Thursday, November 18, 2021

A Taxonomy of Useful Idiots

Pondering a bestiary of useful idiots, a field guide to the species...

I once proposed a taxonomy of useful idiots: the ignorant, those who should know better, the reflexively tribal, and the professional opportunist. I have since recharacterized the mooted third category, the reflexively tribal, with a broader brush as the professional contrarian. The tribal intimation didn't fully capture the nuance that I sought, and the reflexivity I implied often overlapped with the contrarian impulse and with the actions of those who should know better. Not to mention that there was also the matter of intent. No, it wouldn't do; precision is needed in a hatchet job and I, for one, aim to deliver. Ah well, I've always been upfront that my brand of social anthropology was a work in progress. In any case, herewith some further musings...

To recap, here's the toli taxonomy of useful idiots:

  • the ignorant
  • those who should know better
  • the professional contrarian
  • the professional opportunist
Let's visualize this, in case you are that way inclined (forgive me Edward Tufte)

taxonomy of useful idiots

Useful idiots are a tribe that one encounters all too often in life. They cause a disturbance in the force, and no small disorder wherever they are found. They provoke anxiety and raise blood pressure with their confounding behavior. Their impact is particularly elevated in times of crisis, wars chief among them. During a pandemic, such as our covidious present, it can be a matter of public health and great urgency to be able to accurately identify these purveyors of grief. Prompt and targeted action is of the essence in order to blunt the impact of these merchants of chaos. We are all classifiers at heart, albeit we may not be good at it, but pattern matching is the human burden, it's what we do. It is worth investing the time and effort to understand the useful idiot, bear with me as I expound.

My poor man's Gartner quadrant lays out our populace of useful idiots plotting them against two axes: knowledge and intent. I hesitated in doing this as there is a fine line, of course, in discerning where candidates lie on a spectrum. How does one know for sure what someone knows or what their real motivation is? Mind reading is a skill lost to the ages - confiscated by the gods, humanity has to reach for heuristics. You don't have to reach to Hanlon's razor and "never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity". Also we ignore The Basic Laws Of Human Stupidity at our peril. And, as we shall see, Carlo Cipolla's insight and the framing of his treatise on our species's stupidity is a key driver of our investigation. We'll take it as a given that, to the observer, overt demonstrations of ineptitude or dismay are hard to characterize. But we have to try anyway, it helps to know who you are dealing with.

The Ignorant

I have written on ignorance previously, launching off on its embodiment in the form of the incurious George W Bush. That affair was simply a matter of standing on the shoulder of giants; we all know that Hilaire Belloc should have the first and last word on ignorance.
There is not anything that can so suddenly flood the mind with shame as the conviction of ignorance, yet we are all ignorant of nearly everything there is to be known. Is it not wonderful, then, that we should be so sensitive upon the discovery of a fault which must of necessity be common to all, and that in its highest degree? The conviction of ignorance would not shame us thus if it were not for the public appreciation of our failure...
Belloc, in his opening salvo, lays out the well known terrain of uncertainty that the ignorant live in. Ignorance is a natural part of man's condition, indeed you don't have to harken back to the Garden of Eden to acknowledge that it is our default state. Further, ignorance is a social disease, one that stings the possessor when it is perceived by others. We are all striving simians not far removed from the savanna and the perception of fault, and potential ridicule, is a potent restraint. For ignorance to be identified, there must, of necessity, be the notion of shame.

Reading Belloc's insight, we can begin to see the outlines of a strategy for dealing with the challenge. Education is the standard remedy proposed for ignorance - call it applied knowledge as the antidote. Further insight here is based on understanding that shame, and the perception of discovery, are crucial in the working of ignorance. So long as there are vestiges of a shame culture, one might be able to counter the actions and effect of the ignorant useful idiot. The threat of revelation, and its karmic or reputational consequences, could be a potent inhibitor of the ignorant useful idiot.

The reverse of the coin is also obvious: societies long removed from the sway of a shame culture are acutely prone to the workings of useful idiots. Where scoundrels prosper freely, the useful idiot has firm ground on their side. Buyer beware.

