On Hard-Hearted Rulers and Journalists

We cannot expect to get anywhere unless we resort to terrorism

Lenin, 1918

Hard-hearted rulers, who value their own greatness above the lives of their people, have existed throughout history. Monsters of this kind have names like Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. A more familiar name for Westerners would be Gaius Julius Caesar, who in his Gallic wars “captured eight hundred towns, subjected three hundred peoples and defeated three million armed men….”[i] When the Gauls rebelled at Uxellodunum and were forced to submit, “Caesar ordered that all who had borne arms should have both hands cut off.”[ii] Shortly thereafter Caesar launched a civil war against his own countrymen. In each of his wars, Caesar was the aggressor. Historian Christian Meier tells us Caesar was “disrespectful and alien [to the Roman Senate]; he did not fit into the republic.”

Taking his description further, Meier added,

His cold, unconcealed ruthlessness, his scorn of the traditional institutions and their representatives, his self-centeredness, his total lack of scruple in starting the war in Gaul, his attacks on other nations and, not least, the insufferable superiority he displayed in his dealings with everyone – all this was enough to … make him seem a sinister figure, quite apart from the demonic element in his nature. [iii]

This demonic element, of course, was rooted in ambition. Ceasar admired Alexander the Great, who conquered Persia and the East. Caesar reportedly wept at the tomb of Alexander in Egypt because he thought himself too old to outdo Alexander. In a similar vein, on 23 June 1940, after his conquest of France, Hitler visited the tomb of Napoleon in Paris. “That was the greatest and finest moment of my life,” Hitler said afterwards.

There is an affinity between the likes of Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler. Although they were different in many respects, they were all motivated by the same thing. They all wanted power. They all wanted recognition as “great men.” And all of it was paid for in someone else’s blood. The wars they caused had one underlying motive. Personal vanity.

Christian Meier wrote that “Ceasar had never been properly understood in Rome.” Even Cicero, who knew Caesar personally, “called him a … wonderful, frightening, monstrous and inscrutable phenomenon of a higher order – so alien had he become to his peers.”[iv] Like other dictators Caesar was considered charming, brilliant, obliging, polite; but also – cunning, ruthless, deceptive, and even treacherous. Caesar’s self-confidence, self-absorption, and extreme selfishness was built on a mountain of corpses. Hermann Strasburger wrote of Caesar, “He obviously believed in a natural identity between what was desirable for him and what was desirable for the whole world….” Strasburger added that Caesar acted with an “unparalleled immorality” and recorded those acts “with an elation that is tolerable only if one credits him with … utter demonic possession.”[v]

One sees a similar pattern in the life of Napoleon. In Wolfram Siemann’s book, Metternich: Strategist and Visionary, Napoleon’s disregard for human life is documented. In 1813 generals and kings criticized Metternich for offering peace to Napoleon, not understanding that Metternich was putting Napolean’s motives on trial. Was Napoleon a humane man or a monster? Metternich sat down with Napoleon at Dresden to answer this question. According to Siemann, “Once, in Dresden, [Napoleon] provided an impressive demonstration … by confirming to Metternich, with brutal honesty, that he was striving for universal power in Europe….”[vi] Napoleon had no regard for the lives he was sacrificing. In the negotiations there was a telling exchange “when Metternich touched upon what was for Napoleon another sore point: namely, the moral discrepancy between his image of himself as someone promoting progress and human happiness and the unimaginable human suffering of the countless victims of his continual warfare.”[vii]

Metternich told Napoleon that war now involved mass conscription with vast numbers of people being slaughtered. The boys being killed, he told Napoleon, were the “next generation.” Napoleon was furious when he heard this remark from Metternich. “You are no solider,” said the French Emperor, “and you do not know what goes on in the soul of a soldier. I was brought up in military camps, and a man such as I am does not concern himself about the lives of a million of men.” Metternich later hinted that Napoleon had used profanity in referring to the million lives he did not give a “fig” about.[viii]

To show that Napoleon’s outburst at Dresden was characteristic, he made yet another confession to General Graf Bubna von Littitz: “I do not concede anything, not a single village…. A man who was a simple private person and has ascended to the throne, who has spent twenty years hailed with bullets, is not afraid of projectiles…. I sacrifice a million if necessary.” Then the Emperor added, “You want to take Italy and Germany from me. You want to degrade me.”[ix]

When you think entire countries belong to you, and your vanity is ready to sacrifice millions, all sense of proportion has been lost. This same lack of proportion is visible today – in Vladimir Putin’s military aggression against Ukraine. After his recent interview with Putin, Tucker Carlson has insisted that Putin wants peace. But Putin, like Napoleon, says that certain countries belong to him. And if those countries are not handed over, then the fault belongs to the West.  When Putin lectured Carlson on Russian history, he was saying: “You want to take Ukraine and other countries from me. You want to degrade me.”   

