Ever wondered what a neocon would make of the zombie apocalypse? Professor Daniel Drezner has your answer.
Most zombie movies skip straight to complete social disintegration, without bothering to explain just how matters got so far out of hand. But for political scientist Daniel Drezner, that's the most intriguing part. Inspired by the enthusiastic response to a post on his blog at Foreign Policy Magazine, he set out to bring some global perspective to the subgenre. The result? Theories of International Politics and Zombies, the latest zombie mashup. He spoke to us about which countries would fare best in an outbreak, teaching poli sci with pop culture, and Zombie Strippers' single moment of brilliance.
What drew you to this particular science fictional trope? As you've said, there are a lot of things that are interesting for international relations scholars, aliens for example. Why this type of story?
In some ways it was truly accidental. What originally sparked this was that paper by a bunch of biomathematicians at Carleton University called "When Zombies Attack." I saw that and thought, "There's no politics here." So I wrote a sort of lighthearted post about it and it got linked to by a lot of people. That led me to think there's actually something useful and pedagogical about this. And as much as people get aliens, they also get zombies.
I think the other reason is, simply put, name any book, add the world "zombies" to the title and it's automatically funny. War and Peace and zombies. Crime and Punishment and zombies. It's impossible not to start laughing. And if you can make a student laugh, you sneak in the learning before they realize it.
Let's say there's an uprising of the undead tomorrow. How could an understanding of international relations, of the concepts in this book, help politicians respond?
The key thing to realize is different governments would respond differently. This is interesting in comparison to the trope you were talking about earlier. Most alien stories end with all of Earth uniting against the aliens. What's fascinating about zombie stories is they almost always end with the apocalypse. When you think about diseases breaking out, governments don't always cooperate terribly well. They sometimes have an incentive to conceal information. When there's genuine concern about epidemics, you start seeing competition over scarce resources. There are different paradigmatic responses and cooperation would be one possible outcome. But the book shows that's hardly the only one.
I see, so there are any number of scenarios, and different governments might act on different paradigms?
It's possible. Again, one of the interesting things as I was writing it was how often I could go to the well of zombie movies and say that this scenario plays out in this particular movie or this particular book. Obviously, none of these theories perfectly captures the dynamics of world politics. They're all partial pictures at best. But hopefully, by reading the book, when people are looking at real world situations, they can say, "Oh, I see, constructivism is playing itself out here." And then also see what they can expect going forward.
Would you suggest that one theory is more likely than others?
I'm not going to answer the question as to which outcome is the most likely one. That kind of defeats the purpose. I was not trying to play favorites.One of the fascinating things in reading the reviews is how different reviewers think, "Oh, he's clearly a liberal" or "He's clearly a realist" or "He's clearly a neocon." I have my own predilections, but I really was trying to be ruthlessly scrupulous in terms of fairly describing these things.
That said, I think the one overarching conclusion I came to is it's better to be in a developed country and it's better to be in a democracy. If you take a look at zombie-like disasters or natural disasters, it is striking how wealthy democracies do much better in terms of coping with them. As bad as what's going in Japan right now is, it would have been an order of magnitude worse if it had happened in Indonesia or Malaysia.
That's interesting, because the movies often take wealthy countries like the US and imagine the apocalypse.
Exactly, it'll be set in a mall or something. Yet the interesting thing is — and there really is hard data to support this — if you take a look at something like earthquakes or hurricanes and loss of life, inevitably it is poor and authoritarian countries that do far worse.
You mentioned you were often able to find examples of how different paradigms played out in different movies or books. Is there a particular story in the canon that impressed you with its sensitivity to or awareness of these issues?
Hands down, World War Z by Max Brooks was far and away the most sophisticated take. Everyone is very quick to get to the apocalypse, and the thing that interested me was how exactly you wind up getting there. World War Z, I thought, was the most realistic treatment of this, and I probably cited it more than anything else in the book. The other, to a lesser extent, was Romero's original Dawn of the Dead. That that also happened in the middle, as things are starting to break down, and also basically every zombie movie made since owes something to Dawn of the Dead.
Which of the zombie movies did you enjoy most?
The two things I recommend to everyone, whether or not they're zombie fans, would be World War Z and 28 Days Later. They're just exceptionally well done pieces of art. Then I have a soft spot for the really, really bad zombie movies. I made an effort to cite Zombie Strippers. It is a horrible, horrible movie, but there is one line that just won me over completely. The premise is the zombie bug affects men and women differently. It turns men into your garden-variety Romero zombies, but women retain their intelligence and become even more alluring as zombies. It stars this woman, Jenna Jameson, who's a porn star. Naturally, this being a movie, she's a stripper and she's reading Nietzsche in her spare time. There's a moment after she becomes a zombie, where she's sitting in her chair reading Nietzsche's Being and Nothingness, laughing, and saying, "I finally get this shit." And that was inspired.
I'm curious to get your take on the idea of pop culture in the academy. You talked a bit earlier about making students laugh. But what's it like doing this sort of work in such a serious subject? Do you find it a challenge with your colleagues?
In terms of discussing it with my colleagues, they'd ask, "So, what are you writing?" And I'd "It's a book called Theories of International Politics and Zombies." Their initial response is, "So by zombies, you mean the Washington Consensus or capitalism?" They'll assume zombies are a metaphor, and I'll have to say that I'm actually talking about the dead rising from the grave and eating the living. That's always a nice double take.
Beyond that, I've always been a pop culture enthusiast. You're talking to someone who subscribes religiously to Foreign Affairs and Entertainment Weekly. The the pop culture stuff is useful when lecturing students for two reasons, one good and one bad. The bad is that, very often, you are dealing with students who don't have a great command of history. It''s not obvious they're going to have that complete of a grasp of the Cuban Missile Crisis as an example of some foreign policy concept. If you bring up Dawn of the Dead instead, they do know zombies. On the other hand, talking about things like zombies that have an air of unreality sometimes allows students to free their minds from the particulars of real-world situations and think more creatively. I've gotten really fabulously interesting questions whenever I've presented this stuff. One person asked me whether humans, in trying to figure out how to defeat the zombies, should ally with the wolves. That never would have occurred to me.