Post by Category : Zombies

The Inability to Think

The ideal subject of a totalitarian state is not the convinced Nazi or Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (that is the standards of thought) no longer exist.


Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

There is a new horror show on HBO called “Years and Years”. Set in the U.K. in a near term future, it appears that a Trump like figure (played by Emma Thompson) is on the political horizon. Below is a rough transcription of an exchange between a young married couple. In recent years Daniel (a public housing manager) and Ralph have grown apart. Daniel works long hours finding shelter for refugees. Ralph, a school teacher, has taken refuge in the Internet.

Ralph: (The link I sent you),,,proves that germs don’t exist..the whole germ thing was faked by big pharma…there’s no such thing.

Daniel: Thats bollocks! You’ll be joining the Flat Earth Society next.

Ralph: Now THAT stuff is fascinating!

Daniel: You’re kidding!

Ralph: Have you read it?

Daniel: No…and I never will!

Ralph: Well that’s ignorance..isn’t it? How is that going to help anyone by not reading?

Daniel: For god’s sake….you are not saying the Earth is flat are you? You teach children for godssake? We have been in an airplane…we have seen the horizon curve!

Ralph: I am not saying it is flat. It is an option….I’m not saying I am absolutely right so you can’t say I am absolutely wrong.

Poor Daniel is gobsmacked. His partner can no longer think. Ralph is at sea in an eternal present of information that is all of the same value. Unsuprisingly, Ralph is intrigued by the Trump-like leader. Daniel is repelled by her.

As Hannah Arendt also noted, Adolf Eichmann was the banal monster who lost to the ability to think. I have only watched the first episode. I may not be able to watch any more. Too close to home. I’ll take Freddie Kruger any day.

With whom do you believe?

The Irish sociologist Kieran Healy reminds us that rituals do not have to arrive dressed in costume or accompanied by swinging censers to create bonds between people. But they do have to allow people to find a place to do their part and do so amongst other people who will also do their part.

Crucially, those involved all see one another participating in the event. By doing so, they enact their collective life in view of one another, demonstrating its reality, expressing its meaning, and feeling its pulse in their veins. That, Durkheim thought, is at root what a society is.

Healy goes on to observe that mass shootings have become an American ritual:

The United States has institutionalized the mass shooting … preparation for a shooting is a part of our children’s lives as soon as they enter kindergarten. The ritual of a Killing Day is known to all adults. It is taught to children first in outline only, and then gradually in more detail as they get older. The lockdown drill is its Mass. The language of “Active shooters”, “Safe corners”, and “Shelter in place” is its liturgy. “Run, Hide, Fight” is its creed. Security consultants and credential-dispensing experts are its clergy. My son and daughter have been institutionally readied to be shot dead as surely as I, at their age, was readied by my school to receive my first communion. …This ritual of childhood is not a betrayal of “who we are” as a country. It is what America has made of itself, how it worships itself and how it makes itself real.

Kieran Healy, here

Ritual and religion. Healy’s insight helped crystallize my thoughts about how our home grown mass murderers arise out of the same basic religious impulses that also fertilize the Taliban. Men (generally, young men) struggling with social isolation, looking for a narrative to give their lives meaning and a community of people who buy the same storylines; these are the acolytes. The internet is their church. In their church, they can click on text sacralized by which ever community of fear mongers, white supremacists, xenophobes and misogynists most suits them. With every thumbs-up they click, with each screed they post, they are participating in rituals of togetherness and feeling the pulse of solidarity with fellow travelers. They are in their basements singing with the choir, fondling their guns and making themselves real to themselves.

They are free to think what they want and they are free to acquire an arsenal with which to exercise their religious impulses. The rest of us are “free” to be randomly shot at any time.

Thus Spake the Zeitgeist

Zombies?

What does this photo tell you?

Roland Barthes would see the crowd, the signs being waved and the t-shirt logo as the “studium” of this photo; the physical, cultural and historical details of the photo that teach us something about the context of a frozen moment. What Barthes would call the “punctum” of this photo – the detail that compels your eye and skewers you – is the defiant and indifferent stare of an old white man.

My first reaction was that I need to jettison the rest of my lingering Socratism (the fanciful notion that if you marshal enough rational arguments you can bring anyone around to your vision of the truth). This old white guy is basking in belligerence; he is not beckoning anyone to civil discourse. I can see no political utility in trying persuade this man (and the portion of the electorate he represents) of anything. Instead, we must see this man and his ilk as the most visible symptoms of an underlying disorder.

