Thursday, July 31, 2014

False reports that President Obama is a Muslim

Americans question the President's religion — and always have.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Aug. 22, 2010. Including updates.

The U.S. President Barack Obama is a Christian. His spokesman said in 2010 that he prays daily, and Obama said the same at a February 2011 National Prayer Breakfast. At an Easter Prayer breakfast in 2012, Obama referred to Jesus as "Son of God," in keeping with Christian beliefs. Increasingly, however, since his election, Americans hold the false belief that their President is a Muslim.

Polls conducted by the Pew Form on Religion & Public Life during the first two years of Obama's presidency consistently found that half of respondents correctly identified that the President is a Christian, while a third claimed not to know, and just over a tenth believed he is Muslim. (The last observation was also reported by the Economist in April 2009: "Meanwhile, roughly one American in ten still believes, incorrectly, that Mr Obama is a Muslim.") An August 2010 survey found these numbers suddenly dramatically changed: only a third correctly identified him as a Christian, nearly half claimed not to know, and a greater percentage than ever believed him to be Muslim: 18 percent. A September 2015 survey by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation found it had increased to 29 percent.

The Pew Forum's associate research director Alan Cooperman mused: "You would think the longer the person is in the White House, the more the 'don't knows' would decline. But the 'don't knows' are higher now than when he came to office."

The facts about Obama's background are widely available. His mother came from a Christian family in Kansas; she was an anthropologist who respected all religions as part of human experience. Obama's half-sister in Kenya has stated that their father, Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., "was never a Muslim although he was born into a Muslim family with a Muslim name." Obama has said that his step-father, too, was only nominally Muslim. "When my mother remarried, it was to an Indonesian with an equally skeptical bent, a man who saw religion as not particularly useful," he wrote in his book The Audacity of Hope. "Like many Indonesians, [my stepfather] Lolo followed a brand of Islam that could make room for the remnants of more ancient animist and Hindu faiths," he added in Dreams from my Father. Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia where he attended a secular public school. "Madrasa" is simply the Arabic word for "school"; when English speakers use the word, they often intend to connote a Muslim religious school, but this does not describe the school that Obama attended.

J. J. Goldberg, editorial director of the Jewish newspaper The Forward, was quoted in 2008 as speculating that Obama's "decision to keep his middle name, Hussein, raises symbolic fears among some of these [older and conservative Jewish] voters, and reports about his record – including his early flirtation with black identity politics and his long association with Reverend Wright – strengthen these fears."

For a number of American Christians, calling someone a Muslim may be a vague, indirect way of expressing disapproval. The Pew Forum data from 2010 show that those who disapprove of Obama's performance as President and/or identify as Republican are three times more likely as supporters and Democrats to make an incorrect assertion about his religion. When ideological qualifiers are added, such that specifically "conservative" Republicans are compared to specifically "liberal" Democrats, the gap widens so that the former group is five or six times more likely to make the incorrect statement. Similar surveys in 2012 by the Pew Forum and Gallup show these numbers holding steady on a national level, while Public Policy Polling found that more than half of likely Republican voters in the state of Alabama made the incorrect statement.

Although one might assume that knowledge of the President's religion is unrelated to approval of his performance, this has not been the case historically. George Washington's Masonic loyalties were questioned, Abraham Lincoln's critics suspected him of being Catholic, FDR was believed to be Jewish, and JFK (who was indeed Catholic) was feared to be taking orders from the Vatican.

Bruce Feiler wrote that there is nothing new about such an attack: "It's the nature of how we conflate political frustration, economic anxiety, and concern about the changing fabric of our identity. In a country where our national character has been tied up with God since our founding, it's hardly surprising that we tar our political opponents with worshiping a different god than we do."

