Imagine a crackpot device called the “Therapeutic Wave Rejuvenator” invented by equally imaginary crackpot Silas Crumweed in the fifties. It is an electrical device housed in a wooden box with two thick vertical wires like short aerials placed six inches apart on top of the box. These are the “therapeutic wave samplers” which supposedly draw down mysterious therapeutic waves originating in outer space.
To use the device you switch on the machine, grasp two brass handles attached to wires, close your eyes and relax for an hour or so. With regular use you should not age and may even become more youthful.
Suppose Silas Crumweed died without patenting his gadget but he left behind a book explaining both the theory and the benefits of his device. A manufacturer builds and sells it and even today it has a small but devoted worldwide following with its own magazine, website and discussion groups.
As the device cannot possibly work, what do we say about -
a) The manufacturer who makes no actual claims about the device.
b) Those users who insist that it works.
c) Those users who say it works for them but might not work for others.
Again – as the device cannot possibly work and as this information is readily available we might say that anyone who fails to point this out is lying by omission. Or we might allow the usual swamp of caveats to dissuade us from being so forthright because who cares anyway? We often allow crackpots to be crackpots – as we should in this case.
In any event, some people might say that if people believe what they are saying then they are not lying even if what they say is unambiguously untrue.
However, we might also say this imaginary scenario is not all that imaginary because it highlights how liars can be recruited to a cause. This angle is useful because people are recruited by all manner of dubious causes and are persuaded to support dishonest claims even if the dishonesty is unambiguous and easily established. Useful idiots they may be but in an important sense they are liars as well as being idiots.
In the past a need to avoid excessively deep social divisions lead us to class many useful idiots as people who are deceived or deluded rather than out and out liars. Yet we have entered a digital age where this softer approach begins to seem dubious and unhelpful. Deeper and deeper social divisions seem to be a consequence as fundamentally dishonest causes try to cope with the information age.
It becomes more and more apparent that the old, softer approach doesn’t really work in a digital age. Useful idiots are not as innocent as they were because the information is out there. Many never were particularly innocent but in the information age it seems naive to allow them any innocence at all. Causes do recruit liars.