The topic for this blog has been kicking around in my head – changing shape and meaning – since 2009, when Time Magazine contributor, Lev Grossman commented on the pop-culture zombie craze of that year in his brief piece, “Zombies Are the New Vampires” Grossman asserts that the zombie “exemplifies some real American values” through his “plucky and tenacious” qualities. The zombie is “humble,” notes Grossman, adding that unlike vampires, zombies are “monsters of the people.” Grossman concludes “it was the beginning of the end for vampires when Lehman Brothers went under, those bloodsucking parasites. Down with vampires. Long live (or is it die?) the zombie: the official monster of the recession.”
Consider also the following 2009 South Park episode’s commentary on this subject (illustrated here as a clip remix):
I loved Grossman’s piece when I read it and connected it right away to Trey Parker’s and Matt Stone’s housing bubble satire. But let me here admit that I hate zombie movies. Zombies are absolutely terrifying, even in the construction-paper world of South Park; you cannot reason with a zombie, so far as I know. And though they eat human brains, zombies’ own brains are infected with a pathological, carnal idiocy. They are tenacious – tenacious in their desperation for flesh to tear apart and devour. And so here is where I disagree with Grossman and align myself with Parker and Stone – the zombie is, I agree, the monster of the recession; but not as a glorious depiction of American tenacity, a fun and whimsical way in which we act out our confidence in the ability of American workers to survive economic death. The zombie is a manifestation of real and growing elitist fears about the power those workers possess in numbers, a fear that we too may be closer to “catching” the disease ourselves. This is a fear of contagious, man-eating ignorance and desperation – the kind of poverty and idiocy that many of us believe becomes the pathology of any society. What lead me here? Rhetoric, of course. Namely that of AMC’s original series, The Walking Dead and Glenn Beck’s 9-12 Project.
Now, before you start thinking I am about to call Beck out on his zombie-leader, monster-making status, I need to confess that part of why I hate zombie movies lies in my deep sympathy for the brainless, half-chewed ghouls – even while they’re frothing at the mouth and breaking through some innocent and lovable human’s barred storm cellar door. And here is where I parallel this to my natural and indelible sympathies with the American worker. The woman who collects the trash and dusts the offices in Bachelor Hall (we will call her Paula to protect her identity), my father, mother, uncles, grandparents – hell, the lady behind the cheese counter at Kroger and Dale who fixes our furnace when it goes out . . .these are people I feel truly kin to, still. And so, in some ways, I write this to explore academic and liberal elitist fears of the Tea Party movement, many of which have admittedly become my own fears, but also to answer how Tea Partiers and zombies become “infected” and then epidemic when “those who know best” ignore them.
So far in the world of The Walking Dead zombies are traditional. These are not the fast-acting super zombies of I Am Legend, no. They cannot speak, they are only dangerous in large groups, and they are really, really desperate for sustenance. A bullet or sharp blow to the head stops them re-dead in their tracks – because their “brains are infected” with the disease that makes people in to monsters. And the parallel here almost seems too easy – how many times I have heard colleagues, friends, my partner, journalists scoff at the infectious moronic claims Beck and other TP representatives make regarding (insert any of the following: Barack Obama’s nationality, taxation for public health care, government Czars, founding fathers, Jesus Christ, Muslims. . . .). As I proceeded with my inevitable analysis of The Walking Dead with its characterizations of poor whites as violent and racist, brain-eating, rag-wearing women and children, and the South (Tea Party territory, for sure) itself as a place of apocalyptic upheaval, selfish, flesh-eating anarchy that has overthrown human civility and reason – I felt that I was seeing rhetoric that reflects elitist fears of Beck’s followers – and the tenets of his movement.
Check out the rhetoric of Beck’s 9-12 Project, a guiding set of principles for the Tea Party. Note the culture war language about “surrounding” the “few” elite leaders in power, the confidence in the individual to be his own “authority” on how to govern, the resentment towards a government asking taxpayers to be charitable. Are we (and here I align myself with liberal, academics) afraid of this now mass mediated, talking head-lead assault on progressivism and populist practices? Why shouldn’t we be? After all, if folks in red states stop seeing taxation as a means to the end of public good, will access to education and health care – and ultimately our own relevance as academics – be eaten away? Are Tea Partiers – white, working, uneducated lower classes – devouring our humanity in their desperate search for sustenance? Or have they simply been a force ignored too long by liberalism – left with too little access to brains, voice, sympathy?
To answer this question I will give you these three intersections of Tea Party, working class, and zombie rhetoric. 1) Beck’s mission statement asks “Do you believe that your voice isn’t loud enough to be heard above the noise anymore?” – defining potential Tea Partiers as silenced, ignored, drowned out by the current political and social rhetoric 2) Paula, my maintenance woman pal, teases me about being “so smart” – asking that I call her “dumbass” and frequently laments that, though she will go without a raise until 2013, Miami’s president makes close to $300,000 per year and “don’t care nothin’ for us down here.” 3) The zombies of The Walking Dead cannot talk, are frequently underestimated and overlooked, and truly harmless unless amassed.
Zombies are absolutely terrifying; I’ll say it again. But then, the monsters we make usually are. By paying attention to the Tea Party – not Beck, but the real, scared, hungry people who lose their jobs and listen to him with rapt attention, to the Paulas who invariably, invisibly sweep these halls of the university – liberal academics can recognize the power we are scared of, we can legitimize and engage working class concerns, take them seriously as the formidable force they can become. After all, the challenge of avoiding zombification in any t.v. show or horror flick, is usually a simple matter of understanding how monsters get made.