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Saturday, March 24, 2012
History ... Politics ... Society ...

I haven’t yet seen The Hunger Games, and to be honest, I probably won’t. But I still keep up with the times, so I generally know what it’s about. There has been plenty of talk about it in the newspapers, radio and TV, and I’ve managed to read a few reviews. What interested me more was the conservative punditry about it. A handful of conservative authors, e.g. John Tamny in Forbes and James Pinkerton on the Fox News site, seized the occasion to claim that Hunger Games ultimately speaks to the evils of big government and big liberal-friendly media. I couldn’t help but note the irony of conservatives latching their ships to Hunger Games.

As you and 99.99% of the American population already know, Hunger Games is about a ruined post-war America of the future, where the government entertains and disciplines its remaining subjects by holding yearly survival games (something like all those “reality TV shows” on today, but with truly fatal consequences). The powers-that-be select a group of male and female teenagers and pit them against each other (and against some additional deadly challenges imposed by the gamemaster) out in the wilds. Only one player is allowed to come back alive.

Most anyone with any interest in the old Roman Empire knows that this is a throwback to the gladiator games of antiquity. The reference is quite intentional; there are several Roman references in the movie, the most obvious one being the name of the nation, “Panem”. Sounds a little like “Panera Bread”, and for good reason. Panem is Latin for bread, and was part of the old slogan of the Roman leadership on how to keep the citizens in line: bread and circuses, “panem et circenses”. Circuses back then were more than jugglers, clowns and trapeze artists; they included deadly gladiator combat and dissidents (like undenying Christians) fighting the beasts. So, the charred remains of the American Empire have gone back to this philosophy in Hunger Games.

Conservatives today have an interesting relationship with Roman history. They love the early Republic days with its notions of personal virtue and “the natural duties of the citizen”, not forced and not encumbered by a monarchy. And they seize the downfall of the Empire as THE example of what happens when a great nation abandons such values and imposes a powerful and extensive government that involves itself with all aspects of a citizen’s life. Some prime examples of the conservative world’s fascination with ancient Rome are the classicist scholar Victor Davis Hanson and the Cato Institute think tank. I’m not sure if either has spoken yet on the Hunger Games. But Mr. Pinkerton, who wrote about the movie and its warning against liberalism on the Fox site, is also a Roman Republic fan. In an article on the American Conservative web site criticizing President Obama’s embrace of internationalism and his downplaying of American greatness, Mr. Pinkerton said the following:

“Fonte [the author of a recent book warning Americans against creeping internationalism] identifies the enduring wisdom of the Founders as still the best bulwark against globalocracy. The Founders put their political faith in the revival of Greco-Roman republicanism . . .”

Ah yes, Greco-Roman republicanism. Obama is turning the US into a decadent empire and we or whichever of our children survive the coming apocalypse will soon be in a high-tech version of the early Middle Ages. If only we had stuck to the Fathers’ vision . . .

But before we jump to that conclusion, perhaps we should check the accuracy of the historical arc presented by these “classicist Cassandras”. First off, gladiator games were not creations of the Emperors. They were started in the Roman world at least a century before Julius Caesar laid waste to the final vestiges of republican rule. Perhaps they were part of the overall decline of the Republic, but they were not invented by those who finally disposed of it. As to the “Greco” part of the great heritage, don’t forget that the ancient Greek aristocracy made teenage boys into sex slaves. The Romans eventually adopted these Hellenistic bad habits, again well before the Caesars. They called their boy-toys “catamites” (as possibly mentioned by St. Paul in First Corinthians). It’s interesting and ironic that these ancient Greek and Roman catamites from the “days of republican virtue” were the same age as the combatants in The Hunger Games.

Today’s conservatives often uphold our nation’s Christian heritage as something to be favored and embraced, and not downplayed in the interests of internationalism and secular humanism. (For example, they attack Obama for federal health care laws requiring Christian-related employers to provide birth control in their health plans). However, Victor David Hanson and the writers from the Cato Institute usually don’t mention that the evil Roman Empire eventually became a CHRISTIAN empire. (Rick Santorum would certainly approve the corresponding entanglement between Christian leadership and government, given his intestinal disdain for John F. Kennedy’s separation of church and state sentiments.) The post-Constantine Roman Empire finally eliminated gladiator games. But not too long after that, it collapsed from various political and social weaknesses. The 18th Century classicist Edward Gibbon says that it was Christianity itself that fatally eviscerated the Empire and brought an end to Roman civilization.

