Zombie lecture demystifies political theory

On Sunday evening, students crowded into Griffin Hall to attend a lecture on an imminent threat to the world’s security – a zombie invasion – given by Daniel W. Drezner ’90, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School and author of numerous books and articles. The talk was based on his most recent book, Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His lecture, which speculated about the ramifications of a sudden zombie invasion, struck to the core of international relations theory.

Though Drezner’s discussion occasionally elicited laughter, there was also a gravity that accompanied every statement made: The more he expanded the zombie metaphor, the more plausibly it was linked to a very real 21st century fear.

Drezner began with an earnest warning. He explained that an atmosphere of fear pervades our culture, and that this unnatural fear, as the first slide of his PowerPoint revealed, is of zombies.

In a succession of slides, Drezner displayed the statistics of the growing fear of zombie attacks. A graph showed that after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Google searches for zombies spiked. Drezner also commented on the alarming fact that over one third of all zombie literature and films were produced after 9/11. Recently, the Center for Disease Control posted a blog about how to protect oneself in the event of a zombie apocalypse; within hours, the blog received so many hits that the servers crashed.

Drezner then delved further into the zombie metaphor, using it to enliven and clarify his ideas about the paradigms of international relations. He discussed the doctrines of realism/realpolitik, liberalism, constructivism and neo-conservatism, analyzing how the proponents of each ideology would react if confronted with a sudden zombie attack.

Drezner introduced a scene from Night of the Living Dead as the epitome of realpolitik. He explained, however, that one drawback of realism is that because it is skeptical of alliances, it would be equally wary of a global anti-zombie coalition. Liberals would seek to institute counter-zombie policies, but a potential problem would be the formation of protest groups, such as “People for the Ethical Treatment of Zombies,” and this would hinder the world’s attempts to eliminate zombies. Social constructivists would argue that zombies would eventually adopt human norms, such as not eating people, and they would no longer be considered a threat. Drezner revealed the flaw in this assumption – humans could just as easily begin to adopt zombie norms and begin to engage in cannibalism. A nation practicing neo-conservatism would launch an aggressive attack against all zombies, but that might lead to an unhinged attack on all of its autocratic enemies, dubbed the “axis of evil dead.”

One of Drezner’s conclusions was that regardless of the conceptual framework a nation applied, the advanced, industrialized countries would generally fare more successfully than developing countries in warding off a zombie attack. Another suggestion was that the different paradigms were too inflexible and should be more adaptable to unexpected threats. Ultimately though, Drezner’s research made him more optimistic about the ability of nations to cope with threats to their security.

During the Q&A session, a student asked, “To what extent are we supposed to see this as a joke?” Chuckling, Drezner responded that while the lecture was intended to be humorous, the zombie metaphor was valuable because it helped to think about the theories of international relations in innovative ways. Viewing international relations from a cultural standpoint prevents controversy and competing views about the source material – everyone can draw from the same supply of information, and he advances that such an approach is more conducive to creative thinking.

Additionally, Dresner explained that his lecture made the information more accessible to students, because rather than giving a standard introduction to international relations, he was able to give an engaging lecture full of jokes and unexpected turns. There were references not only to zombies but also to vampires, wizards and hobbits. The lecture was full of movie clips and music videos, ranging from Night of the Living Dead to choreographed zombie dances.

When a student questioned him about his experience writing his book, Drezner commented on how, at the outset, he had wanted to avoid all zombie puns. However, he said they quickly proved to be irresistible. “I also realized that the best way to approach this was – no pun intended – deadpan,” he said.