In the novel World War Z, Max Brooks takes his readers on a journey of humanity as it faces its greatest ever existential threat: zombies. Acts of social marginalization and otherization from the dominant liberal-democratic capitalist world order allow the pandemic to be contracted and then proliferate. In this piece, we will analyse various milestones of the pandemic’s spread and use CDA (Critical Discourse Analysis) to explore how the language of fear, mistrust, and discrimination reflect or parallel real-life power inequalities.
“Their behavior made me angry, not at them, you understand, not as individuals, but what they represented about our country. After centuries of foreign oppression, exploitation, and humiliation, we were finally reclaiming our rightful place as humanity’s middle kingdom. We were the world’s richest and most dynamic superpower, masters of everything from outer space to cyberspace… yet so many of us still lived like these ignorant peasants, as stagnant and superstitious as the earliest Yanghao savages” (Pg. 6)
Residents of New Dachang, China first reported the existence of an unknown disease (which would later be referred to as “Solanum”). The doctor who responds to the report, gets angry with local residents for failing to properly treat the sick boy. The doctor attributes his anger to his vision that China had become “the masters of outer and cyberspace” and therefore was too advanced to still have “peasants”. The use of terms like “dynamic superpower” and “cyberspace” exemplify that his modernist vision for China excludes the villagers, who do not have access to the Internet and are not integrated into “cyberspace”. The fact that the villagers make a living (and initially contract the disease) by diving in the shadow of the Three Gorges Dam, a spectacular engineering feat, helps juxtapose China’s transition into global capitalism against the people whose homes and livelihoods were treated solely as obstacles to modernization.
Outbreak Turns Into Pandemic
“And that’s just the organs! You want to talk about the ‘donated’ eggs from political prisoners, the sperm, the blood?.. No . . . but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen! When I think about how many transplants I performed, all those patients from Europe, the Arab world, even the self-righteous United States. Few of you Yankees asked where your new kidney or pancreas was coming from, be it a slum kid from the City of God or some unlucky student in a Chinese political prison. You didn’t know, you didn’t care.” (Pg.27)
Despite efforts by the Chinese government, the contagion spreads past China’s borders via the country’s robust illegal organ trade. Those who purchase illegal organs indiscriminately scour the world for new kidneys, corneas, livers, and so forth, much in the same way that zombies indiscriminately kill people and eat their brains (which is also an organ, albeit non-transplantable as of yet). Purchasers of illegally harvested organs function as “human zombies” and contribute to the spread of the contagion without the need of a single bite.
“Fear is the most basic emotion we have. Fear is primal. Fear sells. That was my mantra. ‘Fear sells.’ When I first heard about the outbreaks, back when it was still called African rabies, I saw the opportunity of a lifetime.” (Pg. 55)
A breakout of Solanum in a Cape Town hospital brings the disease worldwide attention. Media outlets dub the epidemic “African Rabies”, labelling the contagion as foreign, yet surmountable and non-existential. In World War Z, that false sense of immunity to the threat gives Americans the false security that they are too far geographically and culturally removed to be affected by the contagion. Unfortunately, in the novel as well as in real life, media coverage of epidemics permit people to input their own biases and fears as to what the illness and its potential eradication might actually entail.
For example, this NBC news story highlights fear and exoticness when talking about foreign disease. The article brought to light the first case of an American infected with Ebola. The headline reads “New York Doctor Just Back from Africa has Ebola”. The article’s headline connects all of Africa with Ebola and fails to mention which particular countries were suffering from the outbreak until the very last sentence. The article states, “It’s a by-the-book operation demonstrating the nation’s heightened new state of readiness for Ebola,” and then continues, “An official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told NBC News that an Ebola strike team was being assembled to go to New York and help coordinate his care”. The “heightened new state of readiness” and “Ebola Strike Team” connect fighting Ebola to fighting another armed group. Whereas diseases spread relatively indiscriminately, wars have malintended enemies.
Part of the sensationalization of this discourse comes in linguistically constructing Ebola as “an enemy”, and those possibly or already infected as enemies of this “war”. During the same Ebola scare, as demonstrated by this CNN news article, lawmakers used fear of Ebola to demonize Latin Americans entering the US. In one swoop, language of war, and fear of Ebola, were redirected to demonize immigrants and construct them as mortal enemies.
“Plus, this was one of the most business-friendly administrations in American history… Who was going to blow the whistle? The medical profession? We made sure it was a prescription drug so doctors stood just as much to lose as us. Who else?The FDA who let it pass?The congressmen who all voted for its acceptance? The surgeon general? The White House?” (Pg. 55)
Within the circumstances of World War Z, fear conjured through media speculation helped serve the interests of drug-makers who teamed up with doctors and the US government to fast-track a sham vaccine for consumption by the American public. Max Brooks critiques the presidency of George W. Bush by imagining his business-friendly administration donning the slogan: “Americans don’t need big government. They need big protection, and they need it big time!” Given the novel’s 2006 debut in the years after 9/11 and the 2003 Iraq Invasion, it is reasonable to interpret this fictional political slogan, and its manipulative discursive role in political misdirection surrounding zombie threat, as an indirect critique of pro-business policies and manipulative news media in the weeks and months leading up to Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. It is difficult to not connect the government’s role in misleading the public about the sham vaccine Phalanx in World War Z with the misinformation campaign committed by the Bush administration both before and after the Iraq Invasion.
Max Brooks imagines a world where lies and distractions coordinate to bring upon the downfall of a short-sighted capitalist, global social structure. The language of the novel achieves this critique through a storyline that transforms humans into consumerist zombies, who are then consumed by differently alive (actual) zombies. Apart from the novel, our collective ability and desire to integrate those marginalized by society are crucial for the durability of world order. Taking up this charge to integrate the most marginalized among us means recognizing how a language of fear is used to manipulate us, and to work to resist linking such fear to marginalized communities. Continued failure to work together will drain us of our humanity, and without knowing it (as I’m sure the zombies in World War Z are not “conscious” of their actions), turn you and me into the consumerist killer zombies we should be most afraid of.
1) Brooks, Max. World War Z. Duckworth, 2007.