Monday, August 30, 2010

The Hunger Games Trilogy: Books on Fire!

Into the void left when J.K. Rowling concluded her Harry Potter series has emerged an amazing new series that sadly, has now too concluded with the third installment, which was released just this month. I’m speaking, of course, about Suzanne Collins young adult themed Hunger Games series which begins with The Hunger Games, continues with Catching Fire and concludes with Mockingjay.

As I did with the Harry Potter novels, I allowed others to test drive the series before I chose to involve myself and as the hype regarding the final installment intensified, I found myself unable to resist the lure and I’m very happy for that particular weakness. The Hunger Games Trilogy was simply amazing.

The books tell the story of Katniss Everdeen who lives in the post-apocalyptic remnants of the United States called Panem. The country is divided up into 12 poverty-stricken districts and controlled under the tight fist of the extravagant Capitol. Each year, as a remind of the Capitol’s absolute control and as punishment for the rebellion of the now-destroyed 13th District many years ago, two children between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen in The Reaping from every district and those reaped are placed into a wilderness arena where they must either kill or be killed until at last, only one remains.

The Hunger Games are televised and mandatory viewing for the people in each district and they must watch as the slaughter goes on. When Katniss’ sister is chosen, knowing that she could never survive the games, Katniss chooses to volunteer herself in her place.

To say more would to be to ruin the fun for those of you who haven’t yet read this series, but rest assured that while the first book deals almost exclusively with the games, the second two take on a much deeper and more political and allegorical theme. The stories are so well written and the suspension of disbelief so aptly achieved that many in the young adult target audience will likely miss many of the political messages in this series, but those who know their history will surely see a clearly defined anti-big government, anti-socialist, anti-big brother stance taken by the author.

At one point, she seemingly takes aim at our lives here in the U.S. today when she has one character relate to another the latin phrase, “panem et circenses” or “bread and circuses” and goes on to teach her that if you keep people’s belly’s full of bread and entertain them, they will take no interest in government and therefore corruption can take hold.

The characters are rich and enigmatic. This is not just a lesson on politics and history, in fact it’s much more an adventure and a love story. It offers the kind of fast paced action that the video game era kids need to keep them occupied and it is tempered with a dramatic love triangle that will have you picking sides like it’s a Burger King commercial.

And that is, perhaps, the The Hunger Games Trilogy’s most amazing asset, it is everything that the other heir apparent to the Harry Potter throne is not. At no point, while reading The Hunger Games, will you feel like you’re in the hands of an amateur writer as you most certainly must when reading Twilight. While people either seem to love or hate Stephanie Meyer’s series, The Hunger Games delivers in such a way that it clearly triumphs over Twilight. It offers substance, it’s amazingly well written, fast paced, thought provoking and poignant. It is everything that Twilight is not. Meyer gives you sparkly vampires, Collins counters with a girl on fire.

This is a series of unassuming heroes who rise to challenges they should never have to face. It is a series of truly evil villains—some who are easily recognizable and some who are hiding in plain sight. It is a lesson about what happens when a people becomes disinterested in their government. It is a testament to man’s inhumanity toward man. It borrows themes from sources as old as ancient Greece and as contemporary as today’s latest headlines.

My only complaint is the context in which many of the young adults, who are the target audience for these books, have with which to understand the themes. The book speaks out against socialism and paints a picture of a socialist state similar to the former Soviet Union, however these kids are bombarded with the term socialism at every turn in today’s media and the opportunity to misunderstand Collins’ thoughts and ideas are rampant. Considering the great lengths at which she went to take shots at the media and the propaganda they spew, I don’t believe she purposefully left out that proper context, but it’s omission is sad in that will allow some to use her books for purposes which I do not believe she meant them.

Simply put, to miss out on this series would be a mistake. You could wait for the movies, which will be coming out over the next few years, but I’m afraid you’d miss the rich tapestry, underlying themes and be left with only the action and romance if you do. Pick them up. Read them. You won’t regret it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mosque Near Ground Zero

Everyone has their underwear in a bunch over the proposed plan to build a mosque only 600 feet from ground zero in New York where the World Trade Center once stood. Some are protesting the plan, saying that it would be a disgrace to those who died on 9/11 to have a mosque built so close to where they died. Some are fighting the protesters saying that our country was actually founded on some arcane principle known as the freedom of religion.

