Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Just-World Fallacy

As you may or may not know, I've never been much of a fan of The Walking Dead. Could be I tried the first three trades and didn't find it to my liking, could be I've about O.D.'ed on zombie stories, could be I'm just one of those assholes that dislikes things that are popular just because they are popular. Regardless. Lucky for you readers of the ol' AC, my dear friend Matthew C. Funk happens to be not only a fan of said book, but a hell of a writer, too. And as such, I asked him to convince me to give this book another chance, and my friends, I fear he has succeeded. Read his article below and see why exactly.

The Walking Dead

Spoiler alert: Everyone dies at the end.

True fact. Don’t let Stephenie Meyer sell you on wet dreams of sparkly immortality. Everybody’s going to bite the big one sooner or later. That’s life, as they say.

The Walking Dead throws this fact at your face from page one by having the central protagonist, Deputy Rick Grimes, laid out by a near-mortal shotgun blast. Written by Robert Kirkman and with art by Tony Moore and then Charlie Adelard, The Walking Dead is a black-and-white graphic statement that The End isn’t just Nigh—it’s already here and will take you when it damn well pleases. To get the technical tips of the cap out of the way, I’ll point out that Kirkman’s dialogue plays it straight, like a pared-down Bendis, letting his characters wax large in vernacular over their inner thoughts. And Adelard, the main source of ink for the series, has a style straight out of an EC Horror Comics flashback. This is no bite size Tale from the Crypt, though. The Walking Dead goes for epic.

It may be headed for that recognition—now with a 2010 Eisner Award for Best Continuing Series under its belt and an AMC TV drama, created by The Mist’s Frank Darrabont, on the way. In The Mist, Darrabont inflicted the most emotional desolate ending in recent cinema history, and so may have the chops to do the kind of damage that The Walking Dead demands.

The first fatality taken in the series is civilization.

For those unfamiliar with the plot or unable to deduce it from the title due to a recent head injury, know that The Walking Dead is a Zombie Apocalypse book. It popped onto shelves under the Image Comics label around the time Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide was getting heat, but the subject couldn’t be less similar. In The Walking Dead, we follow Deputy Rick as he ambles through a world already devoured by the undead, searching for his family and then trying to keep them safe.

This means the dead don’t just roam the Earth—they rule it. Rick has to batten the hatches against an enemy that does not need sleep like he does, does not need food like he does, has no fear of the dark or fatigue or friends to support. He’s forced to try to keep hold of a whole world of problems—disease, cold, starvation, sanity—while death itself, with relentless hunger, bears down on him and his loved ones.

Zombies are simple creatures, while Rick has only more problems. And the everyday nature of those problems drives home the central message of the work: We could all go at any moment. We could starve, suffer aneurysms, slip and break our necks. We could eat one another—figuratively, if not literally, taking bites each other’s success, security and well-being. We persist, living in the face of these threats, fighting them and one another.

In essence, we go through life on borrowed time, and we do so at the expense of others, whether it’s starving sharecroppers in Mexico or our own spouses. We can—and will—die, but we keep moving, keep feeding. We’re the walking dead.

Rick represents the argument that yells back at that void—which is why it’s crucial that he’s a lawman. His shiny Deputy’s star and embrace of ethics are a big middle-finger at oblivion—symbols of how mankind builds and secures and controls in denial that everything can be taken away at any moment. The Walking Dead drives this home by pointing out that the towering monuments to lasting achievement—our cities—would become death traps, stuffed with hungry hordes of flesh-eaters, if social niceties took a nosedive. So Rick hits the road with the wife, kid and some fellow survivors, keeping to the countryside.

This is key to the theme of The Walking Dead: We’re going back to nature here, dear reader—back to humanity without the PDAs and the WWW, to a time where scarcity dictates desire and not the other way around. Rick and his crew live off the land, trying to scrape up four walls and three meals in order to see another day.

If you English Majors can already hear Dueling Banjos playing, you’re hearing right—The Walking Dead’s narrative has a lot in common with James Dickey’s Deliverance. Only in Rick’s case, the foray into the not-so-great outdoors isn’t optional. He craves something to hold onto that won’t bite back or turn into dust. Problem is, just like in Deliverance, shit gets real once you leave the streetlights behind. Other people turn from passers-by into rival predators, and Rick is soon having to battle against nut jobs, dimwits and challengers to his tribe. The zombies play the role of another hostile form of nature, serving mostly to stir up the rival animals or pick off the weak. On an Earth where all rules have been stripped away but Sartre’s, Rick’s real Hell is other people.

