Here for instance is a lovely British [or American] home, with green lawns, appropriate furnishings and a retinue of well-trained servants. Within is a young woman, well trained and well dressed, intelligent and high-minded. She is fingering the ivory keys of a grand piano and pondering the problem of her summer vacation, whether in Switzerland or among the Italian lakes; her family is not wealthy, but it has sufficient ‘independent’ income from investments to enjoy life without hard work. How far is such a person responsible for the crimes of colonialism?
It will in all probability not occur to her that she has any responsibility whatsoever, and that may well be true. Equally, it may be true that her income is the result of starvation, theft, and murder; that it involves ignorance, disease, and crime on the part of thousands; that the system which sustains the security, leisure, and comfort she enjoys is based on the suppression, exploitation, and slavery of the majority of mankind. Yet just because she does not know this, just because she could get the facts only after research and investigation—made difficult by laws that forbid the revealing of ownership of property, source of income, and methods of business—she is content to remain in ignorance of the source of her wealth and its cost in human toil and suffering.
The frightful paradox that is the indictment of modern civilization and the cause of its moral collapse is that a blameless, cultured, beautiful young woman in a London suburb may be the foundation on which is built the poverty and degradation of the world. For this someone is guilty as hell. Who?
This is the modern paradox of Sin before which the Puritan stands open-mouthed and mute. A group, a nation, or a race commits murder and rape, steals and destroys, yet no individual is guilty, no one is to blame, no one can be punished!
-W.E.B. Du Bois, “White Masters of the World,” The World and Africa, 1946, p. 41-42.
I.Recently I played a video game. I don’t usually play video games. At the laundromat they have Ms. Pac Man, which I sometimes plunk quarters into. “Call of Duty: World at War”; this game is based on World War II, and some 50 years later, when most veterans have passed away or are fading, you can move thumbs, press plastic buttons, kill Germans, Japanese, Americans even, participate in a war that seemed to mean something. There are smaller games within the game—situations set up for multiple players and without narrative. We played one: “Nazi Zombies.”
In “Nazi Zombies” you are in an abandoned grey building somewhere in Europe. You have a gun. You can play on your own or with up to three partners. There is a box in the building where you can pick up more guns and ammo. Nazi Zombies attack you, attempting to come into the building and kill you. Nazi Zombies wear the grey-green uniforms of the Third Reich, tattered and dirty. They are inhuman: graywhite ghostly faces and deep, sunken, red eyes. They hobble forward with that zombie limp, the stereotype of night of the living dead zombies, a movie many of us have never seen but know immediately as the pinnacle of zombiness—brainless, blank evil—scary because they are persistent and drawn to us like heat seeking missiles, drug-sniffing dogs; but also note quite terrifying because they are slow, don’t run after us but fumble along as if drunk or have the bad knees of old ball-players. We can run, we can just barely save the girl that has fallen, we can reload our weapon just in time to blast them to dusty pieces.
Nazi Zombies has no plot. It has a single goal: kill Nazi Zombies. As you proceed, they come faster, more numerous, more vicious. When I played, I fumbled with the plastic controls, moving my range of vision without moving the body of my character, or moving my character in a different direction than my field of vision was pointed, walking straight into a Nazi Zombie and his fatal limp. At times, I was able to kill a Nazi Zombie or two, and the difficulty that I had doing so made the achievement satisfying in a strange, distanced way—a vicarious pleasure. Mostly, I watched my friends A., L., and N. play—much more skilled than I, much more in tune with a body coordinated by thumbs and forefingers, much more accepting of the entertainment Nazi Zombies provided.
I sat in L.’s easy chair drinking a dark ale, watching the destruction of Nazi Zombies, the way they exploded, fell in pieces to the ground and disappeared, were not there anymore after the player’s perspective turned around, looked somewhere else and looked back. As if they had not been killed, had never existed. And yet these creatures—Nazi Zombies—were supposed to be frightening, terrifying, a combination of the most fearsome things: supernatural, unexplainable, pure evil and the power of a mechanical, systematically destructive real life army—the grey-green and swastika carrying as much symbolic power as ghoulish faces and red eyes and the limp. It occurred to me then, and I commented to my friends, that what is truly scary is not mindless zombies, but mindful Nazi, the fact that Nazis were not beasts, not brainless, not otherworldly or underworldly—they were living, breathing, thinking human beings with families, friends, fears, joys, pain, ideas, morals, values, struggles. And still, they were Nazis, they did these things, these things that now few of us experience, few of us saw, these things that most of us receive, mediated to us through the flickering images of film, of grainy photographs, the words printed on the pages of a book, maybe. The men and women who did these things—who shot children point blank and kicked their bodies into the gutter; who laid bricks for ovens; who stamped out pieces of handguns and grenades and bombs in weapons factories; who made copies in triplicate of death orders; who drove trains; who farmed food to feed killers; who simply watched, even in pain, as their neighbors’ homes and shops were taken, destroyed—they were not zombies. They were not the living dead, but very much the living—dead in other ways maybe, but very, very human and alive.