I am listening for the politicians who speak directly to the root causes of this disorder; what Bernard Stiegler calls our culture’s “symbolic misery”. So far in this run-up to the 2020 elections, two candidates have impressed me. Elizabeth Warren when asked if she was a socialist replied, “I believe in markets…but capitalism without rules is theft”. The billionaire Sacklers get us hooked on oxy, hoover up as much money as they can from hapless victims and for the pittances they give back to museums are called “philanthropists”. Pillars of American society.
Peter Buttigieg said this:

To the folks on the other side, freedom means ‘freedom from.’ Usually, freedom from government, as if government were the only thing that could make you unfree. That’s just not true. Your neighbor can make you unfree. Your cable company can make you unfree. If they get into the business of telling you who you can marry, your county clerk can make you unfree. Let’s talk about what freedom really means. Freedom means being able to start a small business because you know that when you leave your old job, that doesn’t mean you have to lose your healthcare. Freedom means that your reproductive health is up to you. Freedom means that when you have paid your debt to society, you get to re-enter society and become a productive, tax-paying, voting citizen. Freedom means you can organize for fair day’s work, a fair day’s pay, and a fair day’s conditions.

I don’t think Mayor Buttigieg read my post “The Shallow Freedoms of Neo-Liberalism” but given his education I cannot help but believe that he is channeling Isaiah Berlin as he zeroes in on a primary feature of the neo-liberal pathology- the reduction of the concept of freedom to retail choice. We are free to buy anything we want at the grocery store but our children are not “free” to attend school without active shooter drills. If you are an African American teenager you are “free” to buy a hoodie but you are not free to run down the street in it. If you are a poor American, you are “free” to stay poor and so are your children. You are “free” to go to college and “free” to be indentured to a student loan thereafter.

I am listening for candidates who will tell us that things are backward; that we are all the “government” and our life values must supersede the transactional values of the marketplace. I want to hear that we can collectively decide what constitutes a just distribution of wealth; that we are free to create the social and economic conditions in which everyone can flourish.

I am listening.

An American Loon

We all know something about climate change (unless we live under a rock with no reception ). Since I wrote my first posts, a Guardian poll came out indicating that most americans do believe in climate change (even in Red States). Apparently, some pundits and politicians haven’t caught up with mainstream Oklahoma.

If we believe in climate change (and believe it might be fixed or mitigated), we all recognize -explicitly or tacitly – that our moral calculus about how we live our lives will have to change. George Will has recently trotted out a shift in his denialist stance. “Yes”, he says, the climate is changing because climate is naturally capricious and is “always changing”. The question is, then, how “much wealth we will have to forego” to mitigate the effects of climate change. We can call George Will an “anti-climate science loon” as Jonathan Chait does. We can assign him to the scrapheap of zombies. Or we can recognize that Will is mining the rich vein of American distrust of government.

In his great book, “A Necessary Evil” Gary Wills points out that Americans’ view of government oscillates between pairs of opposing values: provincial/cosmopolitan, amateur/expert, spontaneous/authoritative, traditional/instrumental, populist/elite, organic/mechanical, religious/secular and participatory/regulatory. The second of the two terms is generally viewed as a threat to the first term except when we want something out of government. George Will as a Republican supporter of business appreciates the efficient rule of law that ensures the mechanics of business get done in the widest cosmopolitan arenas. But as Garry Wills notes, business supporters do not hesitate to attach business to other values as they inveigh against regulation because it stifles organic innovation. These supporters like to talk about business “as if it is local and provincial when it is in fact cosmopolitan and will in fact go wherever profits take it”.

Take a good look at those pairs of opposing values. If we, as a polity are going to do anything to mitigate climate change, it will require our government to rely on all those values which are somehow threatening. Scientists and elite technocratic experts from the world over will be the primary architects of plans that will require a central government to be regulatory, mechanical, authoritative and instrumental. But what if the motivation to unleash government to do what it is good at doing is more religious (moral) than it is secular?

This “what if” is behind George Will’s furious rearguard action. By denying any scientific validity to the anthropogenic roots of climate change, he hopes to deny science the moral high ground in a debate that he feels should be restricted to the consideration of the morality of reducing his potential wealth. Any proposed responses to climate change are simply clever liberal ruses to pick his pocket.

George Will is not a zombie or a loon but he is an authentically fearful, provincial and amateur American climate scientist.

Dick Cheney…Zombie?