Particularly because Obama inherited wars in two Arab countries and because Democrats are often perceived as "softer" on security than Republicans, some people were concerned that Obama would mismanage these wars or discontinue efforts to keep the United States safe from terrorism. The allegation that he is a Muslim was, in this context, meant to be understood as an allegation of disloyalty toward his country. Obama actually strengthened forces in Afghanistan and carefully drew down forces in Iraq until the last troops left in December 2011.

In a Newsweek poll in July 2008, 12 percent of voters asserted that "Obama was sworn in as a United States senator on a Qur'an, while 26 percent believe the Democratic candidate was raised as a Muslim and 39 percent believe he attended an Islamic school as a child growing up in Indonesia. None of these things is true." (When I blogged about this for JVoices the same month, I noted that I had been unable to locate a breakdown by religion for the people who held these false beliefs.) For that matter, a February 2010 poll by CBS News/New York Times found that 88 percent of Americans didn't know that the Obama administration has lowered taxes for most Americans. Accusing the president of raising taxes (even if he hasn't) is another traditional American way of expressing disapproval.

Considering the Muslim rumor in 2008, two authors in the New York Times shrugged it off by pointing out that "[f]alse beliefs are everywhere. Eighteen percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, one poll has found." (Note: This has increased to 26 percent as of 2014, the National Science Foundation uncovered.) The New York Times added that, in their opinion, the rumor about Obama "seems slightly less egregious" than the incorrect belief about the Earth's orbit. But one should not jump to the conclusion that false beliefs about the President are harmless. "According to a Harris interactive poll," Newsweek reported in April 2010, "two thirds of Republicans believe Obama is a socialist, while 57 percent believe he is a Muslim, and almost one in four suspect he's the Antichrist."

[For more about false beliefs, see the Dead Men Blogging post on "Avoiding and correcting false beliefs."] Polls have suggested that people with some college education are more – not less – likely to be wrong on this question. John Chait, quoted in Eli Pariser's book The Filter Bubble, addressed this seemingly strange observation. "People with more education are more likely to follow political news," he said, and political news in the United States is highly partisan. "Therefore, people with more education can actually become mis-educated." A 2014 poll found that Muslims were more likely to approve of Obama's performance than Catholics, Protestants or Mormons.

One sound bite that helped fuel the rumor came from Obama's appearance on ABC's "This Week" news program in September 2008. During the conversation, interviewer George Stephanopoulos said "You mentioned your Christian faith" and then challenged Obama as to why he "took after the Republicans for suggesting you have Muslim connections...McCain's campaign manager said they've never done that." After some back-and-forth, Obama tried to clarify: "You're absolutely right that John McCain has not talked about my Muslim faith..." Stephanopoulos interrupted and corrected him: "Your Christian faith." Obama finally made his point: "What I think is fair to say is that coming out of the Republican camp, there have been efforts to suggest that perhaps I'm not who I say I am when it comes to my faith, something which I find deeply offensive, and that has been going on for a pretty long time." The part of the video where Obama used the phrase "my Muslim faith" was taken out of context and went viral on the Internet.

Another example occurred when, writing for Israel Today in April 2010, Aviel Schneider quoted Egypt's foreign minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit as having said on Nile TV: "The American President told me in confidence that he is a Muslim." The alleged conversation could have taken place when the minister was in Washington, D.C. for Mideast peace talks in early January 2010. Additional details of this story were recounted by Dennis (Avi) Lipkin on Gary Stearman's "Prophecy in the News" TV show:

"On January 19 of 2010, just a few months ago, my wife picked up a broadcast from Nile TV from was called a Round Table discussion... [Aboul-Gheit] said very calmly that he had had a one-on-one meeting with President Obama, and President Obama swore to him that he's a Moslem...that he went to the mosque, that he went to the madrasa until age 11, and he said...'You Moslems will see what I will do for Islam regarding Israel.' This was on Egyptian TV. Two months later, there was an article in the Okaz of the Emirates newspaper in which the envoy of President Obama to the Arab League – his name is Rashad Hasan – said, 'As a Moslem' – I'm quoting now – 'As a Moslem, President Obama understands the significance of Jerusalem for the Islamic world...'" (see 12:00-13:10 of the video)

