Agent Milo and the Case of the Useful Idiot

Agent Milo and the Case of the Useful Idiot February 24, 2017

I’ve noticed a great many people remarking upon the downfall of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and I wanted to mention something about why he rose and why he fell, because in it we find a cautionary tale for people who might be in a similar life situation without realizing it.

it's like a.. well, you know. (Ben Watts, CC.)
it’s like a.. well, you know. (Ben Watts, CC.)

Let’s not mince words. Milo Yiannopoulos rose because he told really horrible people the shit they really wanted to hear. He’s relatively young, male, energetic, arguably good-looking, and completely malevolent in a clownish way. He’s a performance artist on par with the dead-eyed Ann Coulter,* who says whatever cartoonishly ghastly thing pops into her head that she thinks will get her attention.

With that particular brand of hatred, cleverness, and complete sociopathy, Milo quickly found and became a leader in what’s called the “alt-right,” which a Southern Poverty Law Center expert describes as “a conscious rebranding by white nationalists that doesn’t automatically repel the mainstream.”

He had a significant number of slaps on his character sheet, gaming-wise, that he had to overcome to become the alt-right darling du jour. Obviously, his blatant and unrepentant homosexuality and appreciation for black men would be a problem for a crowd that is intensely racist and generally quite fundagelical, but he had a lot of other weird traits that they’d find difficult to forgive. He shares that situation with Donald Trump, who had similar deep issues with his own character sheet (and not surprisingly, Milo calls Trump his “daddy”).

Like the now-President of the United States did months ago, Milo figured out how to get the alt-right past those slaps and into his crowd of supporters. And it was easy!

He just told them whatever the fuck they needed to hear.

His quick, barbed wit ensured that whoever he attacked would know it–and would likely sting from it. He delighted in making his enemies uncomfortable and in discomfiting them. I’ve listened to one of his presentations and was simply astonished at how simplistic and puerile it was–and yet how effective on those primed to think like the alt-right does. Like Donald Trump, Milo figured out how to appeal to the roiling fears and chest-thumping rage of the alt-right. They were perfectly aware that he was a damaged soul if ever there was one, and they certainly knew about those traits he held in common with those they perceived as enemies. But as long as he was willing to tell them what they wanted to hear and keep their enemies in a tizzy, he was useful.

Being useful to horrible people sounds like the worst thing ever to me, but I’ve noticed that Milo Yiannopoulos sure got a lot of attention from it. He probably refined that act in grade school. He eventually stumbled across that group of renamed racists seeking new legitimacy. They in turn made him their mascot and lifted him to dizzying heights. And the more attention his enemies gave him, the happier he was–and the more gratified his fans in the alt-right were.

It was inevitable that one day he’d say something or do something that would trip his audience’s distaste for those other traits, however.

We’re talking about people who don’t give a flying shit if they emotionally damage someone so bad they consider committing suicide and who tend to believe, overwhelmingly, that Jesus told them to be like that. They’ll happily listen to anyone, even a well-educated gay man with an earring and a penchant for interracial relationships, who is willing to stand up and say the sort of things they want to hear, but their patience is not infinite. The fact that they hated the same people he at least pretended to hate wasn’t enough to shield him indefinitely from their wrath.

The Useful Idiot.

You’ve probably heard this phrase recently in relation to the Presidential election, when suddenly an old espionage term came into sudden sharp focus: the useful idiot.

Last year, a former director of the CIA, Michael Hayden, wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post in which he tried to raise Americans’ awareness of just how in-pocket Donald Trump seemed to be to Russian interests. He called Trump a “polezni durak, “the useful fool, some naif, manipulated by Moscow, secretly held in contempt, but whose blind support is happily accepted and exploited.” He even accused Vladimir Putin of “cleverly [recruiting] Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.” He didn’t think Trump had knowingly agreed to be such an agent and stopped well short of accusing him outright of treason (though another NYT opinion writer went a bit further on those counts). But he did make a very good case for his “useful idiot” suspicion.

A useful idiot is someone who promotes a cause without quite realizing what they’ve signed on to–or who they’ve signed on with. The leaders of the cause are well aware that their dupe doesn’t quite realize everything needed to know in order to make a truly informed decision about the cause, but they’re happy to use that person’s energy and resources to accomplish their goals.

The term originated some decades ago during the Cold War to describe people who supported the Socialist Party, apparently, even though that political group was ultimately aiming to weaken America to make it easier to influence or even invade. RationalWiki lays out the rules for being a useful idiot: it’s someone whose popularity comes from a group that normally wouldn’t support that person, but do so purely because that person is temporarily useful to their cause. Should their dupe stop being useful, or should the dupe’s shortcomings finally outweigh their usefulness, they will not continue to support that person. They’ll put that person right back in the “enemy” bin.