For my part, I don’t really care where any mosques are built. Maybe I’m a fool, but I don’t think all Islamic people are terrorists. Oh, and I don’t think that those who are would ever set up shop in a huge building that used to house a Burlington Coat Factory only 600 feet from their last big target. I tend to think the bad guys will probably try to stay on the down low. At very worst, if they do try to hide in plain sight, then maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I have to imagine that even our inept intelligence community can keep track of the terrorists if they all congregate in a well-known place.

I’ll leave the arguing to those more passionate than I though. The more I hear about the situation though, the more I’m drawn to our country’s past and I can’t help but be a little proud of how far we’ve come. It may not seem like a natural time for pride, but compared to our history, those of Middle-eastern decent are getting a pretty good shake. Don’t be na├»ve, this isn’t an easy time for people who have immigrated to this country from that region, but ask any Japanese American who was alive during World War II if they’d rather get dirty looks at the airport and have protests over where they worship, or if they’d rather get locked up in internment camps and I’m guessing they’ll say the former.

We have a history of hatred and a track record for treating those we hate pretty poorly. The Japanese and some Germans were imprisoned when we hated them. So were the Africans who arguably got the worst of our hate. Of course the Native Americans might argue that point. When the Irish first came to our shores during the Potato Famine we gave them a case to make and the Chinese who came to build our railroads were little more than slaves themselves.

We’re flat out mean to the people du jour who we hate. We always have been. It’s in our blood. We’re good at it. We look at them as less than human because it helps us rationalize them. We call them savages, niggers, micks, the yellow peril, Japs and slant-eyes. We have believed them to be less than human and then we proceed to treat them as such. We’ve put them in chains, given them blankets infected with small pox, we’ve locked them in prisons and placed them in ghettos.

That could have happened after 9/11. In fact, if 9/11 had happened earlier in our history it certainly would have. We’d have locked the “ay-rabs” up in camps. We’d have torn down all of their mosques. But that’s not who we are anymore, at least not all of us. We can’t expect the world to change at the drop of a hat or in the blink of an eye and we can’t cure centuries of ignorance overnight. I’m certainly not arguing that we’ve acted in a Christ-like manner in the way we’ve treated Middle-Easterners but I do think, we’ve treated them less in the way of the devil than our own ancestors would have.

It’s easy to pick sides in this current debate. It’s easy to be mad at one side or the other. It’s easy to be outraged by obvious insensitivity or appalled by the ignorance to our founding principles but when you take a step back and you look at it all from a distance, I think you can’t help but see how times have changed. Tempers are flaring, sides are standing opposed and the argument rages on, but arguments are better than chains, better than prisons, better than viewing a people as sub-human. Because while some would support those very thoughts in a heartbeat most of us would never stand for it.

It’s an interesting point in history. The unenlightened are still loud and garner a great deal of attention in their ignorance and hate, but somewhere along the way, we’ve moved past the days of old. We’ve chosen a new way. It’s far from perfect. We have a long way to go. Make no mistake though, we have come so very far from who we were at our worst.

I went into a convenience store today and there was a WWII veteran at the lottery counter sporting his Navy hat commemorating the ship he served on during the war. He was chatting with the man behind the counter, a man of Middle-eastern heritage. They spoke like they were old friends and maybe they are just that. They weren’t talking about mosques or wars or rights or freedoms. They were talking about their grandchildren. Perhaps the future for those grandchildren isn’t as dim as it looks. Maybe all it takes is a clearer perspective to see that even if we take one step back for every two steps forward, we’re still getting somewhere. Maybe the idea of America isn’t quite dead yet.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Attn: Tony Fucking Dungy

What I’d like to know is who died and make Tony Dungy into God all of the sudden? Apparently he’s not satisfied with being an analyst on NBC’s Sunday Night Football studio because his name is just about everywhere in the NFL. I didn’t mind so much when he was taking wayward athletes under his wings and trying to instill a bit of class and dignity in them. His work with Michael Vick and others has been admirable. His books have touched many and his mentoring programs have been very successful. By all indications, this is a good man.

