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Katniss is not turning your kid into a right-wing nut job

Even the dystopias have gone bad.

That’s the conclusion from a much-shared piece by Ewan Morrison in TheGuardian yesterday. Morrison surveyed the young adult fiction advocated by a left-leaning friend and did not much like what he saw:

“Books such as The Giver, Divergent and the Hunger Games trilogy are, whether intentionally or not, substantial attacks on many of the foundational projects and aims of the left: big government, the welfare state, progress, social planning and equality.”

Morrison compares such stuff unfavourably to the fiction of H.G. Wells and Philip K. Dick. It was those earlier books, he decides, that his buddy (“a ‘progressive parent’ friend of mine”) must have been contemplating when he declared “dystopian YA … a great left-wing educational tool”.

By contrast, in today’s bestsellers “the bad guys are not the corporations but the state and those well-meaning liberal leftists who want to make the world a better place”.

Let’s back up here.

Like all mass cultural products, the titles Morrison lists are thoroughly over-determined. We might equally declare The Hunger Games an allegory for Bush’s War on Terror, with young people from poor rural backgrounds forced to fight in meaningless struggles for the benefit of a pampered elite. But that too would be crass. We’re dealing with sprawling franchises accessed across an array of formats (books, films, games, fan sites, etc), and it’s simply not sensible to pin their meaning down so glibly. The Harry Potterempire might, as Morrison says, fill “children’s heads with right-wing dreams of public schools” — but that’s not all it does.

In any case, progressive dystopias warning about an all-powerful state run by those who say they want to better society are scarcely new (think of Orwell’s1984).

It’s not the dystopias that have changed so much as the world — and the attitudes of so-called progressives.

A fortnight or so ago, the little American town of Ferguson was rocked by scenes that might have come straight from a dystopian movie, as Robocop paramilitaries dispersed demonstrators protesting against the killing of an unarmed teenager. In the context of Edward Snowden’s NSA surveillance revelations, it’s scarcely surprising that faith in big government and social planning has plummeted — black kids in America don’t need a book to mistrust the state.

Not coincidentally, there’s a distinctly Fabian tinge to Morrison’s argument, a sense of kids as empty vessels ready to be filled with wisdom by parents (or, indeed, by that benevolent state). Yet think of the examples he gives. Today, insofar as anyone reads H.G. Wells, they do so for a sense of adventure, not because of his political ideas. After all, Wells’ yearning for a big state governed by well-meaning experts resulted in a profound enthusiasm for Stalin — “I have never met a man more fair, candid, and honest” is how Wells reportedly described the Russian dictator. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine a less likely political guide than the wildly original but deeply paranoid books of Philip K. Dick.

Literature is imaginative, as kids realise from an early age. Reading isn’t passive — we absorb some parts of books, ignore others and recombine it all in our minds, in ways that are unexpected and ungovernable.

In a 1920 manual of the Young Communist International, comrades were advised to “go in a group to the places where children are … on the streets in the evening, in parks, public playgrounds or some outdoor celebration” and invite the young proletarians to join in a new song. “At first the little ones may be suspicious, then they will be shy, but eventually they will join in ‘The Red Flag’, ‘The Internationale’ or some other revolutionary song.”

If this grab-them-while-they’re-young-and-stuff-them-full-of-the-truth approach fails, it’s not such a bad thing.

Consider a kids’ book currently selling well on Amazon:

“Come join 13-year-old Brenna Strong along with her mom, Bea, and her dad, Richard, as they spend a typical Saturday running errands and having fun together. What’s not so typical is that Brenna’s parents lawfully open carry handguns for self-defense.”

That’s the blurb to Brian Jeffs’ and Nathan Nephew’s My Parents Open Carry, the cover of which shows young Brenna posed next to her tooled-up mother and father (you will not be surprised that Dick Strong bears a striking resemblance to Ned Flanders).

Will this text raise a new generation of Tea Partiers? Of course not! It’s not really aimed at the children at all so much as at their parents, designed as a culture-war troll at progressive educationalists. Brian Jeffs and Nathan Nephews can fantasise that they’re recruiting a youth army for the NRA. But young readers will continue to find their own meanings, in their own books.