What is frightening is the humanity of “evil” rather than the zombiness of it. The ignorance, callousness, disconnection, division, apathy, obliviousness, unconsciousness, and intense hatred of otherness is normal in this world. And of the reality of that normalcy we should be afraid. But zombies make us fearful, they make us see evil and injustice where we otherwise would not. For zombies are pure and uncomplicated, their actions do not, cannot be justified. Zombies fuse the actor and the action into one—we know them, their evilness, by their actions, their bloodthirsty pursuit of human life; and we know their evil actions, can predict them, can run from them, can preventatively blast them with our weightless, pixilated machine guns because we see them, see their evilness in the red, hollow eyes, the tattered grey-green uniforms with swastikas, the visible bones, that limp. But when they are not one, when the actor and the action are two—when the actor has a son of his own who he holds dearly and the action kills the children of others—what then? Where do we look for evil there? Where is the zombie?
For there are zombies. There are zombies that kill children and yet have children of their own. There are zombies roaming the world from East Oakland to Gaza and everywhere between.
After three weeks of Israeli military action in Gaza we see, we must see, an imbalance so great a scale is useless, ridiculous. Rinky-dink rockets, second hand machine guns confront the power of the Israeli army. And just as the Bad New Bears had “Chico’s Bail Bonds” imprinted on the backs of their jerseys, the name of their sponsor, so to should the Israeli army have “U.S. Government” stamped on their fighter jets, bombs, tanks, guns, bulletproof vest, our tax dollars flowing into their military budget like Saudi oil flows into the holding tanks in our neighborhood gas stations and like Saudi oil money flows into the Islamic guerrilla armies that have taken online bullying from Myspace 7th graders to a whole new level, posting videos threatening Israel and the West, videos of sniper attacks on U.S. soldiers.
In Israel, that a long oppressed and brutalized people, once beaten with clubs by big men on horseback in Eastern Europe, once incinerated, gold teeth melted down, still blamed, threatened, attacked, have themselves become the killers of children is a painful thing. One assumes, one thinks, one wishes that those who have seen, felt, survived, and been murdered by zombies would recognize them coming, entering bodies, minds, and souls. But no; in mirrors zombies are invisible, they do not see both backward and forward at the same time; they do not see the congruity of themselves ghettoized in the past and the current Palestinian ghettos created by concrete Israeli walls and ever-closed roadblocks. They see that 1930s German poverty and starvation was illogical, racist justification for their murder, but they do not see that a rocket attack and an injured family and a destroyed home cannot be justification for slaughter and the destruction of a city. They do not see that lives should be traded 100 to 1, that 10 Israeli deaths and 1000 Palestinian deaths are not “equal.” They do not see, they simply believe, and this is frightening.
Zombies embody, inhabit men and women, allowing the human being to remain, but making them killers all the same. Zombies control minds, mathematics, and language, create killers out of people who love hummus, coffee, soccer, their dogs, the sunset, the smell of the fertile crescent early in the morning. Zombies plant their own definition of “security” in the minds of human beings and create people that support the bombing of cheap concrete apartment buildings where children play on the roof to stay away from the danger in the street. I don’t know where the zombies are; I can’t see them, but there are humans in Israel and Palestine and that frightens me.
III.I have a vision of East Oakland, CA: bombs fall from the sky upon mostly brown people. Young men and even some women, who are surrounded by train tracks and freeways, sent to schools that can’t teach, have jobs that don’t pay, don’t satisfy—they have been firing short range rockets into neighborhoods in Montclair, Piedmont. Bombs are falling in East Oakland, killing 20 innocent people for every one that is accused of firing rockets into the homes of the white and wealthy. A few rockets have destroyed homes, injured a few, and the bombing, the killing of hundreds is justified away by government men.