Those Who Should Know Better

Those who should know better are a frustrating breed because they have tasted of the fruit of knowledge but it didn't resonate with them. Perhaps they thought it didn't apply to them, or worse, they assumed good faith of others. Whatever the reason, a common observation apropos those who should know better is that laziness, intellectual and otherwise, is their close companion. They often have their own narratives and idées fixes, their preferred view of reality, in other words. Those who should know better like their stories, and hold fast to them, however misconceived. They never heeded the call to trust but verify.

Viewed through an information theory lens, those who should know better have looked at the data pyramid repeatedly but are unable, or unwilling, to distill data into information, nor indeed, to translate experience into knowledge, let alone process it further. They are missing the machinery that goes under various names, wisdom and common sense, prime among them.

Those who should know better, however, can often be reached by advocacy, and be swayed to, in fact, know better. Sometimes a mugging by reality is all it takes - in the playground growing up, I have seen a few well-timed slaps sober up those who should know better. More generally though, one has to wait for events to take their course and to reveal the inevitable results of their wishful thinking coming to pass. "Experience is a brutal teacher," quoth C.S. Lewis, "But you learn. My God, you learn".

Revelations do occur, and road to Damascus incidents do happen. Consider the parade of useful idiots in the hard realist liberal crowd that have been lying low after their misbegotten advocacy of the Iraq war (or alternately their latter day shtick after foisting George W. Bush on us etc.). Pick your favorite mea culpa, for their number are legion. Now, mind you, if you were collateral damage to the Bush-Cheney misbegotten wars on the wrong target, you might rightly point out that there is no consolation to be had at the spectacle of someone who should know better belatedly realizing their mistake. It won't bring back the dead bodies, or the money squandered. And good luck locating the foregone prestige, call it a deadweight loss. There are slim pickings to be found in schadenfreude at those who should know better's comeuppance - their damage has already been done.

Still, the fact that there is a measure of self-awareness is a positive - lemonade out of lemons, as it were. It is always entertaining to see the moment when those who should know better realize that they have been used, or figuratively pimped out by the more cunning. The squirming and the attempt to reconcile themselves with the knowledge that they've been had, and might even be an object of scorn or ridicule.

Sidenote: ridicule cuts even deeper against those who should know better than against the ignorant, but for a different reason. The self image of those who should know better sees them operating at a higher status than the ignorant. To be cast in the same rank as the ignorant is quite damaging to the psyche of those who should know better. Shame, not just at the revelation of ignorance, but of the acknowledgement of deficiency. Those who should know better have the self regard of the infallible; the realization of their poor judgement and incompetence is a grievous wound.

Those who should know better are often framed as serious thinkers. In modern western politics, these smooth operators are often the sensible centrists, the clear eyed realists. They are liberal hawks, branded as manly and reluctant warriors. In the American polity, there are always second lives.

We have folk wisdom at our behest. "Once bitten, twice shy" is what we hope works, and a mantra we tend to chant in the direction of all and sundry, and especially towards those who should know better. Experimental research confirms that our efforts are mostly misplaced. The problem with those who should know better is that, sometimes, they have to have been bitten a half dozen times before the lesson sticks and sometimes the lesson is only half absorbed. Perhaps they are missing the shyness gene or they don't have the requisite memory cells. The frustration for others is that their condition presents as a case of wilful, laziness-induced amnesia, a groundhog day of failing to learn lessons.

If you look towards our literature, the narratives that are replete in human culture, there are any number of cautionary tales, fables and proverbs that come into play. My own favorite saying is that "it is unwise to have gentlemen's agreements with people who aren't gentlemen". Such a statement would be lost on those who should know better. They might nod their heads, and give the impression that they have assimilated the information, but by the time the conversation has ended, their mind is a blank slate.

Different priorities might be at work in the psyche of those who should know better. W.H. Auden said it best that "Knowledge may have its purposes, but guessing is always more fun than knowing." Such is human Archaeology. We mistakenly place a premium on knowledge, and on wringing one's hand at the ignorant or those who should know better. Tsk-tsking the Fox News contingent or the low information imbiber won't get you far. We should simply acknowledge that there are many who simply view news as entertainment and politics as theater; it is no wonder they are wont to dismiss knowledge.

