All posts by Jesamine J Dyus

World War Z: The Morality of Phalanx

When I first came across Breckinridge “Breck” Scott’s story, I was appalled.   Breck was the man behind the Phalanx vaccine that claimed to prevent the “African Rabies.” While it may have been true that his vaccine really did prevent rabies, it was ineffective for preventing the zombie plague. With the help of the FDA, doctors, congressmen, and the White House, he was able to make money from a misinformed and desperate public. His eagerness to prosper from a situation of panic, fear, and uncertainty felt deeply immoral to me. Moreover, his unapologetic attitude and his crude mockery of those who believed in Phalanx worsened my impression of him and strengthened his image as an unscrupulous profit-seeker. Breck’s capitalization of people’s fear is comparable to much of the weight loss industry, which is largely reliant on the misinformation surrounding exercise and nutrition. The industry essentially sells hope to desperate people, which reveals a downfall of the capitalist system but also exposes the power of fear and desperation to cloud people’s rational judgment and tendency to scrutinize bold claims.

However after reading his story, I felt increasingly ambivalent. Breck argues that he was selling a sense of safety and protecting people from their fears. Because of Phalanx sales, the biomed sector began to recover, restoring consumer confidence and boosting the economy. People could continue living their everyday lives, even if it was under a false sense of security. Breck argues that the once drug was revealed as a hoax, people started to panic and all stability was lost.

Breck’s situation raises important questions about weighing the costs of exposing the hard truth versus the benefits of hope. The truth was that there was no vaccine or cure to the zombie plague. However, when this truth entered public knowledge after having the hope of an effective vaccine, it caused a massive panic.

Did Phalanx actually benefit the American public by giving them more time to continue their everyday existences and function as a society?

While Breck sold Phalanx solely for his personal gain, the involvement of congressmen and White House could suggest that they knowingly approved the fake drug, actively choosing to create a sense of security and safety for the good of the people rather than undermining stability. This situation reminds me of the Hong Kong reaction to SARS in 2003, which caused a massive economic recession, as schools and offices were closed down. The reaction was ultimately not proportional to the actual threat it posed. While downplaying the threat of the zombie plague had detrimental consequences in this case, from a politician’s point of view, perhaps there is value in remaining calm, assessing the situation rationally, and emphasizing order and stability.

World War Z examines the nature of fear in times of crisis. Throughout the book, we are presented with scenes of people buying guns, stocking up on food, taking Phalanx, and being prepared to run or fight at any moment. These scenes reveal the fragility of the global system and how easily the laws and norms of society are abandoned in the face of an uncertain danger.  Moreover, they remind us of our primitive “fight or flight” instincts and how easily we resort to herd mentality. As readers, we realized that fear and panic are not rational emotions and serve to guarantee our survival. This conclusion reinforces Breck’s comment that, “Now I understand why it used to be illegal to shout fire in a crowded theatre” (57). Breck’s story helps us realize the importance of formulating an effective crisis management strategy that is proportional to the threat posed.

Euphoric Distraction: The Moral Dilemmas Faced By Anthropologists

In Lily King’s book Euphoria, the reader is both intrigued and distracted by the love triangle between Nell, Fen, and Bankson. Their relationship is a fascinating story of camaraderie, lust, and envy between the three anthropologists. This story serves to entice the readers with moments of euphoria, however the drama of their love triangle ultimately overshadows the stories of the Tam and reduces them to props in their relationship. For example, when Bankson awakes from his seizure, the three of them lie in bed together and talk about the Tams’ different cultural understandings of tragedy. Bankson writes, “We laughed. My head felt clear. Our hands were a few inches apart on the warm spot where Fen’s body had been” (141). The sexual tension between the characters brings the story to life. By projecting one’s own experiences with love into the characters and finding resonance within the intimacy of their exchanges, the readers are able to find a sense of satisfaction. However, by being overly absorbed by the love triangle, we end up knowing much more about their relationship than about the Tam culture. By becoming overly drawn in by what is familiar and failing to examine how one’s own positionality and experiences influence one’s absorption of information, the reader misses out on a key opportunity to learn about the Tam culture.

