The teen fiction series The Hunger Games is a hit in the United States, and it’s not hard to see why. The books, and spin-off movies, share an anti-authoritarian message combined with a complicated story of young romance. What’s really notable about the novels from a libertarian perspective is that the characters are divided among classes related to political power. Similar to the distinction laid out by Albert Jay Nock, those closely connected to the political machinery are highly privileged. They live lives of luxury, while the rest of society labors and suffers to finance their opulent lifestyle.
This stark dichotomy came to mind when residents of Baltimore recently took to the streets to protest the death of Freddie Gray. On April 19th, Gray, a black resident arrested on weapons charges, died from injuries sustained while in police custody. The details of his death are still unknown and there is an investigation underway. Police brutality is the suspected cause. On April 25th, thousands of Baltimore residents marched in protest of what they see as another instance in a string of racially-based, unjust treatment by police. What began as a peaceful march soon broke into violence, as some participants thought it productive to riot. Storefronts were looted as police were deployed to contain the disorder. According to one report, fans at an Orioles baseball game were attacked and badgered by protesters intent on creating chaos. The mayor of Baltimore effectively locked down Camden Yards stadium for a short period. When all was said and done, 12 demonstrators were arrested.
As the destruction unfolded, only 50 miles away in Washington, journalists partied it up with President Obama and his administration at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The event is an annual gathering where reporters come together to wine and dine with the officials they are supposed to keep accountable. The president tells a few jokes while the press feasts on first-rate food and alcohol. The affair is so elite and self-serving that it has earned the name “nerd prom.”
Now, it should come as no surprise that those in the business of politics enjoy convening to pat each other’s backs. The system is supposed to work in their favor. One night of schmoozing between public servants and the fourth estate isn’t a scandal. It’s indicative of how far removed the denizens of Washington are from the rest of the country. They indulge in great mirth, courtesy of John and Jane Q. Taxpayer. Meanwhile, the nation is weighed down by high unemployment, rising costs, and an increasingly insecure future.
It was almost surreal to watch coverage of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner take place simultaneously with the rioting in Baltimore. The divide between average citizens and those in the higher rungs of the political/media/entertainment complex was never clearer. My Twitter feed was filled with the president’s scripted one-liners and real-time pictures of unruly property destruction. One class suffered while another class celebrated. How very Hunger Games, I thought.
Before the reader thinks I exaggerate, consider the brief coverage CNN gave to the anarchy in Baltimore. As the news network insisted on covering the jubilee at the White House, anchor Errol Louis fumbled for an excuse to avoid the events happening just an hour north of D.C. After telling viewers they “can find a live feed if you actually want to watch what’s going on,” he defended the non-coverage by announcing “something else is going on—the most powerful man in the world is gonna tell some jokes.” He concluded, “People will be informed….They’ll find out all of what happened in the streets of Baltimore by this time tomorrow.”
Indeed, the country found out what occurred in the streets of H.L. Mencken’s hometown not after CNN’s obsequious coverage of the WHCD, but during the mayhem. Social media accomplished its one basic function: democratizing news. Executives at the major television networks couldn’t bring themselves to ignore the president telling a bunch of flat jokes – even as one of America’s great cities was sinking into disarray. If the Sage of Baltimore were still alive today, he likely would have brought attention to the disorder while seated in the presence of Washington’s worst and dullest. Alas, iconoclasts are a near-extinct breed in American media.
Despite being a fan and attendee of the WHCD, Sonny Bunch of the Washington Free Beacon pulls no punches when he declares that a dereliction like CNN’s is why “they hate us.” By “us” he means himself and his Washington-based colleagues, and by “they” the rest of the country. Bunch even makes his own Hunger Games reference, noting that “D.C. resembles Panem no more than it does on this weekend.”
The disparity between normal citizens and the governing class was not just limited to the skewed news coverage of the unrest in Baltimore. The protest march was sparked by a combination of needless death and the perception of unfair policing. The peaceful protesters have a point: the circumstances surrounding the death of Freddie Gray are suspect. The Baltimore police commissioner admitted that Gray failed to receive proper medical care while in the police’s hands. Somehow, he ended up with a severe spinal cord injury while being transported in the paddy wagon. The affliction led to his death. The arresting officers claim to not have used force when arresting Gray. Yet in their care, he sustained a life-ending injury. Add to the situation the disproportionate harm inflicted on the American black community by the criminal justice system, and you have the makings of resentment on the part of people who feel targeted by the police.
We don’t know for sure if this was a case of police brutality. Last summer’s strife in Ferguson, Missouri, and subsequent exoneration of Officer Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, show that cases like these are complicated. Emotions run high. The truth takes a backseat to preconceived narratives. Eager to assign guilt, the media often creates more victims in the runaway crusade for justice. Caution is best exercised before determining who is responsible for what.
We do know one thing though: when it comes to the lives of citizens and celebrity-like fame, Washington elites value one more than the other. In a choice between covering the breakdown of a city or taking selfies at the White House, blatant narcissism comes first. Like the Panem political class who deliberately throw up to eat more as the rest of the country starves, D.C.’s finest don’t realize how good they’ve got it. If government’s job is to calm unrest, our leaders sure do a good job of encouraging it.