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Freedom and Sacrifice in a Zombie Society

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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In 1928, the philosopher Carl Schmitt, later an avid Nazi, published an essay titled “The Concept of the Political.” Schmitt, in a gloss on Hegel, argued that the defining characteristic of the bourgeoisie is the reluctance to leave the “apolitical” space of the private sphere. The bourgeois believes that he has played by society’s rules and is subject to its protections and thus need not concern himself with larger issues of concern to his society.

The essay came to mind as I reflected on “Slabtown,” the fourth episode of the current season of “The Walking Dead.” I have been writing this fall about the ethical dilemmas the series poses, and Sunday night’s disappointing  if still diverting episode raises precisely the question that concerned Schmitt. (Minor spoilers follow.)

Schmitt carried considerable influence in the early years of the Third Reich. It’s easy to see why. He argued for rejecting the efforts of liberalism to depoliticize large spheres of life. For Schmitt, nothing was as important as politics -- and the more absolute the danger, the greater the cost to the common good when some members of society tried in effect to opt out.

Now consider what happens in Sunday night’s episode. Maggie’s sister Beth  wakes up in Atlanta, at Grady Memorial Hospital. There are people there, in clean clothes. There is electricity, albeit from batteries. There is medicine. There is food. Alas, like every place of seeming safety anyone on the show has ever found, the hospital turns out to be fraught with danger. It is run by Dawn, a deranged police officer, who informs Beth that now that she has been rescued, she cannot leave because she “owes” a debt. The debt involves working in the hospital, and, as Beth soon discovers, making herself sexually available to the male officers, who in this way can be counted on to do their jobs better.

Here one sees Schmitt’s logic at work. The instinctive liberal response would be that Beth has the right to refuse to be conscripted into a structure that in effect legitimates rape. One would think this right inalienable. But Schmitt would disagree. The right not to be involved is trumped by the absolute danger. Schmitt, in other words, would probably conclude that it’s within Dawn’s authority as leader to strip away bourgeois conceits for the greater good, at least as long as the emergency -- in Schmitt’s terms, the “enemy” -- persists. Dawn herself echoes this logic when she informs Beth that she must “sacrifice” her own interests for “the greater good.”

This vision quite properly terrifies us. But it is the common vision of many of the leaders from whose clutches Rick and company have already escaped, in particular Gareth at Terminus and the Governor at Woodbury. Rick’s band, by contrast, is loosely organized, built upon voluntary association and a broad freedom to come and go. The writers would have us believe that in the post-apocalyptic world, structures of authority will inevitably devolve along Schmittian lines. The liberal ideal survives only among the plucky individualists. If Abraham and his group ever succeed in getting Eugene to Washington, and if anything is left of the federal government, perhaps we’ll find out how committed the writers are to this dichotomy.  

  1. Disappointing because, No. 1, Beth is not a particularly interesting character; No. 2, the entire hospital-run-by-a-mad-dictator subplot has a been-there, done-that quality; and, No. 3, a lot of us were hoping that the writers had gotten the idea of one-character-at-a-time episodes out of their system in the awkwardly paced season four.

  2. Who’s been missing so long that we’ve forgotten she’s gone.

  3. And, yes, I do know how this expedition turns out in the graphic novels. But it should be plain by now that the writers -- I suspect by design -- turn most everything in the graphic novels upside down.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net