Isolated Thoughts: The Walking Dead and the Aftermath of Apocalypse

Warning: this post contains spoilers (of a sort) for The Walking Dead.

Since its brilliant pilot episode aired ten years ago, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with The Walking Dead, with the balance more frequently on the latter than the former. I’ve found it interesting from a critical perspective for reasons that should be obvious—I have, after all, been preoccupied with the 21st century’s critical mass of post-apocalyptic narratives for several years now—but I’ve also found it jarringly uneven. What it represents is more relevant to me than what it is, which is to say the show itself I can take or leave, but the fact that it has run so long, maintained its popularity, and is yet another example of “genre” being assimilated into prestige television, gives rise to some very interesting considerations.

Not least of which is how a long-running television series adapts narrative formulae that evolved for a movie-length story. As I said in my post on World War Z, Brooks’ novel is unusual in the genre insofar as it is preoccupied less with the catastrophe itself and more with how society rebuilds in the aftermath. Considering how long TWD has run, it is perhaps unsurprising that the series has put down roots, so to speak, and devoted at least some of its storylines in the past several seasons to how postapocalyptic societies forge new bases in law and civic responsibility. It took the show quite a while to get there, however, largely because it spent its first five (six, really) seasons cycling through the basic zombie movie formula … again and again. And again.

To wit: your standard zombie film begins with the outbreak or immediate aftermath, through which the protagonists must fight their way and flee. They will then find their way to respite and safety, whether that be a mall, the Winchester Pub, or Bill Murray’s house. That safe space then proves untenable: it is either breached by a critical mass of the undead, or else someone’s malice or stupidity renders the space unsafe, and then the protagonists must again fight their way through and flee. They then either find their way to another safe space that we are led to understand will not be breached, or find rescue, as in 28 Days Later; or they all die, as in Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead; or the ending is left ambiguous, as in George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead, in which the two survivors fly off in a helicopter into the night.

For TWD’s first six seasons, Rick Grimes and his merry band reiterate this pattern, with each cycle culminating, much like boss fights in video games, in a showdown with increasingly villainous Big Bads. In season one, the survivors find safety in their initial camp until it is overrun, and then the CDC complex in Atlanta, until it is destroyed by the sole remaining doctor there, who has gone mad; then they make their way to Herschel’s farm, then the prison, then the uncannily wholesome town of Woodbury, then Terminus, and finally the settlement of Alexandria. Along the way they battle the zombies themselves, then the ignorance of those who don’t grasp the severity of their threat, then the Governor, then the cannibals of Terminus, and finally the sociopathic Negan and his cultish followers (I’m leaving out a handful of side-trip threats, but you get the idea). Now the Big Bad is Alpha and her Whisperers, but at this point the characters seem to have settled into a more or less permanent archipelago of settlements, and for a while there it seemed as though the show’s preoccupation was shifting from peripatetic flight from one safe space to the next, to how these neighbouring settlements might manage to function as a society.

The key moment signalling this shift was quite probably inadvertent, but it caught my attention, so who knows? At the start of season eight, Rick’s people in Alexandria and those in their allied settlements prepare to fight back against Negan and his Saviours. The leaders of the three communities—Rick, Maggie, Ezekiel—stand in the flatbed of a truck and deliver rousing speeches to inspire their people as they prepare to do battle. My first thought was of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, which is often staged in a similar fashion, with Henry standing in a cart or tumbrel while he enjoins his army to do battle against fearsome odds.

TWD - St. Crispins

Top: Rick et al exhort their people to courage. Bottom left: Laurence Olivier in his 1944 film Henry V. Bottom right: Kenneth Branagh in his 1989 adaptation.

And in case we missed the reference, Ezekiel specifically quotes the speech, or rather paraphrases it, as he says “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother,” then turns to acknowledge Maggie, adding, “And she today … my sister.” Nice catch there, Zeke.

ezekiel

Ezekiel, really feeling the moment.

When I say that this scene is “probably inadvertent,” I don’t mean it accidentally echoes Henry V, because it is quite obviously deliberate. What I wonder is whether it is merely a convenient allusion to what is the most famous pre-battle speech in history, or whether the writers meant to evoke the subtler significance Henry V specifically and Shakespeare more generally had for the evolving sense of British nationhood from the late middle ages into modernity. Henry V came to be seen as an iconic English king, and the Battle of Agincourt a defining moment—the victory in spite of the five to one advantage the French had was taken as evidence of England’s divine providence. After the battle, when it becomes obvious what massive losses the French suffered, Shakespeare’s Henry attributes it to God’s intervention:

O God, thy arm was here;
And not to us, but to thy arm alone,
Ascribe we all! When, without stratagem,
But in plain shock and even play of battle,
Was ever known so great and little loss
On one part and on the other? Take it, God,
For it is none but thine!

Further, the play symbolically brings together the factious identities that will eventually be knitted into the United Kingdom, with a representative Irishman (MacMorris), Welshman (Fluellen), and Scotsman (Jamy), who spar verbally with their English comrade Gower, but who ultimately fight together. Kenneth Branagh did a nice job of visually evoking this symbolic union in his 1989 film adaptation: as Henry addresses his army, we get reaction shots of different groups, each comprising a different element of British society: the nobility, the rank and file, the future (represented by the character of “Boy,” played here by a young Christian Bale), and of course the four nations that will come to comprise “Great” Britain. All are brought together at the speech’s crescendo:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

The soldiers burst into a huge cheer, and Branagh cuts very quickly between the different elements of Britain in a unifying montage.

All of which is by way of observing that the St. Crispin’s moment in TWD, whether deliberately or not, comprises as a comparably symbolic gesture of nascent nationhood as defined in battle against great odds. And for a time, the defeat of Negan and the Saviours fundamentally changes the dynamic of the show—and though, not unpredictably, it takes them an entire season to get there, the protracted war itself shifts the show’s preoccupation to the necessity of alliances and collective action. Prior to the arrival of the next Big Bad—i.e. the Whisperers—the character of Michonne drafts a constitution of sorts for the coalition of communities.

twd-charter-911-1160102

It was of course not unpredictable that the promising signs of unity and the hope of a new society would not last long, as resentment and grudges directed at the assimilated, ostensibly contrite Saviours created fissures, and Rick’s decision to leave Negan alive festered with those who wanted him dead (i.e. everybody by Rick). After all, a utopian vision of people working happily together in the postapocalyptic world wouldn’t exactly make for gripping television.

