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What Does Our Obsession With Zombie Stories Tell Us About Our Politics?

Between widespread feelings of political disenfranchisement and growing economic inequality, it's easy to feel as if we're facing a zombie apocalypse.

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Who can forget the extensive media coverage Harold Camping, the fundie hack who warned that the end was coming last May, received? That story was no more newsworthy than the Left Behind series, but it assumed a far more prominent place in national media discussions than the book series ever did. For weeks, pundits on both right and left rehashed the history of end times “prophets” in the US, interviewed scores of believers and non-believers and sparked a speculative national conversation about end times survivalism.

Of course, much of the talk was in jest. Then, as now, there was quite a bit of joking about the impending destruction of humanity. Commenting on the media phenomenon at that time, Global Comment editor Emily Manuel wrote, “My theory is that jokes about the Rapture express a deeper anxiety about the decidedly apocalyptic times we live in… It’s clear that there are looming crises in both global capitalism and the environment. When taken altogether, it’s hard not to get the feeling that the end of the world as we know it is nigh.”

There is much to fear these days, so much that it prompted the Associated Press to publish a piece wondering if “[m]aybe it’s that we joke about the things we fear”? Indeed, maybe zombie apocalypse didn’t loom large in the cultural imaginary of the 1990s – at least not beyond geek culture – because Americans were not afraid. But weakening empire, worldwide political alienation, diminished standards of living and growing inequality – these things that characterize the political landscape in 2012 have understandably provoked feelings of fear. In this political landscape, zombie jokes are a coping mechanism. Of course they seem insensitive in light of the tragedies that spawned them, but it should be pointed out that they’re nothing but gallows humor in a time of uncertainty. Culture sure has changed since the 1990s.

There is no doubt that Americans have little reason for optimism these days, and cultural tropes – like the zombie – are born of lost confidence and waning hope. But the sensationalism has, unfortunately, obscured some of the things we might be able to change, if we started talking about justice and equality more than we talk about certain doom. At the Huffington Post, Subhash Khateel offers this to explain the Florida case:

Florida is the  second to worst state in the country when it comes to funding mental health services. Of the  325,000 people with persistent and severe mental illness, only 42 percent receive treatment. 

-In 2010, the State Legislature  cut adult community mental health funding, children's mental health funding and adult substance abuse services by more than $18 million. This year, the state legislature  tried to make Florida the worst state in the nation at funding mental health, and almost succeeded. 

-Prescription drug overdoses and the prescription drug death rate  are up in Florida by 61 percent and 84 percent respectively. That didn't stop state politicians  from trying to cut funding for drug treatment by 20 percent, which would have kicked 37,000 people out of services while they were trying to kick a habit. 

- First responders across the state say that they are seeing mental health cases that they have never seen before, such as a  Palm Beach man who was held in custody 50 times in one year under the state's  Baker Act because he was a threat to himself and others.

They’re alarming statistics, to be sure, but they’re also indicative of social problems that could be solved if citizens and politicians got serious about solving them once and for all. It seems impossible given that we’re living in what one comedian – in response to the Wisconsin vote – called the “Citizens United States of America.” Right now, there certainly aren’t any clear paths forward.

 
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