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Us Against the World

The most politically fraught movie of the summer may be Brad Pitt’s zombie flick World War Z, because of a brief act that takes place in Israel and that has given rise to competing interpretations of what it all means.

The movie has political overtones, though, long before Pitt arrives in Israel – overtones that are more subtle because more familiar and closer to home. World War Z embraces the same plot points that most end-of-the-world movies do, and reinforces the same set of politics, by focusing almost exclusively on a single nuclear family. The movie opens with mother, father, and two daughters chatting at breakfast and closes with them reunited after several days of global catastrophe. The family’s plight between those two scenes is the film’s main interest. Brad Pitt seems to genuinely want to save the human race from zombiefication, but his primary motivation is made explicit when he is pressed into service by his ex-boss – an under-secretary of the United Nations – and he refuses to leave his family’s side. Only when it is explained to him that his family’s safety rests on his service does he agree to confront the zombie hordes. Again and again the film reminds us that Pitt’s first priority is saving his family, with saving his species a not very close second.

As anyone who has watched ArmageddonIndependence DayWar Of The Worlds2012The Day After TomorrowContagion, or Outbreak knows, this is boilerplate: movies that threaten the annihilation of the human race almost always anchor their narratives in the emotionally and existentially trying experiences of a single family. Sometimes – as in World War Z - this family is a stable one put at risk by the destruction of civilization. More often the family is already strained, by divorce or estrangement, and the possibility of apocalypse serves to mend frayed relationships, put differences into perspective, and reunite parents and children, husbands and wives. InIndependence Day an armada of hostile aliens levels most of the planet’s major cities but in the process helps to create one family and reunite another. Will Smith marries his girlfriend and becomes a father to her son and Jeff Goldblum reconciles with his ex-wife just before both men head off to do battle with a massive spacecraft; their domestic lives in order, they are ready to save the world. As the planet freezes in The Day After Tomorrow, Dennis Quaid convinces the United States government that it’s too risky to rescue Americans north of the Mason-Dixon, and then sets off to make up for being an absentee father by rescuing his son in New York.

This trope of disaster films is pretty clearly a script device. Watching one after another person swallowed up by earthquake, infected by zombie, blown apart by alien ray gun, or drowned under a rising sea eventually leaves an audience cold. In order to give viewers a set of three-dimensional characters – two-dimensional, at least – to identify with, writers stick some sort of family unit at the center of the story. While most moviegoers have never waited in terror for an asteroid to wipe out all life on earth, they have fought and reconciled with their parents and their spouses. They can relate.

Whether intentional or not, though, storytelling cliches can have moral and political valences. The troubling moral suggestions within this particular narrative arc are fairly obvious: each of these movies asks viewers to weigh their sense of tragedy at the loss of millions if not billions of human lives against their sense of triumph at a single family managing to survive – and thrive! – amid catastrophe. In Armageddon the audience may experience mild regret as New York City and Paris are pummeled by meteors, but at least they are rewarded at the movie’s finale when Bruce Willis accepts Ben Affleck as his son-in-law.

Probably the most egregious example of this sort of twisted morality – as of so many other things – is 2012. That movie is filled with earnest sermonizing about who will be chosen to survive a planetwide flood and perpetuate the human race, even as it invests most of its screentime and whatever sense of humanity it musters into a single family. They survive the disaster, and a few weeks later when the trauma of nearly all life on Earth having drowned becomes more tolerable, John Cusack tells his wife and children that whatever denuded hilltop they end up on will be home because, despite it all, they’re still together.

A little sense of proportion is called for here, one that older movies usually had. Casablanca might be the story of a love triangle set against a world overrun by Nazi aggression, but at least it’s smart enough to point this out: “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world” Humphrey Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman as he sacrifices their romance for the sake of fighting fascism.

In contemporary end-of-the-world films, the problems of one little family amount to much, much more than a hill of beans. There is almost certainly no political agenda behind this repeated storyline, but there are political implications. For the past fifty years ideological debates in the United States have often centered on the nuclear family. This is most obviously the case in the efforts of social conservatives to beat back feminism, gay liberation, and abortion rights. But it’s also the case in the ongoing attempt by conservatives more generally to shrink the size of government by cutting social services. For late-twentieth-century conservatives not only did the welfare state erode the nuclear family but the nuclear family was the answer for achieving all the goals of the welfare state without any public spending. The weaker the government the stronger the nuclear family, and vice-versa. At a time when fewer Americans were actually part of a traditional nuclear family conservatives emphasized more and more the nuclear family’s fundamental importance, and during a period of economic upheaval that reshaped industries, communities, and families, conservatives from George Gilder to Ralph Reed to George Bush insisted that morality rather than economics determined family structure.

None of this is to say that the nuclear family is not important, and meaningful, and to some extent desirable. It is all of those things. It just isn’t isolated. The family is not an autonomous, self-sufficient unit, independent from civil society and government. Talking about it as situated in the private rather than the public sphere makes as much sense as talking about Manhattan as situated in New York City rather than New York State. Brad Pitt insists that his responsibility is to his family’s safety before that of the rest of the world as though the two goals can be disentangled, echoing the false choice between supporting families on the one hand and supporting public programs on the other.

Again, this is not an intentional message on the part of scriptwriters; it’s just unimaginative storytelling. But it’s also an example of how certain ideas, pushed and pushed until they become common sense, insinuate themselves into popular culture and so become even more cemented in the popular imagination.