Still. Now that TWD has legitimately become a franchise, with its spin-off Fear The Walking Dead going into its sixth season, at least one feature film in the offing, to say nothing of myriad film shorts and smart phone games, it is venturing into the kind of world-building to which the normally myopic genre, being as preoccupied as it tends to be with the narrow horizon of a handful of desperate survivors, doesn’t tend to lend itself. A second spin-off series, The Walking Dead: World Beyond, will deal with the next generation of humanity after the apocalypse, and what the world will look like in the decades after TWD.

Which, if nothing else in our present moment, reminds us that there’s always a beyond.

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Isolated Thoughts: Pandemic Reading– World War Z

As I work through my reading for my pandemic fiction class, I’ll share my thoughts here as I go. I’m starting with World War Z because I recently heard its author Max Brooks interviewed on Fresh Air by Terry Gross, so it’s in the forefront of my mind. And because of the way my mind works, these thoughts led to another post on The Walking Dead, which I’ll put up tomorrow. So it’s going to be zombietown here for a few days.

Max Brooks, incidentally, is the son of Mel Brooks, with whom he made a PSA about self-isolation and social distancing.

World_War_Z_book_coverWorld War Z came out in 2006; I picked it up on a whim when I was at a Chapters in Toronto a little over ten years ago, and I was quite pleasantly surprised to find that the novel was not just a gripping read, but quite well written, and exhaustively researched. It is unusual compared with more typical exemplars of the zombie genre for being global in its scope. Its subtitle is “An Oral History of the Zombie War,” and comprises a series of testimonials from people interviewed ten years after the end of “hostilities.” What further sets World War Z apart from the genre is that it is preoccupied far less with the outbreak and subsequent collapse of society, than with the aftermath and the process of rebuilding. More and more, especially in the last ten years, post-apocalyptic narratives have come to focus on life in the aftermath of catastrophe, with the catastrophe itself functioning as a distant, albeit traumatic memory. Novels like World War Z and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) were in the vanguard, and anticipated the likes of Zone One (2011) by Colson Whitehead and Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel (and in my next post I’ll be talking about how The Walking Dead has shifted focus in this regard). But in the early years of the aughts, the shock of 9/11 inspired a host of zombie and zombie-adjacent films like 28 Days Later (2002) and Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), films primarily concerned with the spectacle of outbreak and the abject failure of societal institutions—government, police, military, health care—to deal with the threat and keep people safe.

That is emphatically not Max Brooks’ style.

Before picking up World War Z, I was vaguely familiar with Brooks’ earlier work, The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), which I always saw in humour sections. After reading World War Z, I picked up the Guide, and realized that it had been mis-categorized—it’s not a serious text in the sense of warning of an imminent zombie apocalypse, but it is also obviously not written as either satire or parody. Rather, it is what World War Z would ultimately be, writ small—i.e. a thought experiment in disaster preparedness, or the lack thereof, and a variety of responses.

One topic I’ll be interested to explore in both my pandemic fiction class and the class on utopias and dystopias I’m slated to teach in the winter is the odd and indeed counter-intuitive persistence of nostalgia as a trope in dystopias and post-apocalyptic narrative. I’ll have more to say about that in a future post (especially with regards to Zone One, Station Eleven, and Ling Ma’s novel Severance [2018]); Brooks’ novel, as I stated, is essentially an exhaustive thought experiment working through the linked questions of (a) what a global zombie pandemic might look like and how it might unfold, and (b) how might the nations of the world as constituted in the early 21st century respond? Though the novel is impressively global in scope, it is saturated with nostalgia for a particular idea of America, and that idea is indeed what comprises the novel’s narrative spine. World War Z tracks the global movement through outbreak, panic, consolidation, and response, but the model for America’s ultimate victory over the living dead is that of the Great Depression and World War Two.

In other interviews I’ve seen, Brooks talks at length about how he inherited an ingrained sense of preparedness from his father Mel and mother Anne Bancroft, both of whom lived through the Depression and the war (Mel Brooks served in an engineering division responsible for clearing land mines in the European Theater), and passed onto their son the sensibilities of people who knew privation and danger. It is thus perhaps unsurprising that the nostalgic dimension of World War Z hearkens back to the fortitude and collective sacrifice of the Greatest Generation. This nostalgia is, in the novel, most clearly and specifically communicated by the character of Arthur Sinclair, the Secretary of the Department of Strategic Resources (a cabinet position designed specifically for the zombie war). Sinclair, prior to his appointment to this new cabinet post, was an ardent capitalist and Wall Streeter, largely because he was the child of Roosevelt-era New Dealers:

Those first months, I can’t tell you how much information I had to cram into this withered old cortex … I needed every idea, every word, every ounce of knowledge and wisdom to help me fuse a fractured landscape into the modern American war machine. If my father had been alive, he probably would have laughed at my frustration. He’d been a staunch New Dealer, working closely with FDR as comptroller of New York State. He used methods that were almost Marxist in nature, the kind of collectivism that would make Ayn Rand leap from her grave and join the ranks of the living dead. I’d always rejected the lessons he’d tried to impart, running as far away as Wall Street to shut them out. Now I was wracking my brains to remember them. One thing those New Dealers did better than any generation in American history was find and harvest the right tools and talent.

[Quick aside, for those who haven’t read the novel, and, really, for those who have: you should consider getting the audiobook. The novel is written as a series of interviews; in the audiobook, each character is voiced by someone of note. Carl and Rob Reiner take parts, as do notable SF figures like Mark Hamill, Denise Crosby, Jeri Ryan, Nathan Fillion, and Bruce Boxleitner; also featured are John Turturro, Common, Kal Penn, Jurgen Prochnow, Alfred Molina, and F. Murray Abraham. Among others. And the dude voicing Arthur Sinclair? Alan Alda! To paraphrase Mel Brooks from Robin Hood: Men In Tights, sometimes it’s good to be the son of the king.]