The truth is certainly complicated, much more so than articles in Forbes or Fox News make it out to be. And for added irony, there’s a character named Cato in Hunger Games, one of the teenage game contestants. The Roman guy from whom the Institute took its name was Cato the Elder, a soldier-statesman in Republic days who fiercely defended the old rustic values of self-reliance and personal morality against the new-fangled Hellenic influences seeping in amidst the educated class. As to what the movie’s Cato has to to with the ancient Cato, and what Hunger Games itself has to do with politics today . . . well, it ain’t so easy and obvious, not at all.

In my opinion, the phenomenal success of Hunger Games has to do with inter-generational issues. Young people today, the Millennial generation, are rather upset with their elders, i.e. with Baby Boomers (talkin ’bout my generation, as the Who once sang). We Baby Boomers ourselves talked about revolution and peace and love, about making the world better. But we only went so far in terms of changing things, and not always for the better. And now we are leaving a very uncertain situation for the next generations to cope with. Back in the late 60’s, American prosperity and superiority seemed a given; so the dreams of youth back then could imagine a world of peace, pot and microdot, a world focused on personal fulfillment.

Now we face the prospects of uncertainty and decline, of limited and possibly shrinking opportunities, i.e. opportunities to have an interesting and productive life free from worries of hunger, war, poverty, ecological collapse and martial rule. If I were 24 years old and just out of college today struggling to get any sort of job with a future (and coping with huge educational loans), I’d be pretty angry at the previous management. So sure, a story like Hunger Games would appeal to me, as an ultimate vision of where Baby Boomer malfeasance and self-absorption has lead. This new generation has spoken most loudly thus far in the Occupy Wall Street / Occupy Where-ever movement; and what they are saying is a bit puzzling to those thinking in classic liberal versus conservative terms. To me, it looks like the “Occupiers” are saying “to hell with all of you and your big government versus family and religious values arguments”.

Beyond that, though . . . it doesn’t seem as though the young Occupiers have much of a plan themselves as to what to do (other than form local committees and hold meetings announced on their I Phones and Pads; using 4G accounts from networks owned and run by Baby Boomers). And from what I’ve heard and read, The Hunger Games doesn’t offer any big solution either. It’s just a story, about a girl who went through a harrowing experience and somehow got through it. I guess that’s about all the Millennials can think these days; i.e., it’s a crazy and seemingly impossible world, but maybe somehow they will survive.

P.S. — On a lighter note, at least for those like me who don’t take NFL all that seriously – I see that the New York Jets now have two star quarterbacks, the once heralded but now questionable Mark Sanchez, and the golden upstart of the 2011 season, former Broncos QB Tim Tebow. Jets management and some sports writers think this will work out in a stable and effective way in the 2012 season. But I see Hunger Games parallels. It’s two men put in a cage, and only one will come out alive (or playing QB for the Jets, anyway).

In the mean time, however, the Jets will sell lots of tickets and boost their TV viewership revenues, without worrying about actually making it to the playoffs and maybe even the Super Bowl. It’s bread and circuses all over again; in order for Jets management to make their bread (Baby Boomer slang for “money”), they have to give the fans a circus because they have no idea how to build a solid, talented team that will win a lot of games. The NY Giants seem to get that formula right every so many years (1986, 1990, 2000, 2007, 2011), but since 1969 (the first and last Jets showing in the Super Bowl), Jets management has relied on ‘bread and circuses’. And now the undenying Christian and Millennial generation poster-boy, Tim Tebow, will be thrown to the lions before the crowds in the stadium (but not before making a lot of ‘bread’ on the deal). The games must go on!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:10 pm      

  1. Jim, Yes, I’d agree that all you say above is true. BUT….

    If you’ve noticed–at least here in the Midwest, I’m not sure about on the East Coast–most of the young’uns most excited, so excited they sometimes can hardly express themselves about the movie “The Hunger Games”, are young teen age girls–and I mean YOUNG. You don’t find even many (any?) twenty year olds in the groups. They are almost all young teenager girls or even younger ‘tween girls; perhaps there are some young men, but I haven’t seen any–all girls.

