Friday, 20 December 2013

American dystopia

This year's slice of pre-Christmas cinematic tosh was the second Hunger Games film, which was better than you had any right to expect, and immeasurably better than the tedious second Hobbit.

I confess to a liking for post-apocalyptic dystopias, as long as they make some sort of sense (goodbye, The Road). And this one does, as long as you can swallow the implausibility of a dictatorship transmitting its oppressed people live on television to one another. (The regime appears to have misunderstood the phrase 'reality TV'.)

What struck me with this instalment, however, is how profoundly American this particular dystopia is. I don't simply mean the echoes of the American Revolution: thirteen (yes, it turns out there are thirteen) hardworking districts being oppressed by the brutal, decadent Capitol. Nor the patterns of American political conservatism that can be seen here: the conviction that what tyrants do is deny their people weapons. Plus the nicely-judged decision, ever so slightly flavoured with anti-UN paranoia, to call the brutal, faceless paramilitary police 'Peacekeepers'. Because in fact this story is not so easily politically pigeonholed: the final part of the trilogy makes plain that the revolution is not necessarily much better than the regime it replaces.

The most remarkably American feature of the story, however, is what is not there: the rest of the world. The stories are plainly set in some future North America. Now you would expect a tyrannical regime of this kind to use external threats (real or invented) to bolster its control; and you would expect rebels to be seeking foreign help. But there is, to my recollection, not a single hint in either books or films that the remainder of the planet even exists.

That gives the story a certain simplicity and even innocence. But it also seems to me to speak to an underlying theme in American political thinking, which is impossible but at the same time also admirable and enviable: the conviction that, in the state of nature as it were, the US is and ought to be a world to itself, whose character is itself a kind of Monroe doctrine, neither colony nor coloniser, free of entangling alliances. I appreciate that if you were the Marquis de Lafayette, you might be a little sore about that. But as national myths go, what's not to like?

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