We Are the Hunger Games

I woke up this morning to see that the leading headline from the latest Republican debate was a middle school boy conversation about who was the better-endowed candidate. There were several issues that were ignored while Donald Trump “guaranteed” that his was just fine, thank you, but the candidates all had plenty of time for plenty of schoolyard insults against each other.

As someone who once taught middle school, I wanted to make them write lines: “I will not make any remarks on the size of Donald Trump’s hands” or “I will learn to say ‘H’ at the front of ‘huge.’”

I think, like a lot of people do, that we’ve reached a new low in our society when comparing penis sizes is frontline news at the Republican debate for the highest office in the land.

The problem is ours, though. They would not resort to these middle school antics if we, the US public, did not sit around with baited breath, ready to be shocked about it.

Shame on them for acting like children.

But shame on us for giving them attention.

Our society is to blame for reveling in the spectacle of it all.

*****

Last year in my Literature as Activism class, I taught The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I paired it with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Indian Stories and other books designed to change cultural values. My students had mostly read the book before, but this time we took it apart, using close reading skills to identify what Collins was critiquing about our society.

The most damning aspect of the Capitol People is their desire for spectacle.

Because they only care about the spectacle, they ignore the fact that people are dying in order to give them good sport.

They sentimentalize the starvation of entire regions, squashing characters’ struggles into compelling media stories for a stereotype-seeking audience.

They obsess over gorgeous clothes, gorge themselves on rich foods, cake themselves in glittery make-up.

Minutes away from their city, people are dying from lack of basic food, sanitation, and education.

The Capitol People can’t be bothered to change their focus from the spectacle in front of them.

*****

Last week my two oldest daughters wanted to make a video to tell people not to vote for Donald Trump. I handed them my phone and let them have at it, curious what they would say. We don’t talk about politics much in our house, so what they knew about Donald Trump was mostly from kids at school. I wanted to hear what they were picking up from the conversations of kids around them.

I didn’t upload the video because, in this day and age, I thought there was a chance it could go viral and I don’t want that for my kids. But I couldn’t help agreeing with their cogent arguments.

They are 7 and 9. They understood it perfectly.

My 7-year-old said that bullies were not allowed in schools and that her school is “No Place for Hate” and that our country should also be “No Place for Hate” and maybe we should all wear white t-shirts to remind each other that bullies aren’t allowed.

She told the story of two of her Mexican American friends who are worried that they will have to go back to the land of their ancestors even though their parents have lived in Texas for generations because Donald Trunk (as she calls him) hates people from Mexico. How could you hate them, she asked? That doesn’t make sense.

My 9-year-old took up the video and told the story of two of her friends who were heroes who came to the US because they had helped the US army try to bring freedom to another country. (These friends are Iraqi refugees and the story she told was one she’d heard from them; they are deeply patriotic to both of their countries, but love the US enormously.) Maybe Donald Trump didn’t understand, she said. That’s why she needed to make the video, she said—so she could let him know that Iraqi refugees were OK to come to the US and that Muslims are people too.

And then she asked Donald Trump not to hate brown people because she has a sister from China who has brown skin. And she told about how a friend at school told her that Donald Trump made fun of people with special needs and asked if he wanted to meet her sister. Just because she had special needs and talks a bit differently doesn’t mean we should make fun of her, she told him.

I couldn’t really see to turn the phone off when they were done because I was in tears.

*****

Spectacle-based TV shows like The Bachelor or The Kardashians have for too long been our models for what is culturally valuable. No wonder one of the top candidates is a reality-TV star.

While this spectacle plays out, cholera is still quietly killing people in Haiti.

More than 250,000 refugees have fled Burundi since last April.

Refugees are laying down on railroad tracks trying to gain entrance to any country, anywhere, any way.

How in the world am I supposed to explain to my girls when they’re old enough to read The Hunger Games that what should feel like a caricature is in fact just the way the world actually works?

No, we don’t watch children killing each other on TV.

But we do ignore the children migrating the Texas border every summer just to find some sense of stability or food or money rather than facing certain death at the hands of gang members or from lack of basic food, sanitation, and education.

We do ignore the refugees who tell us the reason they leave their countries is to save their children.

We do ignore the children in this country who need access to basic health care or regular food.

We’re so busy watching the spectacle, listening to the insults, tweeting and sharing and viral-izing the antics and political posturing, that we ignore the biggest and most important issues that this campaign should be about.

Last night’s debate and today’s media coverage prove: we are the Hunger Games people.

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