On October 29th, the Acton Institute was pleased to welcome author and National Review Senior Editor Jay Nordlinger to the Mark Murray Auditorium as part of the 2015 Acton Lecture Series. Nordlinger’s address shared the title of his latest book, Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators, which examines the varied fates of the children of some of the 20th century’s most notorious dictators. We’re pleased to present the video of Nordlinger’s talk here on the PowerBlog.
On Tuesday, Acton’s Todd Huizinga took part in a West Michigan World Trade Association panel discussion on “US and EU Sanctions on Russia: How They Affect You.” He was joined by three other panelists who focused respectively on the legal, economic, and political ramifications of the current Russian/Ukrainian conflict and the sanctions it has evoked.
Though each of the panelists focused on a different angle of the conflict, a common thread emerged: the desire of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his political regime to return Russia to a position of dominance on the world stage.
Signaling this desire for increased power was the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory, Crimea, in March and its military intervention in Ukraine thereafter, among other events. While these are significant actions in their own right, they also serve a broader purpose in drawing attention from the international community. As Huizinga stated, “they test Western resolve to act.”
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.
There is little doubt that we will see more Sen. Ted Cruz like broadsides against Washington’s power structure. Obamacare might be the straw that broke the camel’s back when it comes to ceding power to Washington. A point that was made Ad nauseum during Cruz’s 20 hour plus talk fest on the Senate floor is that what he did matters little. Nothing would change from a legislative or a procedural standpoint. While I think that’s true for the short term, the credibility of the Republican leadership in the Senate may have taken a fatal blow. To see what that means for those fighting for conservatism and limited government check out Matt Walsh’s excellent post on National Review Online.
It was a definitive moment for the triumph of principle and that imagery matters not just to liberalism or the statist but for conservatism too. Every battle against collectivism doesn’t require an immediate victory but it does require a victory for principle. Most Americans know the federal government is broken. They sense there is something fundamentally wrong with the political leadership and the direction of the country. Despite America’s culture of escapism through entertainment, there are still millions of people paying attention. They don’t want to become what Alexis de Tocqueville warned in Democracy in America, as nothing more than “a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
Political infighting and procedure aside, the larger point is an important one. We are increasingly arriving at the point where we will see more and more public show downs against the federal government by those constituencies that know it is broken, out of touch, and corrupt. The result of more and more centralization and federal control over our lives inevitably exacts push back.
Walsh’s point at NRO is that the Republican leadership in the Senate is just the first victim of the grassroots broadside. It will be interesting to see how the battle over power plays out and the biggest obstacle indeed is the secularism of society. Secular cultures demand centralization and planning in their futile attempt to perfect society. And while the federal government continues to expand in its already bloated form, it does so with great risk. More and more people will take notice and the bigger it is, the harder the entrenched power structure could come crashing down.
In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat and ambitious civil servant, made a nine-month journey throughout America. The result was Democracy in America, a monumental study of the life and institutions of the evolving nation.
According to James Madison, when lawmakers exempt themselves from the legislation they pass, “The people will be prepared to tolerate anything but liberty.” Over 1,200 organizations and companies have already secured ObamaCare waivers. However, currently making big headlines is a deal worked out by the President and Congress that exempts congressional members and staff from the full effect of the law. In actuality, lawmakers had to go back and secure the hefty subsidies for Congress and staff as that was set to end when the health insurance exchanges are implemented on January 1, 2014. The Wall Street Journal does a good job of covering the details of the exemption and stressing the point once again that Washington lawmakers voted on and passed a bill they didn’t bother to examine. The lack of oversight and vetting of the bill has led to the subverting of the legislative branch, as the executive branch has been rewriting portions of the law to make it even more favorable to Washington.
Arguing in favor of ratifying the U.S. Constitution in Federalist #57, James Madison made this argument:
I will add, as a fifth circumstance in the situation of the House of Representatives, restraining them from oppressive measures, that they can make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society. This has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together. It creates between them that communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments, of which few governments have furnished examples; but without which every government degenerates into tyranny. If it be asked, what is to restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society? I answer: the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and above all, the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America — a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.
If this spirit shall ever be so far debased as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature, as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate any thing but liberty.
Those are weighty words by Madison, but now they point not to the optimism of a new country trying to secure a lasting liberty, but the kind of despotism that should be feared by the people.
In today’s Acton Commentary, “Secular Scapegoats and ‘The Hunger Games,'” I examine the themes of faith and freedom expressed in Suzanne Collins’ enormously popular trilogy. The film version of the first book hit the theaters this past weekend, and along with the release has come a spate of commentary critical of various aspects of Collins’ work.
As for faith and freedom, it turns out there’s precious little of either in Panem. But that’s not necessarily such a bad thing, as I argue in today’s piece: “If Panem is what a world without faith and freedom looks like, then Collins’ books are a cautionary tale about the spiritual, moral, and political dangers of materialism, hedonism, and oppression.”
Last week I was also privileged to participate in a collection of pieces at the Values & Capitalism website related to “The Hunger Games.” I provide an alternate ending (along with some explanation here) at the V&C site, where you can also check out the numerous other worthy reflections on Collins’ work.
Pavel Stroilov, a Russian exile in London, has on his computer 50,000 unpublished, untranslated, top-secret Kremlin documents, mostly dating from the close of the Cold War. He stole them in 2003 and fled Russia. Within living memory, they would have been worth millions to the CIA; they surely tell a story about Communism and its collapse that the world needs to know. Yet he can’t get anyone to house them in a reputable library, publish them, or fund their translation. In fact, he can’t get anyone to take much interest in them at all.
Then there’s Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who once spent 12 years in the USSR’s prisons, labor camps, and psikhushkas—political psychiatric hospitals—after being convicted of copying anti-Soviet literature. He, too, possesses a massive collection of stolen and smuggled papers from the archives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which, as he writes, “contain the beginnings and the ends of all the tragedies of our bloodstained century.” These documents are available online at bukovsky-archives.net, but most are not translated. They are unorganized; there are no summaries; there is no search or index function. “I offer them free of charge to the most influential newspapers and journals in the world, but nobody wants to print them,” Bukovsky writes. “Editors shrug indifferently: So what? Who cares?”
If we have a duty to remember the victims of Naziism and to ensure that the hateful and vicious ideology of Hitler never rises again – and we do – do we not also have the same duty when it comes to the millions who were starved and worked to death in the communist Gulag? This material needs to be properly studied, translated, and released soon. The fact that it hasn’t been already is a shame, and an insult to the victims of communist tyranny.