U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Politics, Saviors, and Political Culture

Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Hunger Games and The Man in the High Castle.

Continuing my post from a few weeks ago that looked at the role of hope in popular depictions of rebellions, I will focus today on “savior” figures in film and TV that also deal with resistance in oppressive regimes, and consider how they intersect with norms of popular political ideology.

For a civilization saturated with the frameworks of Christianity, it is not surprising that Jesus figures can be found all over Western cultural output. Aslan the Lion, created by the great Christian author C.S. Lewis, is quite clearly and intentionally Jesus – less obviously, so is Harry Potter, who also has to die and be resurrected before saving the magical world of wizards.

The most recent iterations of the savior concept, however, seem framed less by a classical Christian concept of the messiah than the infatuation with individualism that permeates the culture of neoliberalism. Take, to start with, The Hunger Games. The hero and protagonist of the series, Katniss Everdeen, initially sparks the resistance not out of political conviction, but because the desire to protect her sister places her center stage in front of the entire nation. She hates the regime, of course, but her actions are motivated out of personal love and intimate commitment. It is not even until the third film (I have to admit to the usual ignorance of having only seen the movies) that she views coordinated cooperation with others – in this case a spectacularly well-equipped resistance army, considering the level of oppression they are apparently dealing with – as a helpful or simply necessary strategy to reach her end goal of living a normal life.

And as many commenters noted, Katniss has a fraught relationship with the underground resistance. Willing to be their symbol and recruiter for the masses, she nonetheless only manages to tap into her talent for inspiring rebellion when she expresses herself freely and without prodding. The same independent spirit and moral clarity leads Katniss, at the close of the last film, to prevent the resurrection of a new dictatorship by disposing of the self-appointed new ruler and former leader of the resistance. In fact, the man most responsible for bringing her into the fold of the rebels (played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) lets her know that this is exactly why he chose her – he knew that when the time came, she would not follow the herd and would instead ensure that the new government did not reproduce the tyranny of the old.

There is much to like about this storyline; it’s always good to remind ourselves that power can corrupt even those who once fought against its abuse, and a sentimental, romantic depiction of pure, liberty-loving rebels helps no one deal with the complexities of movements which, as always, must include actual human beings. On that note, I fully agree with Ben’s post of a few weeks ago that Rogue One does a nice job depicting this complexity.

Yet I can’t help but be disappointed in the solution for such challenges The Hunger Games offers. Are we to assume that a highly organized, militarized resistance movement leads inevitably to a new tyranny? If so, why not use fiction and film to explore other modes of organizing rebellion, such as the more lateral strategies that today often typify activist circles on the left? But at the close of The Hunger Games, one leader is simply replaced by another, suggesting the problem wasn’t structural but merely personal. And if that’s the case, are we really supposed to conclude that history – and therefore justice – rests on the arbitrary chance that one principled, ethically clear-eyed hero comes to set things right? Yes, the series depicts a cast of characters that bravely fight oppression, each contributing to the ultimate victory. But overall, the resistance merely enables Katniss to do her Being Awesome Katniss thing; she’s the reluctant mastermind, while everyone else just does the legwork.

Similar questions are posed by the conclusion to Season 2 of The Man in the High Castle. In a universe of multiple dimensions and thus, multiple historical outcomes, we discover that the main protagonist, Juliana Crane, somehow plays a key role in all of them. What makes Juliana so special, explains the man who is responsible for shifting through the films documenting all of these alternative realities, is that her character remains constant. Others change depending on circumstances; in one reality they might be Nazi, in another a resistance fighter. But Juliana, guided by an internal and exceptional sense of goodness, always ends up on the right side – and in at least one dimension her decisions make the difference between massive nuclear war and a repressive, but at least not annihilated!, status quo.

“Yup, I’m in the center of everything,” says Juliana.

This scenario disturbs me even more than The Hunger Games. True, there is a dedicated cadre of rebels in The Man in the High Castle, with an appropriate diversity of motives and a realistic amount of conflict between them. But ultimately, they only change the future accidentally; only by the unforeseen and unintended consequences of their actions do they contribute to the better outcome.

What bothers me about this is not so much the implication that history is, to put it simply, hella contingent. (That’s a mind fuck on its own, for sure, but can be put aside for another time.) Rather, the idea that the fate of the entire planet rests with an extraordinary small number of people who have a moral core unmoved by external circumstances is not, to put it lightly, reassuring. On the one hand, I deeply appreciate how the series draws one to contemplate how indeed, such people have always existed – the (white) abolitionists were few in number but they were there, and rebels have refused to give up a dream of material equality at least all the way back to the Middle Ages. Moreover, one could argue that the character of Juliana is supposed to inspire all of us to consider our actions and conclusions; in our contemporary moment this is particularly important, hence the frequent calls on social media for Americans to realize that now is the time to prove to themselves that had they been alive during previous movements for social justice, they would have done the right thing.