Morrison can stop fretting. The kids, as they say, are all right.

6 responses to “Katniss is not turning your kid into a right-wing nut job

  1. Have you read Orwell’s 1984? I mean recently, not when you were in school. You seem to have forgotten what it was about.

    “progressive dystopias warning about an all-powerful state run by those who say they want to better society are scarcely new (think of Orwell’s1984).”

    Orwell’s dystopia was certainly not a progressive one, the Party – the controlling apparatus, did not want a better society for all, it did not even claim to want a better society for all. It existed in a state of perpetual war in order to maintain the human population in a state of fear and desperation, in order to perpetuate the organization, The Party. It was a regressive society, eroding knowledge, intelligence, attempting through the manipulation and simplification of language the dehumanization of people into little more than functions to maintain the infestation-like culture. A simple interpretation sees it as a critique of Communism, Orwell himself states that the Ingsoc society (and its competitors) developed out of an amalgam of Capitalist and Communist societies into oligarchic totalitarianism, think of a meeting of state controlled Capitalism, like China, or the US financial/military hegemony. It is a critique of how we so easily give up our humanity to authority, to organizations, to the state. Philip K Dick continued this theme, and added a spiritual, a greater cosmic element. The Hunger Games, by comparison, is laughable, a hokey extrapolation of the notion of bread and circuses which hankers after an American small town idyll.

  2. ‘It’s hard to imagine a less likely political guide than the wildly original but deeply paranoid books of Philip K. Dick’.

    which Novel of Dick’s had you in mind when writing this sentence? Because if you’re thinking a scanner darkly, you’ve utterly missed the point.

    Why, oh why, must 1984 feature in every discussion about whether a text is or isn’t politically polemic? Don’t you get tired of the association?

    Orwell actually considered Himself a protege of Mayhew in his early career, then later ransacked the metier of Jack London. Down and out in Paris and London is a virtual carbon copy of people of the Abyss, in fact.

    I don’t expect you to be familiar with either Mayhew or London, inasmuch as you write columns for Crikey about trite fiction written for neurotic upper-middle class teenagers.

  3. Nice piece Jeff.

    Even if you accept the argument that these books are right-wing propaganda, it still doesn’t add up. The Hunger Games, for example, was inspired by Suzanne Collins’ watching reality TV and footage of the war in Iraq. As she writes at the end of the book:

    “I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage when Katniss’s story came to me. One night I’m sitting there flipping around and on one channel there’s a group of young people competing for, I don’t know, money maybe? And on the next there’s a group of young people fighting an actual war. And I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story.”

    You could say she had both corporations and the state in her sights. (And given the corporate involvement in war, it’s uncertain whether it’s the state or corporations.)

    Whether readers read them in this way is, of course, open to question. But then so is any reductive reading of such text.

    As you say — readers will make their own meanings.

  4. I think authors and other ‘artists’, and in this case Mr Morrison, ever-esitmate the effect they have on moulding the thinking of the young.

    Even the best books just leave faint impressions, it is only in the thinking after the event that actual impressions and concepts are formed. The thinking is done by individuals, and rarely lines up with what the artist thought they were trying to convey anyway.

    I doubt that anyone but a nut-job of the left or the right would come up with a response suggesting that ‘big government must be bad’ because they saw Katniss Eberdeen. Storm in a teacup.

  5. Texts can be assimilated or interpreted in a multitude of ways.
    They can be seen as a roadmap for some or a warning to others.
    The author’s intent may well prove to be the opposite of the actual effect.

    One example that springs to mind is Oliver Stone’s Wall Street which he intended to be a critique of rampant 80s capitalism but instead became a ‘bible’ for a generation of budding entrepreneurs spurred on by thye cool ‘greed is good’ ideology.

    It is naive to think that any text does not succeed in some degree of indoctrination.
    Even the repeated cries of ‘where’s daddy’ in Ice Age are bound to prompt some introspection from single parent offspring.


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