Twisted Freedom

Maria Zhuganova: “Conventional executions might have reinforced discipline, might have restored order from the top down, but by making us all accomplices, they held us together not just by fear, but by guilt as well. We could have said no, could have refused and had been shot ourselves, but we didn’t […] We relinquished our freedom that day, and we were more than happy to see it go. From that moment on we lived in true freedom, the freedom to point to someone else and say ‘They told me to do it! It’s their fault, not mine.’ The freedom, God help us, to say “I was only following orders’” (Brooks 83).

In this passage, Zhuganova details the impact of the Great Panic—more specifically, the arrival of military personnel the Panic brought—on people of Khuzhir, Olkhon Island. Zhuganova’s use of parallel structure in the first sentence (“might have”) conjures images of an unpredictable military personnel, who come to the island searching for zombies. The military is aware that standard executions mark a distinct line between who is the victim and who is the perpetuator, and so they deliberately deviate from this. Instead, they offer the people a choice: kill, or be killed. Zhuganova notes that they were “all accomplices” (83), which suggests that most of the people there chose to kill. Trapped in an inextricable web of fear and guilt, people like Zhuganova feel responsible for the deaths they inflict, but are unable to stop; in this way, the military maintains control without exerting much effort.

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Not unlike an insect caught in a spider’s web, the people on the island believe they will only make things worse for themselves if they struggle or show resistance

The parallel structure of “could have” in the second sentence creates an almost wistful tone as Zhuganova thinks of the alternatives she had—ones that she could have chosen. However, the “but we didn’t” (83) cuts Zhuganova’s musings short; this simple syntax is abrupt and definitive, reflecting not only the end of Zhuganova making any more choices, but also her resigned acceptance of the situation. She uses this brief sentence to summarize the inner turmoil expected of her (whether she should say no and be shot, or dole out the punishments and killings herself) but does not dwell any longer on this moral dilemma. The situational irony that making a choice leads to a loss of freedom also marks humanity’s downfall: humans are characterized by having intention, but because they are unable to reconcile their conscience with this one choice, they relinquish any control they once had.

Zhuganova continues on to describe the paradoxical situation people now find themselves in, where they are able to achieve “true freedom” by letting go of their previous freedom. The dialogue she provides—“They told me to! It’s their fault, not mine” (83)—demonstrates the ongoing cycle of blame that facilitates this new kind of freedom. Because there is always a scapegoat, people are no longer responsible for their own choices. And with the phrase “God help us” (83), Zhuganova acknowledges not only her twisted reasoning, but also humanity’s inability to solve their own immorality.

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The never-ending blame game

Zhuganova’s use of “we” throughout most of the passage emphasizes that everyone is responsible: the military is manipulative, but the people ultimately made the choice to sacrifice others to save themselves. In the context of the zombie outbreak, the theme that the passage presents—that people must combat their selfish nature to preserve human morality—expands to the text as a whole: playing the blame game only delayed response to the zombie outbreak, diverting attention and resources away from the true crisis.

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Learning from the Past

From the introduction that Sandra Yates (one of the archivists) gave, I learned that an archive is defined as unpublished material, and that archivists take pictures of the items before doing inventory. Ms. Yates then led us into the technology room, where archivists digitize the information on floppy disks to make the contents more accessible.

We eventually moved to the stacks, which consisted of shelves that were filled with books and other files. In the stacks, we had the opportunity to work with material relating to our archive topics. The material ranged from 1969 articles on Dr. Cooley’s artificial heart to surgical tools from the 1800s (pictures taken at the McGovern Historical Center below).

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Surgical kit, circa 1850-1880 (photo taken at the McGovern Historical Center)

The material turned out to be more accessible that I had thought—I figured it was a “look, but don’t touch” situation—because we could actually touch and interact with the material. Ms. Yates soon told us that it is sometimes safer to handle archival material without gloves, because this way, we can actually feel what we are holding (and not accidentally rip or break anything).

During our time there, I gravitated toward the articles on the artificial heart to learn more about the context of the experiment. The articles were intriguing because they explored the role of federal guidelines in medicine, as well as this ongoing question: how closely must a physician follow these guidelines when conducting clinical trials of a new discovery? I also found the Psychiatric Bulletin compelling due to its focus on mental illness, which this artwork (below) exemplifies. It is aptly titled Lost Cry—although we can see that the individual is in anguish, we cannot actually hear the individual’s cry through the artwork; this reflects how mental illness is often internalized.

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“Lost Cry” (1952), photo taken at the McGovern Historical Center

Before visiting the McGovern Historical Center, I did not have a clear idea of what sort of materials or resources it would have, but figured it would be full of antiques, such as old records and books with yellowing pages. Other than that, I did not expect anything specific in terms of archive topics. The archive focuses on material from the Texas Medical Center, but its scope continues to develop due to the far-reaching implications of medicine and public health. My visit has shown me why archives are important: they have the ability to preserve moments and topics in the past for further analysis and research.

Note: 

Something else that surprised me was the zombie outbreak map and the logo for the zombie outbreak team on the walls of the technology room. After our visit to the archive, I looked up the zombie outbreak map and found out that World War Z inspired the researchers behind the map (http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2015/03/20/researchers-create-online-simulator-for-ways-to-avoid-zombie-outbreak.html). Although a zombie outbreak is fictional, mapping this event can actually help gauge how people would respond if something similar (like a pandemic) ever happened.

Resources:

  • FoxNews.com. “Cornell Researchers Create Online Simulator to Map Zombie Outbreak | Fox News.” Fox News. FOX News Network, 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 01 Sept. 2016.