But once again, it is how the right thing gets done that is so depressingly typical of American political culture. Neither Katniss nor Juliana communicate, coordinate, or debate their plans with others; in fact in some cases they are split second decisions. There is no democratic culture that teaches solidarity and uses the same technique to defeat the forces arrayed against them – on the contrary, salvation relies precisely on ignoring the judgment of those in organized rebellion, suggesting that individual moral intuition will always be superior to the morality of collective reasoning and effort. Groups of people, working together, can only be pawns; either of a righteous leader or, in the case of The Man in the High Castle, history itself.

Such a disdain for small-d democracy is nothing new to American culture, but considering our current circumstances it feels more despairingly dangerous. For if we are going to get through the next year – let alone the next four – with what little democracy we enjoy still intact, we have got to be willing to let go of our fetish for extraordinary individuals and learn, instead, that a durable collective freedom can only be won, indeed, collectively.

5 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. What an incredible and insightful post. I’m such a fan of the way you write and always look forward to reading your posts. You truly have a gift.

  2. The psychoanalysts claim that the multiplication of a symbol is a way of indicating the absence of what it stood for; for example, a dream in which the dreamer has dozens of fingers is really about castration. I don’t know about that, but the plague of heroes and super heroes in contemporary popular culture sure seems to have something to do with the absence of heroes or even people of ordinary integrity in our political culture. On the plane of the imagination, sacrifice is endlessly honored while in the real world, nobody expects anybody to be willing to pay a price for doing the right thing. This week the nominee for the Supreme Court has been praised for criticizing Trump, for example; but he won’t refuse the job, which might have a real effect on the President’s behavior going forward. In this, he’s is acting like the other Republicans who bewailed the Trump before his election but will never effectively oppose him if doing the right thing harms their careers even a little. Note that it’s not a question of getting yourself nailed to a cross. Any damage to your self interest is too much—if Gorsuch actually made a stand, he would be consigning himself to the horrors of remaining a high ranking Federal judge for life, not putting a crown of thorns on his head.

    What I’m pointing to is not so much a moral failing as the failure of a morality. The trimming and compromising so characteristic of our public life is a what these people have been taught to do,. Actual heroism, as opposed to the movie version, is self indulgent. It’s vanity. What one learns at law school and business school is to put aside childish things and resist the urge to deviate from the supreme obligation of self interest. One is supposed to be base. On that score, our public people are proving to be exemplary.

  3. Another wonderful post.

    “… suggesting that individual moral intuition will always be superior to the morality of collective reasoning and effort.”

    Or the morals and ethics of a few to the many. I lately find myself in a bit of a cognitive feedback loop on this subject… or maybe it’s a reoccurring waking nightmare? In an age of Citizens United, the political arena seems to pit David Brock and his “do-gooding” liberal billionaires against the Koch Bros. and remaining members of the Legion of Doom. And there appears to be no end in sight to this political-financial arms race playing out in our elections across the nation—not just congressional or presidential elections, but the state level, too.

    And I have serious doubts/fears about putting hope into the hands of either of these wealthy cadres. Regardless of where one finds oneself on the political spectrum, this current landscape should be downright disconcerting. And yet, when I hear dear friends/family members comment on how they (as Trump supporters) are OK with antithetical billionaires running their respective cabinets because: “that’s how the Founding Fathers intended it to be: disinterested elites to govern the flock” or some liberal pals of mine talk about how billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg need to “get off the sidelines” and really combat the “new red menace” I wonder if the terror on my face quite aptly describes the situation in its entirety.

    At this point, I usually scramble for some solace from the past, anything to beat back the creeping despair. I like to think about the Gilded Age (very simplistically, I confess) and how movements arose from such inequality that gave rise to better living conditions (granted much later, and often not enjoyed by those who suffered then), labor unions usually come to mind first. But I quickly remind myself that in today’s world such social apparatuses are on life support.

    In light of this, the image of the messianic individual (from the left or right) is quite appealing to a society that is reeling from anxiety and has little agency other than to shack up with one side funded by millionaires/billionaires or the other—which only intensifies your call for small-d democracy and durable collectives.

    But… to get back to history…

    What example(s), if any, of the past can be used for this goal? What was a durable collective that “worked”? How did it come to be, what was the context of its genesis and success?

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