An amazing and prescient column appeared yesterday on several outlets, originally posted here. I would highly recommend, if you have not read or seen Kafka’s The Trial, to do so. In the meantime, here is a taste:
There is a certain level of dishonesty in the common study of history. We look back at the tyrannies of the past, the monstrous governments, the devastating wars and the unimaginable crimes, and we wonder how it could have been possible. How could the people of that particular generation let such atrocities come to pass? Why didn’t they do something? Why didn’t they protest? Why didn’t they fight back?
We wonder all of this as we absorb the lists of dates, names and actions in books written by other men who memorized other lists of dates, names and actions. We are taught to study and wonder without ever actually applying the lessons of the past to the developments of today. We are conditioned to assert our own narrow spin on yesterday, instead of placing ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors or recognizing that their struggles remain our struggles. The modern method of viewing history detaches us from it, making it seem distant, alien or surreal.
Perhaps many societies fail to prepare or act in the face of tyranny because they had forgotten their own histories, making the demise of their culture appear so schizophrenic they would not believe what their eyes were telling them.
Often, the only way to grasp the more complete truth of the present is to examine it through the lens of the absurd. Sadly, our Nation, our culture and most of the world around us have become so backward, ugly, feeble and twisted that the only adequate comparison is to the nightmares of surrealists.
When I examine recent U.S. legislation, the exposure of classified documents, and the openly admitted criminality of political leadership, I am consistently reminded of Franz Kafka’s The Trial.
Kafka was a self-styled socialist back in the days when socialism was thought to be the next revolutionary movement for the downtrodden masses. It was, of course, controlled opposition created by global elitists attempting to exploit the natural rebellious tendencies of the general public within a false paradigm — using the masses to achieve greater power for a select few, while making the people think that they had won. It is ironic that Kafka would write The Trial, one of the greatest condemnations of totalitarian surveillance society, while at the same time supporting the socialist political vehicle that would eventually be used to implement unrelenting bureaucratic despotism.
The Trial is commonly labeled a “surrealist” piece of fiction, but I wonder now if it was actually far more literal than the academics of the past actually gave it credit for. The problem is that most of America, and much of the Western world, has forgotten what it is like to experience true danger and true suffering. We read about it now and watch movies about it like it’s entertainment, but few people have the slightest inkling how to deal with the real thing. We don’t even know how to recognize it. Because of this, Americans tend to pay more attention to fictional representations of tyranny rather than legitimate tyranny taking place right under their noses.
With that sad fact in mind, watch this clip from Orson Welles’ cinematic version of The Trial. See if you recognize your own world in this work of “fantasy”:
The main character of The Trial, Josef K., finds his apartment invaded by police in the early hours of the morning. Josef responds with anger but also fear, attempting to defend his character without actually understanding the nature of the police visit. The police answer his questions with more accusatory questions, only later warning him that he is being watched and that he is under arrest. The police do not, however, take him immediately into custody; nor do they ever tell him what his crime was. It is implied, in fact, that Josef is not allowed to know what he is being charged with.
This episode in The Trial has been played out in the real world over and over again, from the Soviet Cheka, to Adolf Hitler’s SS and Brownshirts, to Benito Mussolini’s Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism (OVRA), to the German Stasi, to Mao Zedong’s Central Security Bureau, etc. In the United States, the culture of surveillance and intrusion has (for now) taken a more subtle approach through the use of technology. We do not yet have agents physically rummaging through all our homes and asking for our papers (though we are not far away from this). Rather, we have the National Security Agency, which rummages through our electronic communications while using our own computer cameras and cellphones to watch us, listen to us and track us. All of this, mind you, is done on a massive scale without warrant.
We have the Authorization for Use of Military Force and the National Defense Authorization Act, which give the President the centralized authority to detain and even kill those Americans designated as “enemy combatants” without trial, without due process and without public oversight.
Our government now uses secret evidence to charge citizens with crimes they are not allowed to discuss with the public on the argument that to do so would “threaten national security.” That’s right; the government can arrest you or assassinate you based on evidence they never have to disclose to you, your family, your lawyer or the citizenry.
In the U.S. today, the kind of establishment terror Kafka imagined is indeed a reality. We are not on the verge of a total surveillance state, we are there. It exists. And if we do not accept that this is our social condition, there may be no historians tomorrow to look back on our era and wonder: “Why didn’t they do something? Why didn’t they fight back?”
The revelations brought by Edward Snowden on the NSA and its PRISM mass surveillance program are still only partially understood by the public. Even many self-proclaimed “cypherpunks” and “techno-warriors” don’t really grasp the pervasiveness of the all-seeing NSA eye. Recent documents leaked to German news source Der Spiegel by Snowden reveal an Internet almost completely dominated by the NSA, where even total encryption would be a mere temporary stopgap, according to tech researcher and journalist Jacob Appelbaum. The TAO group, sanctioned by the NSA, has been using technologies for years that startle even the most avid tech experts. To make matters worse, many of the intrusive mechanisms have been implemented — likely with the direct aid of American software and computer companies.
With NSA access to the backbone or core of the Internet, there is no digital privacy anywhere. The cypherpunks lost the war for the Web a long time ago, and they don’t seem to know it yet.
Beyond the undeniable prevalence of government surveillance, what would our American Kafkaesque experience be like without kangaroo courts designed to defend the criminal establishment instead of the victimized population? The latest Federal court decision on the NSA’s methods is that they are perfectly legal and “necessary” to protect Americans from national security threats. If you are a student of Constitutional law, this decision truly boggles the mind.
One of the most powerful incidents in The Trial is Josef’s speech to his court of accusers. In this moment, Josef argues with concrete logic and impassioned reason. His position is supported with beautifully crafted merit and truth. But what he does not realize is that the court he is trying to convince does not exist to discover the truth. The court is a sideshow, a piece of elaborate theater. The participants are there to make Josef, and the society at large, feel as though justice has been given a fair chance. Josef’s pleas are met with fake cheers, scripted jeers and even engineered distractions. Finally, he comes to understand that the system’s purpose is to destroy him. Everything else is an illusion.
The Web cannot be made free or private from within; our courts cannot be made fair and just from within; neither political party can be forced to represent the common man from within; and our government cannot be made honest or transparent from within. To play games of activism within establishment dominated systems is to play make-believe within a surrealist nightmare; a piece of “Alice in Wonderland” political quackery. Like the audience at Josef’s trial, the elites simply laugh at such activists, or feign applause, while continuing forever with the same corruption and the criminal status quo.
America has long presented itself as the ultimate alternative to the torturous mechanisms of oligarchs; and a long time ago, it was certainly a noble effort. However, our heritage of liberty — the faint memory of it — is all that’s left today. There is a contingent of men and women in our country, millions of us, that steward over this memory and seek to make whole once again, but the road ahead is long, with struggles beyond all reckoning.
Some people may ask how this could have occurred. How did we become the monster we were supposed to fight against? What happened to the good side and the bad side? Have they become exactly the same?
Those of us who have looked beyond the standardized veil of history know that this is not by accident. Those of us who decipher the surreal know that there is a method to the madness and an ultimate goal. To explain further, I leave you with another piece of fiction, a clip from the British TV series “The Prisoner.” While not written by Kafka, it was definitely inspired by him. It carries a message I would have liked to have warned him about concerning the disturbing path of duality, the mask with multiple faces that tyranny uses to subvert and enslave…