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Panem et Circenses

Oh Hunger Games. Is it not enough that you lured me into your bandwagon with a strong, female protagonist, page-turning action scenes, and Lenny Kravitz? No, you actually had to have a deeper message that has been rolling around in my head for days. Sigh. Forget translit, Young Adult is where it is at.

For the two of you left in the world that haven’t read the book, the story centers on life in a post-apocalyptic America. A hundred years before, rebels lost a hard-fought battle with the “Capitol.” Their descendants live, generally oppressed and malnourished, in twelve districts surrounding the capital city of Panem. Every year, each district selects two young people ( a boy and a girl), to fight to the death in a televised battle named the Hunger Games.

Much of the book’s draw emanates from what happens in the arena but the world the book’s author, Susan Collins, creates outside is actually far more interesting and unfortunately, relevant to current times.

The denizens of Panem are an odd bunch, obsessed with fashion, plastic surgery, and fine foods. They have no sense of the degradation those living in the Districts endure, even though all of their food, textiles, energy, and police come from outside of Panem. A voracious desire for entertainment drives the Hunger Games’ popularity. While it’s hard to explain the cruelty of the Games without delving further into the book, remember that the “games” involve children involuntarily selected to kill each other in a gladiator match. No kids from Panem participate.

Despite all this, Collins does not actually do much to demonize the people of Panem. Their crimes are not of evil but of ignorance. Their self-involvement, their extreme desire for pleasure, has completely dulled any notion of moral sensibility. They don’t ask questions of their leader or their way of life or why the Hunger Games must exist.

Those of you who stayed awake in your freshman humanities course will recognize Collins’ clever use of the latin phrase, “panem et circenses” (bread and circuses). Panem’s inhabitants, lulled into a life of insatiable pleasure-seeking (food and entertainment), have no concern for how or why their government operates. This extreme state of selfishness makes them unable, or unwilling, to care about their fellow countrymen in the districts. Hence, the horror of the Hunger Games continues.

Collins’ allusion to modern day is not subtle and my concern is perhaps mildly hyperbolic. We are a long way from apocalypse (although if Rick Santorum is elected President, I’m not sure how far away) and there remains a consistently optimistic interest in public service among many Americans.  But Collins is right to warn that our increasing tolerance of injustice (my pick this week: extrajudicial killings of American citizens) and willingness to look the other way at the shimmering lights (in my case at “Basketball Wives”) begins a slippery slop towards a Panem-like existence. Our amazing ability to simultaneously note what’s wrong in the world while carrying on as though that very thing does not exist is somewhat terrifying. I know, I know, we only have a bandwidth for caring oh so much about something but I do worry that the space is becoming smaller and smaller. Combine that with an increasing encroachment on basic civil rights (when did due process become optional?) and well, Collins’ Panem does not seem so far away.





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