Monstrous Vermin

What if one day you woke up to find that everything you'd been doing for years was illegal? Sorry, wrong novel. The one we want isn't Metamorphosis, but Franz Kafka's other work, The Castle, where the narrator fails to discover to the last what he had to do to receive approval from the Castle's bureaucrats. The protagonist K, deals with men whose powers are indefinite and who prohibit things for reasons that are never explained. Possibly they don't know the reasons themselves. The same sort of mystery surrounds the raid of the Gibson guitar factory. The Department of Justice wants to shut them down for a reason. Is it really sane to ask 'why'?

The ostensible reason given is that Gibson -- but not other manufacturers who are -- are using wood harvested in environmentally harmful ways from the Third World. Yet with permits from the foreign governments, the US Customs and the Forest Stewardship Council in hand, it is hard to know what more Gibson could have done before making the guitars. Except to stop making guitars. The WSJ provides the bare narrative.

Federal agents swooped in on Gibson Guitar Wednesday, raiding factories and offices in Memphis and Nashville, seizing several pallets of wood, electronic files and guitars. The Feds are keeping mum, but in a statement yesterday Gibson's chairman and CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz, defended his company's manufacturing policies, accusing the Justice Department of bullying the company. "The wood the government seized Wednesday is from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier," he said, suggesting the Feds are using the aggressive enforcement of overly broad laws to make the company cry uncle. ...

It isn't just Gibson that is sweating. Musicians who play vintage guitars and other instruments made of environmentally protected materials are worried the authorities may be coming for them next.

If you are the lucky owner of a 1920s Martin guitar, it may well be made, in part, of Brazilian rosewood. Cross an international border with an instrument made of that now-restricted wood, and you better have correct and complete documentation proving the age of the instrument. Otherwise, you could lose it to a zealous customs agent—not to mention face fines and prosecution.

John Thomas, a law professor at Quinnipiac University and a blues and ragtime guitarist, says "there's a lot of anxiety, and it's well justified." Once upon a time, he would have taken one of his vintage guitars on his travels. Now, "I don't go out of the country with a wooden guitar."

Why? Was it because Gibson was not a union shop? Did they offend some powerful interest in the administration? What more could they have done to get proof that their wood was legit? These are all just theories. To get answers to actual questions, Gibson might have to do what K did before the fictitious Castle: wait and wait and wait, and win a case in court only to discover that it changed nothing. The interesting thing is that Gibson Guitar CEO Henry Juszkiewicz may understand that he's never going to get a reply, and unlike K, is unwilling to wait indefinitely simply to get a notice that patience is not allowed. So he's taking his case to public, because maybe they can figure it out.

Patiently waiting isn't always the best strategy. In fact, Kafka wrote another story called Before the Law, in which he explained the dangers of patience. The story is a single a paragraph in length and you may read it at the link in five minutes. But here's the gist of it.

Basically the applicant in the story patiently waits before a gate for permission to enter The Law and is given reason after reason for not being allowed in "just now". He waits for decades and decades and when he is finally dying of old age he aks the gatekeeper why he was never permitted entry. And he wants to know why no one else was seeking entry at this imposing gate? The answer is unforgettable.

The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things considerably to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you still want to know now?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is it that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?”

The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.”

"This entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it."

How did Washington ever become so Kafkaesque? What process transpired in the historical night to make so many individuals wake up to find themselves transformed into monstrous vermin ruled by officials at golf course? And who can answer this mysterious question? If Juszkiewicz simply waits for an answer to when the DOJ decided it was illegal to manufacture a guitar, it might be like waiting for the last doorway to close, the one made only for him.

"No Way In" print and Kindle edition at Amazon

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