The broader subject of Brooks’ Fresh Air interview, as you might imagine, was the current pandemic, and the variety of responses to it. Since the success of World War Z, Brooks has become something of a professional disaster-response expert, and, in addition to consulting with the U.S. military on a variety of issues, is also a non-resident lecturer at the Modern War Institute at West Point. One of the points he made in the interview is that societies living with a siege mentality tend to be better equipped to respond quickly to a crisis, and he cited the admirable responses of South Korea and Taiwan to the conoravirus. This is a theme running through World War Z, in which Israel and post-apartheid South Africa are depicted as having quicker and more thorough responses. The United States, however, as he observed in the interview, tends to always be caught flat-footed. The Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, Sputnik, September 11th, the meltdown of 2008—and now, the coronavirus. However stunned the U.S. is by a given catastrophe, however—and herein lies the pervasive nostalgia of World War Z—its capacity to gear up and respond is unmatched.

Or, well, it should be. There is a contemptuous distaste for postmodern society of the “get off my lawn!” variety running through the novel, which is reflected in the way suburban and middle-class Americans are depicted as apathetic and preoccupied with trivialities. For example, a stereotypical suburban mom responds to the question of whether she was worried by the first news items about the zombie outbreak:

Oh, yeah. I was worried. I was worried about my car payments and Tim’s business loan. I was worried about that widening crack in the pool and the new nonchlorinated filter that still left an algae film. I was worried about our portfolio, even though my e-broker assured me this was just first-time investment jitters and that it was much more profitable than a standard 401(k). Aiden needed a math tutor, Jenna needed just the right Jamie-Lynn Spears cleats for soccer camp. Tim’s parents were thinking about coming to stay with us for Christmas. My brother was back in rehab. Finley had worms, one of the fish had some kind of fungus growing out of its left eye. These were just some of my worries. I had more than enough to keep my busy.

There is another account, narrated by an ex-military-turned-mercenary private security professional, of an entertainment billionaire who fortifies his Long Island mansion to ride out the apocalypse with several dozen of his best celebrity friends. The house is rigged with cameras in order to broadcast, reality-TV style, so people can watch the rich and famous watch the world burn, an obscene vanity project cut short when the house is attacked and taken over by ordinary people, and the celebrities’ entourages turn on them. Another account is told by a ruthless venture capitalist who made billions peddling false cures for the zombie virus, and in the novel’s present moment evades prosecution by holing up in an Antarctic compound á là Adrian Veidt in Watchmen.

The TL;DR is that pre-catastrophe America is lazy, greedy, and obsessed with trivialities, and thus gets taken completely off-guard by the pandemic; it is through the rediscovery of the values of community, sacrifice, and selflessness, as well as the values of true work that Brooks’ imagined U.S.A. gets over itself, and—as it did in the Second World War—become a world leader again.

The nostalgic quality of World War Z is in this respect specific and tangible, something of a paean to his Brooks’ parents’ generation; but it also shares the more nebulous—and more invidious—form of nostalgia that isn’t focused on a specific time, place, or era, but a vague sensibility that inflects the genre. Fantasy as a genre embodies this kind of nostalgia; zombie apocalypse, with its return to an essentially premodern existence shorn of the trivialities and distractions of the postmodern condition, shares that same desire for a simpler, more authentic, more visceral life, with no shades of grey. In a more typical offering, it is usually as simple as what I like to term the “survivalist fantasy”—the idea that one would, in such circumstances, prove to have the toughness, talent, and capacity for (completely justified) violence needed to survive the undead-infested world.

Brooks provides a somewhat more nuanced consideration of violence and sacrifice, but evinces the same nostalgic gesture for authenticity. His American characters pass through their traumatic trials, as do his international characters, but emerging out the other side with a more plainly expressed appreciation for what truly matters. Arthur Sinclair talks about how, in the early days of consolidation when the U.S. had carved out a safe zone west of the Rockies, one of his biggest trials was retraining a population that had forgotten how to do things for itself, which largely entailed inverting the social pyramid so people with blue-collar skills became the drivers of the American recovery, and the tutors for the ad executives and script consultants who were no obliged to sweep factory floors. In the end, however, Sinclair says, the early resentments gave way to satisfaction in their work:

I met one gentleman on a coastal ferry from Portland to Seattle. He had worked in the licensing department of an advertising agency, specifically in charge of procuring the rights to classic rock songs for television commercials. Now he was a chimney sweep. Given that most homes in Seattle had lost their central heat and the winters were now longer and colder, he was seldom idle. “I keep my neighbours warm,” he said proudly. I know that sounds a little too Normal Rockwell, but I hear stories like that all the time. “You see those shoes, I made them,” “That sweater, that’s my sheep’s wool,” “Like the corn? My garden.” That was the upshot of the more localised system. It gave people the opportunity to see the fruits of their labour. It gave them a sense of individual pride to know they were making a clear, concrete contribution to victory.

Perhaps it’s not so much Rockwell as Marx, as what Sinclair describes is the reversal of workers’ alienation from their labour.

It was striking, though, on re-reading this passage to think of the current moment in which people whose labour has tended to be devalued—store cashiers, shelf-stockers, food delivery people and those who prepare the food for delivery, and of course health care workers—are the ones making it possible for the rest of us to self-isolate. The scale of our current crisis isn’t remotely close to what Brooks imagines—which is good, because I’d almost certainly be shambling and moaning about the streets looking for someone alive to snack on—but I can only hope we take away a comparable lesson.

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Isolated Thoughts: Pandemic Reading

I’d been wracking my brain trying to figure out how to theme the fourth-year contemporary American literature seminar I’m teaching in the Fall, when I realized the obvious topic was right in front of me: Pandemic Fiction! Having taught a course a few years ago on post-apocalyptic narratives, I already had a handful of titles under my belt. A quick internet search yielded an embarrassment of riches, and I put in an online order for some that seemed likely candidates.

pandemic reading

(Possibilities not pictured: Katherine Ann Porter’s 1938 novella about the Spanish Flu, Pale Horse, Pale Rider; Jack London’s weird post-plague dystopia The Scarlet Plague [1912]; and Philip  Roth’s last novel, Nemesis [2010], about a polio outbreak in 1945 New Jersey).