Whatever nonsense is put forward by Carlson and others to blame Boris Johnson or Joe Biden for the war, the real reason there are no negotiations between Ukraine and Russia is found in Putin’s motive for invading in the first place. In effect, Putin is a monster striding about in Napoleon’s spurs. The invading army belongs to Putin. The missiles and bombs hitting Ukrainian apartment blocks were launched on Putin’s orders. The tens of thousands who die in futile frontal attacks, belong to Putin. Russian men are sent by Putin to die in an unnecessary war. None of these actions belong to Boris Johnson or Joe Biden.

The political philosopher Eric Voegelin, explaining his hatred for political killers, wrote, “I have an aversion for killing people for the fun of it.” What was this fun all about? Voegelin explained, “The fun consists in gaining a pseudo-identity through asserting one’s power, optimally by killing somebody….” The killer sees himself ennobled when other human beings are sacrificed for him. As Voegelin explained, killing grants “a pseudo-identity that serves as a substitute for the human self that has been lost.” Voegelin further stated, “I have no sympathy whatsoever with such characters and have never hesitated to characterize them as ‘murderous swine.’”[x]

Putin is following in the tracks of Caesar and Napoleon. Of course, he lacks their nobility. The great soldiers of the past, butchers as they were, did not poison their political rivals or assassinate journalists. What we have, in Putin’s case, is a hard-hearted ruler of an even lower type. For his birthday in 2006, Putin received the news that journalist Anna Politkovskaya had been shot in the head. On his last birthday, more than a thousand Israelis were slaughtered in a diversionary attack by Palestinian terrorists. And now, a month before Russia’s presidential election Putin receives another gift. Alexey Navalny is dead in a Siberian prison – in a penal colony above the Arctic Circle. Napoleon would have been furious at such “gifts.” Caesar would have blushed with shame.

The timing of Navalny’s death was not accidental. It occurred in the aftermath of Putin’s interview with Carlson. When Carlson was asked – prior to Navalny’s death – why he did not mention Navalny during the interview, Carlson replied that other journalists could ask about Navalny. Carlson was more interested in the Ukraine War, interjecting that “every leader kills people, some kill more than others. Leadership requires killing people, sorry, that’s why I wouldn’t want to be a leader.”[xi]

Given Carlson’s logic, why shouldn’t Putin kill Navalny?

More recently, in an interview with Glenn Beck, Carlson said he does not care about the death of Navalny. Throughout this interview Carlson engaged in a vile misuse of language; for Carlson confused logistical support for beleaguered Ukraine with making war on Russia (which nobody proposes to do). All his moral outrage was reserved for the United States Government, and none for the Russian Government. From the way he talked you would think the United States had invaded Ukraine. He then lionized himself as a champion of free speech while praising the “peaceful intentions” of Vladimir Putin – an enemy of free speech. Carlson mixes counterfactuals, absurdities and non sequiturs. One might say that Carlson’s spits up a dirty admixture of nonsense and moral posturing. In explaining the dangers of totalitarian ideology, Eric Voegelin wrote, “If anything is characteristic of … ideological thinkers, it is the destruction of language, sometimes on the level of intellectual jargon of a high level of complication, sometimes on a vulgarian level.”[xii]

Carlson is a vulgarian, of course, whose rhetoric is more confused than simplistic – a vulgarian who provides cover for a dictator. Why does Carlson refuse to see Putin’s military aggression as unacceptable? Everything, noted Voegelin, comes down to a “refusal to apperceive” [i.e., apperzeptionsverweigerung] owing to a state of alienation. Here is what Voegelin called “the central concept for understanding ideological aberrations and deformations….”

There is something in the great dictators and killers of history that suggests alienation. There is also an eagerness to recast events, whether in Caesar’s self-serving military narratives or in Napoleon’s St. Helena manuscript. In this age of social media, Putin’s disregard for truth and human life comes to us by way of Tucker Carlson. It seems that history’s killers are not alone in their hard-heartedness.

Notes and Links

[i] Christian Meier trans. David McLintock, Caesar (New York: Basic Books, 1982), p. 330.

[ii] Ibid, p. 328.

[iii] Ibid, p. 332. There is an addendum in Metternich’s hand in the margin regarding Napoleon’s brutal words: “I do not dare make use here of the much worse expression employed by Napoleon.”

[iv] Meier, p. 313.

[v] Ibid, p. 311.

[vi] Wolfram Siemann, Metternich: Strategist and Visionary (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), pp. 348.

[vii] Ibid, pp. 348-49

[viii] Ibid, p. 349. In Metternich’s memoirs, there is an addendum in Metternich’s hand in the margin regarding Napoleon’s brutal words during the meeting: “I do not dare make use here of the much worse expression employed by Napoleon.”

[ix] Siemann, p. 351.

[x] Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), pp. 46-47.

[xi] https://www.washingtonpost.com/style/2024/02/17/tucker-carlson-navalny-putin-killing/

[xii] Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, p. 47.

[xiii] Ibid, p. 97.


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