Frequency Distribution

The frequency distribution of our tribe of trouble manufacturers is interesting. I assert, through empirical and hard-worn experience, that the vast majority of useful idiots fall into the first two categories, the ignorant, and those who should know better. This is heartening because, as I've suggested, there might be strategies to mitigate their effects if not diminish their numbers.

Sidebar: Strategies For Dealing With Useful Idiots

An interim look at a few of the strategies we've outlined for dealing with useful idiots
  • education
  • shaming
  • ridicule
  • fear
  • experience
With this portfolio in our toolkit, one can hope a multipronged approach can temper the damage, even as all of these have limitations.

If you emphasize the importance of the axis of knowledge, then you can think about dealing with useful idiots as a matter of low information (per the ignorant) or as a failure at information processing (per those who should know better).

It helps to consult the texture of knowledge. The Rumsfeld Taxonomy of knowledge is one framework that an earlier, previously destructive Donald laid out (known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns). We'll augment it with a fourth category, the "unknown knowns", the subconscioius biases and blind spots that, tellingly, the erstwhile Secretary of Defense omitted from his taxonomy.

I would have thought that the lesson was that the unknowns by definition are unknowable and, if you go ahead, following the Rumsfeld example, and discount even the knowns, you end up traveling in a lightly-armored Humvee on the road from Baghdad airport with a convoy of outsourced mercenaries. Good luck on that front.
Mate Masie, the Adinkra symbol from the Akan saying about knowledge, wisdom and prudence, "Nyansa bon mu ne mate masie", is literally rendered in English as "I have heard and kept it". This points to the importance of comprehension, acquisition and retention in the workings of knowledge. Weaknesses on any of these fronts can undermine our strategic efforts against the useful idiots.

mate masie

Baltasar Gracián writing in 1647 in The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence, doesn't give much comfort about the odds of success.
There are many, however, who don't know that they don't know, and others who think they know, but don't. Stupidity's faults are incurable, for since the ignorant don't know what they are, they don't search for what they lack. Some individuals would be wise if they didn't believe that they already were. Given all this, although oracles of good sense are rare, they sit idle, because nobody consults them.
The ignorant and those who know better suffer no lasting downside; their failings are all too human. Nudging, and any of our other approaches, can provide only minor palliative relief.

On etymology, William Safire once investigated the provenance of the useful idiots of the west saying, the saying oft-attributed to Lenin - per Paul Boller, he never said it. We may not have a clear attribution but we all clearly know their effect. Useful idiots confuse the issue, they divert attention, they waste everyone's time. It is sad that the term is seen to be derogatory since it is merely descriptive and, shorn of value judgement, very helpful in classification.

Dealing with useful idiots is exhausting like all labour, but it is labour nevertheless. Thankless it may be, but it is best to consider our engagements with useful idiots as a tax on society, and we all know that we should render unto Caesar... It takes lots of behavior to get along as we know, social living is the best.

The Professionals

These categories of useful idiocy are fluid. People can move around and even leave the plane of useful idiocy using some of the approaches I've outlined. Which leaves the last two categories, both professional and, well, both useful idiots: I am referring of course to the professional contrarian and the professional opportunist. Let's take a look again at our taxonomy to refresh our memory.

taxonomy of useful idiots

The professionals, the professional contrarian and the professional opportunist, are orthogonal to the ignorant and those who know better. They are quite simply a breed apart. Consider them the superspreaders of the useful idiocy contingent.

Let's introduce a few terms and definitions that I often use interchangably as shorthand to these professionals: gremlins and parasites. Longtime readers will be familiar with this toli monger's jargon but one has been advised to expand one's audience. I'll adopt the Vox Optima explanatory, ostensibly-neutral tone and explain as I go along. So. Gremlins and parasites, clickbait for profit.

Parasites map easily to professional contrarians, whereas professional opportunists are often said to be gremlins. These professionals navigate the axis of intent as they practice their brand of useful idiocy.