He keeps swinging, lifting, walking on despite it. The Walking Dead Compendium, Volume I, covering issues #1-48, sees Rick have to fight off dotty county doctors, suspicious prison inmates and an enemy tribe as nasty as anything from ancient Sumeria or The Stand, run by The Governor. If I tallied Rick’s losses here, this article would double in size. Suffice it to say that the Book of Job has nothing on Rick Grimes. All the same, Rick stands strong—with increasing bitterness and decreasing body parts—that a shiny badge, a sturdy back and a sunny disposition will see things right one day.

They don’t. Everybody dies at the end.

* * *

“Status hominum naturalis antequam in societatem coiretur Bellum fuerit; neque hoc simpliciter, sed bellum omnium in omnes.”
--Thomas Hobbes, Libertas, Leviathan

Just about everybody gets mad about death penalty cases. In The Walking Dead, Rick Grimes has to play the balancing scales for both sides of the debate: Placate the people who lose sleep over the innocent being punished and soothe the savage breast of those crying for ultimate justice.

Rick doesn’t just want people to be happy. That kind of Machiavellian attitude is reserved for bad-asses like The Governor, who stages hillbilly versions of UFC fights in an octagon lined with chained zombies. No, Rick genuinely wants to do right and to believe it matters. He’s our white hat, our John Wayne—the Duke from The Alamo and The Green Berets. But Kirkman makes it clear that The Governor—and just about all the still-living enemies of Rick’s tribe—is a hero in his own mind too. He’s Wayne in The Searchers, willing to take any life to protect a lifestyle.

The America of Kirkman’s The Walking Dead isn’t America anymore; it’s not even a nation—it’s a place where the rules are being re-written in blood. Cooperation and mutual security are just memories. They’re sweet and solid enough for people to pine nostalgic for them, but when the chips fall, it becomes man-eat-man. Rick goes from deferential Daddy-figure to dictator, driven there by the gruesome consequences that trusting other people brings him. Every step forward Rick takes with his son in his arms and his wife behind him, he’s echoing the plea of the Rodney King riots: “Can’t we all just get along”?

And every step, the abyss where civilization used to be echoes back, “No.”

Read The Walking Dead and it becomes apparent that it’s different from your usual horror comic—even your usual narrative. There is no character whose development is essential to the plot—except perhaps Rick—and there are absolutely no rules to what can’t happen to them. The ‘hero’ of this series is the lack of rules. And that makes for some scary shit.

See, it casts Rick in the role of everybody’s favorite character: The Just-World Fallacy.

Proven through a study by psychologists Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons—and by almost the entire course of human history—the Just-World Fallacy is one of the fundamental glitches in the human brain. It’s a logic trap, and we all stumble into it. The Fallacy is that good deeds must be rewarded and that bad deeds lead to punishment. And yes, on the face of it, it’s easy to sniff at what bullshit the Just-World Fallacy is. We all know murderers go free sometimes and that infants stop breathing for no apparent reason. But it’s more than that—it’s also the notion that there’s any sense of cause-and-effect, of right-and-wrong, that holds ultimate sway. The adage that luck runs out eventually is just as full of shinola as the belief that hard-luck will change.

Still, Rick keeps marching on. He keeps planting his fields, even though they get taken from him at the end of every issue arc. Each time, he loses something more, forever.

That’s the hero of The Walking Dead—the complete oblivion where cause-and-effect used to be. In that sense, Rick is the enemy of the story, just as much as The Governor. They live in the same world and that means that while they don’t fight by the same rules, there are no universal laws preventing that. That means there are no reasons not to go all out.

This predatory outlook—the idea that we’re only The Walking Dead when you strip away all the make-believe—is nothing new to human understanding. It’s actually the foundation of one of the two primary schools of modern political thought. Thomas Hobbes put the capstone of that foundation in place with his treatise, Leviathan, where he writes of mankind’s natural state:

“Status hominum naturalis antequam in societatem coiretur Bellum fuerit; neque hoc simpliciter, sed bellum omnium in omnes.” In people speak, that means, “The natural state of men, before they were joined in society, was a war, and not simply, but a war of all against all.”

