By Joseph Young
World War Z, the latest Zombie book turned big-screen summer blockbuster, has got me thinking about the undead. I am not a fan of the genre. To be fair, these undead killers have been the stars of feature films since the 1960s. Dan Drezner made them cool for the foreign policy crowd.
As our readers know, I do like post-apocalyptic stories. There is, of course, some overlap. Pondering how societies operate once social order collapses or how people rebuild after a huge shock is fascinating both as entertainment and in ways that help me think about what makes our daily society work. Zombies can induce these changes. Shouldn’t I be a fan then? Besides the glaringly obvious reason, there is a downside to Zombies.
In any conflict, there are parties with interests. Sometimes one side is clearly the aggressor or wrong1, but most times there are factors that lead each to be active participants in the chaos that violent conflict creates. When we succumb to black and white thinking, it is easier to view the other as evil and justify any response.
Films often depict human interaction as a dichotomy. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter all portray agents of good battling agents of evil for control of the universe. An ancient religion started by the prophet Mani, or Manichaeism, saw the world as a giant struggle between the forces of dark and light. Without entering too much into ancient religions, the core dualism of the ideas allowed individuals to order the world and justify responses to perceived evil. This dualist thinking has permeated (or has been independently adopted by) other religions or cultures. The problems with this mindset are many. Randy Borum, a psychologist and terrorism expert offers one such example. When individuals identify a problem, blame another for the problem, and view the other as evil, it then justifies however they choose to respond to this threat. He suggests that this is a common pathway that an individual employs to justify and then perpetrate acts of terrorism.
During the Cold War, Ronald Reagan famously took a hard line against the Soviet Union, terming it the evil empire. Popular culture more than obliged this construction of the enemy. Red Dawn, Firefox, and even the Rocky franchise depicted an evil empire that was bent on destruction of the West. Ivan Drago, the Soviet boxer from Rocky IV, killed Apollo Creed, who was adorned in stars and stripes boxing trunks, and showed no remorse stating in broken English, “if he dies, he dies”. Rocky then had to go mano-a-mano to defend the US and all that is good against a cold-calculating, evil enemy (to be fair, they softened Ivan Drago toward the end as he respected Rocky’s ability to absorb punishment).
The new popular evil empire is Zombies (or maybe Vampires). How can you negotiate with a being hell-bent on eating your flesh? What is the only appropriate policy response? Do we apply these Manichean thoughts about Zombies to other perceived enemies? It is difficult to measure the influence that popular culture has on people’s views related to major policy questions. To the extent that people are influenced based on the media they consume, Zombie lessons are dangerous. Few conflicts have a clear division between the sides. For example, who is bad in Syria? The dictator? The Jihadis? The fractured rebels? The Russians? The Iranians? The US? I don’t want this to digress to an argument about pure moral relativism. Hitler and Stalin allow us to steer our moral compass to zero and then start placing other actions and leaders along a spectrum. The larger point is that in most cases with most people, there are interests and there is grey, not black and white or Zombie flesh eating.