Listening to the comments of the US Supreme Court justices last week in the arguments over the Affordable Care Act — especially the astoundingly callous utterances of Antonin Scalia — it is clear that the present elitist view of life exalts those who only care for themselves. Self-interest, from the perspective of the One Percent, is the only “rational” choice in life. As such, economic and governmental policy are increasingly based on the premise that life is only about costs and benefits. Caring about the health of others, these supreme justices seem to be saying, has no place in our public discourse. Given this “wisdom,” it is no wonder that many of us have trouble finding inspiration for moral civic energy.
Instead, we often turn to fantasy to find heroes that express our common humanity and support our desire for a better life for all. The best example at the moment is Katniss Everdeen, the hero of the smash movie and book, The Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games is the most watched movie in a long time and is directed at “young adults,” meaning teenagers. It is based on a book that presently has more than 17.5 million copies in print. In the novel, Katniss, a coal miner’s daughter, volunteers to take the place of her younger sister in a sadistic “game” forced upon the caste-like lower classes that inhabit outlying districts in the dystopian nation of Panem. The “game” is retribution against the working classes for a rebellion by one district against the One Percenters who run the nation and reside in the Capitol District. Consistent with current notions of “free trade,” each district in the country specializes in one form of production, such as mining or agriculture, as dictated by the ruling order that reside in the Capitol. And, consistent with Marxist notions of surplus value, members of the working districts receive barely enough for subsistence while the fruits of their labor head to the Capitol. In the game, televised to the entire country, 24 young people are pitted against each other in a fight in a manipulated universe until only one is left standing. In the book, when one dies, a drone-like vehicle appears to take the body away.
Like most narratives, the story is a mash-up. The author, Suzanne Collins, was inspired to write the story while watching TV, flipping back and forth between competitive reality shows and coverage of the Iraq War. “I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way,” she told children’s book publisher Scholastic. The daughter of a Vietnam War veteran, Collins was also moved by the Greek myth of Theseus, in which the city of Athens was forced to send fourteen young men and women into the labyrinth in Crete to face the Minotaur. “Even as a kid, I could appreciate how ruthless this was,” Collins said. “Crete was sending a very clear message: ‘Mess with us and we’ll do something worse than kill you. We’ll kill your children.'”
I’ll leave movie reviews to others — like our crack reviewer Kelly Vance. But stepping back and thinking about the story, I think Katniss represents a plucky and resourceful challenge to today’s orthodoxy in which everything has a value and everything is for sale. Katniss is prepared to give her life for that of her younger sister. She is resourceful in a land with few resources. She works with others in the game to mount a common challenge to the more sadistic combatants, and — spoiler alert — engineers an ending to the game in which one extra youth is allowed to survive. Hers is a militantly moral stance of caring for others.
As such, her actions are a counterweight to the “rational” behavior of the denizens of the Capitol District, and bear a striking resemblance to matters today. It is not an exaggeration to say that our current economic mess and the inability to stop those responsible for it from continuing their ways comes from a “philosophical” notion of what is the “proper” way to act. We have confused financial values with ethical values. The profit-maximizing behavior, for instance, of large banks and health insurance companies continues unabated in spite of the continuing growth of income inequality and the obvious harm it inflicts. There is no better example than the arguments in the Supreme Court over the Affordable Care Act, when, as an NPR blogger wrote, Justice Scalia “joined his conservative colleagues in fretting openly about how a surviving law would affect insurance companies’ bottom line.” Insurance companies’ bottom line! How about the health of his fellow Americans?
Katniss’ practical altruism is an antidote to this selfish mantra of the One Percent. Putting a price on basic human needs, like the conservative justices did in the health-care debate, corrupts them. As Harvard political philosopher Michael J. Sandel argued in his new book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, “markets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged.” He added that “market reasoning also empties public life of moral argument.”
It’s obvious that politics are embedded in pop culture. So are our attitudes and our understanding of what is possible. So, in addition to the joy and diversion it brings us, pop culture is often worth paying attention to as an antidote to the excesses of the powerful.
As such, Katniss is a response to the current mantra that the only “rational” and “normal” way to act is to be consistent with one’s immediate short-term interests. She is a reminder that we are never going to get out of the mess we are in without a longer-term, more humanistic perspective. We all need inspirational heroes like Katniss.