    This tells me that this movie (which I also will likely never see) is more about a young girl succeeding, a young girl doing great things, a young girl achieving the impossible.

    I tend to think it’s much more about the young girls today and what they can achieve than about Greco-Roman ideas, etc.

    This brings us to the whole topic of women in today’s society, how the chance for women to succeed is perceived by young girls today, whether or not the young girls today see themselves capable of achieving great things. Now that’s a whole story that needs a book–or maybe a trilogy. And I understand “The Hunger Games” are already a trilogy. MCS

    P.S. As to football and the NFL: Yes, I can see there there is valid reason to compare them to the Roman Circuses. Now I hear (and I’m sure I’ve got only a portion of this story as I don’t pay that much attention to football) that a particular team has been labeled as citing certain players to be injured–deliberately. Now there’s something where I say, “What’s wrong with THAT picture?” for sure. Talk about Roman Circuses! MCS

    [Jim G comments: well, the teen crowd is always the shock-wave of any new movie sensation. You are on-point as usual, Mary, about teen girls relating to Katniss. But it clearly is about a lot more than a teen female heroine. We shall see in 2 or 3 weeks if HG is still playing in the big multi-plexes, i.e. if the slightly older crowd can sustain it for a month or two. I say they will, and that as usual, we will BOTH be right. But we shall see.]

    Comment by Mary S. — March 24, 2012 @ 6:35 pm

  2. Your Generation
    Written by Thomas Paign, 2012
    Performed by TBD, 2012

    U People will try to keep us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)
    While U work us into the ground (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)
    To support a future that’s already been s-s-sold (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)
    I hope U die before U get old (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)

    This is your generation
    This is your generation, Granny

    Why don’t U all f-fade away (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)
    U better listen to what we all s-s-say (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)
    We are trying to cause a big s-s-sensation (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)
    To defend our future from your g-g-g-generation (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)

    This is your generation
    This is your generation, Granny

    Why don’t you all f-fade away (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)
    And don’t try to s-steal our p-pay-day (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)
    I am trying to cause a b-big s-s-sensation (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)
    I’m takin’ this message to the entire n-n-nation (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)

    This is your generation
    This is your generation, Granny

    Pop your boner pills and p-play away (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)
    Kick the can again our w-w-way (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)
    We’ll no longer do what we’ve been t-t-told (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)
    Gotta steal our future back from the o-o-old (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)

    This is your generation
    This is your generation, Granny

    U People will try to keep us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)
    While U work us into the ground (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)
    To support a future that’s already been s-s-sold (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)
    Yeah, I hope U die before U get old (Talkin’ ’bout your generation)

    This is your generation
    This is your generation, Granny

    [JIM G COMMENT: Hey, pretty good! Spot-on, as the Brits would say.]

    Comment by TPaign — March 24, 2012 @ 10:20 pm

  3. Well, I’m not sure. Am I taking this too personally? But I find myself disagreeing with the both of you.

    Seems that I’ve heard this all before–specifically, when the baby boomers “didn’t trust anybody over 30”. I lived through that, and it’s the same story over again; this time from a younger group. Now the baby boomers are definitely over 30; and oh boy, they definitely do NOT want to die. They somehow realize that being over 30 isn’t quite that bad. They definitely are afraid to die.

    And so, while this song may wish that “granny” dies, granny herself doesn’t care that much.

    She tends to think that the younger generation of which this song also speaks likely does not REALLY want to die before they get old.

    But then….maybe it’s just me: I find some inconsistencies. Again, specifically, “granny” and “boner pills”? Haven’t you got a mixed something there?

    And, in another place, first YOU want to die before the old generation does; then you want the old generation to die before you do. Make up your mind, I say. Or is it me who just finds this inconsistent?

    Somehow maybe if you gave more careful tho’t about it, you could figure out exactly what it is you actually wanted to say. MCS P.S. Right here seems to be the problem with most of the lyrics of today’s music. Who can figure out what exactly is being said?

    Comment by Mary S. — March 25, 2012 @ 11:02 am

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