Acton’s busy week of media appearances continued last night with Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico joining guest host Arthur C. Brooks – president of the American Enterprise Institute – on The Hugh Hewitt Show to discuss Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, and the compatibility of Catholic social teaching with free market capitalism. We’ve embedded the interview for you below, and added the video of Arthur Brooks’ 2012 Acton University plenary address after the jump.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Tyranny Is the True Enemy,” I explore the latest film installment of the Hunger Games trilogy, “Catching Fire.” I pick up on the theme that animates Alissa Wilkinson’s review at Christianity Today, but diverge a bit from her reading. As she writes, a major aspect of this second part of the series has to do with fake appearances and real substance, and the need to “remember who the real enemy is.”
Wilkinson is upset with the marketing buzz surrounding the film, arguing that it “declaws” the substantive message of the books themselves. There’s an element of truth to this. It comes home especially when watching an interview like this, in which Jennifer Lawrence seems to embody the idea that for a celebrity in today’s culture, “you never get off this train,” as Haymitch puts it to Katniss and Peeta on their own promotional tour.
But in focusing on the distracting nature of commercial merchandising of the films, I argue that Wilkinson ends up distracted from who the real enemy is. There is much that is morally problematic about the way that the Capitol operates. Wilkinson rightly shows the shallow consumerism and sensuality of Capitol couture. But the fact that this isn’t the real enemy, so to speak, can be shown by a bit of thought experiment.
Suppose that the consumption habits of the Capitol were far less odious to our moral sensibilities. Suppose the citizens all lived chaste, upright, and responsible lives in their city. Their oppression of the districts would be no less troublesome for all their virtuous consumption. The decadence of the Capitol only puts the real tyranny over the districts into sharper relief. John Tamny argues that to read Catching Fire as “anything other than a polemic against communistic, brutal government is a certain act of willful blindness.”
I won’t go quite that far, and I don’t agree that the film/book has nothing at all to do with critiquing consumerism, but I do think that such alternative readings often forget who the enemy really is. As Tamny (mis)quotes from Catching Fire, Katniss herself identifies the enemy as the one “who starves and tortures and kills us in the arena. Who will soon kill everyone I love.”
In the opening sequence of “Catching Fire,” Katniss is illegally hunting in an attempt to provide much-needed protein for her family. At one point, Katniss and Gale come across a flock of wild turkeys. This image is especially striking at the release of this film during the Thanksgiving season.
Far from promising a “turkey in every pot,” President Snow has no regard for the welfare of anyone in the districts. The citizens of the Capitol are all that matter, to the point that people like Katniss have to resort to illegal hunting and the black market for basic necessities like medicine and food.
There is a connection between hedonism and what might be called a “soft” form of tyranny characteristic of the vicious circle between the citizens of the Capitol and the government. And while tyranny in all its forms is to be rejected, the real enemy in the Hunger Games is the hard tyranny of President Snow and his jackbooted thugs. Everything else is, in the end, a distraction.
Tomorrow I’ll be offering up a more extensive commentary on the second movie of the Hunger Games trilogy, “Catching Fire.” Until then, you can read Dylan Pahman’s engagement on the theme of tyranny, as well as that of Alissa Wilkinson over at CT. I’ll be critiquing Wilkinson’s perspective in my own review tomorrow. I think her analysis starts off strong, but she ends up getting distracted by, well, the distractions. But I commend her piece to your review, and in the meantime I’ll also offer a couple of notes on the film.
The film version doesn’t depart much from the source material, which is always a good thing when you have a strong source material. There is some streamlining of the plot and things are condensed a bit, but this is no doubt necessary to fit everything of relevance in to a 2.5 hour film.
One of the nice things that they do in the films is to show things that happen “off stage,” so to speak, in the books, which are presented from Katniss’ perspective. In this way, we can find out some things that Katniss doesn’t know, and some more texture is added to the narrative. In “Catching Fire,” the theme of hope flares up again, as it did in the first Hunger Games.
In an exchange between President Snow and Plutarch Heavensbee, the Head Gamemaker argues for more explicit brutality contrasted with puff-piece entertainment to bring the rabble in the districts in line. Snow expresses doubt, noting that “fear” only works to oppress “when there is no hope.” As long as Katniss is alive, the people have hope. Heavensbee persuades Snow, and in doing so deceives him, hoping to further foment revolt with such tactics.
But as I’ve also observed with before, the hope offered in the Hunger Games really is just a temporal hope. The bread that people seek really is literal bread. There is little in the way of spiritual nourishment offered to anyone in the films, despite the sometimes heavy-handed religious imagery. “Bread first, then ethics” remains the motto of life in Panem.
Oh, and Heavensbee also drops a plug for my book when, in the midst of the Quarter Quell, he exhorts Katniss to “get her hands dirty” a bit.
Given in the middle of the 1912 election, in which Taft competed (poorly) against Woodrow Wilson and former President Teddy Roosevelt, the speech focuses on the predominant themes and schemes of his opponents, handily highlighting their limits.
In a particularly snappy swipe at Roosevelt, who had just recently split from the Republican Party, Taft notes that despite various efforts to form new parties, any rumbling therein is largely driven by the “promise of a panacea,” a top-down fantasy “in which the rich are to be made reasonably poor and the poor reasonably rich, by law.” Instead, Taft argues, we should seek solutions that “bring on complete equality of opportunity,” unleashing individuals and communities to work, create, and collaborate. The bones of civilization are not built, first and foremost, by the bidding of the policymaker’s baton. (more…)
There’s a fascinating profile of Jim DeMint, the new president of the Heritage Foundation, in BusinessWeek, which makes a good pairing for this NYT piece that focuses on the GOP’s “civil war” between establishment Republicans and Tea Partiers.