So YouTuber VenomFangX, in RationalWiki’s opinion, wouldn’t qualify under as a useful idiot because he’s mostly popular (to the extent that he is, at least) with his fellow Christians, not atheists. He might inadvertently serve atheist interests by being such an ignorant hypocrite, but atheists aren’t the ones flocking to him and praising his diatribes and antics–or raising him up as an example of a Christian who totally gets it. But S.E. Cupp, a polemicist who is herself an atheist, is often considered a useful idiot for the Religious Right because she often talks about how evil atheists are–and her target audience of right-wing Christians appear to adore her for it. (Ironically, Milo himself understood the term and bandied it about after the Orlando shootings when he accused liberals of being useful idiots for Muslim interests.)

A useful idiot isn’t necessarily a poor representative of the group or cause; hell, some useful idiots are very successful in terms of influence and popularity.

Some are even astronomically successful.

It’s easier than one might think to become such a dupe. Someone who aches to be flattered might be conned into joining a group just because he or she likes to feel important and special. Or someone might be struggling still with some very regressive ideas and think that a group’s stated goal is its real goal–and identify with that goal so much they’re willing to affiliate with a group that normally they’d avoid in order to advance that cause. Or they might be afraid of something or angry about it, with those emotions clouding their judgment in the way that such emotions normally do.

This blog post at Meanwhile in Budapest makes some very good points about how someone’s susceptibility to authoritarian influence can lead them to become a useful idiot without realizing it. There’s that word “authoritarian” again! MWBP doesn’t specifically use the term authoritarian follower, but that’s what is being described here and in the sequel post there: someone who is largely afraid and easily stoked to fear, who needs to latch onto an authority figure to feel safe and dominant, who views the world in a hierarchical way and is fixated on being one of the haves rather than the have-nots.

What makes me cringe is that I once was a useful idiot myself. Some years ago, I was that gamer girl who fell in with some sexist male gamers and thought I was sooooo evolved because I hung out with “the guys” and thought I was accepted and loved by them. I even looked down on other young women because my friends did–and even began buying into some of the Nice Guy™ tropes that they believed. I was the exception to the rule, though! I was the only girl they’d allow to play Axis & Allies with them! Yay me! I didn’t waste my time on dumb ol’ makeup or reality shows. I was the cool girl!

Except that I wasn’t.

I was just a useful idiot.

The moment I pushed back against one of those aforementioned tropes, I was instantly reassigned back to the category of “enemy feeeeeeeeemale.” Suddenly I wasn’t cool anymore. I wasn’t useful. I was making waves and insinuating that my Nice Guy™ pals were in the wrong about something. I found out pretty goddamn quick just how they really felt about me at that point (“I knew you were just like all those other feeeeemales!“). I’m only relieved that it didn’t get too far and that I figured out what was going on quickly enough to extricate myself. And it’s not like they were terrible people or even probably doing it on purpose. It’s that they actually almost turned me against a group that they disliked–a group I was a member of–and had me working against my own interests by giving me the approval and applause I needed back then.

Too bad I came to my senses. I coulda been President by now.

Oh wait. I’m still a woman. Damn.

Oh well.

The Bridge Too Far.

All the other stuff that Milo’s done and said wasn’t enough, but it took support of pedophilia to finally get his supporters to admit that he’s a terrible person and that they should stop supporting him. Not all of them, of course. Just enough of them. It’s hard even to insult or mock a group that morally bankrupt.

(If you’ve somehow escaped hearing anything about this incident, here’s a quick rundown: A few months ago Milo was on a podcast show and talked about the Catholic pedophilia scandal. During that interview he expressed support for the idea of relationships between boys and adult men. He tried to walk back the comments later, but the effort didn’t lessen anybody’s anger. You can look at the clip for yourself if you want in that first link; to me, it does sound like he’s guilty as charged–and let me add that when a person on that particular podcast made the case for setting an age limit on sex to ensure informed consent, Milo immediately dismissed the idea as “arbitrary and oppressive.” It’s a pretty ickie clip all the way around–dude sounds like a complete pedophilia apologist, not like he’s just joshing around as he claimed later. Either he’s the shittiest comedian ever, or that’s how he really felt–or both, I suppose. Anyway, he’s pretty much been completely destroyed at this point; he’s lost his book deal, lost a lucrative speaking position at CPAC, you name it, plus of course had to resign completely from the Happy Land of Nutjobs Breitbart. Bill Maher thinks he’s the one who shined the spotlight on the guy, but I don’t know. I’m just glad it happened.)

Sooner or later, a person who styles himself a provocateur will eventually provoke too far.  And that formerly useful person then finds his usefulness stripped away, leaving him with just the character sheet full of traits that his onetime audience hates just as much as they hate the enemies he once decried and abused for them. And they remember he has those traits.

Suddenly that once-useful idiot is just another gay man who they’re certain poses a danger to their children. His danger to other people’s children was acceptable t0 them, of course, even awesome; it was his danger to their own group’s children that really upset them.

Very quickly after the news of the podcast broke, alt-right leader Tim Treadstone spoke up on Twitter to say that he couldn’t “defend Milo anymore.” He’d once been Milo’s manager, but now he couldn’t condone what his onetime charge was saying. He wasn’t alone, either. Various sterling gems of the alt-right movement are distancing themselves from a man who is now a toxic substance in their movement. (And when someone’s too toxic for the alt-right movement, wow, that’s gonna be pretty goddamn toxic.)

