Permit me to indulge in a bit of idealism.
I spent the close of last night reading Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games — and I’ll explain. It’s a series of young adult books that, like Harry Potter and Ender’s Game, made the crossover and gained some popularity among the older and wiser set. In the series, a totalitarian government centered in the Rockies replaced the United States, after large swaths of the world were wiped away in an unexplained cataclysm. 75 years prior to the events of the first book, the remaining American “states” — organized into 13 “districts,” each specialized to produce one type of good — rebelled, but were violently put down by the central government (think Firefly). To remind the districts of their subservience, and the ease with which the Capitol could crush them at any moment, every year each District must submit two children to participate in a deadly free-for-all game of survival, televised (naturally) for the enjoyment of the Capitol. In the districts, families eke out a living on starvation rations, but if their “tributes” win the game, for a solid year, everyone in the district gets enough food to eat. Hence, “the Hunger Games.”
Not to spoil anything — I mean, since there’re sequels, you probably figured this out anyways — but the main character survives book one. (Gasp!) As part of her victory, she’s treated to a tour of all 12 districts, culminating in a celebration in the Capitol, where names (and customs) are drawn from the worst stories of the excesses of ancient Rome. One excerpt:
All that I can think of is the emaciated bodies of the children on our kitchen table as my mother prescribes what the parents can’t give. More food. Now that we’re rich, she’ll send some home with them. But often in the old days, there was nothing to give and the child was past saving, anyway. And here in the Capitol they’re vomiting for the pleasure of filling their bellies again and again. Not from some illness of body or mind, not from spoiled food. It’s what everyone does at a party. Expected. Part of the fun.
At a cultural level, we know to recoil from the tragic juxtaposition between the life of the haves, and the death of the have-nots. How can anyone justify such decadence, when across the country, children starve to death? The same reaction and innate sense of justice pervade other fictional universes. Robin Hood is a thief, but we know he’s doing the right thing. Firefly‘s Mal Reynolds notes the contrast between Paradiso — where everyone dies young thanks to a futuristic, hyper-virulent black lung — and the opulent core worlds, where disease functionally ended years prior, and we’re instantly on his side. But our sense of justice seems to stop sometimes at the TV set, or at the covers of a book. Why?
Why don’t we have the same reaction in our own lives? We know we prefer a world where the rich-poor gap is much smaller than it actually is; and we know, too, that we underestimate the actual state of income disparity in this country (pdf). Almost everyone agrees that America is less equal than it should be, and that it’s getting worse. But we still entertain politicians who insist that under absolutely no circumstance should the rich carry a heavier burden in the course of restoring the country’s economic stability. Instead, it’s actually a mainstream position that hey, maybe the poor, those “lucky duckies,” should kick in a bit more?
We know this is wrong. Poll after poll shows support for a millionaire’s tax bracket. But we don’t stick by it. Maybe it’ll be different this time — maybe Obama will stick by his veto threat — but I’m no longer optimistic.