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Opinion

Slavoj Žižek: Biden’s words about Putin’s (lack of) soul are a regression to vulgar racism

I am far from having any admiration for Trump, but Joe Biden’s words about ‘killer Putin’ and his supposed lack of soul made me almost nostalgic for some aspects of the Trump years.

When Biden was asked if he believes Putin is a killer, he replied, “I do.” He also spoke of how in 2011, while serving as US vice president, he personally told Putin that Putin does not “have a soul.”

“I wasn’t being a wise guy, I was alone with him in his office,” Biden said. (What does this mean? Is that supposed to imply bravery in staying alone with ‘soulless killer’ Putin?) “That’s how it came about. It was when President [George W.] Bush had said, ‘I’ve looked in his eyes and saw his soul.’”

“I said, I looked in your eyes and I don’t think you have a soul. And he looked back and said, ‘we understand each other.’” (What the hell was this supposed to mean? Putin’s admission that he has no soul? That neither of them does? Or simply that they truly despise each other?)

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Putin’s quick reply was masterful, wishing Biden good 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 Fox News host Bill O’Reilly called Putin a “killer,” suggested that America’s conduct was just as bad.

“There are a lot of killers, we’ve got a lot of killers,” Trump said. “You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump displayed a dose of honest realism here – just like he showed moderation apropos of some other issues of international politics (he fired John Bolton who wanted a more aggressive approach to Iran and North Korea – he clearly wanted to avoid war). One should not be afraid to go even further here and argue that there was a rational kernel in Trump’s trade war against China: US big capital had a silent pact with China – its cheap labor force not only lowered the price of commodities in the US, it also helped big capital exert pressure on US workers, keeping their wages low and raising their unemployment.

The Biden presidency signals a more interventionist international politics, a greater threat to world peace. Biden’s progressive measures (a much stronger stance on the Covid-19 pandemic, more financial help to those suffering its consequences) should not blind us to this darker aspect of his administration. 

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But let’s return to Biden’s claim about Putin having no soul. It is simply a projection. Monstrous killers are not the ones without a ‘soul’, because it takes a ‘soul’, a rich inner life, to produce fantasies which somehow justify their terrible acts – fantasies like their enemies having no ‘soul’, or their enemies’ ‘soul’ being somehow wrong. Behind every big political crime there is a poet or a religious myth. For example, 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, ethnic belonging or quality of the ‘soul’ 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 anaesthetized against their elementary sensitivity to the other’s suffering, and for this, a sacred Cause is needed. Religious ideologists usually claim that, true or not, religion makes some otherwise bad people to do some good things; from today’s experience, one should rather stick to Steve Weinberg’s claim that while, without religion, good people would have been doing good things and bad people bad things, only religion can make good people do bad things.

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 turns out better than Trump’s, it will not be because of his soul. The less he relies on his soul, the better for all of us.

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