Hunger Games: an Opportunity for Reflection

Last weekend the movie Hunger Games opened to rave reviews and brought in over $150 million, breaking box office records as the biggest non-sequel midnight opening.  Hunger Games takes place a century or so into the future, long after a series of apocalyptic events brought the North American population down to manageable numbers, resulting in a neo-feudal system where a superclass of technocratic elites live in super-advanced paradise cities while the serf class live at the brink of starvation in managed districts to provide slave labor for their masters.  Long ago, a revolt of the districts resulted in severe retaliation from their masters, with one district being exterminated altogether.  In order to ensure the slaves remember the price of insubordination, for the next 74 years an annual harvesting occurs where one boy and girl from each district, aged 12-18, would be chosen as a human sacrifice.  Rather than die through a dull public execution, the children are trained and compelled to fight and kill one another in a gladiatorial event for the entertainment of the elite.

Does the plot sound outrageous and unbelievable?  I contend that a movie would not be this popular if it didn't have a right of truth to it.  Certainly, most of human history closely resembles the world of Hunger Games with respect to the distribution of wealth, power, and rights.  On nearly every continent of the globe one can find historical or present day examples of societies with two mutually exclusive classes, the elites and the slaves.  And going back in history one always finds the tradition of human sacrifice, where sometimes the greatest warrior in the tribe, an adult male, would be the sacrifice, but more often it would be the virgin children that would have their hearts torn out and thrown into a fiery pit.

But it isn't some kind of ancestral memory that is sending flocks of American teenagers to this film, and it's definitely not because they recognize the historical parallels.  Hunger Games has captured the attention of Americans of all ages because it reflects our current society, not in degree, but in its form, direction, and philosophy.  For a movie that is supposedly successful because of its shock value, the shocking thing is how easily average Americans can relate to the hopeless slaves of District 12.  Considering how many of the constitutional safe guards that would prevent such a dystopian system have been slowly rolled back in recent decades, in many ways we are already halfway there.

Contrasting Hunger Games to the American Ideal

To summarize a previous post, I believe America is a great country because of the radical libertarian beliefs of the Jeffersonian branch of the founding fathers.  America has certainly not lived up to that ideal, but just as no Christian can completely live up to the example set by his Christ, this doesn't mean the goal is not worth pursuing.  Those ideals can be summarized by the first two sentences of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
It's hard to think of a proposition less self-evident then this for someone living in District 12.  First off, all men are not created equal. Some are born into the caste of the elite, and it is their job to rule the lesser people from the capital city.  Those not so fortunate are forever tied to the district of their birth, where they are sentenced to work, live, and die without exception.

Using the libertarian definition of a right, I wouldn't say that the peasants of District 12 have no rights, but just like the 160+ million poor souls killed in the 20th century by various governments, their rights were infringed, or not respected to say the least.  What does an unalienable right to life mean when every year you have a random chance of being murdered by your government?  What does an unalienable right to liberty mean when your right to travel is infringed, as you're not allowed to leave your district under penalty of death?  Furthermore, while trapped in your district you are denied your natural right of self-preservation, as you're not allowed to hunt the land or enjoy the fruits of your labor.  In the world of the Hunger Games the only way to legally avoid starvation is to "voluntarily" submit your name for additional chances to be chosen as the sacrifice in exchange for government rations.  When the system you are born into is structured around the denial and systemic infringement of your most basic natural rights, the only independent decision your peers and rulers recognize is the right to volunteer to fight and die in the Hunger Games.

For the people of District 12, the idea that their government was instituted to protect their rights is laughable.  The government they know was created by the elites to serve the elites, and the laws it passes is not meant to keep them free, but to keep them in chains.  Consent of the governed is another knee-slapper.  The last time a district withdrew its consent to be governed it resulted in a brutal crackdown, the annihilation of an entire district, and the genesis of the first Hunger Games to remind the insubordinate slaves the price of disobedience.  There is no such thing as a redress of grievances, a violation of due process, or an appeal to an impartial authority when your child is chosen to be murdered for entertainment; the best you can do is cheer for your team and repeat the mantra of the state, "May the Odds be Ever in your Favor".