When I mentioned on Facebook that I’d decided on pandemic fiction for my course, the response was pretty uniformly enthusiastic. Some people asked me to post the reading list when I’d finalized it; a few others, some of them former students, wistfully said that would be a course they’d love to take. And more than one person said it would likely be a course that would draw in a lot of students.

I think it will, but I also think there will be a not-insignificant number of students who will, as I commented back, “avoid it like the plague.” (The bad joke was unintentional, but apt). For everyone who might welcome the perspective a course on pandemic fiction might offer on our current moment, I’m sure are those who would much rather not either revisit the coronavirus experience or deal with such fictionalizations during an ongoing crisis (fingers crossed pretty damn hard for the first eventuality).

It’s an odd quirk of human idiosyncrasies that some of us lean into fictional figurations of crisis in response to the experience of a real one, while others most emphatically do not. It makes me think of the way in which, after September 11th, Clear Channel distributed a memo to all its radio stations listing the songs they were to avoid playing because they might evoke thoughts of the attack (including some truly bizarre choices, like “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” or risible ones, like “Walk Like An Egyptian”), and movie studios froze production or postponed release of films depicting terrorism or large-scale destruction; meanwhile, video stores (remember those?) reported that movies like Armageddon and Independence Day were constantly being rented. In the present moment, one of the highest-trending offerings on Netflix has consistently been Contagion, Stephen Soderbergh’s 2010 film about a pandemic. I have seen a significant number of discussions of this sort of thing on social media, i.e. people soliciting pandemic/apocalypse/dystopian themed isolation viewing, as well as people voicing incredulity that anyone would want to watch or read such stuff in the present moment.

I suppose it doesn’t come as a great galloping shock that I fall into the former category, and not just because I need to read a bunch of titles and make final reading list decisions before the call comes from the English Department to submit our book orders for the Fall (usually, that happens early-mid May). Speaking personally, it’s not the fictional representations of pandemic that bother my soul, but the daily news that makes me afraid for my blood pressure. As I mentioned in my initial “isolated thoughts” post, what narrative tends to offer is catharsis; it is, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson (my copy of The Political Unconscious is currently in my campus office and thus inaccessible), the symbolic resolution of irreconcilable real-world contradictions … even when that resolution entails something putatively negative, like a pair of sclerotic old men in a Beckett play, or the wholesale destruction of society in a zombie apocalypse.

In the latter, at least you might get to use a crossbow.

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Isolated Thoughts: What’s Next?

THE WEST WING, clockwise from top left: Janel Moloney, Stockard Channing, John Spencer, Dule Hill, B

I find myself missing The West Wing. I don’t miss it because I can’t watch it (Netflix might have dropped it, but I have the first four seasons on DVD); I miss it because I can’t watch it in the way I did when it first aired, or when it was comfort food TV to rewatch over the years, or when I turned to it as solace in the aftermath of Trump’s victory. The series is, of course, fantasy—liberal utopianism of the highest order that is (or was during the Sorkin seasons) unapologetically earnest and invested in the ideals of intellect, expertise, and good governance. Like all of Aaron Sorkin’s television series, it depicted extremely smart people who are extremely good at their jobs, and who place high value on the work they do. And for all of the unrealistic, soaring rhetoric spoken in perfect paragraphs, it always foregrounded the conviction that democracy functions best when forged by smart, committed people arguing with each other in good faith. At its worst, the show could be pedantic, implying that all wrong-headed people needed was one more lecture to bring them around; at its best, it embodied a credo voiced by Robert Guillame’s character on Sports Night, Sorkin’s first series: “It’s taken me a lot of years, but I’ve come around to this: If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. And if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”

Honestly, can you imagine anything that would be more anathema to Donald Trump? Any more than you can imagine Trump employing President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen)’s oft-iterated prompt, “What’s next?”

One thing The West Wing gets right that many former White House aides and staffers have pointed to is the hectic, breakneck pace the contemporary presidency; this is something perhaps best exemplified by the series’ oftparodied but directorially bravura “walk and talk” sequences, in which meetings happen on the fly at breakneck speed through the West Wing. “What’s next?” became Bartlett’s catch phrase indicating the completion of one item of business and the imperative to move on (consonant with “what’s next?” was the admonition “break’s over!”).

I have a hat, which I purchased from the podcast The West Wing Weekly’s online merch store, that asks “What’s Next?” However, given that I bought it about two years into Trump’s presidency, the sentiment is now less about wanting to move on to the next thing on the agenda, than it is something of an expression of existential dread. The unspoken words in the middle are “what could possibly be next?” and the tone one of baffled incredulity, as the cumulative effect of the Trump presidency piles up more detritus at the feet of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.

what's next?

What’s next? The other day I vented on Facebook about Donald Trump’s new custom of holding two-hour press conferences, in which he shares the latest “news” about the pandemic and the response to it; and while he periodically gives over the lectern to experts, business leaders, and Mike Pence, these briefings are really just The Trump Show, something to substitute for his rallies, which are, along with Twitter, his preferred method of communication. He obviously relishes having a captive audience, and frequently boasts of his ratings; but he just as obviously misses the adulation of his rally crowds, and gets sulky and resentful of the fact that the handful of carefully spaced reporters won’t congratulate him on doing an amazing job and indeed have the audacity to challenge his assertions and pose “nasty questions.”

What led to my Facebook rant was the sudden realization that Trump is giving over two hours out of his day, every day, to conduct his infomercials (a recent one of which literally included a campaign-style montage of Trump looking decisive and the media looking dishonest). What surprised me about the realization was that it hadn’t happened sooner, that I hadn’t really thought “this isn’t normal” from the moment Trump started running the coronavirus task force briefings. Well, I suppose I did think that, but it was such a relatively minor blip in the overwhelming noise of the Trump Experience, that it did not register as significant. But on reflection, it serves to exemplify so much about the discordance of this moment in time.