One wonders… (And wonders which part of this is most unlikely, how unlikely, or are we too quick to shake our heads and say “this would never… this is not…”)
But, for now, this does not happen, because these young men often turn on themselves, firing hand cannons instead of rockets. And these children need protection, from each other, from themselves, but primarily from the conditions of a society that steals their lives from them. But they have no protection, and they/we have instead only more zombies, humans that have been taken over by zombies and shoot innocent children in the back on a BART platform on New Year’s day with hundreds, now thousands, watching.
Zombies control men’s minds and plant feelings and fears in the words “young” and “black” and “male.” In the minds of the young white police officers that come in to Oakland from over the hill, from Concord, Dublin, Livermore, zombies attach fear and resentment to everything that a young man like Oscar Grant is—his color, his clothes, his language, the sound of his voice, his walk, his hair, his consciousness, his intelligence. All of those things are uncomfortable to the police from over the hill; they spark confusion, nervousness, embarrassment, anger, hatred. To these men from outside the community, ignorance and discomfort—confrontation with their unknown other—challenge their control, control of this world, of themselves.
And a human being trades the life of the child Oscar Grant for control. This human has a family, a childhood, he was himself a baby. Did he go to Raider’s games? Niners’ games? Did he love Jerry Rice when he was a kid? And he shot a young man who lay face down on the ground in the back. The zombies have touched this man. The zombies have made this man guilty as hell. Who?
The zombies lurk and relish in the innocence of our guiltiness and the guiltiness of our innocence. They relish in the fact that the community and the police who are supposed to protect them are eons in mentality from each other, that those aware, critical minds who would be good community mediators, would never become police, that those who become police would not come to live in, to learn from the community. The zombies relish in the cycle of a police force that either accepts monsters or creates them, that resists reform because the voices demanding change will not join them but will critique from the outside and the unions will defend their own by instinct.
And the zombies relish in the language of “Islamic militants,” whose words are mistranslated and taken out of context, whose words deny the reality of the Holocaust and generalize their criticism and hatred in that convenient way that all good inciters do. Zombies love the fact that the vast majority of humanity spins around in the middle of tornadoes created by the power struggles of the few.
The zombies love it and yet the frightening fact is that zombies do not exist. We have only the self-perpetuating machinery of a system of thoughts, values, judgments, ways of living to look to, and even the powerful do not understand the depth of these things, that the are inseparable from the turning of the earth. The question “who?” is an empty one in that it can only be answered by a paradox: it is none, and it is all. The burden of blame lies not with physical, tangible individuals, but with the invisible, immeasurable, elusive systems of thought that pulse through us constantly as we are invaded and occupied by zombies who allow us to remain human and kill, rape, impoverish, oppress, occupy, neglect, and hate others and even, so often, ourselves.
But “who?” is also a full, hopeful question. We are all responsible for ridding the world of zombies, in ourselves, our families, communities, our countries, our world. We are responsible for replacing the voices of zombies with the voices of ________, voices that are diverse, multi-vocal, connected, reflective, loving, open, beautiful. Who?
1. Thanks to PH and RT for encouraging and motivating me through word and example to put my work out into the interweb.
2. The epigraph from W.E.B. Du Bois is but a taste of this man’s genius. He is perhaps the most prolific intellectual of the 20th century, though not often recognized as such outside African American studies programs. His body of work is overwhelming, but his classic work The Souls of Black Folk (1903) is a good place to start—and don’t be fooled into thinking this is simply a work about black people. The book from which I took the epigraph, The World and Africa (1946) is an excellent examination of international history and relations with Du Bois’s ever critical eye on the central role that the intersections of race and economics play in these relations. I haven’t even scratched the surface, but I highly recommend Du Bois’s work; it is broad, critical, and uncannily relevant today, so many decades later.
3. Though I make reference to the “white police officers from over the hill,” we must reckon with the fact that these officers from “over the hill” are increasingly brown, yellow, and black as well, separated by mentality as well as color.
4. The “self-perpetuating machinery of a system of thoughts” might be called ideology, but the current climate in which there is a notion in the popular media that Obama has ushered in some “post-ideological” era made me hesitate. The definition of “ideology” makes “post-ideological” logically impossible, but I’d rather try to keep things simple for the moment and avoid a confusion of definitions and uses.