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Jack L.B. Gohn: Hunger Games: The politics is ever balanced

Come on, admit it. You’ve read, or you’re going to read, the Hunger Games trilogy. Especially in light of the just-released movie, the world knows Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games as a phenomenally potent brew of action, romance and dramatized game theory. But I would also add politics and statecraft to the list. Along with their other attributes, the books are an extended meditation on some potent political and governmental themes.

The first installment, Hunger Games plays it safest, riffing equally on narratives of both left and right in our country, in a way that gives everyone something to like and little to hate. It will resonate for you, whatever you believe.

We’ve heard a lot about political narratives recently, what with the publicity generated by Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind. Haidt has reminded us that the political narratives that bind right and left in our country. Collins uses both.

The narrative on the right is that our country has been taken over by effete but tyrannical pleasure lovers who disrespect loyalty, fidelity, family and hard work, and that we, the righteous ones, must take the nation back. That is precisely the narrative arc of the trilogy.

In the story, which takes place after some unnamed catastrophe has reduced America to a smaller land made up of thirteen Districts and a Capitol, the Capitol-dwellers have enslaved the virtuous folks of the Districts. The Capitol-dwellers devote themselves to lavish feasts, outrageous consumption, and a spectator sport in which children from the Districts fight to the death on television. Meanwhile the virtuous denizens of the provinces scrape by on near-starvation rations, surrender up their children for the slaughter because they must, but otherwise treat each other with loyalty and respect and evince the strongest of family values. At least that is the case before a futuristic La Pasionara, Katniss Everdeen, rises up to become the symbol of a revolution that overthrows the government and — takes the nation back. And, in accordance with not only the PG values of some Young Adult Fiction but also the ideals of the right, she remains chaste though adored by two attractive and admirable young men, at least until she weds one of them at the end.

Haidt also reminds us of the liberal narrative. Quoting sociologist Christian Smith, Haidt summarizes: “Once upon a time, the vast majority of people suffered in societies that were unjust … and oppressive…. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, quality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of … oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies. Despite our progress, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” And in fact today, liberalism focuses on dismantling what it sees as the resurgence of those vestiges, in the attention it draws to the 99% and the 1%.

This is also a way of encapsulating Katniss’ story, except that we are starting back in the “once upon a time” phase. The Capitol is that old stand-in for injustice and oppression, a colonial power, and the Districts are economically exploited colonies. Or one can say that the Capitol is the 1%, and all the people who are starved and slain and lied to are the 99.

More symbol than warrior

There is another liberal theme in the critique of reality TV and celebrity culture. Liberals are particularly offended by shows that line up contestants for one form or another of elimination competition, in which the participants, and by extension the audience, are encouraged to expend enormous emotional energy, even though these contests make no intrinsic political, economic, cultural, religious, or ecological difference (feel free to add your own categories too) regardless of who wins and who loses. To liberals, this focus on circuses distracts valuable attention from important matters (starvation, economic exploitation, eco-catastrophe, war, and politics — again, feel free to add your own categories) and emphasizes emotion rather over fact-gathering and logical habits. The Hunger Games (the fictional event, not the books) and the fictional media hoopla surrounding them are merely this kind of offensive irrelevance amped up and made far more vicious by the death of children.

I would also posit that the struggles of Katniss and of Peeta, one of her would-be lovers, to locate their own authenticity amid the celebrity hype imposed on them and among the challenges posed by the requirement of lying to stay alive, are political themes that both sides feel strongly about, although, unscientifically, I suspect liberals care more.

So, as of the end of the first installment, Collins has presented a tale that works well for readers at both ends of the spectrum. The second and third books, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, however, turn away from what we might call narratives of the political base, and focus instead on a question about government, a question that arises most urgently when revolutions erupt in the absence of an existing functioning civil society.

This was the problem encountered by the French and the Russian revolutions. These were no mere palace coups but efforts to establish workable governments where older ones had comprehensively failed. Like Katniss’ Capitol, the anciens regimes in Paris and Moscow had bequeathed few functioning institutions that could even be reformed and then built upon. In the absence of durable institutions, however, revolutions are left to be shaped entirely by the people who lead them. And the question in Katniss’ rebellion is whether its leaders will go the murderous way of Robespierre and Lenin or the republic-building way of George Washington.

Katniss herself, because of the celebrity she has attained in the events of the first book, is deployed by the revolutionaries more as a symbol than a warrior, and certainly is not thought of by the leaders as one of them. And it is a genuine problem with any revolution requiring bloodshed that people trained in using bloodshed to achieve things have a hard time either choosing or learning to achieve things any other way when they win. As a result, humanity has seen far more new bosses that are the same, essentially, as the old boss, than it has seen humane leaders succeed tyrants. At the end of Mockingjay, the new leaders are actually ready to embrace a new round of Hunger Games, posing a final dilemma to Katniss. Will she throw in her lot with them?

As we readers reach that point, there is no real question in our minds which course Katniss will choose. But in real life I think conservatives and liberals tend to draw different practical answers. Conservatives fear the Robespierres more, and liberals are less patient with the anciens regimes. And once more, in the resolution, Suzanne Collins finds a way to please both, giving her readers a humane revolution freed from its would-be Robespierre, because Katniss has stricken her down.

The odds, it seems, would be ever in humanity’s favor were a certain YA heroine around to save the day. We can but hope they will remain in our favor when she joins us only at the cineplex and on the printed page.

Jack L.B. Gohn is a partner with Gohn, Hankey & Stichel LLP. The views expressed here are solely his own. See a longer version, with links to his authorities, at