At least the military police adopt white uniforms in the future, all black is so 21st century.

Rights violated, or just bad Odds?

"May the Odds be Ever in your Favor."  This quote is repeated many times throughout the movie with religious zeal by the government fanatics and with a roll of the eyes by the peasants of District 12.  This mantra captures the essential characteristic that differentiates the worldview of the Hunger Games from our own experience, particularly compared to the American ideal of natural rights and government by consent.  How absurd would it be to see a parent witness the unjustifiable murder of his child, only to shrug his shoulders and attribute the act to bad luck?  No one today would call such a serious crime a matter of unfavorable odds, but would correctly identify it as a violation of natural rights demanding justice for the victim and punishment for the killer.

After 74 years of Hunger Games, the people no longer see things so clearly, and those that do are too frightened by their murderous government to do anything about it.  A slave in District 12 was born into this system; it was there before his birth, and he expects it to remain after his death.  When punishment, especially the ultimate punishment, is given not based on law or facts but on odds, and everyone else seems to tolerate the situation, what is there to do when the dice don't roll in your favor?

Another way to describe "Governance by Odds" is selective enforcement.  Under selective enforcement not everyone guilty of breaking a particular "law" gets the same punishment.  Who is punished and who is spared is determined by the government agent.  Whether that selection process is based on a boss-hog system or a pure random lottery, the outcome is the same; the government becomes not an agent of law and order but of corruption and decadence.

It Can't Happen Here

It's hard to imagine willingly letting your child be taken by strangers to be put to death.  Many red-blooded Americans boast that a tyrannous government will have to take their guns from their cold, dead hands; I would assume they'd feel equally passionate about their children.  But that compares the spirit of the American who understands his natural rights with a future world that has had 74 years of Hunger Games and who knows what prior catastrophic events.  The history of free people allowing themselves to be made slaves to tyrannical government testify that radical transformation is always achieved by taking things slowly.  The frog will immediately leap upon being thrown into boiling water, but start him off at room temperature and slowly raising the heat achieves frog stew.

Of the dozen books I've read on the history of Nazi Germany, I believe the most important is Milton Mayer's They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45.  Memorizing the who, what, and where of battles, events, and turning points in the war may interest the student of military history, but this book covers a much more important subject.  Mayer, a Jew with German ancestry, went to live in a small German town after World War II to answer the question of how and why "decent men" became Nazis.  The life stories of ten law-abiding citizens of Nazi Germany offer an amazing insight into what it is like to live in a country where you "think you are free" while the rest of the world sees you as a world terror.  The interviews reveal year after year of incremental changes, the slow erosion of the rule of law, and being subject to constant propaganda extolling the virtues of your government and denouncing the sub-human hobgoblins that caused the national crisis.  If we are to learn anything from the nightmare that was the Holocaust, the ability to identify the traits and characteristics of a government that is moving in this direction is of the upmost importance.

My favorite passage from the book, quoted below, reveals why the boiling-frog method to transforming society is so effective:

"The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being … To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it …. Each step was so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, 'regretted', that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these 'little measures' that no 'patriotic German' could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing.  One day it is over his head."

"One doesn't see exactly where or how to move … Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse.  You wait for the next and the next.  You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow.  You don't want to act, or even talk, alone; you don't want to 'go out of your way to make trouble'.  Why not? - Well, you are not in the habit of doing it.  And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty."

"You speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say?  They say, 'It's not so bad' or 'You're seeing things' or 'You're an alarmist'."

"And you are an alarmist.  You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can't prove it.  These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don't know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end?"

"But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes.  That's the difficulty.  If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked… But off course this isn't the way it happens.  In between comes all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you to not be shocked by the next.  Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C?  And so on to step D."

