Franz Kafka’s In The Penal Colony, Manus Island, and Australia’s second wave of racism and xenophobia

“The matter stands like this. Here in the penal colony I have been appointed judge. In spite of my youth. For I stood at the side of our Old Commandant in all matters of punishment, and I also know the most about the apparatus. The basic principle I use for my decisions is this: Guilt is always beyond a doubt. Other courts could not follow this principle, for they are made up of many heads and, in addition, have even higher courts above them. But that is not the case here, or at least it was not that way with the previous Commandant. It’s true the New Commandant has already shown a desire to get mixed up in my court, but I’ve succeeded so far in fending him off. And I’ll continue to be successful.”
The Officer, in Franz Kafka’s, In The Penal Colony

The Officer in Kafka’s In The Penal Colony is a man nostalgic for an era where justice was literally written on the body in a 12 hour torture session where the accused is strapped into an ingenious apparatus which dispenses justice in an elegant, efficient, and ultimately barbaric process. In Kafka’s brilliant novel, written on the cusp of the First World War, the Officer finds himself alone in his commitment to a former Commandant and faced with having to question ‘justice’ subjects himself to the apparatus only to have it break apart and stab in a “murder, pure and simple” rather than inscribe “be just” in a beautiful script on his body.

I was reminded of In The Penal Colony when I heard about the violence and attacks at the Manus Island Detention Centre in PNG, particularly when I read the transcripts of messages left by asylum seekers on the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre phone.

“We are not here by our choice. Australia government put us here by force and today this is happening. Who is responsible for our lives? We are dying here, maybe if we stay like this we are not even fighting them. We are just running away and trying to hide ourselves in the room. But they are following us every place and beating us, anyone they hate.”

The incidents left one Iranian man dead, scores of people with head injuries, and traumatised asylum seekers who spent at least one evening hiding from what appears to be machete wielding vigilantes. The protests originally began after the asylum seekers were told they would never be settled in Australia or PNG if they were not found to be refugees. There are over 1,300 asylum seekers waiting to have their status assessed by Australian officials, in what is essentially a penal colony. I can’t help thinking that just as Kafka’s apparatus takes a very long and painful 12 hours to dispense justice, the time delay for refugee assessment is part of the punishment apparatus for seeking asylum in Australia.

The Minister of Immigration, Scott Morrison, is continuing a long line of oppression and domination of the have-nots-who-look-kinda-different by the haves-who-are-kinda-white. After all, racism is engrained in our consciousness and proudly inherited from the British. If traditional media is anything to go by, the prevailing view in the suburbs seems to be that of racist radio commentator Alan Jones, who before the Cronulla riots asked, “What did we do as a nation to have this vermin infest our shores?”

The crowning glory of Australian xenophobia until now has been the White Australia Policy, or as it’s officially known The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. This act, enshrined in law the restriction of migration to those who would preserve the British character of Australia. In fact this policy was one of the key reasons for the 6 colonies agreeing to become a nation. That and rail. Inspiring stuff.

It wasn’t just the fear that anyone different would corrupt our youth, rate our women, smoke opium, or worship funny god(s) that made the non-British a threat, it was the suspicion that they could take our jobs. The jobs for Australians has always been at the heart of Australian xenophobia; Prime Minister Alfred Deakin put it well:

“It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors.”

The White Australia policy would not be fully dismantled until the late 1970’s when provisions to restrict migration on the basis of country of origin were finally removed by the Fraser Government. It’s ironic that Fraser’s treasurer, John Winston Howard, is the man who as Prime Minister was responsible for the second wave of enshrining racism and xenophobia in law. In case you’ve forgotten, Howard’s views on immigration are best captured in his often quoted election winning line, “we will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come”.

After uttering that inspiring quote Howard won the 2001 election in a landslide.

That there is a detention centre being run in our name where desperate people are hiding in rooms from police with guns and vigilantes with machetes shames us all. This is happening on our watch. Ultimately we are responsible for electing governments from both sides of politics who have ramped up the racism and xenophobia and cruelty while being cheered on by fucktard talk show hosts and dickhead journalists.

In Kafka’s tale, we discover that the Commandant responsible for the cruel apparatus was buried in the corner of an old tea house having been denied a place in the graveyard. His grave is marked only by a stone beneath a table where “poor, oppressed” men drink. The Commandment and his practices are now viewed with shame and derision.

We can only hope that the second wave of Australian racism and xenophobia, of detention centres, of riots, and of children locked behind bars meets the same ridiculous end. It will take all our efforts.

What do you think?