There comes that point though when good men cross the line and start to get a little too full of themselves and a little too sanctimonious. Dungy’s latest crusade has me wondering if perhaps he’s at that point? He expressed concern over NY Jets coach Rex Ryan’s use of foul language in practices as shown on HBO’s documentary series Hard Knocks.

Now, in my day, I was called things by coaches that would make sailor’s cringe and that was by coaches who actually liked me, so I have to wonder what sport Tony Dungy was a part of in which curse words offend his delicate sensibilities? Swearing and sports are like peanut butter and chocolate, they just seem to be made for each other and that’s the way it’s been for as long as sports have dominated our culture.

That wasn’t Tony Dungy’s way though. And that’s fine. If he’s a man who chooses not to use curse words then that is his prerogative, but when he starts casting stones at others who do, that’s when I have a problem. Dungy seems to feel that his way is the right way and that other coaches should adopt it. He feels curse words are undignified and uncouth.

Well, I say: Fuck that.

Dungy is a devout Christian, so let me try to explain this to him in a way he can understand. Mr. Dungy, by speaking out against curse words you are sinning. I think you should confess to your preacher before you’re damned to hell for your trespasses, sir. Allow me to explain:

We all get angry. We all get upset. We all emote displeasure, dissatisfaction and anger verbally. We all use certain words for emphasis. We use tone and volume to the same end. It’s a basic human characteristic. No one—except perhaps the British—gets burned by fire and politely observes that it’s quite painful, indeed.

Our speech is what separates us from the animals. Part of that speech; in every language, in ever culture, in every corner of the world, it’s people who stub their toes crying out loudly and angrily and harshly and they express themselves and their great displeasure with having suffered that particular injury. It’s human nature. My point is that while it may be possible to control your emotions in that situation, it’s not likely. Verbalizing your pain and frustration at that point is a very human thing to do. And since we’re all human and none of us perfect, I have to assume that’s okay.

But you don’t like curse words. You’d prefer we cry out “dang it!” instead of “dammit!” You’d prefer “fudge” to “fuck.” And here’s where you become a sinner Mr. Dungy. In every Bible I’ve ever seen it was the first Commandment: “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods besides Me.”

Wait. Follow me here!

So, if we accept that expressing ourselves vocally, our pleasure, our pain, our joy our sorrow is a human thing to do, and God made us human then there must be a reason for that, which means that the base emotion itself is an okay thing. However, by giving certain words more power than others, don’t you, in a way, deify them? If you and I each stub our toe, and you yell “fudge” and I yell “fuck” but we both feel the same pain, the same frustration and are each trying to express the exact same thing, does it really matter what word we choose?

You use fudge, I use fuck. If the emotion in each of our hearts is the same, then it should be wrong, no matter how we choose to express it. I’ve watched you coach football games Mr. Dungy. You remained calm quite a bit, but not always. You got upset. You got angry. You became frustrated. Are those emotions wrong? Are they too undignified and uncouth? Moreover, should someone have called you out every time you spoke tersely to a player? Should someone have told you that your angry stare was not in the best interests of the NFL?

See what I mean about those without sins casting the first stone there, big guy? It boils down to one thing or the other. Either the emotion itself is wrong—that the emoting of any negative feeling is bad and we should never, in any way, express anything but positive sounds, noises and looks; or, you’re picking and choosing certain words that you personally don’t like and giving those words power over others.

Yes. You give words power. Every time you stub your toe and specifically choose to substitute “fudge” while meaning—like I say it—“fuck” you are giving the word “fuck” power. Every time you call someone out for using words that you don’t like, you give them power. And giving a word power is blasphemy. It’s a sin. Christianity is based on Judaism where the only unsayable word was the name of God. Think about that next time before you speak up about other people not using certain words.

As for the idea that the expression of anger or sadness or any other negative emotion is bad, I think any good psychologist will tell you that’s just not true. In fact, it’s much healthier for us to express them and get them out of our systems than it is to hold them inside.

So my question is simple: If the emotion is natural and expressing it cathartic and if no word has more power than any other word, then what’s the big deal? Why is Rex Ryan disgracing the NFL because he swears? Who put you in charge of deciding what people can and can’t—should and shouldn’t say? Who chose you to be spokesman for the language police? And by whose authority does the language police operate?

