Charlie Chaplin and the present brilliance of an 80-year-old film
The actor, filmmaker, and composer Charlie Chaplin (who would have been 131 years old on Thursday) was born a few days before Adolph Hitler. I’ve only watched a few of Chaplin’s films, but the one that stands out for me is The Great Dictator (1940), which culminates in a powerful speech about humanity and how “we have lost the way”. It is a collection of words that I wish came from the mouth of a real politician rather than an actor playing a barber mistaken for a despot. It was Chaplin’s first film with dialogue and to me, it spoke a thousand truths, all pertinent to our current predicament.
Consider some of the brilliance of this speech, noting that the film was released about a year after England declared war and WWII was getting underway, with the U.S. not yet involved.
“We want to live by each other’s happiness — not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another.”
Chaplin believes in the goodness in everyone, and each individual’s propensity for love and care. The collective desire for happiness and freedom are innate to us all. And while he is speaking about the realities of war and how it depends on lies and deception to convince humans to kill each other, the abstraction of a pandemic is analogous. We face a common enemy that must be defeated through a shared effort. An effort of caring for one another and better appreciating the global connectedness of humanity.
“Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.”
As many of us find ourselves shut inside and unable to work as we wish or are used to, Chaplin reminds us of the dangers of allowing our hearts to be superseded by the ‘logic’ of the mind. He warns us that the desire for economic progress — capitalist ideals — are a threat to our shared wellness. All smarts, profits, and technological achievements pale in comparison to the importance of selflessness and care. We are, after all, a social species. A people who have survived millennia because of our ability to collaborate, recognizing the interdependence on one another.
“To those who can hear me, I say — do not despair…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. … a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.”
Wow. This is a clarion call for a rethink of how many societies work. Chaplin dreams of equity, opportunity, as well as a social safety net. Imagine a world where governments, individuals, non-profits, and businesses did not step in to pick up those who have tripped, help to heal those who have fallen ill, or given a chance to individuals with little hope of succeeding against extraordinary odds? The numbers are daunting:
- Globally, the richest 10% own 82% of global wealth. The bottom half of wealth holders collectively account for less than 1% of total global wealth (The Global Wealth Report 2019 — Credit Suisse).
- The African-American infant mortality rate is twice the rate for white infants (The Century Foundation).
- In Canada, Indigenous people living on-reserve face Tuberculosis rates more than 40 times higher than among non-Indigenous people (Health Equity).
- The number of Americans without any health insurance rose to 27.5 million Americans (8.5% of the population) in 2018, even while the poverty rate was its lowest since 2001 (U.S. Census).
Yesterday, Lady Gaga helped orchestrate a global event called One World: Together at Home. It was an exceptional example of humanity coming together and supporting the work of the World Health Organization, a very necessary global body that needs more support and collaboration to defend our planet from pandemics like COVID-19. Thank you to all the entertainers and leaders who collaborated on this project.
The world is facing a challenging time, but it doesn’t mean we can’t be grateful for all we have. We must believe that love and hope will prevail as we combat the coronavirus. Let us all take heed of the words of Charlie Chaplin, an artist, a leader, and an activist who’s words ring true as much as they did 80 years ago.
Kindness is a boomerang and gratitude is contagious.