The Professional Contrarian

The professional contrarian, call him or her Captain Obvious, is a strange beast, a consumuate purveyor of shrink-wrapped profundity. Now contrarianism per se is an honorable tradition in human society. We all celebrate those iconoclasts brave enough to pierce the groupthink bubbles we encounter in daily life. Intellectually, we all aspire to be the brave thinker who illuminates home truths, and disdains society's shibboleths. Intellectual dissent is often sorely needed in life especially as conventional wisdom is often anything but. And therein lies society's dilemma with the professional contrarian, for here is someone whose pursuit of an ostensibly laudable goal, crosses over into the realm of useful idiocy.

Sidenote: while Captain Obvious has traditionally been seen as a man, useful idiocy is one area on human life where there is gender parity, there is no need for affirmative action when it comes to the contrarian impulse.

There's a special category in the blogs I follow that I label as the professional contrarian. I think I have about 150 or so in that tribe as I deliberately seek out diversity in my reading. I'll only say that it makes for hard reading in times of crisis. Yet still I read, the exposure serves as a kind of strengthening of one's biome.

The behaviour of professional contrarians is all too familiar however. All complex ecosystems have parasites. Humanity has long experience with them. Psychologically though, there is no complexity, a parasite is a parasite and simply seeks to reproduce. Parasites are compelled to be parasitic, it is simply what they do.

On any given day, Captain Obvious wakes up, assesses a situation, finds the appropriate Slatepitch in keeping with the contrarian mode of operation, launches it, and keeps going looking for the next situation. Intent is an afterthought. Leveraging those moments when there is a real bounty of attention on one's contrarianism is a welcome, but not necessary, fringe benefit for the professional contrarian.

Reading the professional contrarian is hard at the best of times. They aim to unsettle, and you can almost visualize the smug smile when they hit send and wait for the uproar. The self affirmation they derive is independent of the issue on which they are expounding, it's narcissism distilled to its very essence. And it is this indifference that frustrates when they cross that thin line and turn into useful idiots. It's such a porous boundary really and it's the unthinking reflexivity of their contrarianism that irks.

The usual strategies do little to counter the workings of the professional contrarian. Pointing out the baleful effect of their actions doesn't sensitize them, nor indeed does appealing to their better senses since their actions are more instinctive, and they present as a clean slate of useful idiocy. Their only pressure point is a fear of being branded whiners, ergo a modified and highly specific form of the ridicule mode of attack. Dan Davies authored his lengthy Rules for Contrarians: 1. Don't whine. That is all as a kind of cautionary tale about dealing with professional contrarians. The downside is that being consumate professionals, the effect of the crybaby jab is temporary, and business as usual is resumed in short order. Unsatisfactory as it may be, palliative relief is the only remedy to the professional contrarian.

The Professional Opportunist

Which brings us to the professional opportunist, the gremlins in our taxonomy of useful idiots. Professional opportunists are a singular and contrary breed but should be considered distinct from garden variety contrarians. As I've suggested, the professional opportunist is a high functionning operator embued with both knowledge and intent, their roving grounds of dismay lie in the most dangerous quadrant in our taxonomy. A few aphorisms on useful idiots to set the stage:

The utility function of a useful idiot is at its highest in the immediate aftermath of a crisis.

Most of the time society proceeds without regard to the useful idiot, limping along with their brand of collateral damage. Times of crisis are where the professional opportunist's impact is most spectacular and confounding.

Trend surfing alacrity is the professional opportunist's strategy and the professional contrarian's opportunity.

Was it Stalin who talked of useful idiots? They always seem to materialize before and during wars.

Servants to power, we are all striving simians on the savannah at heart, looking to Alpha authority.

Apologists for war (think Iraq, think War on Terror) and apologists for unfettered capitalism have had a rough start to this century.

Most useful idiots lie low when things go awry. That, paradoxically, is the only time they are of any interest.

Professional opportunists are singular gremlins in human society and deserve close study. Sadly, we simply shake our heads at the spectacle

The professional opportunist knows no shame and depends on our short attention span. Hey! Look over there...

I looked.

Most professional opportunists escape scrutiny and scorn because there's always a core of past competence that one can point to.

The past competence is what makes the professional opportunist such a dangerous and confounding operator. Fluency born of knowledge and wilfulness in intent are a potent combination.

