In his book, An Assault on Reason, Al Gore draws a parallel between the fate of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Joseph K. in Kafka’s The Trial. The detainees, he writes, have not been told the crimes with which they have been charged, they are “served” by secret courts, and their friends and families are caught in a morass of bureaucracy without a clear idea even if they are making progress. The “trial” for some has already gone on some years; nevertheless, they are not free.
Joseph K goes through the same. As important, however, is his own mindset in the process. As a priest tells him, “The court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come; it dismisses you when you go.” Kafka tells us that, in a sense larger or more philosophical than physical confinement, we choose ourselves whether we will live our lives as prisoners. We may sink ourselves into the tangles of bureaucracies or disengage from them.
We may burn our energies out in combating the ROHS scheduling process or choose to learn where we are placed. We may lose hours to clicking on Causes in FaceBook or choose to walk our talk more directly. We may trap ourselves in webs of gossip and lies or we may choose our own principles and stand apart.
Ah, I wax philosophic! Kafka’s question is like Thoreau’s. Where Joseph K dies “Like a dog!” because he is never able to live without his fear and guilt created by his own slavery to society, Thoreau challenges us to live like humans, to think independently from those social pressures.
In many ways, people who live under totalitarian regimes are compelled to act (if not think) as the state tells them to. To resist may mean imprisonment or death. (Just think Hussein’s Iraq, the Taliban’s Afghanistan, or even today’s Myanmar.) But at the same time, these states have at least a few individuals of conscience we’ve met, people who choose to act and speak their principles. (Think Chia Thye Poh in Singapore, Gabriel Rufyiri in Burundi, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar.)
Don’t know these folks? Is that because they’re unimportant or that we have also been inundated—trapped, sunk, imprisoned, detained, lost—in a society not totalitarian (despite what Gore implies) but Kafka-esque, nonetheless? Thoreau and Kafka both challenge us to be human—not machines, not animals, not narcissists or manipulators, not liars.
What else distinguishes us from the machine or beast but our conscience? This does not mean to resist everything, but to choose something, and be honest about it. It means we must be prepared to own our actions and words and accept the consequences.