Mad Man, Bad Man

We love our stereotypes. Part of it is unavoidable. They are useful shorthands after all and can be used to generalize very complicated things. What we do with stereotypes is tell a story we like to tell ourselves or others. Land of the Free and Home of the Brave is a stereotype we are trying to push out into the world.

There is a story from the early years of the Reconquista about a Norman mercenary by the name of Roger de Tosny who became known as the “Moor-Eater” for his supposed cannibalistic tendencies when it came to Moorish prisoners. This was, of course, false, but this moniker was used by de Tosny and his mercenaries to terrify the invading Moors into believing that these men from the North were cannibals. This is a stereotype.

A particular tendency we have is to stereotype any leader that does not follow the typical international mores too, in some way, demonize them. A common theory of many of Hitler’s decisions and actions throughout the Second World War was that he was crazy, on drugs, paranoid, etc… Mussolini has been crafted into a buffoonish lackey of Der Fuhrer’s (face). This is understandable. We look at the views of Hitler, his actions, and blunders, and we armchair quarterback that we could have never been like that. We would never have made that decision. We coulda, woulda, and he shoulda (bars).

Labeling Hitler as crazy is easy. Certainly easier than believing that he was sane. And that is because we too are sane, we could, if born in the right place at the right time, believe or behave as he did. The same goes for when we call him or any number of other evil actors “monster(s).” When, unfortunately for us, monsters do not exist. But humans do. And humans are capable of terrible, terrible things. “All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells, are within you.” to quote Joseph Campbell.

This trend is not reserved for history’s baddies. The former President of the United States was constantly under scrutiny about his mental faculties. He was deranged, they cried. Maybe they are right, but that is not likely a decision that is to be made by someone watching a TV. The same has occurred with Joe Biden (although as a tribal hack, I tend to agree).

Recently a number of queries have arisen about the sanity of the Russian autocrat (errr President… I’m allergic to Novichok… and dying…). Michael Brendan Dougherty argues that it would appear that Putin has started to lose his marbles. That could be the only reason that he would risk a war in Ukraine. Others like Marco Rubio have argued that Putin has lost his edge, his more cautious, conniving, and another c-word nature is gone to be replaced by a more angry, isolated man (has anyone tried a Snickers?). Some cite age. Some cite a loss of mental acuity as a result of some degenerative neurological disease.

I don’t know if this is true. But I will say that when it comes to Putin, this method of geopolitical politics is old hat to the old KGBer (that is now a word). He did it in Georgia with the support of South Ossetian and Abkhazian separatists and an eventual invasion by Russian forces. It was done earlier on a more limited scale in Moldova in the breakaway region of Transnistria. It was done again in Azerbaijan in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh or the Republic of Artsakh. The most famous incident of this was, of course, in the Donbas region with Russian separatists.

The point of this is not to defend Putin (it’s quickly becoming borderline treasonous to even point out that Putin isn’t an idiot) but for everyone to be cautious about trying to label any rogue leader as somehow suffering from some form of insanity. We in the West love to forget that there are people that think differently than us. There was a recent interview conducted by Vice News with a Taliban leader wherein the female interviewer was almost aghast that the Taliban did not believe in equal rights for women. Firstly, watch the interview, it’s kind of funny, but secondly, this is one of those no-duh moments. However, the Western, liberal mind struggles to comprehend a world where their values are not universal.

This is a failure in imagination in my opinion. We fail to imagine that Putin might have seen the situation in Ukraine as worth it. That he weighed his options and opted for invasion. Report after report depicts him as isolated and raving. It might be true. It might not be. But we should not back ourselves into a corner when we declare that Putin is crazy. Again. He might be taking crazy pills. He might be going cuckoo for Coco-Puffs, but I would caution going for the easiest, most juvenile explanation to explain Putin’s actions.

Addendum

I cannot help but get the sense that many in the West are a little too eager for war. Perhaps Teddy Roosevelt was more correct than what we would like to believe when he opined about a “jolly little war.” As a piece from the American Conservative argued (although it was pointing at Putin and Russia) war helps make us. It in a way gives us meaning; a method of expression if you will. A common misreading of Clausewitz states that “war is politics by other means.”

I recently heard one commentator (softly) argue that this new war (in everything but name) is an excuse for people to finally hate someone i.e we in the West are now allowed to hate another country and people. Article after article points to the fact that any dissuasion of escalation is tantamount to being a Russian puppet. I listened to a podcast wherein the hosts prefaced for 30 straight minutes how they were in no way Pro-Russian, but the moment they got into the topic of fake news and propaganda coming from Ukraine they were called Russian stooges by those in the comments. We have to remember; Putin has nukes. A lot of them (nearly 4,500), and despite what Western propaganda (err news) will have you believe, a rather large and powerful military. I don’t want war. That does not mean I love Putin.



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