By Samuel Katz
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” These famous words that begin Kafka’s masterpiece, ‘The Metamorphosis’, are what kept on crossing my mind as I was watching the president’s speech on Afghanistan, his “New Way Forward.” As I was listening to the President laying out his plan for an escalation of troop levels in Afghanistan and how he was struggling to present it to a skeptical nation and hostile region, one thing was clear, “As America awoke one morning from uneasy dreams she found herself transformed into a gigantic insect.”
That morning was June 1st, 2002 when then President George W. Bush laid out what would later come to be called “The Bush Doctrine”, the idea of justifying preventive war with nations that pose no immediate threat to us. Since then we have had that international “Insect” status. Two wars, high debt, and demonstrated incompetence on issues such as climate change has turned us into a political insect, one that other nations want to avoid interactions with at any cost.
Watching our current President address the world, I began seeing what we can perhaps call the American Ecdysis. (Ecdysis is the process by which the reptiles shed their skin. It comes from the Latin word ekdyein meaning to strip an outer layer. ) I think Kafka’s tragic novel of the downfall of successful salesmen can perhaps be a guide as to what not to do when you have “insect status”. I know the analogy is weird, but bear with me.
Kafka’s Metamorphosis tells the story of Gregor Samsa, a successful, yet unhappy, young salesman who provides for his aging parents and younger sister. The story begins as Gregor wakes up one day to discover that he has morphed into a giant insect. The mere sight of him causes disgust in people, especially his parents. The first to come to terms with him being an insect is his sister Grete. Gregor struggles to get his family to acknowledge who he has become, something his mother is unable to do. And he struggles to get his family to still treat him as he once was, something his sister can’t do.
Gregor appears as the likeable enough guy at the beginning of every tragic tale. He is the protagonist who drives away his own demons by occupying himself with other people’s problems. Gregor is frustrated with his job, yet he spends his time thinking about how he can get his sister, an amateur violinist, to attend a conservatory. As he awakens from his sad dreams he discovers that he has become a creature who is appalling to all. Note how he didn’t become a creature that people avoid because of the threat it might pose, but rather one that is avoided due to its grotesque appearance.
Towards the end of the story, Gregor decides that he wants to join his parents in listening to his sister performing on her violin. Gregor knows that his appearance would scare his family, yet “he felt hardly any surprise at his growing lack of consideration for the others; there had been a time when he prided himself on being considerate.” As he advances to the room where his sister is playing, he remembers who he used to be, how he was the one they all looked up to, how he once had plans for his sister. Blissfully, he remembers how he “had the firm intention of sending her to the Conservatory, he would have announced it to everybody without allowing a single objection. After this declaration his sister would be so touched that she would burst into tears, and Gregor would then kiss her on the neck, which, now that she was a young working woman, she kept free of any ribbon or collar.”
Yet, as his sister notices him she stops her playing and lets out a great scream. What she sees in front of her is not the brother who looked after her for so long, only a giant insect covered in dirt. Sobbing, she begs her parents to remove the “thing.” Upon hearing that, Gregor retreats to his room and let’s out his last breath. So ends the life Gregor Samsa.
Our country was a Gregor Samsa. We were successful and prosperous, liked and admired. Then trouble hit us. And as we desperately struggled to drive away the demons that have come to haunt us in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, we have embraced actions that caused us to lose those qualities. Now, in the international community, our standing is at an all-time low. We are the insect that many avoid.
On June 1st 2002 George Bush gave his now famous speech outlining our new approach to the war on terror. As his administration outlined it in their strategy report later that year:
“The security environment confronting the United States today is radically different from what we have faced before. Yet the first duty of the United States Government remains what it always has been: to protect the American people and American interests. It is an enduring American principle that this duty obligates the government to anticipate and counter threats, using all elements of national power, before the threats can do grave damage.”
The paragraph reads like the response you might expect from a paranoid Shakespearean character that has lost his sense of proportion. Along with this hyper paranoia came the “Spreading of Democracy” talk. Samsa diverts his thoughts from his own troubles with the corporate world he so desperately depends on by focusing on how he can help his sister get what she needs. The United States under the Bush Administration sought to brand their reflexive policies with the nobility of different pursuits. Beneath all the democracy talk lies hidden a series of rash actions few wanted to admit to. And now its policy and conduct have come to be seen as repulsive.
It is against this backdrop that President Obama took to the podium last week. We are not yet in the Obama era as much as we are in the post-Bush era. The challenge for the President was not only to outline a satisfying strategy for the way forward in the war. What he had to prove that night was that he can shed the skin we have grown over ourselves. Such a challenge was by no means easy because there are two camps to please: the national community and the international one. And they were both looking for very different things.
In The Metamorphosis, a crucial moment comes when Grete decides to move out the furniture in her brother’s room. After all, she reasons, he is an insect now and doesn’t need them and would even benefit from the additional space he now has to run around. His mother doesn’t like the idea. Gregor wants his sister to still think of him as a person and he attempts to keep her from moving his furniture. As he tries to do so, his mother sees him dangling from a picture frame on the wall as the grotesque form he has become.