Lipkin made many statements during the half-hour interview that call his credibility into question. He said that Islam's god is the Devil, that this god commands Muslims to tell lies to hide their religious identities, that the religion (not just fanaticism) presents a global threat, and that the United States is in danger from its own growing Muslim population. He also said that "atheists came into there's no freedom to be Christian anymore" (despite the fact that there is only one openly atheist person in the 535-member Congress). Even if Aboul-Gheit translated and interpreted Obama's words correctly and spoke honestly and without deliberate embellishment, and even if Lipkin's wife had reported the minister's words faithfully and accurately to her husband, Lipkin is demonstrably not the best person to repeat and represent those words. Where rational discussion with such an ideologue seems unlikely, some people simply resort to lampooning and satirizing these fringe beliefs.

Viewed in 2010, the president's official website,, had a lengthy page dating back to the 2008 presidential campaign devoted to debunking this rumor. The page denied that he ever prayed in a mosque; instead, it recalled his memory of feeling God's presence in a church in Chicago. At the top of the page, he was quoted as saying during the campaign: "I have been victimized by these lies. Fortunately, the American people are, I think, smarter than folks give them credit for." (The original page no longer exists during the 2012 campaign, but the quote still appears in many places.)

Victoria Jackson, formerly a comedian with Saturday Night Live, posted a video to YouTube on Feb. 3, 2015: "There's a Muslim Living in the White House". It is a musical ditty interspersed with supposed evidence that Obama is a Muslim. She begins by saying: “He released terrorists from Gitmo that our sons and daughters died to capture!...His cabinet is made up of Muslim Brotherhood people!...His name is Muslim, and he was raised in a Muslim country, and the application for his school says Barry Sotero and then it says ‘Religion: Islam’.” Naturally, a form filled out by an adult (whether a relative or not) about a child's religion does not necessarily represent what the child actually believes and certainly does not establish that child's religion for the duration of their lives.

One can only hope that Obama's faith in the American people's collective intelligence will be shown to be justified.

Monday, July 21, 2014

U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2016?

President Obama has been arguing for withdrawing from Afghanistan for years, with his first plan involving withdrawals beginning July 2011. Three years after that date, more U.S. troops are scheduled to pull out of Afghanistan:

Under Obama’s plan, announced in May before Sunni militants seized control of much of Iraq, about 20,200 American troops will leave Afghanistan during the next five months, dropping the US force to 9,800 by year’s end.

That number would be cut in half by the end of 2015, with only about 1,000 remaining in Kabul after the end of 2016.

("Congress uneasy over plans to leave Afghanistan," Deb Riechmann, AP, printed in the Boston Sunday Globe, July 20, 2014)
Ten U.S. senators are arguing that this pullout is too risky for Afghanistan, especially in advance of their presidential election.

President Bush set a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq by the end of 2011, which was accomplished during the Obama administration. The AP article says that Obama's plan to withdraw from Afghanistan "responds to the American public’s war fatigue and his desire to be credited with pulling the United States out of two conflicts."

A year ago, Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai ordered U.S. special operations forces to leave Maidan Wardak province following reports that Afghan troops working with them were committing violent offenses against Afghan citizens. The newspaper Hasht-e Sobh said in an editorial that the US will have to continue supporting Afghanistan's military even after it pulls out of the country because "the cost of arming and funding Afghan security forces is much lower for the world than the cost of having to deal with the re-emergence of terrorism."

("How they see us: Afghans worry about U.S. pullout," The Week, March 8, 2013)

The pseudonymous Lexington wrote for the Economist that an American officer in Maine's national guard "says that explaining the war's final stages is 'hard'. As troops are drawn down, he questions the war constantly, fearing a moment when a grieving parent or spouse asks why their loved one died, 'and I don't have an answer.' ... Maine's military recruits are asking to serve their country, but 'not really signing up to some great moral cause.'"

