Ronald H. Davidson

How Franz Kafka predicted Fox News

Paranoia sells, and Rupert Murdoch's Fox News enterprise likes to scare the hell out of its viewers for fun and profit if there's good money to be made — especially when it's got skin in the game. But this time the political stakes are much higher than usual: America's future as a democracy is on the line.

Witness the obsessive preoccupation at Fox with the "great replacement" theory, as if hyping such a transparently fabricated existential crisis to its targeted demographic — that is, mostly older white conservatives — was purposely intended to raise doomsday anxiety levels in a gullible audience, the sort of viewers long conditioned to interpret events in a conspiratorial framework. Following the twisted path of this racist creation myth to its origins reveals a provenance that stretches well beyond Tucker Carlson's nightly pitch to his loyal fans, many of whom share a collective fear that the traditional barriers intended to keep certain groups of others outside and out of sight are no longer working as expected.

Fox is running in a crowded field of competitors in the faux-paranoid theme park that it's been meticulously ginning up over the years — hanging with a deeply weird array of QAnon rubes, white supremacists, Christian nationalists, Trumpian dead-enders and similarly motivated co-conspirators — all of them working overtime to push an agenda of racist fear and animus. One tragic consequence of their deadly stimulus project recently played out in a Buffalo supermarket.

Still, for all its high-volume flailing, the Fox hype machine is mostly amateurish stuff, a perverse riff on Donald Trump's side-hustle con involving an American Wall, one that promised his cult of MAGA pawns to keep the threatening hordes of invasive species permanently excluded on the other side. At root, it's a protocol for ensuring dominance and control of the public spaces that define every element of American culture; more ominously in the short term, it's also a mobilizing electoral strategy now fully embraced by one of the two major American political parties.

For a guided tour of this paranoid mindset from a true connoisseur of the art of cynical manipulation, though, one needs to turn to Franz Kafka, whose story "The Great Wall of China," written in 1917, offers prescient psychological insights into the storyline being performed on Tucker Carlson's show any night of the week.

"Against whom was the great wall to provide protection," Kafka asked, adding that there were no genuine threats besides the terrifying portraits in "the books of the ancients," which served the emperor's purposes by conjuring up atrocities committed by malicious outsiders, enemies whose "sharp pointed teeth … will crush and rip to pieces" the peaceful citizens living behind the Great Wall. "When children are naughty, we hold up these pictures in front of them," Kafka wrote in his century-old warning memo to us, "and they immediately burst into tears and run into our arms."

Franz Kafka, meet Tucker Carlson (and friends).

Joining the reception line are a coterie of like-minded race-baiting provocateurs and conspiracy-mongers littered throughout cable news shows and the darker social media corners of the internet. Replacement theorizing — along with its kissing cousin "critical race theory," another imaginary playmate at Fox — offers a useful platform for this loose confederation of proto-fascist trolls to practice their specialized craft, setting up a target-rich environment of Black people, Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ folk, feminists and foreigners of all kinds (well, non-European ones, anyway). Think of their nihilistic search-and-destroy mission as a Kafkaesque effort to discover hidden enemies — even imaginary ones will do, in a pinch — who can be portrayed as mortal threats to the fragile fantasy world at the core of white supremacists' self-deluding ideology.

Granted, the more respectable members of this confederacy may suffer brief moments of panic when one of their unhinged followers becomes a breaking news story, as when it turned out that the alleged Buffalo shooter's 180-page manifesto acknowledged that the bloody rage-killings were live-streamed online as a self-promoting "act of terrorism," a fantastical infomercial intended to prevent white people from succumbing to "replacement."

Put another way, when a lethal mode of performance art seizes control of the public stage, demanding that attention be paid to its incoherent rhetoric of virulent hate, Fox and friends get as nervous as the Wizard of Oz (right before Dorothy's little dog Toto pulls back the curtain on the sad old man working the gears). Rupert Murdoch's media magic quickly loses its persuasive charms if folks get too close a look at the inner workings of the cynical manipulation machinery.

Following Buffalo, the unanticipated exposure of the machine's source code may explain the peak hysteria coming from the primetime players at Fox, who have frantically scrambled to deny that they share any responsibility for inspiring and/or inflaming one of their (ahem) crazier viewers to violently act on his paranoid fantasies about replacement theory. "Goodness, who knows where he might have picked that nonsense up. It must have been antifa!"