Put simply, taking two hours out of the day to address the press is not something presidents do—that’s why they have a large staff of people, including communications directors and press secretaries, and the small armies of experts from across the executive branch and the military, whose job it is to keep the public informed. The president only emerges on occasion, to make announcements of significance; previous presidents might make themselves available at a press conference once or twice every few weeks, and they rarely talk for long, for the simple reason that they have shit to do. The American presidency, John Dickerson writes in The Atlantic is “The Hardest Job in the World,” perhaps untenably so, which is why it is typical to watch presidents age in real-time, emerging at the end of their term(s) with grey hair and wan, lined faces.

We are by now however quite familiar with Trump’s lack of interest in the job and his utter incuriosity with anything that does not flatter him: chafing at any briefing lasting more than a few minutes; aides instructed to reduce the their notes to a single page of bullet points, and to include colourful pictures and charts, and press clippings that mention Trump favourably; his contempt for expertise and his unfounded confidence in his own instincts; his lack of preparation with any scripted remarks, obviously reading them for the first time as they scroll up the teleprompter; and above all his monumental laziness, with hours of his day given over to “executive time,” which numerous anonymous sources have confirmed as essentially Trump watching cable news, about which he live-tweets.

I suppose if there will have been any benefit to the Trump saga in the aftermath of this debacle, it could well be the definitive demolition of certain myths and illusions that have sustained the status quo for so long, not the least of which is the false premise of The West Wing that the key players within a democratic system might disagree, but operate on a basis of rationality and good faith. It’s a nice thought, but Trump disproves it—not so much through his own behaviour as by the simple fact of his election, and the rise of his army of opportunists, sycophants, enablers, and cultish adherents, whose only concerns are the arrogation of more power to them and their donors, basking in the reflected orange glow of their god-king, and owning the libs.

Trump should not be possible. The fact that he was, and is, makes it difficult to find comfort in Sorkin’s idealism, not least because it exposes to me my own oblivious privilege. After Trump won, white liberals like me were stunned and caught flat-footed. You know who wasn’t surprised that a critical mass of white people would pull the lever for Trump? Everyone else—people of colour, undocumented immigrants, queer folk, women, the working poor … anyone for whom the illusion of people in power arguing in good faith has always been obviously an illusion.

 

“What’s next?” is now the most important question. What does a post-coronavirus and (oh gods, please) a post-Trump world look like? We need to resist formulation of “getting back to normal.” Normal gave us Trump.

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Isolated Thoughts: A Wartime President

I have little doubt that Donald Trump’s declaration that he is a “wartime president” emerged from either his media-addled brain or the sycophancy of a staffer—a romantic bit of self-fashioning that appealed to his fascination with military might and his own image of himself as a tough guy. And I’m just as sure he likes it because it makes him feel special—after all, wartime presidents are a select group, right?

Well, not so much. Unfortunately for Trump, he already was a wartime president. Indeed, one of his many unfilled campaign promises was that he was going to end America’s ongoing wars. To be fair, I’m sure he didn’t feel like a wartime president, even when he got to order a missile strike against Syria or the targeted assassination of Qasem Soleimani. A wartime president in the popular imagination—which, let’s face is, is the only imagination Trump has—is someone who visibly leads the nation through fire, like Lincoln in the Civil War or FDR in WWII, or George W. Bush (up until the point when it became obvious that Iraq was an unwinnable quagmire). And when you think about it, we don’t tend to think of Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon as wartime presidents because, well, America lost in Vietnam. The War of 1812 had an ambiguous ending, so James Madison doesn’t get equal billing with George Washington. Winning is important. But even unequivocal victory doesn’t necessarily make the cut: George H.W. Bush is remembered more for “Read my lips!” and losing the presidency after one term than for winning the first Gulf War. (Precisely why this is the case is something I’ll discuss below).

In actual fact if not popular imagining, “wartime president” is hardly a distinction, as there are precious few presidents (if any) from George Washington onwards who did not preside over one war or another. Some, perhaps, like Reagan and Grenada or Clinton and Kosovo, hardly seem more than skirmishes; but the fact of the matter is that it’s hard to find presidents who didn’t engage in at least a little bit of military adventurism.

That being said, Trump’s claim to be a wartime president has at least a modicum of resonance, if for no other reason than that we do genuinely understand this moment to be one of immediate crisis, and its effects are being felt by everybody. People like myself who hold Trump in contempt scoff at his assumption of the “wartime” mantle, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t somehow apt on a gut level—just that we can’t imagine someone as venal and incompetent as Trump actually, you know, leading.

Precisely why “wartime president” has resonance now is more my concern here, however, than Trump’s dismal performance (I will, no doubt, have much to say about that in future posts). It goes back to what I observed above: that George H.W. Bush doesn’t get that title in spite of the fact that he presided over the only unequivocal U.S. military victory since V-J Day. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case: he never really rose above the “wimp” moniker or Dana Carvey’s impression of him; he was a one-term president who lost to the libertine Bill Clinton; victory was way too easy; he could never emerge from Ronald Reagan’s shadow; and there was the fact that, in many people’s minds, he left the true business of the Gulf War—i.e. ousting Saddam Hussein—unfinished, to be completed by his more rugged and warlike scion.

What I would argue, however, is that, in the words of Jean Baudrillard, “the Gulf War did not take place.” When Baudrillard first composed that notorious sentence, it was—unsurprisingly—controversial. He was pelted with accusations of callousness towards those Coalition soldiers who had been killed or wounded, and by those who assumed it was a conspiracy theory that the Gulf War had been a simulation akin to what would be depicted several years later in the film Wag the Dog. (Baudrillard’s most influential book, after all, is the slim tome entitled Simulations). I’m sure everyone will be shocked to learn that Baudrillard was arguing a somewhat different, albeit related, point: the Gulf War did not take “place,” he said, in the sense that it was not real for its spectators. For all of the media coverage, of which there was countless hours—let’s remember, it was the coverage of the Gulf War that demonstrated the viability of CNN’s business model as a 24/7 news network—none of it had the visceral substance of the reporting on Vietnam. Which was, indeed, by design: received wisdom stated that it was in allowing reporters to show dead and wounded soldiers and images of combat, that the U.S. government lost the war of popular opinion, and therefore the moral authority to wage war in Vietnam as they saw fit. Hence, news of the Gulf War was carefully vetted and funneled through government and military officials, often through press conferences showing off video footage of “smart” weaponry surgically obliterating targets.

