Friday, November 11, 2011

Notes From An Insane America


If you've seen even one zombie movie you know that the first rule for fighting zombies is don't try to negotiate!! It's pointless and it will almost certainly get you killed and turned into one of them. When you encounter the zombie there is only one mode of survivable action, with variations: a pick axe in the head or a shotgun to the brain (see Zombieland). It doesn't matter whether the zombie was your best friend or a member of your immediate family, the rule applies. 

Of course this brings up the Buddhist question of compassion. Well compassion, like negotiation, in the case of zombies is pretty useless. I mean, you can have compassion for the person that the zombie used to be, but that person, regrettably, is gone. We are talking now about getting through this thing, and believe me the zombie may agree to a couple of video games (see: Shaun of the Dead) but he or she doesn't give a rats ass for your feelings of compassion or anything else. The primary motivation is to kill and feed and maybe to add to its numbers.

I'm thinking about zombies because I got two notes this week via email that reminded me we are turning into a nation of zombies, and have been on that trajectory for as long as I can remember. By zombie, I mean someone who is programmed and motivated primarily by fear, and who then is driven to become the active embodiment of both fear and anger (see: 28 Days (and Weeks) Later). 

The first note was a many times forwarded message about an URGENT!!! Virus alert regarding the Koobface virus being spread via email and Facebook. This was on November 5th, Guy Fawkes Dayand it had references to the outlaw hacking group Anonymous, which had been making threats to bring down Facebook for some weeks. My first thought was that this was a deliberate hoax perpetrated in place of an actual taking down of the site, which would cause a great deal of consternation in the style of a massive practical joke. It turns out, after research (see above) that the virus actually exists, although it probably has little or no actual connection with Anonymous. 

A week before this event I'd seen Steven Soderbergh's latest movie, Contagionand thought it a brilliant exploration of the ways that information is used in our society as a means of control and as a weapon for both deception and defense. On the surface the film is a rather dispassionate account of events that unfold after a very lethal viral outbreak that rapidly spreads worldwide and brings society to a halt. But from the beginning, on Day 2 of the outbreak, we see how our need to believe in our precious myths of stability clashes with the reality of actual conditions as they unfold. From the conversation between a doctor and the Matt Damon character, who is unable to comprehend the reality of his wife's death, to the riots in the streets over limited supplies of a rumored cure, we are witness to the clash of belief and fact. The race to save lives leads ultimately to a contest between 'true belief' and science. The believer is embodied by the character of a Drudge-like Internet blogger played by Jude Law. The face of the scientific establishment is seen as the director of the Center for Disease Control, played by Lawrence Fishburn. Near the center of the narrative is a televised debate between the two, with Jude Law on a screen accusing the government of collusion with drug companies and Fishburn defending the efforts of scientists to find an actual serum. Between these two visions of paranoia and control we witness society tearing itself to pieces. The dissonance and impending chaos, ironically, is advanced because of our so-called enhanced abilities to communicate. Communication itself is seen manifesting as a form of virus, in some ways more deadly than the biological disease. 

Zombie Fever is a sort of virus, spread by contact with the walking dead. I think it no accident that one of the more popular and critically acclaimed new television series is actually called, The Walking Deadand is indeed about zombies. The real world equivalent of the zombie virus is spread by fear. As capitalism declines the level of fear increases and whole industries arise for the sole purpose of spreading that fear (Fox News). The thing about fear and zombies is that zombies are the active embodiment of fear and rage and unsatisfied hunger, and as such can be pretty easily programmed to attack anything or anyone that the fear monger designates as other. 

The Internet has actually increased the rate of zombie virus expansion. It used to be that a few fringe groups passing out leaflets from storefronts, like the John Birch Society or the Nazi's or the Maoists, and maybe a few lonely sounding late night talking voices on far flung radio stations would catch the attention of the gullible few. Nowadays whole communities and religions of fear organize themselves on Facebook. They even go mainstream and take over political parties to appear respectable. As we encounter each other less and less and give over more of our thinking to digital social networking we become both number and dumber. With the benefit of far reaching data access charlatans and con men assemble all kinds of facts and doctored photos and paint whatever picture will press your button and serve their own need to feel powerful. 

The second note I got was from a very close friend who sent me a link to a diatribe that presented a truly baroque scenario involving government concentration camps built by Halliburton and run by thousands of muslim and communist guards. These camps were where the rest of us, sorted into the 'red' and the 'blue' groups, according to our perceived threat to the state, would either be imprisoned or executed. Thousands of these camps exist all over the landscape, just waiting for the right moment to be used. There were photos. There were testimonies. There was a distinct echo and elaboration of virtually every other conspiracy theory that has gone before. 
In the Age of Glenn Beck we've come a long way from the relatively harmless New Age conspiracy scenarios of 12th planets and robots living in the center of the earth and the end of the world in 2012. Not exactly in the mainstream, these at least offered some sense that we should each be striving to get our personal act together to prepare for the world to come. Not so different are those encyclopedic collections of the esoteric; the Bible and the Quran and the Book of Mormon, which offer at least some occasional good advice and can be taken as metaphor and parable for guidance. Then again, when taken literally, these so-called 'holy' texts are the most destructive documents in existence, rendering the whole concentration camp and government control conspiracy thing as strictly amateur.

All of these are reasons for where we find ourselves, in Zombieland. I'm no longer just a skeptic of conspiracy theories, which demand a level of human collusion and secret cooperative behavior that no one in existence has ever experienced first hand. Instead, in these days when we have so much that's important in the real world to deal with, I find them to be absolutely pernicious. They are poison to the soul. They have no other purpose than to breed fear, increase our sense of victimization, and locate the source of our perceived inadequacies in others. Thus we create an army of 'dittoheads' who will march in whatever direction they are pointed. 

And after all, the common reason for all of these imagined systems of belief is our fear of death and our need to create some sense that we can somehow avoid it. Meanwhile we have to fill that inner void of unknowing with....something. What other reason can there be for our obsessive need to continually amass more stuff and our envy of all those who get there first?   

Here is more evidence of our zombiehood: Only a nation of zombies would watch what's going on around them and deny that the climate is changing. Only a nation of zombies addicted to 'reality television' would find the Republican debates to be anything other than an exhibition of our national ignorance. Only a nation of zombies totally unable to deal with even the most obvious situations would march so intently toward its own decline while purposefully ignoring in every way any sense of its own responsibility.  

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