Arguably, the Trump-organized mob actions of Jan. 6, 2021 — performed live on the steps of the U.S. Capitol as a theatrical rehearsal for fascism — differed in terms of the number of actors taking part in the patriotic cosplay drama (and the body count at the end of the day). Nonetheless, that staged event was produced and directed with essentially the same motivational goals as the alleged Buffalo shooter: Capture the attention of an aggrieved audience; play upon their sense of resentment and victimhood; engage them in the urgent task of redeeming the country from their godless enemies; justify the use of violence as legitimate political discourse in the service of an imaginary version of "our America."

Despite such temporary program interruptions, things at Fox News quickly settle back down to a normal daily routine of partisan demagoguery and fear-mongering, though carefully re-coded just enough to allow for some degree of plausible deniability, at least until the next mass shooting (or perhaps a seditious insurrection) breaks out.

We are now entering uncharted territory, a place far beyond the familiar era of earlier forms of institutionalized racism in America — back when segregated schools, employment and housing discrimination, mortgage redlining and gated communities served as more structured (that is, less overtly chaotic) mechanisms for excluding certain others from participating in the public square. No less oppressive, such exclusionary traditions seem almost quaint by contrast now that the façade has fallen away, revealing an apocalyptic vision of the new authoritarian political agenda, which makes no pretense about its core beliefs and anti-democratic intentions (including a hair-trigger readiness for organized violence, if needed).

Years before the killings in Buffalo, an American president once stood in front of other mourners in a Black church and sang "Amazing Grace," a poignant moment signaling what the country was then only reluctantly coming to understand about itself: There are no safe spaces left in the once-shared public squares of our communities: Not in churches, synagogues or mosques; not in elementary school classrooms or high school corridors; not in women's health clinics; not in workplaces; not on public street corners. And now, not even in grocery stores.

In Buffalo, a grieving Black woman told a CNN reporter about the far deeper emotional scars the shootings left on her shattered community. "We didn't have much, and you took what was left," she said, as if speaking to the killer. "Now our safe space has been infiltrated and taken from us."

Such domestic terrorism may appear different in form than earlier versions, often relying on the lone-wolf-deranged-gunman mythology to distract public attention from questions of broader political accountability, but the logic of its embedded racist code is still rooted in the covert agenda motivating white supremacist politics everywhere and always. Not that long ago, lynchings were public entertainment in certain parts of America, a shameful history still viewable online today in the hundreds of archived photographs of white mobs cheerfully posing in front of the bodies of dead Black men. Billie Holiday knew what she was telling a segregated America the moment she recorded "Strange Fruit." even if most white folks back in 1939 weren't ready to listen to its lyrics:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

If in the present era the Ku Klux Klan has traded in its bedsheets for military camo gear and morphed into the heavily militarized Proud Boys, their implicit message has just been repackaged as something that generally gets a pass from the morally flexible content standards of primetime Fox News, Facebook and Twitter: say, for example, replacement theory.

The chant of "Jews will not replace us," shouted by a Tiki-torch-carrying mob of fascist wannabes during the 2017 Unite the Right demonstration in Charlottesville — where Donald Trump saw "good people on both sides" — was an early harbinger of the emerging and rebranded white nationalist movement, freed at last from the political closet by a different sort of president, one who surely wouldn't know the words to "Amazing Grace." Apart from a few minor setbacks, including a failed insurrection and some indictments for seditious conspiracy, it's been a bull market ever since for replacement theory and the cynical Fox News con artists who peddle it 24/7.

When a significant element of the political culture tolerates (and even encourages) a racist discourse that reduces certain groups to the status of invasive species — implying that such persons ought to be "weeded out," one way or another — the shared public square in a democratic society is no longer safe for anyone. Stoking racial and class fears to produce a sense of paranoid resentment and faux victimhood may be an effective political technique in the short-term, assuming that its practitioners simply don't care about the longer-term existential sustainability of the society, but it reveals the moral cognitive blindness motivating the authoritarian impulse for power at any cost.

Kafka understood this sort of cynical fear-mongering when he warned us about it a hundred years ago. If he could offer us some political consultation today, it might be simply this: "Paranoia does not seem to be a bug in this system that you are describing; it's quickly becoming a feature. Please stop before you destroy yourselves."

Mental health expert lays out a psychological roadmap of Ukraine and genocide

If one looks at a map of Ukraine, the distance between Babi Yar and Bucha looks to be about 15 miles. The more revealing psycho-historical journey between the two places that is required of us at this moment runs through Moscow via a circuitous route, with mandatory detours marked along the way: One leads to the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane, another to the Katyn forest in western Russia. All these roadways are strewn with corpses. It is an itinerary of death, with silent guideposts pointing toward wartime atrocities that challenge our ability to understand how presumably ordinary people can so casually dehumanize and slaughter others.