Is it any wonder it was dubbed “the video game war”? Baudrillard’s larger point was that the Gulf War lacked affect for people at home, and thus did not take place in any meaningful sense. It was not a felt war, but an imaginary one, in the sense that anyone who was not there or was close to someone who was did not have their lives impacted beyond the barrage of media images.

This dynamic was recapitulated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. The destruction of the World Trade Center was certainly a felt experience, as it upended people’s understanding of reality and possibility. And George W. Bush certainly assumed the mantle of a wartime president with cinematic flair. But it is important to remember that, framed within his celebration of the American spirit and platitudes about fortitude, was the more crucial exhortation to keep shopping. If the economy tanks, the sentiment went, the terrorists win. Keep on as normal—keep consuming, and thus vindicate the capitalist ethos.

On one hand, it was sensible advice: the best way to defeat terrorism, after all, is to refuse to be terrorized. On the other hand, however, it was message of political expediency that reflected an aversion to asking people to sacrifice. Does that sound at all familiar? Trump might want to call himself a wartime president, but doesn’t seem inclined to fight much, and has only very reluctantly allowed for the fact that social distancing and isolation is beneficial. His obvious inclination is to echo Bush’s harangue and tell people to start shopping again, already.

Trump is a wartime president because people are feeling it in their lives, more so than any time since WWII. WWII was a felt war because it impacted people’s lives with rationing, social upheaval, and the draft, which meant that there were few people living stateside who didn’t know someone in combat. Vietnam was a felt war also because of the draft, and because of the nightly news showing scenes of horror, all of which made for cultural divisiveness on a scale not seen since the Civil War.

The U.S. learned those lessons for the first Gulf War, and refined them post-9/11. To my mind, the most eloquent expression of the cognitive dissonance between combat and civilian life is a brief scene in the film The Hurt Locker. Jeremy Renner plays a bomb disposal expert who spends his tour defusing IEDs. When he comes home, he is grocery shopping with his wife, and she asks him to grab some cereal. Standing in the cereal aisle, he has option paralysis: a seemingly infinite stretch of shelves, all of them offering minute variations of sugar-coated processed grains.

It is a far cry from WWII-era rationing.

Just to be clear, I don’t want to denude the pain and trauma of those who serve in combat units in the military, or their friends and families, or those civilians living in war zones caught in the crossfire. Their experience is quite real, quite felt, and utterly not imaginary. But war has always had its front lines and its home fronts. It has been quite some time in the privileged West since the home front has had to make sacrifices. Right now, if we accept the war metaphor—which, in spite of everything I’ve just said, I don’t know that I do—the home front is the front line.

Which, sadly, makes Donald Trump a wartime president.

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Isolated Thoughts

I had my first real bout of pandemic-related depression the other day. I woke up from a bad dream whose details I could not recall, but which was coronavirus-related, and the lingering sense of sadness and dread dogged me for the better part of the day as I looked out my office window at the grey and miserable weather that frequently passes as spring in Newfoundland.

It actually took me a few hours to put my finger on why I was feeling down, and it came, weirdly, as something of a surprise. Right. Things are kind of fucked up right now. I had by this point been party to any number of expressions of sadness, depression, anger, frustration, and a host of vagaries of brown study inspired by isolation, anxiety, and worry for the future, all of them communicated over social media. I read every day news stories, think pieces, and op-eds from the seat of my own isolation, connected to the world but separated from it. I go for long walks every day; my grocery shopping is an infrequent but excruciatingly long process as I buy mountains of food and necessities so I don’t have to do it again any time soon, all the while getting annoyed at people who don’t seem to grasp the basics of social distancing or the point of the arrows spaced six feet apart on the store floor. I return home and subject myself to a Silkwood-style scrubbing, and sit again in front of my portal to the world after putting the groceries away.

In a number of ways, this pandemic is the apotheosis of what we once called the postmodern condition, one aspect of which was neatly characterized by Fredric Jameson as the paradox of collectivity experienced in isolation by way of mass media. As traumatic as the assassination of John F. Kennedy was, Jameson writes, it offered a “utopian glimpse” of shared experience, but an experience shared by an atomized population watching television. September 11th, 2001 offered a similar experience, but one rendered uncanny by its familiarity. As Slavoj Zizek pointed out, the true shock of 9/11 wasn’t its novelty, but the haunting sense of “where have I seen this before?” Popular culture had been imagining apocalyptic destruction for years; contra what innumerable pundits were saying in the aftermath, said Zizek, “It wasn’t that reality entered to shatter the illusion, illusion entered to shatter the reality.”

And now we sit in self-isolation watching a pandemic unfold after having imagined it in literally hundreds if not thousands of movies, TV shows, novels, and video games. It is with no small sense of serendipity that I spend part of my days working on a series of articles that have been in the works for some time on post-apocalyptic imaginings: one on zombie apocalypse as an expression of ambivalence to mass culture, one on apocalyptic figurations as an expression of “hopeful nihilism” (the flip side to Lauren Berlant’s formulation of “cruel optimism”), and one on the humanist nostalgia of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, a novel about the persistence of art in a post-pandemic world. One character in Station Eleven remarks ironically, “It could be worse. There could be zombies.”

apocalypse outfit

It could be worse. One of the more amusing memes circulating on social media is the contrast between how one imagined what their post-apocalypse outfit would look like versus what it actually is—the former being something badass with a lot of leather and guns, and the latter being sweatpants and a housecoat. But what art and narrative offer that real life tends to lack is catharsis. Killing zombies with a crossbow or blasting across the alkaline flats in a souped-up semi with Imperia Furiosa would be harrowing but thrilling; sitting (as I am right now) in flannel pyjama bottoms and a hoodie with a dozen tabs open to different stories in my browser, is, to say the least, a counter-intuitive way to endure a pandemic, and not one that should lend itself to anxiety and depression.

