Making a Difference

There was an opinion column in Friday’s edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that caught my attention. It was entitled “A real life hunger game,” and it was written by Blaine Harden, author of Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. Don’tcha just love the titles nonfiction books have these days? Talk about your 25-word elevator pitch, and it’s all on the cover.

Anyway, Mr. Harden’s article is all about what he learned from Shin Dong-hyuk, the man who escaped from this labor camp, which is larger than the city of Los Angeles. What prompted him to write this column, as the title suggests, is the release and popularity of the movie version of The Hunger Games, which broke at least one record on its opening weekend. One of the biggest complaints about the movie is that Jennifer Lawrence, the star, looks too well-nourished to play the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, who’s supposed to hail from a society that stays on the verge of starvation.

Now, as an aside, if you’ve not read The Hunger Games yet, go do it. Even if you don’t like sf as a general rule, this is a good read. I’ve not seen the movie yet, but I intend to.

But back to the main point.

Mr. Harden has a problem with the popularity of The Hunger Games in that he thinks it detracts from the real life hunger games that are happening in North Korea. There, children are “…bred like livestock in labor camps. They are taught to betray their parents. They are worked to death.” In short, these camps are where some people spend their entire lives, mostly because they’ve offended the Kim regime in some way real or imagined—and it apparently doesn’t take a lot to offend them. They live on a starvation diet of corn, cabbage, salt and the occasional rat (I’m betting anyone who gets a rat considers themselves lucky that day). Most die before turning 50.

Horrible conditions. No one can argue against that. The North Korean government denies these camps exist and their diplomats ignore the subject. And yet, according to Mr. Harden, these camps are plainly visible on Google Earth and there are high-resolution satellite pictures available online.

Seems to me the North Korean regime isn’t the only government ignoring these things, but that’s a whole ’nother subject entirely, and one I won’t get into, thank you very much. (In an amusing aside, right above the article, there’s a political cartoon showing Obama and a bunch of military types at the DMZ. Obama is using binoculars to look into North Korea and saying, “Looks desolate. It’s like going back in time 50 years. No electricity.” Beside him, a general is saying, “It’s called a green energy economy.”)

Mr. Harden, however, has a valid point: the atrocities committed by the Kim regime are ignored in the interests of political correctness. The US picks and chooses what battles it’ll fight, and none of those choices make sense. We’ll lead a NATO effort to free Libya, but keep our hands strictly washed of the Syrian situation. We pretend the events in Yemen aren’t happening. On and on. We have a history of propping up dictators like Saddam Hussein when it suits us and then turning our backs on them. We ignored Ho Chi Min in the fifties and ended up with Vietnam.

All of this—even though he doesn’t mention these things in his article—is probably what prompted Mr. Harden to think that The Hunger Games distracts us from the real life totalitarian regimes that are subjecting their citizens—or should we say subjects? Citizens are supposed to have more rights—to things worse than those portrayed in the movie/book.

But there’s a real possibility the opposite could happen.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a novel that portrayed the conditions present at meat packing plants. The main thrust of his novel was political, because Mr. Sinclair believed fervently in wealth redistribution, and the novel was full of socialist rants. This from a man who managed to sell The Jungle to four separate publishers. First serial rights went to a socialist sheet called The Appeal to Reason. A quarterly journal called One Hoss Philosophy published longer extracts, and Macmillan and Company bought the book rights and then allowed Mr. Sinclair to move the book to Doubleday, Page. Not bad, huh? I’d like to sell the same book to four publishers and get paid for them all. Sounds rather capitalist of him, if you ask me.

Anyway, the release of The Jungle coincided with debate on the Pure Food and Drugs Act (Doubleday did this on purpose). There are a lot of details that I won’t go into, but the upshot of it was that Senator Albert J. Beveridge sent a copy of the book to President Theodore Roosevelt. TR read it and, while he dismissed the socialist message of the book—as the majority of the reading public did—it spurred him to initiate an investigation into the meat packing industry’s practices. The results were so horrendous that he decided to delay releasing them until he could show that government was doing something about it. He was afraid that, if the public saw the reality of it—much worse than Mr. Sinclair portrayed it in his novel—the meat packing industry would collapse. And since it was such a large industry, there could have been devastating consequences to the economy.

At any rate, after a lot of wrangling, the Meat Inspection and Pure Food and Drug Acts were signed into law on the thirtieth of June, 1906. And it all came from the novel The Jungle.

Could something like The Hunger Games do the same thing? Who knows? But I’m sure The Jungle isn’t the only example of a novel making a difference in society. I’ve never researched it, but from snippets I’ve heard, a book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin did something similar in relation to slavery.

So, I would submit that, though I don’t completely agree with Mr. Harden’s assessment of The Hunger Games (he jumped on the bandwagon of Jennifer Lawrence looking a bit too well-fed, after all), perhaps the novel—and maybe other articles such as his—will bring attention to the situation in North Korea. And to other regimes around the world who subject their people to horrendous conditions that we, as Americans, haven’t the foggiest clue about. We have Occupy Wall Street protests while thousands—millions—of women are being raped repeatedly in certain African countries. We decry Nativity displays on public land while Coptic Christians are persecuted in Egypt—and Christians of every stripe are oppressed in China. Like our government, we pick and choose what we’ll take offense at.

Can a book make a difference? Obviously, it’s happened. Not frequently, it would seem. But just enough to make you keep hoping it will. Even if I don’t agree with it, Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring has had an effect as well.

Mr. Harden has a point: the Kim dynasty has perpetrated these human rights offenses for more than fifty years, all without causing much of an uproar here in America.

Maybe soon, The Hunger Games, or a book much like it, will change that. It’s long been said that the pen is mightier than the sword, so we can always hope.

Besides, The Hunger Games is just a damned good story.




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