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The Hunger Games and the Moral Imagination

The Hunger Games and the Moral Imagination
Profile photo of James E. Miller

peacekeepersThis past weekend I caught The Hunger Games: Catching Fire at my local theater. The movie is based on the second part of a dystopian trilogy written by Suzanne Collins. In Collins’s fictional world known as Panem, a despotic government rules over all with a violent iron fist. There is a strict separation between the political class and the rest of the populace, with the latter working in slave-like conditions to support the former. The story focuses on protagonist Katniss Everdeen and her struggle to protect her loved ones while surviving the tyranny of her brutal overlords.

Throughout Catching Fire, the subject of revolution is paramount. Since the first instalment of the series when Katniss bested her oppressive dictators in the highly-publicized, annual fight-to-the-death tournament, she has become a symbol of agitation to the people. They look to her as a chink in the government’s armor – a sign that tyranny is not immortal but can be damaged. The plebs and their desire for freedom results in riots in the streets with vicious crackdowns from Orwellian-named “peacekeepers” who maintain tranquility with the bloodied end of truncheons. At one point during Katniss’s victory tour, an older gentleman raises his hand in defiance of the regime and whistles the popularized tune of revolution. He is summarily executed on the spot while the crowd that attempts to protect him is beaten handily.

The act of violence drew a startled and winced response from the movie audience. It was a demonstration of the horribly destructive nature of tyranny. There was no question as to the evilness of Panem’s dictatorial government. The line between enemy and hero was straight and untainted.

Stories such as the Hunger Games are wonderful things because they spark what conservative statesman Edmund Burke called the “moral imagination.” In his famed Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke chided the Jacobin revolutionaries for endeavoring to paint “the decent drapery of life” and the “moral imagination” as “ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated.” Russell Kirk expanded on this phrase and defined it as the “power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events.”

Whether viewers know it or not, the basic plot of the Hunger Games series is an appeal to the moral imagination that men should be free from working as servants to others. It’s not exactly a new theme when compared to other modern movies. There are a multitude of storylines where a strong-willed protagonist finds the courage within themselves to fight off an authoritarian power, not alone, but with the help of others. The narrative follows a familiar pattern: while outgunned and outmanned, good ultimately triumphs over evil not so much because of one person but rather the hope for a better life embodied within a symbol.

The engrossing message of liberty over tyranny in the Hunger Games is thought to be why the franchise is so popular. In some ways, that is correct. People tend to have the urge of rooting for the underdog. When the abuser receives his just deserts, it’s seen as a representation of justice fulfilled.

But as great as the moral imagination is, it ultimately means nothing if it does not translate into real-life behavior modification. It’s one thing to cheer on a character on screen who is risking their life for a freer world. It’s another to embody that risk yourself in a reality that is slipping towards despotism.

Anyone who claims the post-apocalyptic setting in Hunger Games bears an uncanny resemblance to state control in our time is liable to be marked as a black helicopter-type. The ridicule is the same that was aimed, and still is aimed, at Friedrich Hayek after his great work The Road to Serfdom was released. “No,” the critics say, “the existence of the large welfare-warfare state has not translated itself to one world authoritarianism.” That is certainly true for now. Still, the general public finds it fun to mock the government as an over-bearing and inefficient behemoth while relying on the beast for a bi-weekly allotment of tax subsidies.

We may not be living hand-to-mouth while being forced to labor for thuggish overlords but the modern trend is clear: the political class is consuming more and more wealth-generating capital for themselves. It can be seen in highly-unionized European countries and within the bubble of richness known as the District of Columbia. The police state is ratcheting up its already untamed authority. Economic regulation is becoming more varied and intrusive. In the West, the state as an institution has been growing by leaps and bounds for over a century. Only an imbecile would deny this mass centralization in government power.

Yet most viewers of the Hunger Games will not let that message sink into their consciousness. They will not make the connection between a story and their own lives. It’s far too discomforting. At the same time, they will revere characters in a tale who come off as heroes. These fictional thought constructs are viewed as perfectly noble persons who sacrifice for the greater good. One would think the same reverence would be shown to those individuals who engage in the same art of defiance against what is generally deemed an unjust situation. If characters in fiction can be seen as courageous, why not real-life persons who display the same type of behavior?

Edward Snowden, the now-infamous whistleblower of the National Security Agency, is still seen as a dirty, rotten traitor by much of the public. It’s a strange cognitive dissonance that while a majority are irate over their government’s spying, they see the man who clued them in as some type of mendacious plotter who hates Uncle Sam. It’s equally as strange that the same folks who hardly bat an eye when calling Snowden a scumbag will just as quickly latch on to the fighter of injustice in a movie.

Stories provide valuable insight into the limits of mankind and what constitutes good. But they are not reality in the end. There is little risk in admiring a character in fiction who stands up for the right thing. Doing so in real-life is apt to bring ridicule, and thus has a social stigma attached to it.

It takes no spine to be a warrior on paper. It also requires little brain power to bend your will with that of an author’s. The science of critical thinking demands a logical and coherent approach to viewing issues. Criticizing someone for doing the very same action that you praise in make-believe land is inconsistent and a sign of poor judgment. The borderline between the real and the imagination does not render ethics and morality capricious. A proper way to live is to be transcendent of observable examination alone.

Hunger Games contains a pertinent message to those living under big government. The heroes and villains of the story should not be unfamiliar to current events. Edward Snowden is a real life Katniss Everdeen. He defied the powers-that-be in order to do what he believed was right. But instead of receiving praise, he got condemnation from voices normally wary of statism. The irony remains that the same men and women who call Snowden a traitor should be cheering for the tyrannical government of Panem to squash the rebellion and restore its oppressive hold on society. Of course, that suggestion sounds crazy, but then so does the person who pays lip-service to freedom while cheering for the death of someone who risks their life for greater liberty. Their moral imagination is in great need of fine-tuning.

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James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of Mises Canada and a regular contributor to the Mitrailleuse . Send him mail

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