I am no fan of Trump, but what Joe Biden said in a recent interview with George Stephanopoulos made me almost nostalgic for some aspects of the last presidency.
When Biden was asked if he believes Putin to be a killer, he replied, ‘I do.’ He also confirmed reports that in 2011, while serving as vice president, he personally told Putin that Putin does not ‘have a soul’.
Putin’s reply was quick and masterful: he wished Biden best health and inviting him to a public debate about big existential and ethical issues on Zoom.
Biden’s strong words stand in sharp contrast to Trump who, in 2017, when the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly called Putin a ‘killer’, suggested that America’s conduct was just as bad as that of the Russian president. ‘There are a lot of killers, we’ve got a lot of killers,’ Trump said. ‘You think our country’s so innocent?’
Trump delivered a rare dose of honest realism here. He also acted more moderately apropos some other issues of international politics and clearly wanted to avoid war. (He fired John Bolton who wanted a more aggressive approach to Iran and North Korea.)
Biden’s presidency signals a more interventionist international politics, a greater threat to world peace. Biden’s progressive measures (especially on the pandemic and its consequences) should not blind us for this darker aspect of his administration.
But let’s return to Biden’s claim about Putin having no soul: it is simply wrong. Monstrous killers do have a ‘soul’, a rich inner life, they like to produce fantasies which somehow justify their terrible acts — behind every big political crime there is a poet or a religious myth.
Concretely, there is no ethnic cleansing without poetry — why? Because we live in an era which perceives itself as post-ideological. Since great public causes no longer have the force to mobilize people for mass violence, a larger sacred cause is needed, which makes petty individual concerns about killing seem trivial. Religion or ethnic belonging fit this role perfectly. Of course there are cases of pathological atheists who are able to commit mass murder just for pleasure, but they are rare exceptions: the majority needs to be anesthetized against their sensitivity to the other’s suffering, and for this, a sacred Cause is needed.
Religious ideologists usually claim that, true or not, religion makes otherwise bad people to do some good things; from today’s experience, you should rather stick to Steve Weinberg’s claim that even though, without religion, good people would have been doing good things and bad people bad things, only religion can make good people do bad things.
So if I am against Putin, it is not because he has no soul but because of what is in his soul. There is a passage in his recent interview where you can feel how he really speaks from his heart. It occurred when he solemnly declared his zero tolerance for spies who betrayed their country: ‘Treason is the gravest crime possible and traitors must be punished.’ It is clear from this outburst that Putin has no personal sympathy for Snowden or Assange: he just helps them to annoy his enemies, and we can only imagine the fate of an eventual Russian Snowden or Assange.
In another interview, Putin said that although Snowden is not a traitor, he — Putin — cannot understand how Snowden could have done what he did to his country, the US. Here we get a taste of Putin’s soul, how his mind is clicking. (Incidentally, Trump was again more considerate here when he conceded that many people think Snowden was not being treated fairly.)
Denying that your political enemy has a soul is nothing less than a regression to vulgar racism, which rhymes with some of Biden’s gaffes — for example, in support of Barack Obama, he said: ‘I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.’ What this means is that if Biden’s presidency will turn better than Trump’s, it will not be because of his superior soul. The less the President relies on his soul, the better for all.