And there is Gregor’s mistake. He tries to get his sister, who has come to accept his status as an insect, to see him as the human being he once was. He forces his mother, who still thinks of him as the Gregor she once knew, to see him as an insect. In doing that he loses them both. He allowed his own sense of self to dictate how others will see him as. This backfires terribly.
Intuitively we think that it is with those close to us that we can confide in our shortcomings and to those distant to us we need to portray a sense of self-worth. But perhaps the opposite is true. Those close to us have that same desire as ourselves to believe in our imagined self-worth, and therefore what fuels your sense of being is what fuels their image of you as well. The same thinking that convinces us of our magnified status is what leads to the reluctance of the ones close to us to acknowledge that those beliefs are self-serving, because we share the need for self-validity. To force them to confront that truth would be like Gregor Samsa forcing his mother to see him as the insect he has morphed into. She can’t and won’t.
Amongst those more distant to us the reverse might be true. While we would like them to think of us in a certain way, they have nothing that would fuel such illusions and hence are reluctant to accept such stories. Our personal conceit has nothing to feed on amongst those who do not share our aspirations. Gregor’s sister saw him as an insect. She has no reason to convince herself that her brother is more than that and so she gets frustrated with his insistence on still being treated as a human.
Such was the challenge the President faced in his address to the world. For America, he must show his resolve. Whether our sense of superiority and strength is justified or not, Americans have a strong desire to believe it, a desire that would make them refuse any other interpretation of their status. Yet the international community wanted to see the United States owning up to who they have become, the mistakes they have made, and where they have arrived.
Former President Lyndon Johnson already realized the first part of this challenge when he was deciding on his strategy in Vietnam. In a phone call with his friend from the Senate, Richard Russell, he recounts what a friend from Texas told him. “A.W. Moursund said to me last night,” Johnson tells Russel, “damn, there’s not anything that’ll destroy you as quick as pulling out, pulling up stakes and running, that America wants by God, prestige and power. And they don’t want-I said, yeah, but I don’t want to-I don’t want to kill these folks. He said, I don’t give a damn. He said, I didn’t want to kill ’em in Korea, but said, if you don’t stand up for America, there’s nothing that a fellow in Johnson City-or Georgia or any other place-they’ll forgive you for everything except being weak.”
“They’ll forgive you for everything except being weak.” Russel responded, “Well there’s a lot in that. There’s a whole lot in that. “
The question before the Afghanistan speech was: can he do both? Can he channel that sense of strength Americans so desperately need to see from their president while simultaneously appearing to the international community as humble and modest?
I think he partially succeeded.
Halfway through the speech, the President addressed the Afghan people. He lowered his chin, bent down a bit and looked straight into the camera, “Tonight, I want the Afghan people to understand,” he said, “America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country. We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens. And we will seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect — to isolate those who destroy; to strengthen those who build; to hasten the day when our troops will leave; and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is your partner, and never your patron.”
Evidently absent from this part of the speech was the Roosevelt-like resolve with which most of the speech was given in. What you heard was a nation begging to be seen in a different light, to be reconsidered. Not like in the past when we had pretended that we are all about spreading democracy in the region, a story those in that region had no reason to believe. The President was trying to get those people to see us as the struggling nation we are, trying to protect our self-interest. “America is your partner, and never your patron.” What was strong about that statement was not its revelation; the Afghan’s know that already. What was powerful about that statement was that the United States acknowledged it.
The speech was full of requests for reevaluation. “For unlike the great powers of old,” the President said, “we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for — what we continue to fight for — is a better future for our children and grandchildren.”
Towards the end of the speech the President had to follow Johnson’s advice of showing strength to the American people, to feed the image of ourselves we so desperately cling to. And so he did.
“Our cause is just,” he said in a voice that rang across the room filled with enthusiastic cadets and decorated generals, “Our resolve unwavering. We will go forward with the confidence that right makes might, and with the commitment to forge an America that is safer, a world that is more secure, and a future that represents not the deepest of fears but the highest of hopes.”
We have become the insect of foreign relations and the President knows that. Many oppose our ideals and some resent our sense of right. If there is hope to get out of this mess it would be by not repeating the mistake Kafka’s Gregor made, forcing those who want to see us as strong as being weak, and pretending to be perfect to those who see our faults. Like Gregor begging his sister to let him have his room, or confronting his mother with his misshapen insect body, both are bad. Both lead to inconsistent relationships and fracture of communication. The President’s speech at West Point tried to avoid that. The president needed to appear strong to the nation and humble to the world. To tell the world that we know our mistakes and flaws as well as the geopolitical status we have gained. And to allow Americans to continue to live with the comfort of knowing that we are still a superpower like we once were. If he succeeds, perhaps we will begin to see the American Ecdysis, where we begin to shed the insect skin we are so deeply embedded in.