I respect your right to not use curse words. That’s the American and Christian thing to do. Don’t stand there and be so sanctimonious as to suggest that only your way is the right way. Your choices are yours and they do not make you better than me, Rex Ryan or Don Rickles. Remember, sir: Judge fucking not, lest you be fucking judged.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Doomed to Repeat

The last U.S. Combat Brigade has left Iraq and…well, it’s been a little anti-climatic. I think of the thousands of people who stopped traffic on Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue here in Chicago to protest the war in Iraq and I wonder where all those people are now? You’d think they’d be…I dunno? Excited? Happy? Triumphant?

But no. Those people have mostly moved on to other causes I suppose. Or, maybe they wised up a bit when their hero the Super O told them what the previous administration did: That you just can’t pick up and leave—that the consequences to that would be worse than the consequences to our staying there.

Americans are a bit spoiled in that we’ve never had war brought to our shores aside from 9/11 and a few isolated incidents during WWII. War is a video game to us, or a movie. That’s our reference point. So, ending a war seems like a simple enough thing to do. Choose a few face saving words of bravery, save that last little child, board the waiting chopper and take off looking back at the war torn land you’re leaving as the credits roll. Done. Right?

Not so.

Back when people were lining the major streets of our cities and the mother of a soldier who was killed in Iraq was camping out just outside the Bush ranch in Texas all people could talk about was how this was a war for oil. And make no mistake, there were people in our president’s ear who had personal financial gain on their minds when they applauded his choice to take war to Iraq, but it was never a war for oil. It was a war for revenge.

The question is who had the revenge right of way? From the point of view of most Americans, we did. They flew planes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon! Of course, they saw it differently. They felt like revenge was their right because 20 years earlier we used them to fight a war against the Russians—a war they won for us and then once it was over, we left them to rot in the war torn wasteland where they won. Sons grew up without fathers. Life was hard. Sure, they could have blamed the enemy—the Russians, but that’s the enemy! The bad guys! They are supposed to be evil!

So, it was their “friends” who they chose to blame. That would be us. And our evil is fact. We used them and left them to suffer the consequences. That didn’t give them the right to do what they did. Attacking civilians is wrong and cowardly, but even that distinction is open to interpretation. During the war in Afghanistan against the Russians, bombs were left that resembled toys so that children would pick them up and be killed. During that war, there was no such thing as a civilian.

In fact, Afghanistan was so thoroughly destroyed that 20 years later when the fatherless sons of that war struck out for vengeance, their country wasn’t recovered enough to fight back against. We needed a figurehead. We needed someone we could fight. Iraq was in up to their necks—but behind the scenes, like the CIA in the war between Afghanistan and Russia. We chose them as our target. They were a public relations target more than anything. Sadaam was someone we could bring down. Oedipus could be satisfied when Georgie Jr. proved to his mommy that he was a bigger man that daddy. There was an actual country there that we could liberate—and they did need liberating.

It was a win-win proposition. The American people, too ignorant of their own history, just wanted some blood. We wanted to believe in WMD’s and all the rest. Of course, the problem was that after Shocked and Awed the hell out of them, beat their army, took their evil leader prisoner and later executed him that our original enemy entered the vacuum to fill the space that the Iraqi government had previously occupied.

We found ourselves fighting the very people we trained to defeat the Russians, on their turf, the very same turf that the USSR couldn’t defeat them on—only it was worse. At least the USSR could leave bombs for kids to set off and target people—military or civilian—indiscriminately. We had to fight our war on television. We had to win hearts and minds. It was a no-win situation.

The political pressure that ensued led to our electing a president who promised to get our troops out of Iraq. It’s taken him a year and a half to do it. And here’s the rub: We’ve left a power vacuum once again. The fledgling Iraqi government is too corrupt and too weak and too divided to stand. It will fail. Power will fall into the hands of the most ruthless and evil. Fear will be their weapon. No American President will do anything about it, because the American people want no part of Iraq and to do so would be political suicide.

And so the fatherless sons of this war will rise up and strike out at our own children. Here’s hoping that before they act, before they take to the streets to protest, that they understand their history and they know the truth of what has transpired.