  • In September 1941, a Nazi mobile killing unit, the infamous Einsatzgruppen C, began the systematic murder of Jews in what was then German-occupied Kyiv, efficiently machine-gunning more than 33,000 people in two days in a nearby ravine called Babi Yar. At the time, it was thought to be the largest mass murder of World War II; the existence of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps for the purpose of mass extermination would not be exposed to the world for several more years. On March 1 of this year, Russian missiles struck the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, reportedly killing five people.
  • In June 1944, Oradour-sur-Glane, a small village in German-occupied France a few hours west of Lyon, was obliterated by a regiment of Nazi SS Panzer troops, who set about the task of razing every building to the ground, leaving behind the bodies of 642 civilian victims. Among the dead, 190 men were shot, including three parish priests; others (247 women and 205 children) died after being locked inside a church that was then doused with gasoline and set on fire by the SS troops. The ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane still exist today, preserved exactly as the Nazis left the village, offering a chilling reminder of the human capacity for deliberate cruelty as an organized technique of warfare.
  • Evidence of a different sort of killing ground was uncovered in 1943 in western Russia, in the Katyn forest near the city of Smolensk, where Soviet NKVD secret police units, precursors to the KGB, summarily executed 4,443 captured Polish military officers on the orders of Joseph Stalin, who wanted to liquidate any potential opposition to his plans for controlling postwar Poland. While Stalin later attempted to shift blame for the corpses exhumed at Katyn to the Germans, forensic data left no doubt that their deaths were by Russian hands.

What ties these mass killings together — and connects them to the slaughter of innocents now occurring before our eyes in Ukraine — is the specific manner of death: It was up close and personal, requiring individual soldiers to look into the faces of those whose lives they were about to end before pulling the trigger.

These deaths were not the "unintentional" results of the kind of collateral damage that occurs in any war. Rather, what occurred were murders of individual human beings (whether known by name or unidentified), whose lives were taken as intentional instruments of terror, executed in cold blood by other persons (some of whom are known by name, others whose identities remain anonymous). Upon a random autopsy of any such individual case, then, a truthful medical examiner would be compelled to report that the manner of death was homicide. It is worth noting that such deliberate mass homicides of civilians unambiguously meet the internationally accepted legal criteria defining acts of genocide during war, as ratified in 1948 (in resolution 260-A) by the UN General Assembly.

There can be no plausible deniability for war crimes of this nature, and certainly no credible alibis for those whose orders set the massive Russian war machine rolling into Ukraine. Consider as proof the intercepted radio communications between Russian troop units, clearly admissible as evidence for the prosecution — should this case ever be presented to the International Criminal Court in the Hague — that verifies the incontrovertible accounts of mass homicides and sadistic brutality: Exhibit A, entered as unwitting testimony recorded live from the killing grounds:

  • "Shell the villages directly," one commander angrily shouts orders into his radio. "Raze them to the ground, got it?"
  • Another officer is heard issuing damning instructions to his soldiers: "If there are civilians there, kill them all, for fuck sake!"
  • An intercepted personal cell phone call from a tank commander to a woman back in Russia captures him describing — with a tone of shame apparent in his voice — how three soldiers from his armored unit had repeatedly raped a 16-year-old Ukrainian girl the night before. "Our guys? Oh fuck," replies the woman.

If anything is clear by now from this detour it's that a sense of impunity is often a precursor to the commission of certain types of war crimes, especially when the uninvited intimacy of the up-close-and-personal manner of death or violent brutality allows the perpetrators to set aside the normal boundaries of simple human decency. In operational terms, the first step on the psychological pathway to genocide is to dehumanize the intended victims, then to enlist others in complicity.

In Ukraine, the evidentiary trail of accountability now leads clearly to the disturbing case of Vladimir Putin, whose enraged soldiers lined the streets of the Ukrainian village of Bucha with the decomposing bodies of civilians. Just as Stalin attempted to deflect responsibility for the dead Polish officers uncovered at Katyn onto real Nazis, Kremlin propagandists now label photographic and satellite evidence of Putin's mass homicides at Bucha as "monstrous forgeries" — fake news invented by hostile Western governments and the alleged Ukrainian Nazis that have apparently taken up permanent residence in Putin's fevered imagination. As the Russian president watches battlefield events unfolding in ways he never anticipated — and as the world recoils in collective horror from the televised scenes of his apparent war crimes — it must be the case that these enemies are secretly conspiring "to make Russia look bad," as the Kremlin's official press spokesman put it. No other explanation for this humiliating failure is allowable today in Moscow, certainly not the dangerous observation that Putin is rapidly achieving that unintended goal entirely on his own.

