Shankerspeak: Why are people globally and throughout history taken in by Dictators?

One of the first things any despot does is to define the ‘other’, a minority group, or an external enemy they can blame for their incompetence

Representative image
Representative image
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Abhijit Shanker

For a society to believe the lies that its leader wants them to, and throw all rationale to the proverbial wind, it must be brainwashed through sustained stories from the media, and the official propaganda machine. There are several examples within the last century espoused by the dictators who wanted their followers to believe they had apparent superhuman powers. History, however, tells us they belied the expectations and failed miserably when their time came.

Benito Mussolini, Duce of Fascism, 1919-1945

A peculiar propaganda built around Mussolini was that a light was left on in his chambers after he had fallen asleep, to create a fallacy that he worked tirelessly round the clock for the Italians. He assiduously cultivated the myth of having the blessing of eternal youth, and of being attractive to the opposite sex. The Vatican came in handy to endorse his heavenly powers, saying that the heavens were aware that Mussolini had saved the country from bolshevism. When his end came, he was found hanging from a tree, after being shot dead.

Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, 1949-1976

Much like Mussolini’s blackshirts and Hitler’s brownshirts, Mao had his Red Guards, a collection of youth army, who went around purging the cultural heritage of the country, under his tutelage. The Red Army was urged to get rid of the older academicians of the country under the garb of a ‘cultural revolution’ in 1966. They followed his orders lock, stock, and barrel. Mao’s propaganda posters have now entered the hall of fame and are displayed in several museums around the world, as examples of how not to run a country. Mao could not speak for the last two years of his life, and his silence was interpreted for his people by his actress wife, Jiang Qing. After his death, she was sentenced to death, and died in prison in 1991, away from public glare.

Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq, 1979-2003

The butcher of Baghdad forced clerics to declare him a Sayed, a direct descendent of Prophet Mohammad. He also declared a fake victory over Iran after the 8-year war in the 1980s. Hussein allegedly secured 100% of the votes in the 2002 election, an ignominious distinction he shares with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, Cuba’s Raul Castro and more recently, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. Picked up from a hole in the ground, Hussein was hanged, the hanging telecast live around the world by his one-time friends.

Kim Jong-Il, ruler of North Korea, 1997-2011

North Korea is about the same size as the US state of Mississippi. It has had one dynasty ruling it for more than 70 years, with its own share of canards spread by the official propaganda machine. It is believed in North Korea that the birthday of its rulers is celebrated all over the world, that Kim Jong-Il, the father of the current ruler, Kim Jong-un, invented hamburgers. Its citizens are also made to believe that their leader is the most popular global statesman.

Further, it’s propagated that a double rainbow and a glowing new star appeared in the heavens to announce Kim Jong-Il’s birth. Apparently, he started walking at three weeks and talking at eight weeks. The truth, however, remains that his own father did not want him to be the successor until much later in his youth. While his death due to a heart attack was portrayed as having occurred due to the “mental and physical strain” while working for his people, he was very frail and weak when he passed away. The heavens did not shine a light on him, and no double rainbows were observed.


There are other examples which we can draw from shirtless rulers on horseback like Vladimir Putin, maniacal dictators like Kim Jong-Un who disappears from public view for weeks, perhaps to gauge who among the cabinet would try to upstage him and Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko, who has held on to power for 27 years now, despite widespread protests alleging a rigged election last year.

Are people so gullible to believe these blatant lies perpetuated by their rulers?

One of the first things any despot does is to define the ‘other’, a minority group, or an external enemy they can blame for their misgovernance or incompetence. The cover up continues for as long as people do not rise in revolt, as they eventually do. Till then they would rather have us believe that they are superhuman beings we read about in mythology.

(The author worked for the United Nations for more than a decade in New York, serving as UNICEF’s Chief of Communications)

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