A Message for All Times

We must relentlessly continue to ‘fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness’. Tough call, but there is no alternative…

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

It comes from the film ‘The Great Dictator’, made in the 1940s, and the message is in the form of a speech made by Charlie Chaplin who was the actor. Practically everybody who has seen the video clip and heard the speech agrees that its message is still relevant not only for today but for all times and to all of humanity.

The speech starts with the line: ‘I’m sorry but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone.’ One of the sayings about democracy that I have come across is that it is a system that allows us the freedom to choose our dictator every so many years. Is it because, unfortunately, the same system also makes it possible for parties to gain victory and come to power by an overwhelming majority, as we have witnessed in our own country, which may then see the emergence of dictatorial powers even in those who may not have been so inclined when they set out to be elected? That is when the ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ aspirational objective of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address about democracy gets perverted.

“You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have a love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!” – Speech by Charlie Chaplin in the film ‘The Great Dictator’. Photo – image.tmdb.org


And then the way is lost, because, to paraphrase from the Charlie Chaplin speech, men’s souls become poisoned with greed. Instead of wanting ‘to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery’, those who have assumed the responsibility of leading their people forget that – ‘In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone’. Hate and suspicion take the place of kindness and compassion, because ‘we think too much and feel too little’. That is why, ‘More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost’. The cleverness that ought to be put to the use of the country and the people is instead diverted towards scheming for the benefit of a few.

Were it that indeed, ‘The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people’. Yes, but what will the people do with this power? Have we not here seen what we call bonnet blanc, blanc bonnet, which is captured in the well-known adage plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: it’s the same thing all over again!

Further on, the speech exhorts soldiers as follows, ‘Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder! Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have a love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!’

These words may just as well be addressed to the lay people, because the fight for liberty is an eternal one. Machine minds and machine hearts have now morphed into powerful CCTVs and ubiquitous overhead systems that are tracking the citizenry in real time. While they certainly help to nab criminals and have their undoubted utility, the fine line between surveillance for civilian good and spying for the state that can be instrumentalised for harming citizens is a thin one. Do we have the adequate legislation that will define the limits of surveillance before it slips into spying that may make victims out of innocent people?

True it is that spranks can unintentionally damage the reputation of those targeted by them, and it is also the duty of citizens to act responsibly. Here again, there are fine nuances which the immediacy of social media content may not allow one to make out, so that something meant to be humorous or mildly cynical — which can be a powerful means of conveying messages, somewhat like Shakespeare’s fools of court jesters – is apt to be taken amiss with dire consequences for their authors, especially in such times of heightened tension as we are living through what with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

The last part of the message resonates even more: ‘You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power. Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security.’

Come to think of it, the need of the moment is indeed to ‘give youth a future and old age a security’. The first step to address any problem is to state it clearly –and the authorities have acknowledged that there are going to be massive job losses, and for youth that are newly setting out to seek their place under the sun, this is going to be particularly trying times. The country’s national decision makers must therefore search their hearts and minds and sincerely ask themselves whether all the measures they are taking and their decisions go in the direction of ensuring a secure future for our youth? If not, then will they do the necessary course corrections before it is too late? After all, they have made promises and given hope – at the very least, shouldn’t these pledges be fulfilled?

Let us not be given the occasion to lament that, ‘By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill their promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people!’

We must relentlessly continue to ‘fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness’. Tough call, but there is no alternative…


* Published in print edition on 28 July 2020

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published.