American Culture

International community: Zombie apocalypse not likely

Daniel Drezner’s visit to Graceland a few years back taught him something important about writing about zombies. Fellow tourists seemed to fall into two contingents:

The first contingent was thoroughly, utterly sincere in their devotion to all things Elvis. They were hardcore fans, and Graceland was their Mecca, their Jerusalem, and their Rome…. The second group of tourists was equally delighted to be at Graceland, but for a different reason. These people took great pleasure in the kitschy nature of all things Elvis.

Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies is a “tour of a different kind of Graceland, only with a lot more footnotes. Oh, and zombies.”

Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a member of the Zombie Research Society. His little book, which successfully balances sincere theoretical discussion with pop culture kitsch, is a stroke of genius.

International relations professors use Theories of International Politics and Zombies to introduce complex theories in an accessible way. Students love it because zombies are cool. Drezner plays to both with pitch-perfect tone.

The premise of the book, which began as a legitimate scholarly paper, is simple: “What would different theories of international politics predict would happen if the dead began to rise from the grace and feast upon the living? How valid—or how rotten—are these predictions?”

He realizes that “[s]erious readers might dismiss these questions as fanciful, but concerns about flesh-eating ghouls are manifestly evident in popular culture. Whether one looks at films, songs, games, or books, the genre is clearly on the rise.” It’s possible to dismiss the zombie trend as mere pabulum used to feed a mass public that craves the strange and bizarre, he says, but such an explanation would be only skin-deep. “Popular culture often provides a window into the subliminal or unstated fears of citizens,” Drezner says, “and zombies are no exception.”

“Clearly, public fears of being devoured by flesh-eating ghouls can only be allayed by rigorous scholarship,” he argues.

Drezner believes zombies represent “the perfect twenty-first-century threat: they are not well understood by serious analysts, they posses protean capabilities, and the challenge they pose to states is very, very grave.” (It’s worth noting, by the way, that Drezner can almost never resist working in a pun like that, which makes the book all the more entertaining.)

He replies on two sources of evidence to buttress his theoretical paradigms:

The first data source is the social science literature on events akin to an attack of the undead: pandemics, disasters, bioterrorism, and so forth. Past responses to calamitous events can inform our expectations of how states and nonstate actors would respond to the presence of reanimated and ravenous corpses.

The second data source is the fictional narratives about zombies that exist in popular culture. In recent years, policymakers have relied on the creators of fictional narratives for insights into “out of the box” threat scenarios.

Drezner draws on diverse source material to illustrate examples and test his ideas, yet a reader doesn’t have to be indoctrinated into the inner circle of zombie fanboys in order to get his drift. He explains everything—zombies and theories alike—as he goes.

His honest attempt at applying various theories about international politics to the zombie apocalypse milieu proves to be surprisingly fascinating—and what he finds undercuts one of the most basic premises of the genre.

“Traditional zombie narratives in film and fiction are quick to get to the apocalypse,” he notes. However, his application of international relations theories suggest that “a vigorous policy response to the menace of the living dead” would, in all likelihood, prevent total apocalypse. “The public benefits of wiping the undead from the face of the earth are quite significant, boosting the likelihood of significant policy coordination,” he says.

“These kinds of predictions suggest that maybe, just maybe, the zombie canon’s dominant narrative of human extinction is overstated,” he concludes.

Thank you for that note of optimism, Mr. Drezner. Thankyouverymuch.

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