Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Politics of MOCKINGJAY (contains spoilers!!)

In addition to writing books for teens, I’m a columnist for the Greenwich Time/Stamford Advocate. Perhaps it’s because of my admitted political geekedness (I also majored in political science in college) but for me, the focus of the Hunger Games series was never about Team Gale or Team Peeta: the romance was a subplot. For the record, I started a Gale fancier and ended up firmly convinced Katniss would be emotionally destroyed by a relationship with him, and could only find happiness with someone like Peeta, for reasons I’ll explain later. For me, reading these books was always more about the system – a political system that would allow – not just allow but require - children to fight to the death in televised games.

I had a lot of time in the car driving along the highways of Pennsylvania on college visits with my son to think about Mockingjay, and I while I don’t know Suzanne Collins or her political views, I don’t think it’s any accident that this series was published when it was – after seeing the decisions made by our own government, and watching, with amazement and no small degree of horror, the debate in our own country about the tactics used in fighting the so called “War on Terror”.

According to the Christian Science Monitor
Collins said she drew her inspiration from imagining a cross between the war in Iraq and reality TV, after flipping through the channels one night and seeing the juxtaposition between the war coverage and “reality” programming.

I started as a regular columnist for the Greenwich Time in January 2003 on eve of the Iraq war. It was, perhaps, an inauspicious time to be a critic of the Bush administration in a largely Republican town, one where George H.W. Bush had grown up and the Bush family still had roots. Yet looking back, it was the right time, both for the paper and for me. The mail I got received the paper that my columns generated a strong reaction, both positive and vehemently negative. As for me, I was learning to find my voice as a woman and as a writer. Learning to deal with hate mail, where people made assumptions about my personality, personal life and character, based on a 700 word column, was great preparation for being an author.

What resonated so much for me when I read Mockingjay, what has stuck with me and been buzzing around my brain for days after, is that I felt I was reliving through Katniss some of the helplessness, frustration, anger, confusion and sense of looking at my country in Through the Looking Glass that I felt during the Bush administration’s “War on Terror”. When I read about American citizens being designated as “enemy combatants” and held for years without the right of habeas corpus. When I read about our government using water boarding a recognized form of torture for which we prosecuted Japanese officers after WWII, yet using the Orwellian doublespeak of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in an attempt to ameliorate their crimes.

But more than that, I was reminded of the letters I received after I wrote a column decrying our governments use of such “techniques” and after the abuses at Abu Ghraib were exposed.

When I wrote the column about water boarding I received letters from readers calling me, amongst other things, an “America-hating terrorist lover”. One woman actual wrote to me asking me how could I say it was torture since it left no physical scars – “it was just water.” And after all – these were terrorists we were talking about. The ends clearly justified the means, in these writers’ minds.

Here’s a paragraph from a column I wrote back in 2004 after news broke about abuses at Abu Ghraib prison:

“As for President Bush, by framing this conflict as a struggle of good vs. “evil”, he rationalized the “anything goes in the War on Terror” philosophy, pushing this country down the slippery slope that led to the horrors of Abu Ghraib. I still find it astonishing how so many otherwise intelligent Americans believe it acceptable for the U.S. to hold prisoners indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay. Because once the principle that international law is for other people (but not us) is established, it’s not such a big leap to the “serious violations of international humanitarian law…in some cases tantamount to torture” documented by the ICRC. History proved that when you start to consider others as untermenschen, humanity goes out the window.”

Let’s take a look at what I think is a pivotal passage in Mockingjay, one where it became clear to me that Katniss would never end up with Gale:

p.185-186: “This is what they’ve been doing. Taking the fundamental ideas behind Gale’s traps and adapting them into weapons against humans. Bombs mostly. It’s less about the mechanics of the traps than the psychology behind them. Booby-trapping an area that provides something essential to survival. A water or food supply. Frightening prey so that a large number flee into a greater destruction. Endangering offspring in order to draw in the actual desired target, the parent. Luring the victim into what appears to be a safe-haven – where death awaits it. At some point, Gale and Beetee left the wilderness behind on focused on more human impulses. Like compassion. A bomb explodes. Time is allowed for people to rush to the aid of the wounded. Then, a second, ore powerful bomb kills them as well.”
“That seems to be crossing some kind of line,” I say. “So anything goes?”
They both stare at me – Beetee with doubt, Gale with hostility. “I guess there isn’t a rule book for what might be unacceptable to do to another human being.”
“Sure there is. Beetee and I have been following the same rule book President Snow used when he hijacked Peeta,” says Gale.

Gale’s response reminds me of some of the mail I got after the Abu Ghraib column. I had one letter asking me how I, as a Jew, could feel badly about what happened at Abu Ghraib when Nicholas Berg, a Jewish contractor working in Iraq, had recently been beheaded. To me it was a non sequitur. The murder of Nick Berg was horrifying in the extreme. I would have found it equally abhorrent had he been a Christian or a Muslim, a Sikh or a Hindu or an atheist. But that in no way excused the behavior of the U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib, or not the culture, from the top down, that enabled it.

There is no “rule book” but across all faiths and creeds there is some version of “The Golden Rule” - “do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.” In modern times, in response to some of the worst atrocities in the first half of the 20th century, we created a system of international laws and treaties in an attempt to prevent the recurrence of the worst abuses.

To me, Mockingjay is a brilliant book for our time, because it raises difficult, eternal questions of war and humanity, grief and revenge.

