Calling out the Emperor | By S H Khan


Calling out the Emperor

HISTORY has much to teach us. For example, we can scratch our heads and wonder what led a highly civilized nation to seemingly abandon humanity, first outcast and then commit genocide against a segment of its own, just for belonging to a different faith? What led to such an abysmal failure of courage that a nation became bystander or complicit, as a bunch of thugs in power practiced genocide, spewed racial ignorance and waged war all over the world? Following utter humiliation, the nation awoke, pulled itself by the bootstraps, became prosperous and promised collectively, “Never again”.  But, what happened in the first place?

Before the madness, Germany was arguably the most, educated nation in the world with a phenomenal culture and a tradition of literature, arts, music, philosophy and sciences.  Every year, it vied with the United States for the most Nobel prizes. And, yet! When a failed artist and a trivial WWI corporal thugged his way to the helm, was the absurdity of it all lost upon those great German minds?  Were they struck down by a bout of collective insanity, or overcome by a national case of herd mentality? Through the madness, they carried on as they had before and went about their ordinary lives. There had been no mass conversion to evil. Eventually, the suffering that the Germans inflicted on the rest of the world, returned upon them in equal measure and then some.

So, what happened? Two obvious reasons are all too human.   Apathy or indifference –  leading to a lamentable inertia and inaction especially, if one is not effected personally.  The second – survival instinct, causing avoidance of the risks associated with doing the right thing. And so, self-interest trumps a bona fide cause demanding action.  The human condition is very predictable. History is replete with the same mistakes being made all over again. It is as if, we are hell-bent not to learn a lesson. Only a fraction of humanity at any given time, concern themselves with history to any extent. Historical calamities usually do not occur in one fell swoop. They are preceded by warnings and forewarnings. Nor are the fate of nations determined entirely by a great leader, or an evil tyrant.

National affairs or matters on a smaller scale, suffer from the same dilemma.  Usually, there are a few who are actively interested or choose to understand a situation comprehensively. The majority are indifferent or close to it, preferring to focus their energies primarily on personal concerns. It is this relatively disinterested and fickle mass, that proves decisive as to the fate of a nation. The appeals and machinations of the interested few to this passive majority may rile it into action, or not.

Charismatic leaders with shiny promises may drive considerable swathes into their fold. Their messages generally pander to the interests, superstitions and biases of those being courted. No matter how intelligent, educated or experienced those comprising the masses, when intellectual laziness in civic matters prevails, the actual agenda, wrapped lustrously in promises and prejudices, goes unrecognized. Their siren song proves much too alluring. And so, truth is displaced by blind belief in what sounds right or feels right, coming as it is from their ‘savior’.

There are many who will simply and fervently blow with the wind. They will heed those who look and behave like them and with influence in their sphere.  They will not scratch beneath the surface. Consistent with the laws of motion, once aroused the masses zealously swing into action. Clueless of their own ignorance, they will do what mobs and herds do. They will follow their leaders off the cliff. It is this state of affairs that leads to inconsistent outcomes: The good guys don’t always win, the bad guys don’t always lose.

A particularly bad headache the morning after, as a matter of survival may re-establish a more conscientious level of civic sense and participation, a la post WWII Germany and Japan. Until, the lessons learnt fade from collective memory again. History can be an antidote against woeful and repetitious mistakes. The erratic human behavior explains the emergence, prosperity, decline and demise of people and nations. Thus far, no nation has been at zenith in perpetuity. To achieve longevity, it is imperative that in the balance more decisions and outcomes are just and sound. To enable the same, citizens who know better must bear the inconvenience to stand up and be counted. Otherwise, they bear the responsibility for allowing ignorance to prevail and the nation’s downfall.

Had the common German citizens who knew better stood up for their less fortunate brethren, they would have realized that actually, decency was in the (silent) majority but cowering. Better sense rather than herd instinct would have prevailed. Then, they would have been much too strong to be swept aside by the relatively few hooligans.  Had those who knew better in that society not allied themselves with the wrong side for petty personal interests believing they could control Frankenstein’s monster, they would have prevented genocide and a world war, rather than ending up as partners in crime.  Looking further back in time still, Constantine XI and Constantinople fell because a majority of the citizenry could not be bothered to rise in their own defense, their apathy deluding them into believing that their wealth could buy their freedom.

Destiny continues to knock at the door. If we have learnt anything from the past, the right action is in order.  What if only one dares to respond? That one, may be the child who spoke up that the emperor has no clothes. The truth resonated through the crowd, murmurs swelled into a din and the adoring mass became a crowd laughing contemptuously, as the embarrassed monarch beat a hasty retreat. Even without the masses enjoining the child, the solitary voice speaking its truth has the strength to trump false pomp and circumstance. It appears that the apathy of decadence, wishful thinking and ignorance threaten to prevail. Time demands that we rise above ourselves, let go of inertia, look deep into our conscious for the right answer. Then, we must speak up or, back up the one who calls out the emperor without clothes.

—The Author is a neurosurgeon practicing in Michigan, US.

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