Stirling Newberry posited a theorem about opportunism a while back that I characterized as a Newberry's Spectrum of Banality. It's an equation oft-neglected by political scientists. Let's solve for X by restating the original formal statement:
X's writing represents the just before banal of the center left in the US. This is not to say that X is stupid, merely that by the time he writes something, there is a vast "The End" spray painted on the wall. He says something just as it is about to become common knowledge.
I have one quibble with the original formula, namely that it suggests that X is a man - not a bad assumption since the patriarchy is known to pontificate - indeed all pontifs have been male to date. For full generality, however, we should acknowledge equal opportunity blowhardiness of the professional opportunist.

Sidenote: the canonical description pointed to Jacob Weisberg, the original Slatepitch Siren, but it was applied in short order to Joe Klein (An Administration's Epic Collapse April 2007), Fred Kaplan (The End of American Leadership April 2020), and say William Saletan (The Trump Pandemic August 2020). Just before banality is the fingerprint of the professional opportunist as they scent blood in the water, and the opportunity to gain attention and wreak their brand of damage.

In Carlo Cipolla's discussion of the basic laws of stupidity (nicely illustrated incidentally), and the fifth basic law especially, he has this telling description that underlines why one can never underestimate stupidity and the damage it can cause. Echoes of Baltasar Gracián:
...the bandits with overtones of stupidity... and the helpless with overtones of stupidity... manage to add losses to those caused by stupid people thus enhancing the nefarious destructive power of the latter group

Trailblazers of the Trade Winds

Now I hear you, my Gartner quadrant of useful idiots is unsatisfactory, for one it ascribes a lower amount of intent, and, indeed, knowledge to the professional contrarian when we all know just how damaging, pernicious and indeed malevolent they can be. To take an example, the professional contrarian spreading misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic has probably caused more deaths and heartache that one can stand.

The professional contrarians have had a field day arguing against control measures, disputing mandates, highlighting individual choice, declaiming the role of public health interventions and so forth in mitigating the effects of the pandemic. Ascribing them a lower level of intent might auger a reduction of blame from some viewpoints, letting them off the hook, as it were.

The professional opportunist, armed with the same uncertainty in the science, also caused spectacular damage. The fact that the professional opportunist was more discerning in approach, and often exquisitly timed his intervention is perhaps a subtle distinction that we shouldn't dwell on.

Most people would dismiss this suggestion of a distinction between the two, and simply brand both as useful idiots. Especially in a time of crisis, the damage they did was equally pernicious, the wilful distractions they raised were equally frustrating. Revolutionary justice would probably mete out the guillotine to both without discrimination.

And yet, when confronted, one would encounter genuine bewilderment from the professional contrarian. "I was simply making a good faith case... There are shades of grey on the issue... Just asking questions...". The professional opportunist would be momentarily quiet when called out - the professional opportunist doesn't care about the argument that was proffered, or its merits, but, being skilled in the ways of evasion, will simply move to a new topic and often seek new grounds to continue punching down and sucking attention.

All crises have a clarifying effect. The first 18 months of these covidious times have been on object lesson on the workings of the useful idiot in action. Those mouthpieces who had been silenced by the global narrative pause and reduced to squares on a Zoom conference were not doing well with this democratization of attention, this era when everyone has been equally adrift and searching for meaning when it is the virus that sets the timeline. It has been interesting to watch prior narratives slowly reassert themselves in the new normalcy. I don't begrudge the old faithful talking heads their game - it's all in the game, but a game it is, especially for the professionals.

Take the Iraq war, New York Times editor Bill Keller belatedly nominated himself in the useful idiot pantheon along with Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, George Packer, Jeffrey Goldberg, Richard Cohen, Andrew Sullivan, Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, Kenneth Pollack and Judith Miller. Tellingly, there were no resignations tended or ashes and sackcloths rended.

Tony Judt helpfully summarized the lot as Bush's useful idiots in cataloging their collateral damage. I would add Michael Ignatieff to the pot but we are spoilt for choice with world historic useful idiocy with world historic consequences in blood and sin.

Mind you, many of this lot are still pontificating years later, they never paid a reputational price for being a useful idiot in that instance, and that, paradoxically, is one of the fringe benefits of the condition. At best, one might expect a mea culpa delivered grudgingly and belatedly, and with suitable hedging and rationalizations; the spectacle and perspective is turned towards the sadly, tragically mistaken useful idiot himself rather than the damage they encouraged, or fostered. Being a professional contrarian or opportunist gives you a free pass in the buyer's remorse stakes, sorry is optional.

