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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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So, we’ve got to reframe the problem: Whether or not we did it maliciously, we Americans have created a system that marginalizes the poor with more reckless abandon every day. Meanwhile, the poor grow in numbers – it’s what New Pornographers songwriter Carl Newman describes in 2007’s “My Rights Versus Yours” as a “new empire in rags.”

In 1999, late poet-novelist incidental-prophet Reynolds Price published these words in a volume of collected poems:

…when we thirst in this dry night
We drink from hot wells poisoned with the blood of children
And when we strain to hear a steady homing beam
Our ears are balked by stifled moans
And howls of desolation from the throats of sisters, brothers, wild men
Clawing at the gates for bread

Our well-being means that others will starve. Maybe we’ve simply lost our innocence and begun to realize this. Stories about corporate excess and third world exploitation are no longer the sole realm of left-wing media because they now sell in mainstream audiences. At least, that was the lesson for "This American Life," which scored its largest audience to date with Mike Daisey’s later partially disproven poverty porn about Apple’s exploitation of Chinese workers through an affiliate called Foxconn.

That suggested a cultural shift of some kind, even if incomplete or uninformed. In that case, the victims were external and “other” – probably we haven’t become accustomed yet to the possibility that the victims are us. But we expect great tragedy any day now, and there’s no better metaphor for the feelings of powerlessness than the zombie menace.

In this age of obsessing about apocalyptic tragedies beyond our control, we stop ourselves from asking the real questions about what is causing such social and political despair, and we abdicate responsibility for figuring out what it will take to fend off the end. The 9/11 generation of young people – those of us for whom September 11 has been shaping political discourses since the beginning of our participation in representative democracy – were taken off-guard all those years ago, and we haven’t quite recovered. The United States we live in today is not the one our parents and teachers told us about 20 years ago.

We didn’t create the unjust system we’re living in, but we’re going to have to change it. And perhaps the beginning of change is the recognition that our problems are man-made and that we do have some control, however slight, over what happens next. It’s not zombies we have to fear. It’s the pervasiveness of the belief that extreme disparity is the natural state of things. It’s alarming that these attitudes persist without question or analysis amid media circuses that offer nothing but spectacle.

Zombies promise certain doom that we cannot possibly defeat. The promise of impending self-destruction, by contrast, offers us a shred of agency – that is, the slight possibility that we can fix this. And however small or unsatisfying this reminder may be, we can at least remember that we have a little more hope than, say, the characters who appear in "The Walking Dead."


Kristin Rawls is a freelance writer whose work has also appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, GOOD Magazine, Religion Dispatches, Killing the Buddha, Global Comment and elsewhere online.

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