 

Throughout their interactions with the native people, the readers are able to see the ways in which Nell, Fen, and Bankson’s social identities greatly influence the dynamics between the researchers and the Tam. Their positions of privilege as white, Western, wealthy researchers create power hierarchies in which they are bestowed special treatment from the native people and benefit from a largely exploitative relationship. For example, he comments, “On the one hand I was disgusted by Nell and Fen’s employment of the natives, the way they came in like a corporation and hired up the locals, skewing the balance of power and wealth and thus their own results” (147). However, despite his intellectual criticisms and moral objections to Nell and Fen’s treatment of the native people, he fails to act in a responsible way and continues to allow the Tam to wash his clothes, cook him food, and fetch him water. He continues, “But on the other hand, I saw how efficient it was, how much time it freed up if you weren’t making the meals and washing up and scrubbing clothing” (147). In another instance, when Bankson watches Nell work with the children, he feels a sudden sense of distaste and vulgarity in the way that she asserts her authority over the Tam children and bosses them around. His sense of discomfort highlights his desire to responsibly engage with the native people. By observing the influence of the three anthropologists on the power dynamics of the Tam, the reader is led to reflect on their own positionality affects their reading of the novel.

 

Questions: what moral obligations do anthropologists have to their subjects? How can an anthropologist that holds privileged social identities meaningfully engage with his or her research subjects without having a transformative impact on the existing power structures and hierarchies?

We Are All Dying: Reactions to Death in Dream of Ding Village

Death is the primary concern of the villagers at Ding village. For those who are infected with AIDS, they suffer from rashes, fevers, sores, and fatigue, which serve as painful, physical reminders of their illness. As their bodies deteriorate, they become increasingly aware of their imminent deaths. Many move into the school to live out their dying days, plan their funerals, settle old scores, and fulfill their last wishes. For those that are still healthy, they spend their time caring for the sick (such as Grandpa) or waiting for their loved ones to die.

By observing the lives of the dying, the readers are presented with three responses to death. The first response is one of hopeless nihilism. A nihilistic sentiment is conveyed through repeated comments such as “what’s the point” (129), “there’s no reason to go on living” (129). In the book, the school itself becomes a symbol of hopelessness. For example, while children represent the future and its potential, the transformation of the Ding village school into a hospice for the sick symbolizes the loss of hope for the future. Rather than a place for intellectual growth for the youth, the school becomes a deathbed for the sick adult. When Grandpa tries to reopen the school for the children to start classes again, Uncle protests, “If their parents can live longer by living in the school… isn’t that a few less days that the kids will be orphans, a few less days of grief?” (131).   Many of the characters adopt nihilistic short-term thinking that jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of the village.

The second response is a “seize the day” kind of hedonism. The stones in the rice rations, the theft of the village seal, the deforestation of the village, and Uncle and Lingling’s alarming Oedipus complex sexual behavior each illustrate how proximity to death causes one to abandon social mores, norms, and traditional values and adopt disturbing, selfish, anarchic, and criminal behavior. Without regard for “a tomorrow” or the wellbeing of other people, some characters are driven to selfishness and hedonism.

The third response is to fulfill one final aspiration. This differs from the second response because these wishes represent values that go beyond the temporary fulfillment of a hedonistic desire and are symbolic of the characters’ identities in relation to their families, the village, or their social status. For example, Sai Renren takes great pains to clarify that his obsession with retrieving the village seal extends beyond its monetary value, revealing how the seal represents his life’s work and identity as the village major. Zhao Dequan’s pursuit of the red silk jacket that he promised his wife is symbolic of his identity as a trustworthy and loving husband. The singer’s last concert also exemplifies his value to the village as a provider of beautiful music to others. These stories provide brief moments of hope and beauty within the narrative that draws the reader further into the story.

Throughout the book, many characters experienced more than one of these responses. This is particularly true for Lingling and Uncle. In a moment of forlorn, they threaten to hang themselves. The moment evokes an interesting intertext with a scene from Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, in which Vladimir and Estragon both agree on the pointlessness of life and decide to commit suicide by hanging themselves. However, the fact that they never end up doing it suggests that while in their minds they may rationally understand life as pointless, in their hearts they want to live on and continue on their endless quest for meaning. Throughout their relationship, Lingling and Uncle experience hopeless nihilism, carpe diem sexual antics, and aspiration fulfillment through their marriage.

Dream of Ding Village is about the ways in which people choose to live out their limited days and come to terms with their deaths.  Through reading about the lives of those who are suffering and dying from a wholly preventable disease, you are forced to confront your own mortality.  Will you chose to live a life of resignation, of hedonism, or of purpose?