by Michael Russell
Just after the first Persian Gulf War began we took a family trip to Antietam to show our children, then aged 10 and 13 the place where the bloodiest since day battle of the Civil War as fought. We wanted them to understand, as best they could what the real dimensions of war were like, the close quarters and how it was possible for 23,000 people to die in them. But I did not know how well the lesson sank in until two years later when we sat having pizza after seeing “The Last of the Mohicans”. My daughters were visibly shaken. Both had seen horror films and sci-fi films, so I inquired about why they were particularly affected by this film. One of them replied, “Oh, Poppa, those are just made up stories, this was real.”
I suspect that “The Hunger Games” touches the “this is real” button in teens not because the violence in it is real, but because it is a powerful metaphorical narrative for their middle and high school experiences. There are adults who are either distant and clueless or manipulative and malevolent; social straitjackets in which they feel trapped; and, in the arena, the very embodiment of school cliques. There are the strong, good looking, popular and privileged who join forces to lord it over and inflict a variety of emotional or physical injuries or indignities on nearly everyone else. Bullying and intimidation are the order of the day.
The emotional work of teen years is to differentiate from parents and find their own voice. Peeta’s challenge to the games comes the night before when he tells Katniss he does not want to let the Capitol people win by making him someone he is not. The moral challenge of the film is the moral challenge all teens face, to find a self to be true to and to survive.
In that world, whether we like to hear it or not, parents and most adults are as Mark Twain characterized his father, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” Those who are asking the question about their own parental role as moral guides are asking a question about a cohort of humans for whom peers and culture are vastly more important than parents. Moreover, just as Katniss, Peeta, Gale and Rue see the injustice and horror of these games, they see the adults’ acquiescence to its horrors. Teens are hypocrisy meters and these young people identify it as they proceed through the appalling adults they encounter along the journey.
Thus the moral question the movie poses for parents and other adults is, “How are we not like the adults in the movie?” We think we are there to guide the teens, but perhaps we would do better to examine our quietism in a world of injustices. Because, you see, we already live in Panam’s Capitol.
Every three seconds a child dies from totally preventable poverty related causes. Ten million children a year since the mid 1960’s when they started keeping count. Tens of millions more have their brains stunted, hobbling their capacities because they do not receive adequate nutrition between birth and age five. We in the US routinely spend in excess of $450 BILLION dollars in retail sales between November 1 and December 31 on holiday sales: $465bn in 2011, $453bn in 2010. Each year we spend on the holidays for the Prince of Peace more than we spent on the first three years of the Iraq war. To make it real, Jeffrey Sachs in his 2005 article on ending poverty asked the world to increase its assistance from $80bn a year to $160bn a year for ten years. The U.S. was asked for $25bn a year but said it could not afford it. We spend 18 times that much each year on Christmas alone, yet could not afford $25bn a year to end poverty.
Just these past months the Kony 2012 / Invisible Children campaign emerged and sparked remarkable attention to the use of children in fighting civil wars. It used Kony as a focal point to capture the imagination of 85 million viewers on behalf of all the children who were hurt and killed. But then Jason Russell and his colleagues found themselves severely critiqued by adult news media because the LRA had been driven from Sudan in 2005. The adults blistering the film and the foundation missed the point entirely, parsing journalistic issues into what was an exposé of the subjugation of children for war. And of course the journalists themselves had not the same success in rousing the conscience of a society as Mr. Russell had with his movie. We could go on to look at the trafficking of young men and women, honor killings and acid attacks on young Muslim girls, the bombing of schools in Nigeria; on and on go the attacks on children
We are, at the moment, in a broad discussion of when and where governments should intervene in the affairs of other governments. We are as a society exploring the boundary between individual rights and the rights of nations to govern as they please. But so far we have not seen fit to exert moral or military force on governments which simply exploit their citizens to death to enrich the oligarchs. Cell phones and Coca-cola have deeper penetration into Africa than clean water or mosquito eradication. That, too, is a moral issue for those of us in Panam’s Capitol. What moral obligation do we have to the children of other nations?
The Capitol exists in parallel with our other districts, intermingled and international, but it is there none the less. This nearby coexistence is perhaps more cruel than segregating people into districts because every day those whose lives are being sacrificed get to see the Capitol people flout economic and political fairness as they flaunt their wealth.
So the “Hunger Games” is not posing a question for how we as adults oversee the moral formation of our teens. It is our teens who, in seeing this, pose the issue of the moral formation of us adults. We are the ones who are quiescent in the face of the holocaust of children worldwide; we are presumably the ones with the power and wisdom to make a difference and who choose not to take to the streets, the churches or the ballot boxes to demand it stop. We dither over a thousand other issues because to really look at what is happening about us is so painful, so horrendous that it might well drive us mad, as it does to some of the Tribute Victors. And yet, if we hope to be a moral influence we could start in no better place than demanding an end to all the holocausts of children everywhere.
The Rev. Michael Russell is rector of All Souls’, Point Loma, in the Diocese of San Diego. He is the author of Hooker’s Blueprint: An Essence Outline of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, is a third time Deputy to General Convention, early adopter of technologies and blogs at Anglican Minimalist.
See also film review at The Lead.