Monday, January 30, 2012

Building for a better world: zombies and eugenics

From the very start I would like the fact to be noted that I think zombie studies, in general, are pretty dumb. However, the impact of zombies as a cultural movement that can be read in possible parallel to other historical or present happenings is intriguing. Mainly because the character and actions, so described by the big and small screens, of zombies provide, whether I like it or not, windows into how people think about other people.
With zombies there is often a problem of location. One group of people, now transformed through some event (sometimes stated (The Walking Dead, Night of the Living Dead), sometimes not (World War Z) is trying to overcome the other group in the location that the latter group believes to be, up until that point, secure. Typically in these scenarios the zombie group is much larger than the non-zombie group, hence the dramatic tension-will the smaller group outwit, destroy, and otherwise survive the larger devastating group. Because the larger group is indeed so devastating this is license, in the narrative renderings of the smaller group escaping, fighting for its life, is an excuse for a cinematic excess of blood, gore and general complete destruction.
The original Night  of the Living Dead stands in some conflict to the contemporary view of zombie relations. A cursory glance through the related Wikipedia article under the reception heading shows, even from this 30,000 foot view, that zombies aren't just to be read as brainless, flesh-desiring, un-humans but as specters or visions of conflict. They are the brain-eating elephant  wandering the room.
 I have just recently finished A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era edited by Paul Lombardo. This book is frankly chilling, especially the last two chapters dealing with the issue of bottom-line mentalities and HMO's and how close this brings us back to eugenic-type thinking. But let's return to the zombies. What enabled state governments in the United States to pass enforced sterilization laws that were in place up until 1979 was fear. Many of the individuals pushing for enforced sterilization argued that there was a rapidly growing section of the population that would, if not checked through eugenic methods-mainly sterilization, would threaten to fully overwhelm and presumably devour the rest of the population.This group of the population was referred to often as "feeble-minded" or "deviant" and almost always found in the poor and incarcerated. These individuals were undesirable on some particular level either through their perceived lack of contribution to society (deviance, "feeblemindedness") or their taking from it (prison, welfare, etc.) So politicians kicked in the hype machine. (Note that much of the eugenic/sterilization use in the US predates Nazi Germany by at least 30 years.)
Again, I don't think zombie studies are particularly legitimate. That being said, these particular myths offer unique parallels to how proponents of eugenics, managing individuals' ability to reproduce, saw these groups of people.
1. Drain of resources (Those sterilized were seen as a drain on state resources and, more dangerously, likely to produce offspring that were also a drain on resources.)
2. Curb appetite. (Zombies are known for appetite which a headshot/decapitation eliminates. The original proponent of enforced sterilization originally posited that the procedure was to eliminate excessive masturbation and general unpleasantness in the prison inmates. )
3. Proponents of enforced sterilization stated numerous times, in different states throughout this period, that there was the distinct possibility of being overrun by those and their offspring, if not controlled.
This is not to say that eugenics and zombies are anyway related or that the thousands of people who were forcibly sterilized are related to zombie-type punishment. Rather the fashion in which the policy-makers and medical personnel reacted to the individuals whom they perceived as lesser, deserved nothing more than complete annihilation as though these "lesser" individuals were only capable of destruction.
This is simplistic, granted but fear/suspense is one of the main narrative drivers of the zombie film genre. Will the individuals make it into the truck or won't they? Will the cut-off team survive the next onslaught? Can the small group of survivors make it against the vast unknown zombie horde?
It is much easier to be afraid of something when you don't know how big it is.So politicians/proponents pushed the fear up by creating a fake horde claiming if something wasn't done to prevent this their way of life would disappear.
It is important to remember that when any individual(s) call on fear/terror for immediate decision making the shuffle and groan of zombie voices also begin to rise up. Ungrounded fear cannot be the vehicle by which any individual or group makes or bases their decisions in dealing with another group of human beings. Otherwise we may well found ourselves slaying what we believe to be zombies but when the blinders are removed, are rather fellow sojourners on this swiftly tilting planet.

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