Dictators often deploy art of distraction when confronted with issues important to citizens

Strong but insecure governments find it useful to keep people undereducated and underemployed so that they do not ask inconvenient questions

Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Great Dictator’
Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Great Dictator’

Abhijit Shanker

When the Hollywood hit ‘The Hunger Games’ was first released in 2012, it evoked extreme reactions from governments in Thailand and Vietnam. The Thai government asked theatre owners not to release the film at its premiere, while the Vietnamese government banned it.

Those in power in the two countries feared the impact depiction of a young girl, played fabulously by Jennifer Lawrence, who rises against the president of a dystopian country would have. They also feared that western powers, through the film, were trying to inspire a generation to rebel against their governments. The President in the film was seen making children fight each other for the elite’s entertainment. So much for reel life matching the real.

Foreign Policy reported in the same year about an interesting turn of events in Barnaul, a small town in Russia. When protesters agitating over a local issue were banned, they dumped toys in the town square, which forced the authorities to ban the toys as well. This did not go well with the electorate. You can only go so far, however big a strongman you may consider yourself to be.

Dictators and their aspiring cousins have often used their might to silence protests in their respective countries by all means available to them. They also use one of the oldest tricks in the dictators’ playbook, distraction, when they are confronted with the issues most pertinent to the citizens.

The art of distraction has been particularly useful when helping create the construct of a nation, of nationalism, and of the ‘other’ in the society. When they can find a minority group, a religious sect, an enemy they can blame for the ills perpetuated by them, or their cronies, they are able to make the citizens fight this ‘other’ who live among them.

Adolf Hitler was the most heinous of them, and he inspired clones who continue to go to any length to hold on to dear power. His construct of the ‘other’ was a supposed panacea for everything that ailed Germany at the time, including its economy, and the increasing chasm between the rich and the poor.

It’s not that the neighbours became each other’s enemies one fine morning. Such hatred towards a community, a religion, is allowed to ferment over a period of time, instilled through mass communications and school syllabi, young minds indoctrinated over time.

Several authors have recalled how their school clubs were goaded to honour Hitler. But this they did after a long gap, almost a generation later, which is typically the time societies take to come to terms with such horrors. Tactics of dividing societies are seen frequently in countries ruled by a strongman, who fears losing power.

It happened in Serbia, which was ruled with an iron fist by Slobodan Milosevic from 1989-1997. He feared that ‘Western’ powers would take away his job and had sent over 70,000 protestors to precisely do this. Years later, it was found that his intelligence unit kept looking for the words ‘Washington DC’ among the files they seized from the protestors.

So, do dictators genuinely believe that their regimes are being pursued by international powers? Probably not. They use it as a ruse to inflame the passions of their cadre, while their government goes on doing business with the ‘enemy’ in question.

They may ask their supporters to uninstall the smartphone apps created by the enemy country, while endorsing the companies with a majority stake by the same country. This is because the wannabes know they cannot afford their countries to be isolationist in this globalized world order. Hence, the distraction strategies.

It helps if the education levels of those being indoctrinated is not too high. The governments of the day ensure that the real value of education does not reach those most in need of it. If you get too educated, then they must provide jobs for you, and you may also ask relevant questions.

It helps to keep people undereducated or underemployed, busy with things which pay little and further the supreme leader’s agendas. Modern technology abets the propagation of such political designs, spearheaded by the intelligence unit, perhaps replaced by an IT-cell?

If you can, watch ‘The Great Dictator’ again this weekend. Charlie Chaplin makes a mincemeat not only of Adolf Hitler through this brilliantly written and acted film, but also, unintentionally, of the dictators and wannabes who came after him. While the film’s opening credits claim that “Any Resemblance Between Hynkel the Dictator and the Jewish Barber is Purely Co-Incidental”, it’s ironical how many wannabe dictators have gone on to masquerade as a common man or an aam aadmi.

(The author is a former Chief of Communications with UNICEF in New York, where he worked for more than a decade. Views are personal).

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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Published: 26 Feb 2022, 6:00 PM