In the course of my work, I’m regularly asked if I’m worried about what’s happening in our country, and about where we’re going as a culture. My answer is -absolutely, but not about what the media and the pundits pontificate about. I’m not worried about being invaded by China or Russia; or being overrun by illegal immigrants; or running out of food; or by the reins of government being seized by white supremacists. I’m not even worried about a civil war breaking out – neither side, at this point, is organized enough to appoint a commander.
What I am deeply concerned about, is the rapid disappearance of Trust in our society. Most of us have lost trust in all of our primary institutions: Politics, Mass Media, Business, Healthcare, Education, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. We simply don’t believe that they have our best interests at heart, nor do we believe that they tell us the truth. This situation is not problematic, it is lethal. Trust is the foundational prerequisite of a safe, humane, and civil society. Without it, everything breaks down. Any semblance of quality of life vanishes, and a daily, savage battle for survival, fills the vacuum.
As I pondered this sad and scary state of affairs, I thought about where I had first encountered a description of the disintegration of a society that had methodically destroyed Trust. Two names came to mind: Hannah Arendt and Franz Kafka. Arendt was an author and brilliant political philosopher who focused her analysis on the behavior of those who carried out the Holocaust. She coined the phrase – “the banality of evil,” which explained that evil acts are not always carried out by
“evil people,” but are sometimes the result of bureaucrats who are dutifully following orders. (A cautionary tale here – as bureaucracies get bigger and bigger, they increase the opportunities for doing evil.)
Kafka’s writings were characterized by frightening, nightmarish stories involving pedestrian souls caught up in anonymous persecution that they could not understand, nor do anything to escape from. One of his most famous books, “The
Trial” (1914) is the story of a bank officer who is suddenly and inexplicably arrested and must defend himself against a charge about which he can get no
Information. Kafka summarized the book as “a prophecy of the excesses of modern bureaucracy wedded to the madness of totalitarianism.”
Revisiting Arendt and Kafka, I couldn’t help but ask myself where these writings
(especially Kafka’s) had actually taken root in a country. China, Russia (the former Soviet Union) and, North Korea all had Kafkaesque elements. But in modern times, only one society modeled itself after Kafka’s vision: The police state of East Germany – the GDR. “The Trial” (as well as other writings) was the playbook for the German Democratic Republic. It had a “civilian” government, but, in reality, it was ruled by the Stasi, the East German Secret Police. The GDR maintained power, after the partition following the end of WWII, for 40 years. It had a population of 16,600,000. West Germany’s population was 61,100,000. The Stasi had 91,000 agents – one in every 30 East Germans was a Stasi agent. More than one in three citizens was under suspicion or surveillance, with an open Stasi file.
Another 500,000 were feeding the Stasi information about their fellow citizens. What the East German government achieved was the total destruction of Trust and the annihilation of the Individual. They understood very well, that the greatest threat to their power and control was the existence of people who might band together with others, and challenge authority. And they knew that they could prevent this by totally destroying Trust.
I meet people often who bemoan the current state of affairs in our country, but are convinced that things will never get “that bad;” nor is there any chance that we could lose our freedoms. I worry about those people, not because I think that they should go around obsessing about a Doomsday scenario, but that they should stay alert to changes in our culture that could indicate a slow and steady erosion of what we cherish and live for.