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Fintan O’Toole: Has there ever been such a concentration of sheer idiocy on the world stage?

The World Cup has turned into a death rattle for the era when carbon was king

Send in the clowns? Don’t bother, they’re here.

Let us now praise famous idiots. Thank god for the dolts, the deluded, the demented. For the present hope of the world lies in the evidence that the worst ghouls are also, at least for now, clueless clowns.

Grandiose folly is, in the sweep of history, no novelty. But it is hard to think of a time in history when there has been such a concentration of sheer idiocy on the world stage as in 2022. When have so many fools displayed themselves so proudly, like birds of paradise in an aviary of asininity?

By idiocy I do not mean mere stupidity – of which there has never been a shortage. I mean the particular kind of stupidity in which one goes to enormous effort to expose one’s own fatuity.


The first float in this mad parade is the one constructed jointly by Fifa and the al-Thani dynasty that rules Qatar. Its centrepiece is Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s announcement last weekend that “today I feel like a migrant worker”.

That, presumably, would be one of at least 2,100 Nepali migrant workers who have died in Qatar since 2010, 200 of them by suicide.

The breathtakingly crass inanity of Infantino’s demand to be seen as a victim of oppression crystallised the grotesque pointlessness of those deaths. For the al-Thanis have spent $300 billion (about €290 billion) advertising the moral bankruptcy of both Fifa and their own regime. It is surely the worst promotional campaign in history.

Historically, tyrants have spent vast amounts of their subjects’ resources on monuments to their own glory. The Qataris have merely created ugly monuments to their own wretchedness.

All they have achieved is to remind the world of how quickly it needs to stop depending for its energy on the whims of institutionally misogynistic and racist regimes. The World Cup has turned into a death rattle for the era when carbon was king.

Following close behind is Elon Musk. While Infantino was whining about his own experience of abject suffering, Musk was sending an SOS to the Twitter employees he has spent the previous weeks abusing: “Anyone who actually writes software, please report to the 10th floor at 2 p.m. today. Thanks, Elon.”

A flavour of Musk’s rampant idiocy was provided by a deadpan report in the New York Times: “One worker who wanted to resign said she had spent two days looking for her manager, whose identity she no longer knew because so many people had quit in the days beforehand. After finally finding her direct supervisor, she tendered her resignation. The next day, her supervisor also quit.”

Musk has spent $44 billion (€42.5 billion) purely to make a fool of himself. It’s not quite as much as the Qataris have spent on making themselves despised, but most of us can make fools of ourselves without spending a penny.

Has anyone ever gone to such expense merely to show the world how many things he is utterly clueless about: software, coding, advertising, brands, media, the retention of scarce talent, the complexities of free expression, basic human decency?

The third entry in this idiot-of-the-year competition is, of course, Liz Truss. In September, after his first meeting with her as UK prime minister, Joe Biden reportedly told his staff that Truss was “really dumb”. It really was that obvious.

But like Musk and the Qataris, Truss had that special quality of idiocy: the making of strenuous efforts to expose her own vacuity. Such is the mediocrity of the post-Brexit Conservative Party that she could have continued to float along at levels of high office way beyond her abilities or deserts.

But she had to go and spoil it all by throwing off the camouflage and seizing her place in the spotlight. In it she melted down in record time (44 days) and at record expense – has any democratic leader ever cost her compatriots so much money in such a short period?

Even after the frantic U-turns of her successors succeeded in reducing its cost, Truss’s cackhanded experiment in shock therapy left the British treasury with a bill for £30 billion (€34 billion). This is not quite as much as Musk or the al-Thanis splurged on their carnivals of self-ridicule, but that is hardly much consolation to the British taxpayer.

These figures are, of course, trifling in comparison to the estimated $10-$20 billion (€9.7-€19.4 billion) that Vladimir Putin is spending every day on his war in Ukraine, without calculating the vastly greater costs in human lives and misery.

And for what? All Putin has achieved is a spectacular demonstration of his own weakness and of the inherent incompetence of his mafia state.

Russia seems vastly less formidable in the eyes of the world now than it did at the beginning of March, before it failed to overthrow the government in Kiev. It has revivified Nato, forged the Ukrainian nation, cut itself off from European markets, and forced the West to speed up its escape from dependency on Russian gas and oil.

Putin has gone to enormous trouble – and inflicted immense suffering on his own people as well as on Ukraine – merely to show himself to the world as a loser. The “strongmen” of India and China are backing away from him, not in moral revulsion, but for fear of being infected by the virus of defeat.

Such is the state of the world, however, that we are forced to be grateful for these screw-ups. Infantino, the al-Thanis, Musk, Truss and Putin may not meet the definition of useful idiots, but their idiocies have been useful in limiting the damage they can do.

Obscene as the World Cup is, it would be much worse if its propaganda were more effective. If Musk had not burned down Twitter, he would have been able to make it far more toxic. If Truss had not rushed so blindly into the open arms of folly, she would have done even more damage to Britain. And if Putin were not self-deluded by his own fables about Ukraine, he might have developed a more viable strategy for dismembering it.

How long, though, can we rely on the inadvertent kindness of idiots? There is always a pleasure in seeing fools and their money being parted, but then comes the uncomfortable question.

If the world’s premier sporting festival is so easily captured, if a major mode of digital communication can fall into such clumsy hands, if former imperial powers can fall into such self-harming habits, what might more capable destroyers achieve? While we laugh at the idiots we must fear the competent successors who will be better at exploiting the weaknesses they have exposed.