But of course it does. The surprising thing, on reflection, was not that I was depressed the other day, but that it took that long for it to happen. I am, by my count, twenty-two days into self isolation, the first fourteen of which were actual quarantine. My partner Stephanie and I were in Barbados on vacation when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic and Justin Trudeau strongly encouraged all Canadians abroad to come home. We cut short our time in Barbados, and the relief we felt on making it home after the headache of rebooking flights was palpable; it was good to get home, and we also had the glow of time spent in the Caribbean lingering. And I have been on a half-sabbatical since the start of January, so I’ve more or less been self-isolating and social distancing before I was aware that either expression was a thing. I am, I’m almost a little embarrassed to admit, perfectly well situated to endure the lockdown with minimal issues.

And so I try to keep in the front of my mind the fact that whatever anxiety, frustration, and depression I experience is being experienced tenfold, a hundredfold, by many others. I think of how much worse this would be if it had happened when I was a graduate student living alone in a small apartment on a pittance, and I think of my students, current and former, enduring that now themselves.

My biggest fear is not that the world will be different when all this is over, but that it won’t be—that we won’t have learned the lessons about the fragility of our political and economic system, that those most vital to society aren’t the wealthy but those who get shit done every day, whether they’re stocking shelves or caring for the ill.

It’s a bit ironic to think that one of my standard riffs in my lectures on the nature of power is to get my students to imagine how long my authority as a professor would last into a zombie apocalypse. Think about it, I say: you’ve all paid tuition to sit in this class; I am granted authority both tacit and explicit as someone with a doctorate in this subject to run this class and evaluate your work. The very room is arranged with that power dynamic in mind. But if the zombie apocalypse happens while we’re in here, it’s quite likely that my usefulness will be reduced to being shoved out into the hallway to see if the coast is clear.

I can’t help feeling like we’re sort of in a moment like that now. It’s vital that when we come out the other side of this, we remember who kept things running, who put themselves in harm’s way for minimum wage, and who deserves the greatest consideration when we rethink everything. The biggest problem with our fascination with apocalyptic narratives, as has been observed by Jameson and Zizek and others, is that they comprise a failure of imagination—that it’s easier to imagine the wholesale destruction of capitalism than any sort of functional alternative. This failure, in a nutshell, is what I mean by “hopeful nihilism”—the idea that burning it all down will somehow make way for something better, without any clear idea of what “better” entails. It should go without saying that this kind of thinking was at least partially responsible for the election of Donald Trump (one of my more glib titles for the hopeful nihilism essay is “Were the Zombies Trying to Warn Us About Trump?”).

One sentiment that made the rounds on social media that made me laugh was someone who, commenting on the fact that quarantined Italians were singing from their balconies, said “I can’t sing opera, so I plan to conduct a PowerPoint presentation from my balcony this evening.” I laughed at that, thinking that my equivalent would be to deliver a rambling lecture on postmodernism from my balcony.

As it happens, I don’t have a balcony. So stay tuned for more isolated thoughts.

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Three reflections on the occasion of Remembrance Day

Don’t mention the war!

Last week in my fourth-year seminar, we covered Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried—a not-quite-a-novel, not-quite-a-memoir about his experiences as a combat soldier in the Vietnam War. It’s an extraordinary piece of work that I recommend to everyone. I prefaced our discussion as I always do whenever I teach a text about war, with an anecdote about James Joyce living in Zurich during the First World War: when asked why his current project (which was to be an obscure little novel titled Ulysses) wasn’t an explicitly anti-war novel—Joyce was, after all, living in the middle of a community of vociferously anti-war artists who had come to Zurich specifically to avoid military service—Joyce responded that the best way to write an anti-war novel was simply “don’t write a novel about war.”

I have always been struck by the simultaneous wisdom and inadequacy of this zen-like assertion. On one hand, Joyce identifies the principal problem of depicting warfare, which is that in aestheticizing it you risk celebrating it. To illustrate this point, I showed my class the notorious helicopter attack scene in Apocalypse Now, in which Robert Duvall’s sociopathic Colonel Kilgore swoops in with his air cavalry on a Vietnamese village to the strains of “The Ride of the Valkyries,” a mission he’d rejected until one of his soldiers told him the beach there was perfect for surfing. The scene is part and parcel with the film as a whole, a commentary on the absurdities and psychopathies of warfare; in and of itself, however, it is one of the most thrilling depictions of combat ever put on celluloid, a point made strikingly in the film adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s memoir of the first Gulf War, Jarhead. When Swofford’s Marine unit is given its orders to ship out to the Middle East, they get the men’s bloodlust up by showing them Apocalypse Now:

Possibly the most famous line from the film—and one of the most famous lines in cinema—is Kilgore saying “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” just after a flight of jet fighters rain fire down on a treeline.

 

napalm

The moment is iconic: the shirtless Kilgore, wearing a traditional cavalry hat, crouches down beside Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), who, with a handful of other soldiers, lies prone as bullets snap and whiz about them; Kilgore, heedless or perhaps oblivious of the danger, regretfully tells Willard, “This war’s gonna end one day.” Then he stands and walks off.

kilgore

As I said, the moment is iconic, but almost certainly for all the wrong reasons. We’re not meant to identify with Kilgore, but with the soldiers cowering on the ground. Between Francis Ford Coppola’s direction and Duvall’s performance, however, Kilgore has become a compelling symbol of badassery, and his iconic line a celebration of warfare.

 

I’m here today because my grandfather was good at math

My maternal grandfather, Norman Brown, was one of the kindest, gentlest, and most intelligent people I’ve ever known. He never went to university because he had to work as soon as he was done school to help support his family, which was something of a minor tragedy—if there was ever anyone who would have loved academe and flourished within its ivied walls, it was my grandfather. Even without postsecondary education, however, he showed his acumen, winning an award in mathematics. When World War Two began, he volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force, and became a navigator on Lancaster bombers.

lancaster

A Lancaster-class bomber

I remember him showing me the various ways in which he would figure out the location of his bomber. He’d pull out pads of graph paper and draw lines with a pencil and ruler, writing numbers in the margin, and show me how to calculate one’s position. All that was lost on me, and would almost certainly be lost on me today, but I loved him so much, and loved listening to his stories, that my grasp of his words was beside the point.

