• useful idiots

last modified May 28, 2017 by strypey

The Wikipedia page sums it up nicely:

"In political jargon, a useful idiot is a person perceived as a propagandist for a cause whose goals of which they are not fully aware, and who is used cynically by the leaders of the cause."

To be clear, a useful idiot is not a type of person, but a type of behaviour. We live in a world awash with powerful organisations (eg governments, corporations) attempting to persuade us to do things that benefit them. If they can convince us that those things benefit us, or benefit humanity (or some other cause), we are more likely to do them. Once we believe that, we are likely to join in the effort to convince other people to do them too, at which point we are serving as useful idiots.

Take, for example, the goal of reducing human emissions of carbon gases, and removing carbon gases from the atmosphere, to stop climate change from becoming catastrophic. Many industries have jumped on this as an opportunity to push their own agendas, and enlist climate change activists as useful idiots. One example is the nuclear power industry. The fact that nuclear fission reactors use massive quantities of fossil fuels and emit tonnes of carbon over their full lifecycle, as well as leaving a radioactive mess that needs to be kept out of the sea (unlike Fukishima), and kept buried in concrete after decommissioning for thousands of years, hasn't stopped the nuclear power industry from loudly proclaiming it a solution to climate change, on the basis that fission itself doesn't emit carbon like burning other fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas). A number of prominent climate change activists have been taken in by this, and served as useful idiots for the nuclear industry.

What muddies the waters of debates about who is and who isn't a useful idiot, is the fact that there are things that genuinely serve the public good, but in doing so, they also benefit powerful organisations. A good example is free code software (often called "open source" in reference to the collaborate methods used to develop it). This brings many benefits to the public as software users, such as making it much harder for large companies to create monopolies and overcharge for software, or use it against its users in unethical ways (eg spyware). But the same software licenses that ensure the software freedom of the general public also allow businesses to use it freely, often significantly reducing their software costs, and increasing the range of software they can afford to use. Because of this, many powerful corporations have been vocal in their public advocacy for "open source", leading many activists who are opposed to the interests of corporations, and who do not understand the benefits of software freedom, to dismiss tech activists promoting free code software as useful idiots.