Friday, July 25, 2014

Zombies and Indians

I have two rituals when I am writing the kind of academic essays that require a greater level of concentration than I am usually willing to give to the duties of my life.  You can read into the latter part of that sentence all that you want regarding my attitude toward family and work.  Let’s focus on the first half of the sentence.  I really like writing academic essays of some length, say, 20 pages or more, based upon primary and secondary sources and all that.  I mean, I just like reading books, thinking about them, attempting to synthesize the material into something I think makes sense.   Writing is the best way that I know of to force oneself to think about a subject deeper than the level of truisms and received knowledge.  And I just like the challenge.
Which Way Did We Go?
            On the July 23rd, I completed the last paper for the class I have been taking as part of my commitment for the sabbatical.   The class concerned “The Enlightenment.”  I thought the readings in the class were a somewhat surprising, and probably we did not read as much as we should have.  But generally the class was fine, and did cover this vast subject with a broad stroke:  No Kant, Hume, Locke, Voltaire, but the Russian Dashkova, the French Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the British Jane Austen, The Americans Tom Paine and Lewis and Clark.  Writing assignments included an essay on each book, and then a larger essay related to one or more of the readings.  Since I had previously read Rousseau in the other class I completed while the Caravan rolled around the nation, I thought I would write my major paper for this class about him.  I am fascinated by Rousseau, I think because I dislike and disagree with him, while probably at the same time recognizing that much of my view of life and the world grows from his influence. 
More or less at the last moment, I decided to recognize that the itinerary of the Caravan and the syllabus of the class supported each other.  There we were reading Lewis and Clark’s Journals as we made our way east from Astoria, Oregon, into Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas.  After writing a shortish essay on discipline and reason during the expedition, I just said, “Hell, let’s stick with Lewis and Clark.”
Fort Clatsop, near Astoria, Oregon
            This reasonable acceptance of reality also, incidentally, forced me, almost demanded, that I purchase a few more books in National Park gift shops and cute local bookshops like Vargo’s Jazz City and Books in Bozeman, Montana.   It took me a week of general reading, then a few days of fairly concentrated writing.  The writing interfered with my touring Fort Lincoln, the Custer House, and the earth lodges at On-a-Slant Village, there at the state park outside Mandan, North Dakota where we bivouacked last week.  Because of length, I broke the essay into three blogs:  here, here, and here.
            So my routines.  The first is that I have to wear a bandana when I write.  It’s a must with serious writing.  Am I wearing one now?  No.  This blog resembles journal entries more that serious writing.  Here, as you know, I let my mind wonder.  Here, I am experimenting with ideas and their connections, not asserting that I have found some kind of truth.  Closer to my Confessions, maybe?  With wondering, there is no need for some cloth accoutrement to prevent brain wattage from leaking.   
            The second ritual is to obsess over some small stupidity that has nothing to do with the essay that I am writing.  During a previous sabbatical, ten years ago, when I returned to Texas A and M to complete the classes toward a Ph.D., each evening between12:00 and 1:00 I would play solitaire on the computer, Vegas rules.  Many nights I went to bed owing a thousand dollars only to awaken debt free.  This week, I have been watching The Walking Dead on Netflix.  On a trip such as this, when television and wifi connections are sporadic at best, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are welcome technologies, and you take advantage of them when you can.  My routine for a few days at Lincoln State Park was to sit myself down in the coffee shop of the Commissary during the day and write.  I would use their internet to double check facts and to locate scholarly articles in JSTOR and other services and download them.  Later, I read those articles and other sources, then planned for the next day, organized notes, marked up texts, and other such pre-writing activities.  Then at 10:00 at night, once the sun had gone down here in the North Country, Captain Crunch and I would hop in the truck and drive up to the Commissary again.  The Commissary closed at 5:00, so we parked in a no-parking zone, a few yards from the building, connected to the internet, with our respective devices.  I watched The Walking Dead while he indulged in Mindcraft videos produced by a family acquaintance, a kid a couple years older than the Captain.
Fort Mandan, near Bismarck, North Dakota
            If you haven’t watched The Walking Dead and think at some point you might want to, here is the Spoiler Alert Warning.  Join us again at the beginning of the next paragraph.  I am going to discuss a scene from the second season, beginning now.    If you have seen the show, you will remember that as we follow our group of survivors, they find temporary relief from running from Zombies while staying at Hershel Greene’s idyllic farm—that is until they discover that Hershel is keeping Zombies in the barn.  Hershel is a good Christian man who believes, essentially, that the Zombies are still living beings and merely have a disease that will prove curable at some future time.  Shane, the testosterone driven bundle of freaked out emotions, eventually breaks open the barn door and slowly the Zombies, which include members of Hershel’s family, emerge from darkness to light, from dormant mumbling to murderous hunger.  Many of the members of our group stand in front of the barn and, as each Zombie exits, blasts it in the head.  It is a massacre, a dozen or more Zombies fall to ground.  It is also great television.  The audience is both horrified and compelled to watch.  Hershel collapses in grief.  Rick, the troubled leader, stands helpless as his authority is challenged.  The youngster Carl peeks through his mother’s arms, as he yearns for warrior status.  Our moral conscience, Dale, mourns his friends’ dissent into chaos and cold-blooded murder.  In the context of the show, having witnessed unnumbered Zombie attacks and mourned the loss of favored characters, we understand the impetus, the urge, to rid the earth of Zombies.  Still this act makes some of us uneasy.  The scene has one additional surprise, but in case you haven’t watched the program and are reading this anyway, I will save you one shocker.