"And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you.  The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident … collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose.  The world you live in - your nation, your people - is not the world you were born in at all.  The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses , the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays.  But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed.  Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed."

"On this new level you live, you have been living more comfortably every day, with new morals, new principles.  You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father… could not have imagined"
In America the boiling frog effect is accomplished with the two party system

How Close are we to the Hunger Games?

No one is electrifying the fence around your District or forcing you to submit your children for the Reaping, but learning a lesson from the Germans by paying close attention to the spirit of our country and not the superficial forms, can we make a valid comparison of the nightmare world of the Hunger Games to our current society?

Tackling the most obvious point of comparison first, it's no wonder the Hunger Games is so popular among teenagers, as they can most readily relate to a slave in District 12.  American children in the 12-18 age group are forced into compulsory schooling regardless of the wishes of themselves or their parents, where, like the heroine Katniss, they are given orders by random adults about where to go, what to do, what to wear, how to act, and what to say.  While playing 'hooky' in the off-limits forest could be a death sentence in District 12, a teenager in America who decides to exercise his rights in that manner will be charged with truancy, assigned a probation officer, and then criminally charged at the first probation violation.  Not only will the child be aggressed upon, but the parents may be criminally charged for this "offense", even if there isn't a law.  Going to school doesn't necessarily preclude one from a criminal record either, as a harmless food fight can quickly escalate into misdemeanor charges, handcuffs, shackles, and striped suits.

Hunger Games: A food fight brings criminal charges against 2nd class citizens

This revelation may not enrage the American populace because we were born into this system of compulsory schooling so we inherently defend it like a victim with Stockholm syndrome.  A better point of comparison may be the numerous examples of how we have abandoned our birth right of natural rights and exchanged them for laws that are selectively enforced, bringing us closer and closer to a Hunger Games scenario where we cannot appeal to the facts or the law, but only cross our fingers for the odds to be in our favor.

Consider how the unalienable right of free speech, constitutionally guaranteed at both the state and federal level, has slowly transformed over the last 10 years from a natural right to a privilege granted by the state.  Beginning with the "reasonable" request to keep free speech from clogging up public roads, it has turned into the excuse for police to arrest hundreds of peaceful protestors at a time when their free speech falls outside of the designated "free speech zone".  The point of comparison isn't merely the gradual transfer of a right into the status of a privilege, but with respect to the selective enforcement of the new law. Not all free speech is prohibited outside of a designated free speech area, only speech that is dangerous to the government and the status quo.

Free Speech: an indivdual natural right, to a privilege, to a crime.

One last example that should unite people across the political spectrum is the disgrace we've made of our airports.  The natural right to travel and the right to privacy no longer exists when one has the misfortune of traveling by air.  Without any constitutional authority, we have allowed the government to monopolize the service of airport security and created a legion of unsworn goons and perverts dressed in blue costumes that think their wish is our command.  However, if you truly need to get home for a loved one's funeral or some other emergency, you can always pray for the odds to be in your favor.  Not everyone is forced through the naked body scanner, and not everyone is given the enhanced pat-down treatment, but if you would prefer to avoid the humiliation you might need to re-think your travel plans.  If the metal detector decides to give a random beep to indicate additional mandatory screening, there is no appeal to law, due process, reason, fact, or rights - the hands are going down the pants.


Hunger Games is being heralded as both a libertarian masterpiece as well as an example of scientific predictive programming that will prepare the American people to live in a nightmare world outlined in the United Nation's Agenda 21.  If the movie is viewed as just another action flick with a bizarre story line cashing in on popular teenage novels then a great opportunity has been lost.  Instead, the Hunger Games can be used as an educational tool to start a dialogue about our own society and the direction it's headed.  Ask a young person what is morally wrong with the world of the Hunger Games, what is the relationship between the people of the districts and the rulers of the capital city, why would the peasants go along with such a system, how are the crazy laws enforced, and how should the people resist their rulers if it could mean suffering another annihilation by their government?

By asking those questions, we just might find the answers to some of our own problems.
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