November 6, 2007

Useless Idiots, A Century Later

Anne Applebaum notices a decline in a particular American export, in quality if unfortunately not in quantity. She reminds us that the Bolsheviks seized power this week 90 years ago, and just as with almost every dictatorial movement abroad, an American managed to gussy it up to undermine democracy back here at home. In days past, those exports included luminaries like John Reed and Walter Duranty. Nowadays, the intellectual level has dropped down to the supermodel level:

Ninety years ago this week, a Bolshevik mob stormed the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, arrested the provisional government and installed a "dictatorship of the proletariat." Though the Russian Revolution is no longer widely celebrated (not even by Russians, who instead commemorate the expulsion of the Poles from Moscow in 1612), I felt it important to mark the occasion. In honor of the anniversary, I reread " Ten Days That Shook the World," the famed account of the revolution by John Reed, the American journalist and fellow traveler. Then I reread last week's press reports of the recent encounter between Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president, and Naomi Campbell, the British supermodel.

Just as I'd remembered, Reed's book superbly transmits the breathless energy of the autumn of 1917 -- "Adventure it was, and one of the most marvellous mankind ever embarked upon, sweeping into history at the head of the toiling masses" -- as well as his fascination with, and approval of, the violence he saw around him. After attending a mass funeral, he understood, he writes, why the Russians no longer need religion: "On earth they were building a kingdom more bright than any heaven had to offer, and for which it was a glory to die." By contrast, he is abashed when he has to explain that in America, people try to change things by law -- a state of affairs that his new Russian comrades find "incredible."

Fast-forward 90 years, and surprisingly little has changed. True, the Russian Revolution itself is no longer much admired, not even by Reed's heirs on the far left. But the impulse that drew Reed to St. Petersburg remains. The Western weakness for other people's revolutionary violence, the belief in the glamour and benevolence of foreign dictators, and the insistence on seeing both through the prism of Western political debates, are still very much with us.

Anti-Western dictators have reason to complain. For all his faults, Reed wrote powerfully and intelligently, painting the Soviets in a far better light than they ever had reason to expect. Walter Duranty continued that effort during the Depression, when America was at its most vulnerable, by telling lies designed to make Soviet-style Communism the savior of the working class. He succeeded in fooling the Pulitzer committee, giving testament to his skill as a propagandist in service of brutal oppression.

What do we offer the hip, trendy dictator these days? Transparent fools, not intellectuals. Applebaum mentions the Beautiful Idiot, who went to Venezuela to chatter glibly about the waterfalls and never noticed Hugo Chavez' suppression of dissent. She followed Sean Penn, the Talented Idiot*, who smoothly moved from his 2002 defense of Saddam Hussein to an endorsement of Chavez, hardly a track record of impassioned defense of individual liberty. Applebaum forgets the Charming Idiot, Cameron Diaz, who wore a purse emblazoned with a symbol of the Shining Path Marxist terrorist group when visiting Peru -- the same person who told an Oprah audience that voting for Bush was voting to make rape legal.

Reed and Duranty had the standing to influence America, although thankfully they failed in that mission. Campbell, Penn, and Diaz have the standing to influence Manhattan and Beverly Hills cocktail parties, and not much more. The world's dictators must long for the days when they could find really useful idiots for their propaganda.

* - Yes, Penn is a talented actor. His political vapidity doesn't negate his skill on the screen.


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