            So the gist is that in The Walking Dead, good, ole Americans kill perfectly sincere Zombies, just living out their Zombie lives (or death, depending on your values).  And there are several characters, who from the very first episode, help us feel a little kinship and sympathy for the walking dead.  All well and good.  “It’s a tv show,” you will say and slap my forehead as if I forgot something important.
            However, we English teacher types know that these media productions just aren’t simple entertainment.   Entertainments grow from our cultural pleasures and pains, our hopes and our fears.  It has been that way since the Popol Voh, Genesis, and Gilgamesh, and the Bhagavad Gita.   I have not studied up on Zombies and their supposed importance to the popular imagination, but The Walking Dead and World War Z give us a pretty clear idea.  As a culture, we are afraid of contagions that will off us all in a quick pandemic.  Influenza, Ebola, Hantavirus, Rabies, Small Pox, E. Coli, STDs of various kinds, Tuburculosis, and more seem to be awaiting on every doorknob and in the spray of every uncovered sneeze.  Today, we feel that “Other People” are dangerous and capable of making us sick as dogs.  Only by arming ourselves with masks and latex gloves and by slathering sanitizing lotions can we survive. 
            Simple enough, we feel vulnerable, and we express that vulnerability in our art forms.  We deal with our fear by telling stories that scare us.  We humans are complicated creatures, but we aren’t that complicated.  The only question is how frightened will we become and how far will be go to protect ourselves.  Will we all retreat into our own protective bubble?  The Boy in the Bubble as a symbol for Everyman?  Will all of us pure, clean people quarantine ourselves?  Will all of us vulnerable people kill every metaphorical bee, or ban every metonymic peanut from public life? 
            So these are the thoughts I entertain myself with at night, as I think about Lewis and Clark and their journey across the western half of the U.S.  Some days, I read and write, and some days I visit historical sites, and some nights I watch The Walking Dead, and it all starts to jumble around in the head.
            For instance, in a biography of William Clark by Landon Y. Jones—William Clark and the Shaping of the American West—I read about a couple of massacres.   In 1791, in the Ohio Territory, American General Arthur S. Clair and his troops—“615 regulars, 1,675 levies, and 470 militiamen—march through Ohio building roads and forts.  Then on November 4, Little Turtle of the Miamis and Blue Jacket of the Shawnees organize their 1000 warriors and attack.  One soldier reported hearing a sound, “not terrible, as has been represented, but more resembling an infinitude of horse-bells suddenly opening to you than any other sound I could compare it to.”  Jones writes that accounts of the battle differ according to witnesses, but they all agree “on two points:  the battle lasted about three hours, and it was a scene of indescribable horror.”  About 630 of the 1400 men under arms were killed, scalped, sometimes dismembered.  “The mouths of the dead were filled with dirt, mocking the American’s land-hunger.”
Sacagawea Monument
Near Mobridge, South Dakota
            And Landon Jones tells another story, that of American militia commander, David Williamson.  In 1792, he found a group of Native Americans of the Delaware tribe, who had been converted to Christianity.  Without many questions, he ordered them to Fort Pitt “for their protection.”  But when he discovered that they used tea kettles and tea cups and such utensils, he ordered them into two houses.  He and his men, all good Americans systematically murdered 42 men, 20 women, and 34 children.
            I was researching and found both of these stories. Some day soon after that, the Caravan rolled through western Montana and spent a couple of days exploring the bloodied land around Little Big Horn, where Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull showed the Seventh Calvary a thing or two.   The Caravan moved on, and we drove through the Badlands in South Dakota, visiting the Wounded Knee Massacre Museum.  At the Battle of the Little Big Horn, 268 soldiers dead and 55 wounded.   At Wounded Knee, over 150 men, women, and children were killed, and 51 wounded.  Some estimates go higher. 
            Then, all of a sudden, I began to look at The Walking Dead in a different way.  A 1831 quotation from Tocqueville began to haunt me:  "In the midst of this American society, so well policed, so sententious, so charitable, a cold selfishness and complete insensibility prevails when it is a question of the natives of the country," he writes.  Voicing the American attitude, he continues, “This world here belongs to us, they tell themselves every day: the Indian race is destined for final destruction which one cannot prevent and which is not desirable to delay.  Heaven has not made them to become civilized; it is necessary that they die.”  Where have I seen this sentiment before?  In The Walking Dead, this stupid television show?
Sitting Bull
at Sitting Bull Grave Site
            The Walking Dead, then, is just another retelling of the Cowboy/Calvary and Indian tales that I grew up with.  Kill or be killed.  Us versus Them.  The only good Indian is a dead Indian.  And so this is where things get even more dicey.  What is all this fear and hated and violence about? Please notice I am not proclaiming anyone innocent here, because I am not buying the Us versus Them narrative.  Everybody is guilty somehow.  I don't think I am being PC.  What I am interested in is this narrative that we repeat over and over to ourselves:  There is a group of people who will infect me, turn me into one of them.  This narrative is saying, therefore, that who I am is fragile.  It is a phobic narrative.  Remember John Wayne in The Searchers.  He was going to kill the young white woman who was kidnapped by the Indians, because she had lived with them, and who knows? 
            For White America, the antagonists of this narrative seem to shift through the years.  At one time, it was Native Americans.  At another time, it was African Americans.  Recently, hasn’t it been Hispanic Americans?  Straight America fears and retaliates against Gay Americans.  I think of the misogynist films, literature, and music of the sixties and seventies, when Male America feared Female America.  We can’t let women make us soft, now can we, men?
            Of course, this fear of being infected, of being changed, isn’t just our narrative.  We see it in the Balkans, in Russia, in Israel, among the Sunnis and Shiites.  I see it on MSNBC as well as on Fox News.
Native American Memorial
The Battle of the Little Bighorn

