A note to the gentle reader: this is a literary/political post, so buckle up. We live in Kafkaesque times right now. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Kafkaesque as, “Of or relating to the writings of Franz Kafka; resembling the state of affairs or a state of mind described by Kafka.” Another definition from Google, and more appropriate — at least to my mind — states, “Characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka’s fictional world.” Google for the win!
The United States recently survived a mid-term election process that brought out a record number of voters, the majority of which wanted to see a change, or at least some form of checks and balances, regarding our current president. At the time of this writing, there were still several races being recounted, mainly in Florida. Surprise! Does anyone remember the saga of the “hanging chad?”
In the weeks prior to the election, our current president decided that the best way to gin up his base was to throw out some red meat topics during the never-ending campaign rallies that he hosted. This was an attempt to get said base to the voting booth, fired up and afraid of the fictional boogie man that our current president had created. Now, there were several topics that he could have addressed. Ah, but this president is honed in on what his base likes to fear the most, the immigrant. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of his base comes from immigrant roots, including two-thirds of his wives. So why stoke so much fear about this group of immigrants? Because this group of immigrants are brown, and therein lies the difference.
Watching what little I could stomach of our current president’s rallies, I was struck by the parallels between his rants against immigrants and a short story by Franz Kafka that I recently read for one of my graduate classes. The story is A Page from an Old Document, and I highly recommend it. I will admit, Kafka does not top the list of my favorite writers. But his work has never seemed more appropriate and important than it is today.
The story centers on a shop-keeper, a shoemaker in fact, and his reflections on the “nomads” overrunning his city. These nomads have “penetrated” the capital and “it seems that every morning there are more of them.” The shoemaker describes them as savages that “camp under the open sky” and spend time busying themselves “whetting their swords.” On top of that they demand and devour all of the resources of the city, going so far as to eat a live ox, tearing it apart and eating it raw. This type of person would frighten anyone, right? However, knowing what I know about Kafka, this story is a commentary on how the immigrant is stereotyped. Used as a scapegoat to stoke fear and fealty to the fatherland.
Fast forward to our current president. The most recent group of asylum seekers are being painted as an angry horde, filled with “big” men — angry and criminal. Oh, and let’s not forget the number of middle-eastern men who are sneaking in with them, ready to bring their special brand of terrorism right to our front doors. Does it matter that these statements cannot be documented as fact? Does it matter that the majority of those seeking asylum are women and children or families, escaping violence in their own countries, doing what they must to survive and create a better life for their children? No. That doesn’t fit the bill for our current president’s campaign speeches. The truth doesn’t fit his agenda.
I can’t help thinking of the George Santayana quote which was paraphrase in a speech by Winston Churchill. Churchill said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Turn on the news and you’ll see our current president telling anyone who will buy his special brand of lies that the media is the enemy of the people. That any story that paints him in a bad light is “fake news.” Then think back to the 1930’s and Hitler’s similar tactics. There is a frightening correlation between the two.
All of this is to say that maybe we need Kafka now more than ever. Maybe we need to face the absurdities, the nightmares of his fictional world and work towards making sure that history doesn’t repeat itself. His insights into the workings of the human psyche seem frighteningly spot on right now. Maybe Kafka had it right.