Working on the Charlie Chaplin Principle

We are not targeting Jamia Milia, a politician said on television, remember the JNU earlier? I paraphrase here. It is exciting to be governed by equal-opportunity destroyers. He could have also said: we did not target the CBI or the RBI, see what we have done to the media and the bureaucracy. It isn’t just the _ (fill in the name of a national institution here), it is also the _ (fill in another). Not just Kashmir, but the North East too.

Sometimes I wonder how our political bosses sleep at night; at other times, how the rest of us do. Two images float before my eyes, one from history, the other from popular culture.

In 1933, four weeks after Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany, the Reichstag building was set on fire, giving him the excuse to take over as dictator. He quickly abolished freedom of speech, assembly, privacy and the press, and suspended the autonomy of federated states. Had the Internet been invented, doubtless he would have banned that too. ‘Reichstag Fire’ has become shorthand for political convenience.

In the Chaplin movie The Kid, a child breaks a window in the neighbourhood. Moments later, Chaplin the window-fixer appears on the scene ready to fix it for a small price. Politicians work on the Chaplin Principle: first, create the problem, then appear to fix it.

It is funny in a movie, not so funny when lives and livelihoods come under threat. The price is never small. Provoke people and when they react, come down heavily on them justifying the heavy-handedness while glossing over the original provocation.

Within minutes of the protests near Jamia Milia, we had a peep into the way news is disseminated. Two narratives, each consistent, each appealing to those who had reason to make up their minds before knowing the facts, each pushed with equal vigour, emerged.

According to one, the students were at fault and did all those terrible things. According to the other, the authorities including the police were at fault and did all those terrible things. This is not merely post-fact media, but post-opinion.

It has become more difficult for the ordinary person far from the scene of the action to tell fact from fiction. It is now easier to write history – say, what happened in the year 1498 – than it is to give a definitive version of current events.

When he was in prison, the English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh occupied himself by writing history. One day, there was a commotion outside his cell and someone died. Raleigh could not find out who had died, why and what it was about. He gave up on writing that particular book arguing if he couldn’t tell for sure what happened a few feet and a few minutes away from him, what chance did he have of writing credibly about something that had happened hundreds of years ago.

History is written by the victors, said Churchill. So too, it appears, are television reports and social media accounts.

Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 11:37:54 AM |

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