            What is this fragility that we all feel so deeply in our souls that we have to murder, or merely demean, anyone who makes us feel it?  Why aren’t we immune?  I realize I am simplifying the conflict.  I know there are histories.  And I know there just are some Sons of Bitches that you just have to stop with a bullet, if necessary.  I know that I am writing from a position of privilege--I am, after all, a white middle class, educated male.  Life has been relatively easy for me.  I have the luxury of traveling the US for a year and thinking these thoughts, by god.  But I also suspect that someday we will have to tell ourselves new stories besides the ones in which we are potential victims, stories in which we are the good and the living, and those other people are the evil and the dead.  If we don’t, I fear we will all be the dead.
           As I continue to watch The Walking Dead, now that the academic essay has been turned in (I don't think it is completed, just abandoned for a while), I have another realization.  As I observe our little band of heroes, scraping a life together, back on the road, mobil, nomad; and as I observe the Zombies who just keep coming, more and more of them, more and more of them, in larger and hungrier groups, I realize I have something wrong.  We good Americans, in the audience watching this story unfold, should not identify with the band of heroes, running, frightened.  No, we are the Zombies.  We are the never ending hordes claiming territory from the nomadic clan.  In America: The Movie, Dinesh D'Souza says that more Native Americans died of diseases carried by the "settlers" than by warfare.   Maybe in The Walking Dead, we don't have a narrative to calm our fears.  We have a narrative to assuage our guilt.  Please, we don't want to be Zombies any longer.  We don't want to die with our mouths full of dirt.

Soundtrack.  The Guess Who:  "Share the Land."
The Guess Who:  "American Woman"  14 minutes of it!
[Yes, I know, this is a Canadian band, but . . . .]

          

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