The BBC tells us that Milo’s fall from grace has split the alt-right movement right down the middle, with some supporting him through what they view as a “coordinated attack” by us mean ole lefties, and others deciding to dump him–many apparently not because of his support for pedophilia but rather because Milo kept saying he wasn’t really a member of the alt-right anyway, so they don’t feel any loyalty toward him. It was fine to have him up on stages cavorting around insulting people and spouting sexist and racist ideas every two minutes while he wasn’t a formal member of their group–until he turned out to advocate pedophilia.

(Does that imply to anybody else that if he were in fact a formal and true-blue member of their tribe, his pedophilia wouldn’t be a problem?)

Don’t Be a Useful Idiot.

I’m bringing it up because Milo’s not the only person who thinks they’ve found a home with a group that normally wouldn’t give them the time of day.

I am routinely astonished by how many people style themselves rational, skeptical, and “woke,” yet are happy to bed down with groups that serve Christian culture-war interests. These dupes think that they are looking past the unfortunate religious ideology their allies are saddled with, and that they’re all working happily hand-in-hand toward a glorious future ending legalized abortion or mandatory school vaccinations or whatever.

Nothing could be further from reality.

It is not the skeptical “woke” people who are tolerating the religious nuttery of their allies; it is rather their movement’s Christian members and leaders who are barely-tolerating them because they are excellent beards for the movement itself.

Further, here’s the rule of thumb to know:

Any cause that the Christian Right gets behind, they’re in it because they see that cause as a way to get their onetime power back. They are not in it because of the cause itself, only what their success in that cause will mean for their tribe. Any rank-and-file member who innocently thinks that the cause itself is the focus is just another useful idiot to them.

The Christian Right needs useful idiots, just like any oppressive group does.

These dupes are the people who their causes’ leaders and Christian members can point to in order to claim that their movement totally isn’t just a Dominionist thing (“See? See? Even atheists stand with us!”). They are who Christians recruit and bamboozle into joining so they can pretend that their culture war is about whatever its official stated purpose is, rather than a concerted effort to re-Christianize American culture and seize political control of a society in which they have lost almost all practical power.

That is why forced-birther fake pregnancy clinics won’t allow atheists to volunteer with them, incidentally. There are a number of atheists who think that criminalizing abortion is about saving babies rather than about controlling women’s lives so that America comes closer to reconverting to Christianity (or at least toeing the line with regard to Christian leaders’ ideas about how people should live). Forced-birthers are in it to manipulate women into keeping their pregnancies because it’s part of reaching the goal of converting them and increasing their power over Americans. They’re not actually there to help anybody or to improve women’s or children’s lives.

An atheist would come in and actually think that the clinic’s stated goals are the real goals. They’d be visibly uncomfortable to find out just how much of these clinics’ operations involve religious exhortation, prayer, evangelism, and other outright lies–and that’d blow the lid off the whole operation. A true-blue fundagelical or hardcore Catholic would find out about that stuff and probably be okay with it (probably–though I sure as hell wasn’t) because of the greater good they perceived that was being done.

But as long as atheists are kept well away from the sausage-making part of the operation and kept narrowly confined to the talking points that don’t make direct references to religion, they are useful–even necessary. They’re the people that forced-birther groups need if they’re to make the case that they are totally and 100% for sure not a religious group pushing a religious ideology onto others.** In fact, they’re the ones who’ll be so (mis)focused on the stated goals of the group that they’re probably going to get a lot more headway than the rest of the group’s members are, divided as they are between pursuing both the stated goal and the real one!

If you find yourself agreeing with a group that would normally consider you an enemy, seriously stop and look at the situation carefully. Look at what that group’s ultimate goal is, and what their cause would logically mean for someone like you. Most particularly, look at what they say when they talk about people in your group who disagree with them and refuse to comply with their demands. Look at how they treat those in the group who stand with people like you. Sometimes these groups don’t even have very clear goals or make clear how their actions are supposed to lead to their goals–that’s when you must be particularly vigilant.

And obviously, if someone like you would never be allowed into the group’s leadership, that speaks volumes about how much they really trust you or how highly they truly value you as a person. If they’re keeping you well away from any power within the group or ignoring your suggestions, there’s a reason for it.

I’m not saying that you can’t ever justify being part of a group that normally wouldn’t be friendly toward the other other groups you’re part of, nor that Milo Yiannopoulos doesn’t deserve the condemnation he’s now facing (because oh, does he fucking ever), just that when you notice signs of toxicity there, don’t ever assume that you’d be immune from the wrath of that tribe or that they’d cut you slack if you ever stopped being useful enough to them that they were able to overlook your unfortunate membership in their enemy group for as long as they did.

THANK YOU
THANK YOU

* However, she’s not as young as she once was and horrible people need their mascots updated from time to time, which is why she has been loudly defending Milo in her Twitter feed and implying that liberals are totes fine with pedophilia (because in her Bizarro world, that’s what it means to denounce her pal). If the torch cannot be passed, then she damned well wants it back.

** Libby Anne’s written about this issue beautifully here. Consider it required reading for all humans. (This one too.)

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