While judges and prosecutors at the Hague would likely view such presumptively absurd denials as consciousness of guilt — granted, some might be disposed to argue for a psychiatric defense involving a conspiratorial mode of paranoid thought disorder — neither the law nor psychiatry are of much use in understanding the depth of the collective pathological forces running wild throughout this cynical performance, an act that Putin described, curiously, as a necessary "self-purification" of Russian society.

A rapt world audience now has front-row seats to this public psychodrama with lethal consequences, a collective distortion of reality perhaps not seen since Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany's propaganda chief. That may help explain why Putin unselfconsciously quoted Goebbels in remarks to a conference of Jewish leaders in Moscow in 2014, as reported in an Israeli newspaper at the time. Referring to the purported rise of Nazism in Ukraine, a recurring Kremlin theme, Putin recalled Goebbels' dictum that "the more improbable the lie, the faster people will believe it." "And it worked," Putin noted admiringly, calling Goebbels "a talented man."

More ominously for the future of Ukraine, Putin might also have been pondering Adolf Hitler's 1939 thoughts on the twin pillars of impunity and genocide — "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" — as evidenced in a document introduced at the Nuremberg tribunal, when he gave the orders for the Russian military to crush what he considers the "nonexistent" Ukrainian people and their culture. First comes the well-crafted protocols for dehumanization, followed by the descent into moral complicity as the war machine begins its inexorable march toward genocide.

Rarely has the psychology of impunity and genocide been made so explicit as it was in the October 1943 address by Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS, during an address to a group of senior officers and Einsatzgruppen leaders in occupied Poland — chilling remarks acknowledging the stress involved for loyal German soldiers when carrying out orders for "the extermination of the Jewish people."

Most of you here know what it means when 100 corpses lie next to each other, when there are 500 or when there are 1,000. To have endured this and at the same time to have remained a decent person — with exceptions due to human weaknesses — has made us tough, and is a glorious chapter that has not and will not be spoken of… We have the moral right, we had the duty to our people, to kill this people who would kill us… We have carried out this most difficult task for the love of our people. And we have suffered no defect within us, in our soul, in our character.

Clearly, the Reichsführer took the term "consciousness of guilt" to an entirely new level, worried about the emotional strain of so many manual shootings of Jews on the mental health of his SS executioners. This problem would be alleviated by the use of gas chambers in the death camps, he assured them, technology that offered much more efficient (and therefore less stressful and more anonymous) killing grounds. "Yet we shall never speak of this in public," Himmler cautioned.

Holding aside the psychological impact of Putin's improbable lies on Russian citizens in general — some of whom have courageously risked imprisonment to protest the war, though most appear to have embraced (whether tacitly or enthusiastically) the patriotic necessity for the cultural annihilation of their neighbors — the actual battlefield behavior of Russian soldiers in particular yields clinical insight revealing as much about the collective descent into barbarism that occurred in Oradour-sur-Glane and the Katyn forest as about the deaths in Bucha. Eyewitness reports from survivors in Bucha indicate that Russian soldiers went door to door and randomly stopped residents in the street, angrily demanding to know "where the Nazis lived." When told that there were no Nazis in Bucha — not the sort of compliant answer the Russians wanted to hear — the immediate consequence for such impertinent resistance was often another homicide committed with impunity (and in plain sight).

At this critical moment, the requirement to effectively support Ukraine with the moral clarity of truth-told-in-plain-sight is every bit as powerful as the delivery of weaponry, which is why President Biden's unequivocal J'accuse directed at Putin's genocidal behavior may assist the world with the overdue recovery of long-forgotten memories, not simply the physical exhumation of corpses from the rubble of history.

Russia is by no means the only place in the modern era where improbable lies have taken deep root — genocidal killings in Rwanda, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia and now Myanmar have all competed for our attention at one time or another — but the current process of dehumanization against the Ukrainian people that is underway in Moscow's media propaganda factory offers a special warning for citizens of democratic societies about the deliberate distortion of reality as a persuasive mechanism for driving human behavior down unthinkable pathways. Witness, especially, the virulent wave of dehumanizing rhetoric about the Ukrainian people now flooding the airways of Russian state-owned media outlets, with Putin's loyal hacks sounding ever more frantic in their demands to "de-Ukrainianize" an entire culture and national identity.

Goebbels and his protégé in Moscow tell us that clever propaganda will always shape human perception and behavior to their genocidal ends. But sometimes truth manages to claw its way out of the graveyard, exposing the impotence of their improbable lies.

Ukrainians are showing us the stark moral choice that now confronts the world: Either we tolerate the cruel impulse of certain nations to dominate others at any price, even that of genocidal murder; or we stand with those who seek nothing more than the right to choose their own independent identity at any price, even at risk of death.

We need to listen to what they are telling us.