A few thousand years ago, when a king or an emperor kept his flock of subjects calmed and under control behind the city walls, raising armies and quashing those who would threaten to raid the ramparts, it was understandable that few could challenge this might, that safety would prevail over ideas of freedom.

As centuries passed and monarchs and despots amassed fortunes, absolute monarchies and other aberrations of concentrated power allowed the coalescence of ever more terrible tyrannies. In the 20th century, the technical power of states reached a zenith, allowing for the bloodiest and most complete despotisms yet witnessed. The Nazi and Stalinist totalitarian horrors were the high point of human depravity, but Pol Pot and Mao offered up impressively awful spectacles too.

Yet it is baneful that with our modern technological capacities to communicate with one another and centuries of political philosophy to give us an educational basis from which to express and state the ideas of freedom and our desire to be released from servility, we still cannot shake off the phenomenon of a single individual, with delusional historical aberrations, exerting totalizing control.

Today, Ukraine and the situation it finds itself in with respect to its allies and enemies is the nexus of all the failures that have allowed us to remain enslaved by tyranny. And largely, all these problems collapse back to a single human frailty – a lack of courage.

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OSCE condemned it as "a grave violation of participating states' commitments under international law" and called for the immediate release of Vadym Golda and two other jailed OSCE officials.

It is easy to focus on the indecision in the United States, for instance, where politicians argue and delay while Ukrainians, fighting for their liberty, and ours, stand at the most critical moment since the full-scale invasion. The Republicans and their acolytes have slid effortlessly from laggardness into dangerous intransigence.

But around the world there is infirmity. There are those who have, since time immemorial, wandered in a pacifist dream believing that all troubles will ultimately be solved by blind hope, negotiation with the aggressor, or isolationism. Then there is a collection of public personalities, whose moral compasses flicker back and forth under the influence of power and the dictator. They have recently gained some ascendancy.

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What makes the difference to the result is whether those who wish to see a world free of the arbitrary power of despots stand up and speak. These voices are not loud enough. In the US, the majority, polls tell us, support Ukraine and want to see the US coming to its aid. Yet social media channels are distorted by the loud minority and political decisions are hampered and blocked by those who have taken it upon themselves to do the bidding of this cabal. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, the brave must make themselves more apparent.

A better world can be forged if we can find the fortitude to struggle against the selfishness of despots, to look at each other in the eye and say “enough is enough.

In Europe, national leaders still bite their nails at perceived consequences. Meanwhile, Russia, seeing this weakness as clear as day, simply ramps up the rhetoric, including new threats of the nuclear annihilation of European cities, knowing full well that this keeps nervous Western leaders awake at night.

But there is a lack of courage in authoritarian states too. Why do we continue to allow tyrants, single individuals, to rule over millions? Of course, it is easy to sit in the calmness of a European city and pontificate over the situation of others who must consider their own lives before they start protesting. But I ask this very generally.

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How is it that in modern states comprising millions of people, vastly greater than any medieval monarchical despotism, the caprice of one individual can still be allowed to shape the fate of all these numbers? Our kings have become presidents and our royal dictates have become social media proclamations, but otherwise nothing seems to have changed.

Much of the answer might lie in conditioning. Decades of apathy and learning that one’s efforts to demand change lead to nothing teach people to make the best of a bad situation, to try to settle down and achieve some semblance of a life in a restricted sphere. Seventy years of Marxism in Russia for instance, might partly explain the situation there. An education system that does not teach independence of mind, critical thinking, the ability to argue about state power, coupled with long tracts of dictatorship, lead to habits difficult to break. In the West too, we could refine this training to the betterment of society.

There is no inevitability in this culture. Ukraine moved on from Marxism-Leninism after decades of the straitjacket of state power and some of its worst abominations. Following that long, dark socialist night, its people continue to maintain their astonishing sense of self-respect and self-determination.

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A better world can be forged if we can find the fortitude to struggle against the selfishness of despots, to look at each other in the eye and say “enough is enough” and insist on a better future in which humanity denies the reins of ceaseless power to a few malefactors who would abuse it.

The number of autocrats today that wield the power that is so aggravating us can be counted on two hands. Against eight billion of us? What are we doing? What are we waiting for? And even those who serve despots and obtain material gain from their loyalty, do they not wish, deep inside, to help humanity build something better? They should look in the mirror and ask themselves what they bequeath to posterity.

To achieve such an outcome requires action on both sides of the divide. Those facing the outward expansion of tyranny must rise to resist it and they must be clear and confident in their intention. It does not help that in the West we have recently encouraged a self-loathing guilt about our past, which may partly fuel our reticence to oppose the rise of tyrannies lest we be accused of neo-colonialism. Away with that.

Those people within highly repressive regimes must, let’s be blunt, be bolder and more willing to demand better for themselves. After around 10,000 years of development since the birth of agriculture, human civilization can achieve, and deserves to seize, higher grounds of cultural and political order. After such long stretches of time, thought, and experiment, surely we are ready to declare an end to the notions of slavery and cowering under the stick of the tyrant?

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There is no naivety about any of this. The idea of a world free of autocracies that pillage and centralize power to the detriment of all of us is an entirely practical one. We have many examples of communities that have avoided this fate. With enough effort and resolve, we can build societies that respect the individual and seek to construct accountable and controlled structures of power by hemming in the executive and restraining the reach of government.

To do this, however, we need more than the ideas, the plans, the effort, and the hard work. We need the courage to believe in it and to be willing to state it and defend it. Then perhaps we will have some chance of escaping millennia of barrenness and finding our way to more productive political arrangements.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post. 

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Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.

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