Mockingjay, Ferguson, and Founding Myths

Happy (or perhaps not so happy) end of Thanksgiving.

First of all, I want to acknowledge that as a white person, I am not the best person to read if you want in-depth analysis of the killing of Michael Brown Jr. and the events that followed. For that, one place I would recommend starting is the blog Black Girl Dangerous.

That said, I have been thinking a lot about Ferguson. I also just saw Mockingjay: Part 1 and found it to be an incredibly timely film. Although it was not my favorite book from the series, I think it was my favorite movie. Since there are better resources for you to look to for news on Ferguson (Mother Jones magazine has also been providing excellent coverage,) I will focus most of this on a political science/international relations analysis of Mockingjay, and bring in some references to the events unfolding in Ferguson and across the country.

Dystopia and Our Biggest Fears

One of the things that has always struck me about the Hunger Games series is that its author, Suzanne Collins, has not made any overtly political statements about her inspiration for it. Collins has said that her idea for the story basically came from a combination of watching reality TV and coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, when you look at the defining elements of Collins’s dystopia, it reads like a list of some of the biggest political debates going on in American society today. When Collins tried to image the worst possible world for her heroine to grow up and fight in, this is what she came up with:

  • Widespread income inequality, with ostentatiously conspicuous spending in the wealthiest areas and entire communities struggling just to eat in other parts of the country.
  • Ever-present surveillance: we are introduced to it in the arena for the games, but we later learn just how ubiquitous the Capitol’s surveillance apparatus is: in Catching Fire, President Snow shows Katniss a video of her and Gale kissing captured in District 12, and in Mockingjay, a surveillance camera sees Katniss and her companions in District 8, leading to the bombing of the hospital there.
  • A police state marked by widespread police brutality and complete impunity for the ironically named Peacekeepers.

If it is true that Collins was not thinking of any current domestic debates when she wrote her novels, then this series is a perfect example of how art and pop culture mirror the deepest fears of the society in which it is created.

Race and National Myths in Panem and America

However, the thing that made me like this latest movie so much is the fact that the filmmakers are very aware of our domestic political scene, to the point where they borderline seem prescient; Mockingjay was made before Michael Brown Jr. was killed, but scenes from the film are definitely relevant to the debates around race that we are hearing now.

This film is more aware of that than the previous ones; although our main protagonists, Katniss, Gale, and Peeta, are white, when we cut to scenes of the districts hit the hardest by the Capitol’s crackdowns, the people we see bearing the brunt are often black. Just as importantly, when we see scenes of resistance, those leaders are also black.

As my girlfriend pointed out, much of the film is also about Katniss checking her privilege. She resists becoming a symbol of the rebellion until she is exposed to the people suffering and dying for it.

Storytelling is important in this installation of the Hunger Games series. Shooting propaganda films and broadcasting the revolution to build support is key to the rebel cause, and propaganda is also essential to the Capitol’s attempts to end the rebellion.

Storytelling also plays an important role in political discourse in America and around the world. Mockingjay mirrored that in interesting ways.

One thing that struck me during the bombing of District 13, for example, was the fact that at first, at least, it was very orderly. People seemed accustomed to this procedure, and also to take a certain amount of pride in that. It called to mind the now co-opted phrase from the Battle of Britain, when the Nazis were bombing London: keep calm and carry on. A certain orderliness, a refusal to cave in to fear, was a point of national pride for the British. When President Coin chooses to wait the bombing out rather than returning fire and exposing their weapons and fighter jets to attack, I think she would have made many WWII-era Brits proud.

In some ways, I think District 13 also how Israel views itself: a sort of garrison state surrounded by a larger enemy bent on its destruction. Since security is the top priority, certain freedoms are seen as expendable in its pursuit: from owning pets to drinking to going above ground, residents’ lives are strictly regulated, and although Coin is Katniss’s ally for the moment, the alliance is not a comfortable one. As the end of the series will prove, there are definitely legitimate reasons to question Coin.

Myths are also important to the Capitol, of course. Snow is determined in his addresses to the nation to portray Panem as a peaceful nation that emerged from the chaos of civil war. However, as we know from the previous two films, Panem has never been peaceful; the violence up until this point has just been one-sided, inflicted by the state against the people. The violence is only decried when the people begin to fight back.

Likewise, when used a propaganda tool, Peeta says that violence is not the way to gain change. But the history of the Hunger Games has already showed up that there is no room for peaceful resistance in Panem. Panem’s Ghandi has already been murdered by Peacekeepers; now they must rely instead on Katniss and Coin.

The U.S. also likes to perpetuate this myth that the best or most effective change comes peacefully, and is doing so now, in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing. However, a closer reading of history reveals that the Civil Rights era was marked by riots as well as by peaceful marches, our national Gay Pride Day is celebrated on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York, the Haymarket Riots were an important point in the labor movement’s fight for the 8-hour work day, and food riots during the Great Depression contributed to the eventual introduction of the New Deal social programs.

This is not to advocate violence in all cases, but rather to point out that sometimes, violence is the only thing people in power will really hear. Furthermore, just as in Panem, the violence in the U.S. did not begin with the protesters: it began with the police. Furthermore, as the hosts of my favorite podcast, Citizen Radio, often point out, it is not for those of us in a position of privilege to decide how the oppressed should or should not resist their oppression.

Counterinsurgency vs. Anti-Social War

My final point also brings in an important element from a book I read for my international security class: Just and Unjust Wars by Michael Walzer. Walzer discusses, among many other things, strategies for counterinsurgency, emphasizing the need to win the support of the general population away from the insurgents.

If not, the state risks fighting what Walzer calls an “anti-social” war: one in which you move from fighting insurgents to fighting the entire population. At that point, according to Walzer, the only way for the state to win is to annihilate its population. It’s a price Walzer deems too high to pay for victory, although Snow may disagree.

(Anti-social war is a concept I will explore further in a post about Israel and Palestine.)

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