Image Courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

Image Courtesy of
L.J. Whitsitt

If you Google Dick Cheney zombie, you shall be rewarded. For some people, he mines the polysemy of the zombie like no one else; emotionless, with his voice as uninflected as his thinking, he advances relentlessly propelled by some other (truly) dead person’s heart. Watching Cheney, I appreciate the points of zombie resemblance but I don’t feel the fear because it reminds me of something we have all experienced; discussing politics with the guy whose gaze disconnects as he stops listening in order to excavate a cached response. Your argument is simply a launchpad for his own prepackaged sound bites. The singularity of your thought is dead to him. You think, “there is no talking to this person”. While this is a drive-by zombie moment, you have no fear. Individual zombies even as fleshed out as Dick Cheney are not fear inducing. We can run circles around individual zombies. They cannot recognize us or appreciate us or predict us because they are not connected to us (and have not tried to connect with us).

Zombies are frightening because they are an onslaught. They kill by overwhelming.

The zombies I fear are aggregated for me daily by my web sites of choice. I personally fear the the inexorable advance of a cult of belligerently insular white people who fear change and who want to perfect the world by petrifying it. I can feel inundated by foolish dehumanizing utterances and I can imagine that millions of my fellow citizens agree with such statements. Is it such a huge leap to also imagine that those millions are coming for me next?

Conversely, Fox viewers must feel the inexorable advance of hordes of smug, condescending, Prius driving liberals who, adrift in relativism, look down their noses at traditional values and place too much trust in the government.

It is a most common fallacy to assume that what is true for one member of a class is true for all. Congressman King thinks Hispanic immigrants have calves like canteloupes from humping bales of grass across the border. King is a Republican. Therefore all Republicans believe the same thing about Hispanic immigrants . We can spot this fallacy instantly when it applies to a group of which we are a member. Bernie Madoff is a con man and a thief. Bernie Madoff is an American. Therefore all Americans are con men and thieves.

Unfortunately, we humans are most prone to this fallacy when we are marking the moral distinctions between ourselves and the other; between those that think like us and those who do not; between our tribe and the other tribe. The liberal tribe (zombies to the right) and the conservative tribe (zombies to the left) have in common this easy human readiness to see in an “other” group, a repository of all that is to be scorned and feared.

If we don’t think clearly and if we don’t grant individuals who disagree with us their subjectivity, we consign them…in our false thinking and fearful imagination…to the vast, looming hordes of the undead.

Killing Zombies

Image courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

Image courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

The guilty pleasure we take in a zombie flick is first that they scare us and then they get what they deserve. We tell ourselves, “they are not human”. Cool, open season! Let’s sit back and enjoy how gaudily can we disarticulate them. What the undead do to us normals is horrifying and disgusting, what they get in return is our most lethal creativity.(Jule’s comment two posts ago nicely limns the phenomenology of the zombie flick.)

A related guilty pleasure is political invective. During the frustrating Bush #43 years, I felt almost suffocated by the rhetorical fog (“Patriot Act”, “Operation Iraqi Freedom”,”the Axis of Evil”, “trickle down economics”, “enhanced interrogation). Trenchant criticisim spiked with invective was emotionally and intellectually liberating. Bloggers like the Rude Pundit debased an already debased political language and pointed it in the other direction. The invective of the liberal blogosphere was and continues to be particularly creative in describing the rigid right wing: ,”slack jawed yokels”, “shoutycrackers”, “half-mad dingbats”, “wingnut wahabis” and “skeevy old white people with a thick shell of nutzoid shellac” (to list a few exemplary epithets). In a public Facebook post, I myself once described Republicans as “dim-witted gibbons”.

I apologize for that remark. With that remark I became a zombie; so much a disciple of my own certain beliefs that I could turn all who disagreed with me into Objects of my scorn.

I am not being a scold: political invective can still occasionally amuse me and invigorate my outrage. I do not believe that civility in discourse is a trumping issue: where would African Americans be today if they put civility in discourse above speaking the truth to power? I am making a smaller point as a reminder to myself: you cannot hope to fully understand another’s subjectivity if you do not grant them their subjectivity.

Pope Francis on Zombies

Image courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

Image courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

Pope Francis talks about zombies:

“The faith passes, so to speak, through a distiller and becomes ideology,” he said, according to Radio Vatican. “And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid.

“And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.”

“The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances of the Church of the people,” Francis added. “But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh?”

To be a disciple of a rigid ideology is to be infected with a “serious illness” which frightens other people.