Gale and Peeta in my view, represent two very different styles of dealing with grief. Gale wants revenge at any cost, by any means necessary – and ultimately that cost is very, very dear. I’ve been very angered by reviews where Peeta’s called a wimp, because I actually think he’s the braver of the two. Why? Because Peeta’s the one who, despite everything he’s been through, is able to retain his essential humanity. Peeta’s the one who, unlike Gale, recognizes there is a line that should never be crossed. That’s why he’s the one that Katniss has to end up with, in order to stay true to herself and to allow herself to heal and find some measure of happiness that Gale could never have provided.

Some of the people I admire most in the world are Marianne Pearl, the wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, whom I was fortunate enough to meet last year, and Judea Pearl, Danny’s father. Ms. Pearl and father in law, are people who could so easily have gone down the Gale path, and it would have been hard to blame them. But instead, through the work of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, they work towards cross-cultural understanding.

What results from the revenge path, as Katniss observes to the mineworker on p.215, “It just goes around and around, and who wins? Not us. Not the districts. Always the Capitol.”

And not just The Capitol. We’re meant to think that Snow and Coin are opposites, but as we learn by the end of Mockinjay, Coin’s name was no accident. The leaders are, as the old saying goes, two sides of the same the same coin.

Which brings me to another point that’s really surprised me about some of the reviews I’ve read – that people think Katniss’s shooting of Coin was either a last minute decision or an accident. The vote for the Hunger Games of retribution is such a revealing, heartbreaking moment. Coin makes it clear that “if we do hold the Games, it will be known that it was done with your approval.” Like Snow, she’s trying to manipulate the Victors for her own purposes until the end.


Johanna: “It seems very fair to me. Snow even has a granddaughter. I vote yes.”
Enobaria: “Let them have a taste of their own medicine.”
Peeta: No. “This is why we rebelled! Remember?”
Annie: “I vote no with Peeta. So would Finnick if we were here.”
Beetee: “No. It would set a bad precedent. We have to stop viewing one another as enemies. At this point, unity is essential for our survival. No.”

The decision comes down to Katniss & Haymitch. Anyone who thinks shooting Coin is an accident or a misfire should reread this passage on p.378

Was it like this then? Seventy-five years or so ago? Did a group of people sit around and cast their votes on initiating the Hunger Games? Was there dissent? Did someone make a case for mercy that was beaten down by the calls for the deaths of the districts’ children?... All those people I loved, dead, and we are discussing the next Hunger Games in an attempt to avoid wasting life. Nothing has changed. Nothing will ever change now.

I weigh my options carefully, think everything through. Keeping my eyes on the rose, I say, “I vote yes…for Prim.”

“Haymitch, it’s up to you,” says Coin.

A furious Peeta hammers Haymitch with the atrocity he could become a party to, but I can feel Haymitch watching me. This is the moment, then. When we find out exactly just how alike we are, and how much he truly understands me..

“I’m with the Mockingjay,” he says.

I didn’t realize when I first read it what that passage meant, and was shocked by Katniss’ vote because it seemed so antithetical to everything we knew about her character beforehand, but afterwards it made perfect sense, and it was clear that she agreed for the purpose of setting up Coin.

The BookPage blog asked Suzanne Collins: What do you hope these books will encourage in readers?

Her answer: I hope they encourage debate and questions. Katniss is in a position where she has to question everything she sees. And like Katniss herself, young readers are coming of age politically.

Thank you, Suzanne Collins for this wonderful series, which has this middle-aged political geek thinking and questioning and slacking off on her own writing to ponder all this. I hope it encourages younger people to do the same. Our country is in dire need it.


  1. One of the best review of the book I've read. However, I wonder what you think about Katniss' final choice of killing coin. I can see what you noted that the choice was not accidental. However, I would still argue that it was not in line with the character of katniss. What could she hope to achieve by killing Coin? To stop the cycle? Is it really the way to real change? Not according to Plutarch's comment near the end. The character developed earlier in the narrative has compassion, the willingness to self-sacrifice even for enemies. In the end, the killing of Coin can only signal the complete resignation to reality, giving in to revenge, to being a political pond. That's why Snow laughed himself to death. Katniss was his last weapon of vengeance against Coin. This ending did not fit the imagery of the Mockingjay which was supposed to be a weapon and to perish but in stead became something beautiful against the design of the Capitol. Katniss, on the other hand, was completely broken, gave in, ceased being a rebel against the "system." Many reviews suggested that the ending was "rushed." I would argue, on the other hand, the "rushed" feel is the result of this unsatisfactory resolution. The Mockingjay's final transformation was a failure, Incomplete.

    1. I feel that Snow and Katniss finally learned more about the other at the end of Mockingjay, and therefore understood the irony of Coin becoming president of Panem. For me, the whole book was hazy (in a good way) because of the PTSD Katniss was going through, and she may have shot Coin, not clearly thinking of the consequences. However, when Paylor became president, we can probably safely assume that the Hunger Games are no more, so this probably made things better off for the country.

  2. I can totally understand where you're coming from with that analysis. Do you think sometimes we feel more anger at the leaders who we've worked to support to but who let us down than the ones we've despised and fought against all along? I know I feel that presently when I read about the "legal" justification by the Obama Administration for drone attacks on United States citizens. I feel very "meet the old boss, same as the new boss" and can't stop thinking of the final line of Orwell's Animal Farm. I think the resolution of the novel is all too real, when you look at the incidence of PTSD in our returning veterans. We want to imagine that war creates heroic Mockinjays but I think Suzanne Collins was realistic about the human cost of war.