But one of the comments that really stuck out to me concerning DeMint’s move from the Senate to a think tank was his realization about what it would take to change the political culture in Washington. As Joshua Green writes, DeMint had previously worked to get a new brand of GOP legislator elected to Congress, including Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. But later “DeMint gave up trying to purify the party from within.”
Each Independence Day, I make a point of re-reading President Calvin Coolidge’s speech given on the 150th anniversary Declaration of Independence. I’d encourage you to do the same.
Coolidge has a deep understanding of American history, and after contemplating what led the founders to write what they wrote, and what inclined Americans to follow their lead, he ultimately concludes that it was their spiritual inclinations, and the moral and spiritual orientation of the American people, that played the most important role:
Our forefathers came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world. Before we can understand [the founders’] conclusions we must go back and review the course which they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought. Their intellectual life centered around the meeting-house. They were intent upon religious worship. While there were always among them men of deep learning, and later those who had comparatively large possessions, the mind of the people was not so much engrossed in how much they knew, or how much they had, as in how they were going to live. While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures. Over a period as great as that which measures the existence of our independence they were subject to this discipline not only in their religious life and educational training, but also in their political thought. They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.
Although Christians have exhibited an unfortunate tendency to oversimplify and overamplify the various impacts of particular religious beliefs on the American founding, Coolidge’s point is a bit more basic and overarching. (more…)
photo courtesy of Foreign Policy
“We don’t just want the money to come to Haiti. Stop sending money. Let’s fix it. Let’s fix it,” declared Republic of Haiti President Michel Martelly three years after the 2010 earthquake. Martelly was referring to foreign aid, $9 billion of which has been pledged to the country since the disaster. But financial aid has of course not been the only item sent to Haiti; the country has experienced a vast influx of goods, including clothing, shoes, food, and in particular, rice. Haiti imports approximately 80% of its rice, making it the country’s most significant food import.
Considering Haiti was self-sufficient in rice production in the 1970s, this should come as an alarming statistic. Along with rice, production of goods in around 200 companies enabled Haiti, at one time, to be a recognized exporter and experience moderate levels of prosperity. In her Foreign Policy article, “Subsidizing Starvation,” Maura R. O’Connor cites U.S. Ambassador to Haiti from 1981 to 1983, Ernest Preeg:
“Haiti was just as far along as anyone else,” said Preeg. “People came to Port-au-Prince to get jobs because it was a burgeoning export economy.” Preeg wrote an article in 1984 in which he echoed the view of many others that Haiti could be the “Taiwan of the Caribbean.”
But starting in the early 90s, these industries crumbled, as international trade embargos — prompted by a military coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide — were implemented and foreign imports began to flood the Haitian market. (more…)
Sam Gregg writes of Argentina, whence the new Pope Francis hails, “Over and over again, Argentina has been brought to its knees by the populist politics of Peronism, which dominates Argentina’s Right and Left. ‘Kirchnerism,’ as peddled by Argentina’s present and immediate past president, is simply the latest version of that.” For a bit of the current economic context in Argentina, here’s the latest on Kirchnerian political economy as related by John Teevan:
That’s the Argentine Way: In order to prevent the outflow of dollars from President Cristiana Kirchner’s silly-but-harmful economy, she created a new trade policy that permits only as much importing of foreign goods as can be paid for by equally matched by exports. So how is Newsan, an Argentine maker of Sanyo and JVC electronic equipment, going to create the exports necessary to buy the parts it needs to import? Easy, they added a seafood business that now exports shrimp and is paid in dollars. Similarly, Argentine BMW exports rice. Better to partner with Argentina’s wineries which produced $865m in wine exports. The words to describe this urgent economic inefficiency are not ‘free market’ nor even ‘social economic planning’ but ‘a Byzantine labyrinth.’ Why is it necessary? Because Ms. Kirchner also has currency rules or controls that ration how much foreign currency people can hold. Why? Because her policies have made the Argentine currency worth less threatening her dollar reserves. All this is to help ‘manage trade’ as she says so that Argentine jobs can be protected from ‘cheap imports’. President Cristiana is contorting herself to put many fingers in her leaky dike. She’s running out of fingers and looks ridiculous.
The above is from John’s monthly email, “Economic Prospect.” Send John a message if you’d like to be added to his list.
Justice Antonin Scalia caused quite the stir by attending President Obama’s inauguration ceremony wearing a custom-made replica of the painter’s hat depicted in a famous portrait of St. Thomas More, the well-known Catholic statesman and martyr.
Whether Scalia intended it or not, observers quickly translated the act as a quiet game of connect-the-dots between the administration’s punitive HHS mandate and Henry VIII’s executioner, leading conservatives to applaud while progressives don their own less fashionable bonnets of protest.
Although I don’t expect actual heads to roll anytime soon, the symbolism is fitting indeed. This an administration that seeks to lure Christians away from their consciences through threats of economic penalties and pain. If your religious beliefs happen to clash with the coercive methods and materialistic aims of this administration, blood shall be spilt on the altar of “access.”
The irony abounds. Keep in mind that President Obama ran a campaign that ridiculed Mitt Romney as an Ebenezer Scrooge who clings to his coins without empathy for others and without regard for ethics and morality (all despite Romney’s strong record of charitable giving, might I add). Then and now, this same President seeks to persecute good people like Hobby Lobby’s CEO through economic penalties in the millions of dollars, all for the abonimable sin of caring about and believing in something before and beyond the dollar.
If the great secret of capitalism is its power to leverage and channel the human spirit toward more transcendent ends, the great irony of progressivism is its propensity to take on the image of its own materialistic critiques. (more…)