Reading World War Z

In what is both a moment of procrastination (I don’t want to do homework) and an act of slight progress (I’m finally clearing out some of my blog drafts), I present an unpolished, never-quite-finished essay on the novel World War Z by Max Brooks. I started this thing almost a year ago, but don’t see myself working on it anymore. Might as well let you read it. Note that I have yet to watch the film adaptation, this is meant to be a reading of (specific parts of) the book.

World War Z is not a typical zombie story.  For one thing, the book is “written” in the aftermath of the conflict, and while some segments tell what happened during the zombie outbreak, there is a significant portion that deals with how humans were responding to the consequences of it all, after the war.  The book includes scenes of workers patrolling the arctic circle for thawing zombies and towns rebuilding after being cleared of the undead.  In addition, the novel is an effort to tell the story of the whole world rather than a region (like southern Georgia in The Walking Dead), a mall (Dawn of the Dead), or an individual (Robert Neville of I Am Legend).  It does this by framing itself as an oral history, a compendium of interviews conducted by a U.N. worker.

But oral history isn’t the same as history.  At its core, oral history isn’t so much the study of evidence but a study of memory.  World War Z isn’t a historiography of the zombie war so much as it is a glimpse at how survivors remembered the war.  Above all, since it is fictitiously compiled by an “author” (the U.N. worker) and also actually compiled by an author (Brooks), it is a collection of memories that Brooks thought best represented a history of his war – and a history of the world.  The story isn’t about the characters really (some interviewees reappear in the conclusion, but I had to go back to piece together who was who – there is little actual character development) so much as it is about the countries that deal with zombies and the notion of the global zombie war itself.

In an interview about the book, Brooks stated that “everything in World War Z (as in The Zombie Survival Guide) is based in reality… well, except the zombies. But seriously, everything else in the book is either taken from reality or 100% real.”  Adding zombies to reality, then, allowed Brooks to show what he thought of the world through its response to catastrophe, its governance, its resilience.  In another interview, Brooks called the book an effort to combat American isolationism and argued that he wanted to “break down the stereotypes Americans have about other cultures… and maybe give my fellow Americans a window into the political and cultural workings of other nations.”

But how did Brooks choose to represent the world?

Brooks’ decision to shed light on the outside world, if taken seriously as an attempt to enlighten us where our isolationism has sold us short, rests on the same old stereotypes and dangerous whitewashing that he proposes to combat.  A number of societies are portrayed in one or two short segments that are more about applying the zombie war to our preconceived notions than about opening a window to new cultures.  For example, the only two Japanese characters interviewed are a young, cyber-connected loner and an old, blind, traditional warrior.  North Korea is portrayed as an isolated and paranoid mystery.  South Africa’s role is framed solely by its apartheid history.  Iran takes the position of America’s greatest fear: the trigger-happy nuclear power.  The story’s structure doesn’t lend itself to much in terms of developing a more nuanced look at cultures or politics around the world, so this is your only glimpse at some societies.

Where foreign affairs don’t rely on stereotypes, they rest on a scary depiction of the “real world.”  The two countries that lead the world out of the zombie war are South Africa and Israel, two countries with infamous histories of dealing with actual hungry and helpless masses within their own borders.  Both countries have experienced decades of forced segregation that leave a significant part of the population isolated, oppressed, dying.  In portraying the world through the zombie war, it is implicit that these histories – of segregation, oppression, and degradation – are the reason that these countries manage to weather the storm of zombie infestation better than others. Continue reading

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Early 20th Century American Slang

For those who don’t know, I work part time at a library of rare books and manuscripts. It often involves stamping books, organizing magazines, opening the mail, filing receipts, and loading packages into the freezer. Recently, it involved putting a giant collection of Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books in numerical order. They are small 3.5″ x 5″ books published in Girard, Kansas, during the early- to mid-20th Century. The books include everything from Shakespeare and Ibsen plays to the U.S. Constitution and French-to-English guides. One that caught my eye was #56, A Dictionary of American Slang.

Included in it were some things that we still use today, like geezer, gold digger, high jack, and hot dog as an exclamation. But there were also some things that I have never heard of, and some of the definitions were just as strange. So, without further ado, some examples of ~1920s slang:

  • absotively – absolutely and positively
  • acknowledge the corn – admit responsibility for
  • Adam’s ale – water
  • all to the mustard – excellent
  • almighty dollar – money, god of America
  • applesauce – blah, tripe, nonsense, foolish talk
  • go to the bad – attend Sunday movies, dance, or otherwise offend the Rotary Methodist god
  • birthday suit – nature’s garb
  • cake eater – tea-hound, lounge-lizard, lady-bug
  • snake’s hips – something excellent
  • cracker – poor white, as in Georgia
  • dude – one who follows “What Men Are Wearing” in the theater programs
  • flumadiddle – humbug, flummery, nonsense
  • full of prunes – you’re crazy, you’re wrong
  • gibble-gabble, mulligatawny – foolish talk
  • to ride the goat – to be initiated into a secret society
  • fluzie – a daughter of joy, prostitute
  • Heavens! – formerly, god’s resident; now, an expletive
  • hotsy-totsy, tootsie-wootsie – a girl all to the mustard, all O.K.
  • izzum-wizzum – hotsy-totsy, red hot sweetie
  • Jericho (to send one to) – Hell, or Hoboken
  • justice – slang for what is obtained in legal courts
  • late unpleasantness – the last war; long used for the Civil War, in 200,000 AD it will be used of the most recent war
  • low-brow – an average person; one who prefers the poetry of Eddie Guest
  • Bible Marathon – the latest American indoor sport, in which both Testaments are read aloud in relays at breakneck speed, to the glory of God
  • mollycoddle – excessively effeminate person
  • mossback – a fossil, dodo, conservative stand-patter
  • to get one’s nanny – to get one’s goat
  • necktie partie – a hanging bee, lynching
  • to pass on – Christian Science euphemism for “to die.” It has become general throughout these Rotaried states. Nobody has died since Christ; all the rest have “passed on.”
  • paste – to strike a blow; “I’ll paste you in the bean”
  • piffle – nonsense, twaddle, applesauce, stewed rhubarb
  • poor white trash – a 100% free and un-terrified Nordic financial and mental pauper in the Southern States, whose family never owned slaves. If a child of poor white trash becomes President, historians will at once raise his ancestors to the aristocracy.
  • pop the question – to propose marriage; to dare congual shipwreck
  • primrose path – road to Hell, anything pleasant
  • puritan – one scrupulous about the morals of others; one who holds that the pleasant is always wicked
  • red – Communist, Socialist, Bolshevik, radical, prohibitionist, anti-prohibitionist, or member of any belief different from yours
  • right-o – annoying, the British expression of approval
  • rough diamond – an uncalcimined daddy; a rich man who eats peas with his knife 
  • rum row – the liquor-laden fleet 12 miles out
  • Sam Hill – the devil, as in “what the Sam Hill?” Sam’s father was Bunker Hill, shortened to Bunk Hill
  • stork – long-legged bird, purveying all human babies. In the U.S. the cabbage and rose bush methods have become slightly obscene; the biological is verboten. The Stork, Santa Clause, and Yahweh live in St. George Washington’s cherry tree.
  • strawberry blonde – red head, carrot top
  • V spot – five dollar bill
  • whangdoodle – mythical creature, akin to the gymnascutus, leg shorter on one side than the other, to let him feed n a hillside; nonsense

Silencing Propaganda: When Art and Speech Become Violent

Last week, my history class discussed the death of Thami Mnyele, a South African anti-apartheid activist and artist who was killed in an attack by South African forces in Botswana. Mnyele, the subject of a biography by Diana Wylie (which was our reading for class), was a South African artist whose works went from emotional depictions of oppression under Apartheid to campaign posters as a part of the Medu Art Ensemble. He was also an anti-apartheid activist influenced by Black Consciousness and was a part of the ANC’s militant wing. Despite not being a high-level ANC leader, Mnyele was killed as a part of South Africa’s famous raid on Gaborone in 1985, when South African soldiers crossed into Botswana in the middle of the night to attack a number of ANC safe houses.

My professor told us to ignore his militant side and asked what it meant to consider whether or not his murder was legal. What it meant to even think about saying it was okay to go across borders to kill an activist. I pointed out that it gives credence to South Africa’s argument that propaganda is violent. But I didn’t say that because I thought the government was wrong – propaganda can definitely be just as violent as a gun or a bomb – words and images have power. I was merely pointing out that contemplating whether or not crossing borders to kill activists is okay implies that it could be. But I suppose the real question is, at what point is it okay to silence that speech? And back to my professor’s point, what does it mean to consider that as an option?

Looking at Mnyele’s art (Wylie’s book is replete with images), my mind kept coming back to Aaron Bady’s recent ruminations on free speech and its place in America. In looking for the line between speech and violence, he argues:

My point is not that any of this is or isn’t legitimate; some forms of speech are odious, and if the state has a right to prohibit, criminalize, and punish “violence,” then criminalizing speech is just one of those things it’s going to do, and does. But the difference between behaviors which are prohibited and those which are protected has nothing to do with the red line between speech and violence, and never has, because  no such line exists.

We’ve been dealing with this a lot, be it freedom to camp in parks as expression or right to post other people’s photographs online. To what extent is expression or speech or art okay, and to what extent does it need to be silenced by censorship, arrest, or even murder? At what point is shooting up an Obama campaign sign or tweeting that #AGoodJew is #ADeadJew something that must be stopped? And at the more extreme end, at what point does anti-state speech warrant assassination? Mnyele was clearly an enemy of the South African government – he was actively opposed to its rule, and worked against it – militarily, yes, but primarily through art and recruitment. Similarly, Anwar al-Awlaki was allegedly involved in planning some terror attacks, but his true value to al Qaeda lie in his ability to preach and recruit for the cause; Samir Khan was an editor for a magazine published by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Like Mnyele, neither were high level operatives, but both were effective recruiters through propaganda. Both were American citizens killed by a drone strike in Yemen without due process, solely because of the threat their speech possessed.

In light of the drone strike, the questions mentioned before have been flipped around. Because Apartheid = Bad, and America = Good, al Awlaki’s death is made to seem okay. Instead, people are left to debate what it means to even consider that killing him was wrong. People who raise his rights as an American citizen and point to his low-threat position in militant operations are shunned in the name of national security. “But he was al Qaeda.” But what does it mean to consider that this killing is okay? Again, it means that you’re giving credence to the state’s assertion that preaching and publishing warrants death. And again, it’s not that recruiting through speech and expression can’t have negative effects – it’s that we haven’t been able to find the point at which it’s okay (and as a result, find the point at which it’s not okay) to silence our opposition. And this is because, perhaps like the line between speech and violence – it doesn’t exist. The state will always weild its right to crack down on its enemies, we just have to wait and see who falls into what category. The government will decide who falls into the category threatening enough to put a name on a list. That’s how Mnyele was targeted, and that’s how Khan and al Awlaki were targeted.

But because that wasn’t enough, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son would be killed two weeks later, and when asked how he could justify the killing, Press Secretary Gibbs explained, “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children.” It’s not just the threat level that goes into determining if you deserve to live or die. It seems, in some cases, your lineage is enough to warrant your guilt, and therefore your assassination – but we already knew that.