A Game of Sorts

Too often I'm primed for a reflexive savaging of someone who should obviously know better, and then I pause and wonder if I'm being baited. The boundary between the useful idiot and the troll is very porous. At such moments of reflection in recent times, I turn to my taxonomy for guidance as I weigh the available evidence. Oftentimes I've found it more satisfying to try to identify a specimen in the wild with my nascent field guide than to go further, and engage with them. The professionals especially can be black holes of attention, whether negative of positive. Contra that expense of energy, it is truly fun to suddenly realize that you've been been dealing a specific subtype of these trailblazers of the trade winds.

And so I'll end with a parlour game, Dear Reader. Gather up a few names of those who have left you perplexed and confounded with their behavior in recent times. Everybody has at least a half dozen useful idiots in their life. You can even make it exciting, add a time limit for deliberation, have fun throwing out a few names of candidates. Once gathered, shuffle your names in a pot and pick one. Where would you place them in our taxonomy? The objective of the game is to correctly identify the genus of our confounder-in-chief.

Better yet, you can add some gamification to the process, or tap into the wisdom of the crowds as a group endeavor. Pick teams after dinner (drinks optional), and try to guess what your partner would have thought, or what a gameshow audience would have thought. 60 percent of respondents identified Buck Blowhard as a professional opportunist, Milly Noxious, on the other hand, was fully branded as ignorant by 90 percent of the audience. Cecil Showboat the III won the professional contrarian stakes by fully 75 percent of the public. And so forth.

Feel free to print out our Magic Taxonomy of Useful Idiots ™. You can throw darts if it helps, here's the larger version if you'd like to print it out. There are any number of configurations, rules and regulations that one can come up with. I'm certainly willing to discuss licensing any games based on the concept. The floor is open.

When you find yourself thinking about arguing about the latest David Brooks column, pick up the taxonomy and start to reason about where to place him. Opportunist or not? There's an app for that. Of such things are dating apps made. And, sure, a tweet about Bret Stephens might elicit the crybaby-whiner signal indicator of wounded amour propre of the professional contrarian, but it's more satisfying to behold the workings of his shell game.

Instead of writing long screeds about The Pandemic's Wrongest Man, Alex Berenson, ask yourself where he lies on the axis of intent and knowledge, and whether there has been any evolution over the past year, say from the merely ignorant to the professional opportunist camp. Observers are worried.

If you think about the Trump years, perhaps you might start with James Comey. Does the evidence make him someone who should know better? Or does the smug, self-satisfied look on his face, and the subsequent op-eds and interventions, warrant labeling him as a professional contrarian? Is the tell, his reaction to being rightly branded as a whiner for plunging humanity into peril by handing an election to the Donald?

Larry Summers, for example, has been doing a rollicking good rehearsal for our taxonomy in recent years as his intellectual influence in the halls of power has waned. Is he existentially contrarian, always speaking truth to power as perhaps his immaculate self image as the smartest man in the room might auger? Or should we regard the erstwhile President of my alma mater as merely naive, someone who should know better? Or is his shtick more purposeful, more in the vein of the professional opportunist? Inquiring minds want to know.

And so forth.

You're not going to prevent the useful idiot from doing their thing but, in the interim, you might as well have some fun, and apply our field guide, our taxonomy of useful idiots.

I'll start you off with one name: Thomas Friedman


Only posterity is unkind to the man of conventional wisdom, and all posterity does is bury him in a blanket of neglect

John Kenneth Galbraith

Foolish, a playlist

As is my custom, here's a soundtrack for this note, musical musing on all things foolish. Suggestions welcome. (spotify version) ...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

This note is part of the Shell Games suite.

The first part considered Shame Cultures, while the second took a look at The Skeptic's Credo.

Next: Buyer's Remorse

File under: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Writing log. Concept: October 13, 2014, Poor man's graphics: April 15 2020, May 17, 2021

1 comment:

M S Deen said...

Taxonomy of Useful Idiots is interesting. This essay, to fully didest its substance, needs a meticulous peruse.