Read that again to believe it. Let it sink in. Because The Walking Dead believes it, no matter what Rick Grimes may like to think. And you’ll get the message soon enough. Rick is at war with everyone, just like everyone else is.

By issue #46, when the scrap with The Governor is about to become a shooting war, Rick has already realized that there are no battle lines. He hasn’t just had to put a bullet in a close friend and father of two. He’s also put a pre-emptive .38 round into a man’s back, beaten another pal into submission and walked away from his pregnant wife into near certain doom on several occasions. If this sounds harsh, it is, but to Rick, it’s what he has to do. It’s for the good of them all. It’s the rules—his rules.

Sound made up? Sound like egotistical bullshit? Good. It is. But it’s all Rick has. In that Hobbes-ian state of nature, Rick’s at war with his wife, with his risk-prone kid, with anybody who second-guesses him. All he’s got, like Nietzsche says about “the war of all against all,” is his own brain and the morality he makes up to be comfortable.

Nietzsche would say to Rick, “Insofar as the individual wants to preserve himself against other individuals, in a natural state of affairs he employs the intellect mostly for simulation alone.” But Rick doesn’t have time to pick apart what that bullshit means. He has his own bullshit to shovel—namely, the bullshit idea that he can keep his family alive and healthy, without having to eat too many lives in the process.

But sorry, Rick. Sorry, Just World. Sorry, folks.

Everyone dies at the end.

* * *

“On this road there are no godspoke men. They are gone and I am left and they have taken with them the world. Query: how does the never to be differ from what never was?”
--Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Why even read this damn thing, then, if it’s going to be such a dick about everything?

My answer would be that I have zombie dreams, too. I have to confess it. And I don’t mean “zombie nightmares,” either. I mean dreams. They’re better than anything I’ve ever seen on Pay-Per-View.

Sometimes, my pineal gland treats me to my own epic horror adventure, where I wake up to find the world overrun by a plague of flesh-eaters. Living by my own resourcefulness and my own rules, I dash across the devastated Southland, fighting off hordes and gathering supplies from places like the Costco on Washington Avenue and The Travel Store off of the 55 Freeway. Then I link up with my best friends and family, and we head to Big Bear. There, in a snow-gartered mountain lodge, we hole up and live with a warmth hearth inside the protective ring of a mine-laden kill zone.

It’s clear what they mean: I’m as crazy as Rick Grimes. My subconscious casts me as the Bigfoot-driving champion. The faceless masses of humanity that get in my way during waking life are, well, the faceless masses of undead humanity who are trying to eat, corrupt and kill my loved ones. It all turns out fine.

Of course, it won’t turn out fine.

I’m going to die. So are you. Not to be a jerk, but it’ll happen. And this article may or may not outlive me. And Rick Grime’s son may or may not outlive him. And it may not matter.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the story of another father and son trying to survive in a world already mortally wounded by apocalypse, has been called a “lyrical epic of horror.” The Walking Dead could just as readily be called a graphical epic of horror. It has the same pulse and just as much punch in its themes. And at its heart, yawns the same void.

In Rick’s countryside, like on McCarthy’s road, there are no godspoke men. There’s no civilization and the Deputy star is just a piece of metal. The world goes on anyway.

That’s the hard bottom-line of The Walking Dead—that whether you, I or Rick Grimes are good, bad, lucky, unlucky or just plain bonkers like The Governor, matters nothing to the never or the never was. They’re going to be the same—lacking us but moving on. We’re not outliving this world. It’s the other way around. We can eat and eat as much as we want, but we get eaten in the end.

Rick is the living stubbornness that insists otherwise. Somehow, he’s going to have a legacy. The more he fights for this cause, the more people and shame and pain it costs him. Rick and we all have that in common—all of us cancer-risking, collision-prone, fragile people. We know we’re starving and we know we might eat one another, but we keep walking anyway.

Rick is us. More than just us. Rick is life itself. He’s the urge that faces Nietzsche’s abyss—faces McCarthy’s never and never was—and tries to fuck that nasty void into giving him a legacy before he snuffs out.

Not because it matters to the void. But because it matters to him. And in a war of all against all, that is all that matters.

We’re dead, but we have to keep walking.

See what I mean? Now, go check out Matt's other writings, beginning here at http://matthewfunk.net/ If you need me, I'll be out drumming up the bread for this Volume I compendium.