I was a devoted reader of WWII history from an early age, and would have loved even more to hear stories about his bombing missions over France and Germany. But he had none to tell. He never shipped overseas. He was so good and so precise in his navigation that he was kept in Canada to teach others. (My grandfather, modest to a fault, never said as much; it was my grandmother who told me, recounting how, upon receiving his letter with the news, she wept with relief).

The fact that my grandfather had no actual war stories to share was, to my young self, the sole element lacking in those discussions. It would only be much later, after he had passed, that I fully appreciated the substance of my grandmother’s relief. Bomber crews sustained one of the highest rates of attrition of any combat units of the war. Some forty-five percent of bomber crews were killed in the skies over Europe. That’s a number that gives me what I can only characterize as existential vertigo. Had my grandfather been just decent at math as opposed to extraordinary, there’s close to a fifty-fifty chance I would not be sitting here writing this post.

And as I write this, another eventuality presents itself to me: had he gone overseas and survived, would he have been the same man I loved and idolized? After suffering the trauma and terrors of night-time bombing, seeing crewmates chewed by flak, looking death in the face, seeing the bombers on his wing explode in flame, would that gentleness of spirit have survived?

“Thank you for your service” is the emptiest of sentiments if we’re not going to acknowledge that sometimes the greatest sacrifice is surviving.

 

Seriously, can Don Cherry just retire already?

Almost eighteen years ago, I went to a bar in London, Ontario with a good friend to watch Team Canada play Finland the Salt Lake City Olympic hockey quarterfinals. Canada won, and went on to take the gold. That evening sticks in my memory because there were two things that struck my friend and I as the quintessence of Canada.

First was a young Sikh man in a turban and a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey jersey; where the player name would be, it said THE HIP. He was with a group of racially and ethnically diverse friends, all cheering exuberantly for Team Canada.

Second was a moment between periods featuring Don Cherry declaiming in his usual strident tones about the game thus far. He was rinkside; a group of Canadians who had made their way to Salt Lake City started cheering and chanting his name, loudly enough that they were drowning him out. Annoyed, Cherry turned and pointed at them and said “Shut up!” And they did. Everyone in the bar burst out laughing, because of course Canadians, however excited to be watching their team hand Finland its ass, would be polite enough to be chagrined to have their rambunctious behaviour called out.

It has been quite awhile since I thought of that evening, but it came to mind today when I read and then watched Don Cherry’s asinine suggestion that what he perceived as a dearth of Remembrance Day poppies on the streets of Mississauga and Toronto was attributable to a surfeit of immigrants disrespecting Canadian traditions and history:

You people love – they come here, whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you could pay a couple of bucks for a poppy or something like that. These guys pay for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.

Don Cherry might be a Canadian institution, but he has been descending into the nativist know-nothing reactionary well for some time now—or, more likely, has always been there and finds the present moment amenable to voicing his antipathy to anyone he perceives as not being a “real” Canadian.

I don’t know that his anti-immigrant comments regarding wearing the poppy are the worst thing he’s said in recent years, but they do serve to exemplify the kind of pernicious nativist thinking that has consumed contemporary conservatism. On the day we put aside to solemnly observe the sacrifice of our nation’s soldiers, it’s worth considering just why Cherry’s rant was not merely asinine and bigoted, but also displayed precisely the kind of ignorance and disrespect of history of which he accuses immigrants.

To start with, I’ve written at some length on this blog about how the assertion that Canadian soldiers fought and died “for our freedoms” irks me. Click the links to read my thoughts in full, but here’s the TL;DR: Canada has never faced existential threat from a foreign foe, whether from the Central Powers or the Axis or North Korea or Saddam Hussein or the Taliban; we have fought for the freedoms of others, which should be celebrated and memorialized, but that is not the same thing; and to unthinkingly celebrate our soldiers’ sacrifice and our veterans’ service without understanding its context and complexity is to do it a disservice.

That is why I wear the poppy, while some on my section of the ideological spectrum consider it an endorsement of war and aggression. I understand that argument while respectfully disagreeing; as I outlined in the first section of this post, the depiction of war is a fraught affair—so too is its commemoration, not least because while November 11th invites us to remember all who have fought for and served Canada, the day specifically honours the First World War.

Given that I’m a third-generation Canadian of predominantly British heritage (with just enough Irish mixed in to sharpen my Catholic guilt), the legacy of WWI resonates with me quite strongly. But I can’t blame people whose families emigrated from formerly colonial nations if they’re ambivalent about commemorating a war that was fought by imperial powers over imperial holdings. There was a host of reasons for the tensions in Europe leading up to the outbreak of war, but a major factor was Germany’s imperial expansion, encroaching as it did on French and British interests in Africa and Southeast Asia. WWI was, as I’ve argued here before, an entirely unnecessary conflagration contested by imperial and generally nondemocratic powers in the name of keeping possession of their colonial interests.

Which is not, I hasten to add, a reason for not commemorating the horrific sacrifice made by soldiers fighting for what poet Wilfred Owen called “the old lie: / Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori” (translation: “It is a proper and beautiful thing to die for one’s country”). And the particular idiocy of Don Cherry and his ilk omits how many of “you people’s” forebears fought for and alongside the imperial powers: by conservative estimates, “well over four million non-white men were mobilised into the European and American armies during the First World War, in combatant and non-combatant roles.” (Just going out on a limb here that the “you people” Cherry’s targeting aren’t Swedish immigrants). To say nothing of the significant number of indigenous Canadians who fought in both world wars, to no great benefit to their communities.

Commemoration and memorializing are important, but even more important is having a nuanced appreciation of history. When we boil it down to the mere presence or absence of a flag pin or a poppy on one’s lapel, it is profoundly disrespectful to the very people we’re ostensibly remembering.

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