It may seem impolitic to make these kinds of claims just a week after the Supreme Court took one step closer to gay marriage throughout the nation. But struggling for the right to marry is not the same as believing marriage defines a relationship, just as struggling for the right to vote is not the same as believing elections define democracy. In fact, the exact opposite may be closer to the truth. Near the end of 2012, as the rising seas submerge nearly every continent, one character turns to John Cusack and says, “I always wanted a family. You’re a lucky man. Never forget that.” This last regret at the end of the world suggests that the nuclear family is a person’s ultimate accomplishment, and by extension the lack of a nuclear family a grave shortcoming. That idea is the basis for a lot of make-believe told in Hollywood and sold in Washington, D.C.

Communications Clusterfuck: One Account of the Evacuation of NYC City Workers During Hurricane Sandy

23rd between 1st and FDR: Hurricane Sandy

The following is a detailed account of one example of dysfunction in the communication of evacuation orders for city workers in New York as Hurricane Sandy approached. The author is anonymous in order to avoid putting them at risk with their employer.

I am in a mid-level management position at an agency that is part of the New York City government. My agency is filled with people with desk jobs; we are not first responders or in any way connected to emergency service work. On the afternoon of Friday, October 26, 2012, one of the executive staff members of my agency sent an email saying that a determination about how the agency would handle the impending storm would be made on Monday, and updates could be found on the City website. I barely noticed the email, and later in the day made fun of a friend who had already gone out to buy supplies for Sandy. The next day, my father called from my parents’ old house where the power goes out if someone sneezes too hard. He told me that I should come home before the storm arrived. I laughed and said that if things got that bad in Manhattan, the country had big problems. It wasn’t until Sunday that people like me started to realize the severity of the storm that was approaching.

On Sunday, Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo announced that the subway system would be closed at 7pm and bus service would be suspended after 9pm. If there’s one thing that Bloomberg does not like to lose, it is money, and closing down public transportation in New York City would instantly cost millions of dollars, because people would be unable to get around and everything would have to close, and even if the storm came and went quickly, it would take hours to get the system up and running again. There was an announcement that there was a mandatory evacuation of anyone living in Zone A, and people who were not in Zone A should stay indoors because it would not be safe to be outside. The Mayor also asked that anyone with a car stay off the road. I looked at a map of the city to make sure I wasn’t living in Zone A and saw that although my apartment was safe, my office was in Zone A. Given that the Mayor referred to anyone staying in Zone A as “selfish” because they would be putting the lives of first responders in jeopardy if anyone needed to be rescued, I decided to check my work email to see officially that my office would be closed.

I was quite surprised to find an agency email from an executive staff member that parsed the Mayor’s speech as follows: The Mayor said that all City employees were required to report to work on Monday. All public transportation would be unavailable Monday. It was mandatory that all residents in Zone A evacuate. Therefore, a clarification needed to be made before any decision could be made about whether or not our agency was closed.

It had seemed quite clear that because the Mayor explicitly stated that absolutely no one should be in Zone A, that people had no way of getting around, and no one should even be outside because of the predicted severity of the storm, our agency would be an exception to the rule about City employees being required to report to work. Everyone knows that when the Mayor says that all City employees need to report to work during some type of impending natural disaster when he asks people to stay home and off the roads, it is not because he expects any non-emergency workers to actually go to work. It is a coded message that the City does not want to pay anyone, so if people do not report to work they will not get in trouble, they will simply have to use a vacation day.

I have worked for the City long enough that I don’t even have the opportunity to use all of the vacation time I have accrued. However, because of the economic crisis and the hiring freeze that came with it, my agency only recently began to staff up again. Half of our agency has less than six months’ tenure, which means that many people have none or almost no vacation time. And with the upcoming holiday season, for many people I work with, the email meant that people who get paid about $100 a day were not going to get paid, or whatever plans they had to spend travelling to see their families might not happen because they might not have the accrued time off necessary.

Before 2pm, the IT department sent an email to the agency saying that they were about to shut down the server for our office. My agency uses a specialized computer system, and without it, literally no work can be done. At this point, I thought for sure an official email would be sent at any moment saying that because our office was in a mandatory evacuation zone, because there was no public transportation to get to an area that was supposed to be evacuated, because the Mayor asked people to stay indoors, no one in their right mind would ask employees to walk miles through a hurricane to sit in an office where no work could be completed because the server was down.

Instead, the executive staff began sending out emails telling people that if they did not feel they could make it into the office, a vacation day would be taken, and if possible they should report to the office. Even after an email went out saying that Con Edison was shutting off power to the building at 3pm the next day, they reminded employees that the office would be open and they should report to work if able. As late as 10:45pm, emails were being sent telling everyone to report to work.

I had no intention of going to work, so I went to bed, still thinking that common sense would eventually prevail and an email would be sent telling people the office would be closed and no one should put themselves in harm’s way by entering a mandatory evacuation zone. However, that was not the case.

When I woke up and went outside, it was raining lightly, but there was already a very heavy wind. At 8:13am, an email was sent that Con Edison changed the time for shutting down the power to 12pm, and therefore people who had already reported to work should leave at 11am and people who had not yet left should not come in. At 8:17am, an email was finally sent out saying that the office was officially closed. I began sending text messages to the people I supervise to make sure they had not started to make their way to the office. Instead, I found that two people were already in the office. I asked how they got there, and was told that they rode their bicycles over the wet windy Brooklyn Bridge, which had been a pretty harrowing experience, and now they had to make their way back across the bridge. I checked in later to make sure they got home okay, which, thankfully, they both did. No one from the executive staff ever checked to see if any of the people who came into the office made it home okay. My guess is because they did not bother to go in.

Photo: Duncan Mitchell