Thursday, November 10, 2011

Zombie Epistemology

I have been watching the TV show The Walking Dead since its first season last year and have been fascinated. I must admit to liking the horror genre. Even though I used to enjoy the gross-out factor when I was younger, these days what I enjoy in a good horror tale is not the gore, but its cautionary nature about what might be if we are not careful. Like the best Twilight Zone episodes, a good horror story is essentially a morality tale.

So what is the morality tale in The Walking Dead? It is fairly simple: use your mind or suffer the gruesome fate of becoming a literal zombie walking the earth for eternity -- or until a human picks you off. The story follows a ragtag group of survivors of the zombie apocalypse, each struggling to survive and find purpose in a dead world. Since no fictional story exists in isolation from the culture that makes it possible, I have pondered, while watching the show, if there are parallels in the real world that also serve as cautionary tales.

Over the past month or so, I have found my parallel: the Occupy Wall Street movement. How are protestors in New York and other cities like the undead zombies shuffling through the landscape on a fictional show? Observe, if you have watched the show, that one or two zombies are easily dealt with by the human characters, but a hoard of zombies becomes an immediate threat. In the Occupy protests, a few misguided youth seem benign enough, but a mob of them has quickly become violent -- to the point that they have closed down the entire port of Oakland, California and caused millions of dollars of damage to private property. In New York City, a 'safe tent' has been erected for women so they can avoid the sexual assaults that have become increasingly common as the protests have turned uglier.

The most telling aspect of the Occupy protests, however, is not the actions they take, but the ideas they put forth. What do the protestors stand for, if anything, and what do they propose as solutions to the things they're protesting? From my observation, the most common idea is anti-capitalism, but there are a laundry list of other demands, some more outlandish than others, such as the forgiveness of all debts. Presumably, an individual incurs debt because he has borrowed a sum for a specific purpose, such as buying a car or a house or to pay for university tuition. The demand for the forgiveness of all debts therefore has to mean that someone must pay for them, usually in the form of more taxes on those who haven't gone into debt. But what if those who are prudent with their money and work hard to achieve their goals object to yet another violation of their rights? None of the protestors seem to have thought out the consequences of their demands. How could they if their method of thinking is disconnected and inconsistent?

What the protestors possess, therefore, is a thinking method I have come to call zombie epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge and how man acquires it. Because zombies no longer possess a rational faculty, the only thing they're capable of doing is mindlessly attacking humans and literally feeding off of them. What better way to describe roving gangs of dispossessed youth (though often from affluent families) making demands without thinking about the logical conclusion of those demands? Observe also that they are more than willing to use the products of capitalism whilst opposing the very system that makes their lives possible. They hate 'big oil' but wear Nikes, carry rucksacks made of synthetic materials, post Facebook and Twitter messages on their iPhones made of silicon, plastic and other materials. They hate Wall Street and financiers in general, but benefit from the investment capital that flows to companies like Apple and Nike.

There is one Occupy idea I have agreed with: the opposition of the bailouts that Washington doled out starting from the Bush administration and then increasing at an alarming rate at the helm of the Obama presidency. What I find curious is if the Occupy protestors oppose financial bailouts, why weren't they setting up camp in Washington? That is the real epicentre of the financial woes that Americans are suffering these days. The problem with protesting in Washington is it would clash with the central goal of the Occupy protests, which is not to reduce the size of the state, but to increase it. After all, demands for free stuff -- from health care to education to housing -- have to be paid for somehow and the only way to do it is to advocate an ever larger state.

As a general principle, I am suspicious of street protests for the simple reason that they rapidly devolve into chanting slogans with little intellectual content. As a longtime advocate of limited government and free markets, my form of activism is one that requires thinking, reading and writing. It is also one that requires setting long term goals, such as constructing a strategy for ending state involvement in medicine, education and other areas. In other words, it does people like me little good to bellow 'Hey hey, ho ho, government intervention has got to go!'

My antidote to the mindless shuffling of zombie protestors consists of rational thinking. It entails the advocacy of ideas that lead to the freeing of our minds and wallets from the clutches of bureaucrats in Washington, Ottawa and Canberra, among the few countries I have called home. Are the stakes high? Most assuredly. Is success possible? Absolutely! But first one must do the thing lacking in so many adults these days: think.

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