NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT – Suppose the walking dead attacked your house. Would you (a) defend yourself; (b) lock the door and dial 911; (c) write a Facebook post blaming the sequester; or (d) negotiate?
If you don’t know that the correct answer is (a), you won’t survive the zombie apocalypse.
Zombies are everywhere these days. In June, Brad Pitt will star in the film version of Max Brooks’s best-selling novel “World War Z.” The Westerosi of “Game of Thrones” have to worry about the White Walkers. Harry Potter had to face the Inferi. Even Dr. Gregory House had to battle zombies, although it turned out he was only dreaming.
So it should scarcely come as a surprise that zombies have moaned and shuffled their way into politics — including, unsurprisingly, the debate over gun control. This month, an article in The Guardian created a stir by analyzing AMC’s wildly popular serial “The Walking Dead” — every episode of which features scenes in which the characters must either kill their way out of corners or die horribly — and concluding that the program, properly understood, represents a call for more regulation of firearms.
Maybe so. But I’m skeptical. Because, if there is one commonality to all the various presentations of zombies in popular culture, back to the early George Romero and even to 19th century “zombi” fiction, it is that nobody is there to save you. The only way to defeat the zombie is to do it yourself.
Certainly self-defense is a crucial argument among those who favor relatively lax regulation of firearms. Protection, according to a poll of gun owners in February, is the No. 1 reason they own a gun. And the overwhelming majority of those who own guns say they feel safer knowing that others own guns.
But this concern may not be limited to gun owners. Another poll — taken in January, just a month after the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut — found that almost two-thirds of respondents consider the right to bear arms a protection against tyranny. As might be expected, the proportion was higher among gun owners, but some 57 percent of those not owning guns agreed.
How does all of this relate to the zombies? Bear in mind that contemporary zombie stories are apocalyptic — that is, the world we know has fallen by the wayside. Government has been swept away. Plucky survivors are banding together. Self-reliance is less ideology than necessity, and self-defense is the only way to survive.
Observers of the cultural zombie phenomenon point to all the supposed menaces that the walking dead, in their implacable hunger, might represent: immigrants, or terrorists, or even simply the march of secularism and modernity. Certainly the phenomenon arises at a moment when the nation is almost as deeply in doubt as it is in debt. As Terrence Rafferty has noted in the New York Times, “The zombie is clearly the right monster for this glum mood.”
We should look deeper. Zombie fiction is particularly popular among the young — the same young, remember, who overwhelmingly believe that Social Security won’t be there when they retire. I suspect that zombie stories appeal to a generation that is secretly worried that government itself won’t make it; that the manifest inability of our politics to cope with today’s challenges suggests a likely incompetence at tackling tomorrow’s.
So viewed, the zombie apocalypse provides an example of what Tom Moylan, in his classic study “Scraps of the Untainted Sky,” refers to as “critical dystopia”: the use of an imagined, unattractive future to call attention to the sociological and technological risks of the present.
And what’s that risk? It’s that the White Walkers will soon be massing along the Wall, and the powers that be won’t be able to stop them. (Think Benghazi, Libya.) It’s that the powers that be might themselves cease to be, in which case we’ll have to protect ourselves or die — just as gun-rights advocates insist.
I myself doubt that the future is so grim. But we can hardly blame gun owners for believing it or young people for wondering. We live in a time when all politics are Manichean. The sky is always falling. The other party is always on the verge of bankrupting the nation, or destroying private industry, or demolishing the Constitution.
This adolescent rhetoric isn’t designed to reassure. It’s designed to frighten. Social Security won’t be there unless you adopt our fix, each side proclaims. Medicare won’t be there. The armed forces might not even be there.
It’s true: The future is scary. By screaming about the horrors to come, however, politicians and pundits are implicitly suggesting that government might not be able to handle what lies ahead. Small wonder that trust in government remains at historic lows.
The zombie is a warning to baby boomers: Our children are worried that the fortifications along the wall might not hold. Let’s hope there’s time to leave them a different legacy.
Stephen L. Carter is a law professor at Yale University and a Bloomberg columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.