the U.S.  What good are such facts if one is to effectively pedal official propaganda? 

One might ask, what evidence Laney cites that "leftists" hate the troops or that they believe George Bush is personally responsible for all of America’s troubles?  Such a question, while vital in any legitimate debate, is beyond the scope of those who prefer name-calling over real analysis of the issues.  Predictably, Laney sights no evidence for any of the arguments she makes.  This lack of a real context for argumentation is perhaps the biggest strike against a media system such as ours, which prides itself in dumbing down debate to the point where evidence and facts are considered liabilities, rather than virtues.  

Laney would do well to learn from her own insight that "it’s difficult to have calm discussions" about U.S. foreign policy at a time when passion, rather than reason guides many debates. So long as the useful idiots in the American punditry are showered with attention, prestige, and praise – not due to any sort of enlightened understanding of foreign affairs, but because to their ability to out-shout and demonize critics – it is unlikely that we will move toward any relevant discussion of the issues at hand.  What is needed, rather than one-dimensional caricatures and glittering generalities, is a call for informed discussion of debates, and a genuine tolerance and respect for those with whom one disagrees.  Then again, this has clearly been too much to expect from within a system where corporate media conglomerates view it as their responsibility to promote the lowest common denominator of infantile debate, rather than to constructively engage those posing serious challenges to U.S. foreign policy. 

-Anthony DiMaggio has taught Middle East Politics and American Government at Illinois State University.  He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois, Chicago. 

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