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Catching Fire and the American Dream 2014

Cultural Pessimism and the Young


I recently had a perceptive seventh-grade student refer to the rash of “dystopias” (her term) she sees everywhere. During this lively class discussion, many other social studies pupils agreed these negativity tales are omnipresent, screen-based, and often misleading in the stories they tell about our current era and the near future.

She and others pointed out several examples of dystopian narratives: movies like Ender’s Game and WALL-E, novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or psychological crime thrillers by Faye Kellerman, and all the visual media attention given to random killers and local gang violence. She also stressed the national howling over problems with so-called Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act), the debate over our drone-assassination policies abroad, and failing-planet movies like Avatar.

There is also the continuous horrifying “news” about terrorist attacks abroad and about serial killers “going postal” in our own country.

It makes me think of modern philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s discussion of the unholy “posthistorical” alliance between Hollywood, screen dominance, and terrorists whether global or national:

“So-called global terrorism, especially, is a thoroughly posthistorical phenomenon. Its time starts when the rage of those who have been excluded connects to the infotainment industry of those who have been included, merging into a violent system-theater for ‘last men.’”

And, of course, there is Catching Fire, a film based on the second volume of Susan Collins’s dystopian trilogy The Hunger Games. The three books by Collins have been adolescent and adult favorites for a few years now, and I’ve discussed them in my seventh grade classes since 2008.

Collin’s genius in The Hunger Games — the movies and the books — consists in her nuanced depiction of our artfully camouflaged dystopian reality in the U.S.A. today. I believe the more perceptive early adolescent viewers sense this much more clearly than most adult viewers (or readers). They live this every day, in some ways. Just like in District 12, considerable hopelessness and brutal negativity hovers over the land today. Congress remains frozen in winter’s endless gridlock but cuts food stamps. My students see the increasing number of homeless and their desperation; the TV/Internet video news is usually bloody and reveals masses of suffering and crime victims. There’s little choice, like in Panem: Syrian war victims dying on camera, or drowned humans and destroyed villages in the typhoon-ravaged Philippines, or endless reality TV shows.

As Sloterdijk has said, in our early 21st century, we need the infotainment news media to bombard us with the ferocious system-theater to keep “the last men” of posthistory secure in their rage. The Hunger Games (and the Sochi Olympic Games) certainly fit the bill. In the film, the extravagantly gaudy celebrations of the Capitol’s imperial one percent stand in terrifying contrast to the harsh lives led by everyone else, and they inhabit an NSA-like future in a place modeled familiarly on grim and ugly post-WWII East Germany after the Russians had conquered and despoiled it.

Some students think our own era gives us dark glimpses of worldwide suffering but that here in “the homeland” everything is much better, our gigantic armies and drones protect us, and they believe that there is still social and economic mobility. The controversial American Dream myth lives on for some, but it weakens for others. And this dream may be another illusion placed on our American children. British philosopher Paul Crichton, contemporary of Sloterdijk in Germany, writes:

“The American dream is bound to fail: it is based on a callous competitiveness which leaves very many people behind. The economy has now come to be seen as an instrument to generate private wealth … ”

Many young American students resist the negativity redolent in these violent narratives, and most are much more alert and balanced than many adults realize. The early 21st century’s debilitating atmosphere of fear and violence makes the American Dream, depressingly, a mirage for today’s students, but their awareness of it, conversely, makes them more resilient and creative.

Quotes are from P. Sloterdijk, Rage and Time (Columbia U. Press, 2010) (emphasis added); Paul Crichton, Self-Realization and Inner Necessity (Kiener Press, 2013).

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