Lexington also reports the personal story told by a school principal in South Portland, Me.:

Ms Wood's beloved nephew, Justin Buxbaum, found himself at war after signing up, aged 16, because without military grants 'he didn't know how to pay for college,' she says. Once in Afghanistan he died in an accident when his roommate's gun fell and went off. That isn't the story that people want to hear, she says, but the details matter less and less as time passes, being subsumed into an 'amorphous' narrative about heroism. Many stopped paying close attention after Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were killed, she says.

("The view from Maine streets, March 2, 2013")
In September 2012, an Afghan police officer killed four Americans. In June 2013, an Afghan soldier in Paktika province, Kher Qot district, argued with his American trainers and killed three of them before he himself was killed. That September, an American soldier with NATO was killed by an Afghan trainee in a similar incident in Paktika province.

The U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan since October 2001.

Friday, July 18, 2014

What people really hunger for in 'The Hunger Games'

What is the meaning of hunger in "The Hunger Games"? Why is the gladiatorial event named after starvation rather than violence?

Originally posted to Helium Network on June 30, 2013.

In the "Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins, an oppressive government keeps the population starving. The government divides the country into twelve districts that do not have direct contact with each other, limiting trade. Subsistence hunting is formally banned. The government fosters a sense of dependence and hopelessness in the people by providing extra food rations to those who enter their children’s names in a death lottery.

In the first book, "The Hunger Games," the teenage heroine, Katniss, hunts in the forest in defiance of the law, and she is even successful in selling meat to the police (known as the Peacekeepers), since they want to eat, too. Her priority is to support her mother and sister. She thinks about how being shot to death would be preferable to starving to death, and she doesn’t speculate about why the country has fallen into this oppressive situation, since "I don't see how it [the historical knowledge] will help me get food on the table." Of her hunger, she says, “Take that away and I'm not really sure who I am, what my identity is. The idea scares me some."

After Katniss survives the mandatory gladiatorial event, one of her rewards as a victor is that extra food will be sent to the hungry families in her home district. "To know that once a month for a year they would all receive another parcel," she thinks to herself at the beginning of the second book, "Catching Fire." "That was one of the few times I actually felt good about winning the Games."

Of course, to survive in the arena, Katniss was forced to kill other children, which weighs on her conscience. Her comment, however, shows that her conscience also takes into consideration the hunger felt by poor families. The government has engineered a social practice by which some are killed in an arena and others starve at home. The burden of choice falls on children like Katniss: she kills to survive in the arena, thereby winning food to save others from starvation, and at some point may actually feel “good” about her performance. She has to rationalize her choices.

In "Catching Fire," Katniss travels widely and sees how different people live. In the privileged capital city, residents do not have the same worries about violence or starvation. Their children do not have to be entered in the lottery to be gladiators. They feast on unlimited amounts of gourmet food, and they even induce vomiting at their parties so that they can return to the tables and eat more. When Peeta, a boy from Katniss’s poor district, is given a glass of such vomit-inducing liquid and realizes what it is for, he “sets his back on the table with such precision you’d think it might detonate.” The wastefulness of eating food only to deliberately vomit it is a grievous moral offense to children who have lived under the fear of starvation their whole lives.

Katniss remembers giving an entire leg of game to a girl who reacted with “the disbelief of the chronically hungry.” She also reflects on how newlyweds in her home district recognize their marriage when they “make their first fire, toast a bit of bread, and share it. Maybe it’s old-fashioned, but no one really feels married in District 12 until after the toasting.” This shows how food can be ritualized even in cultures that have very little of it.

While Katniss and Peeta visit wealthy areas, they are aware that the government is becoming stricter and more unfair about food rations. Some families who volunteer extra entries of their children’s names in the lottery never receive the promised food.

Before another round of organized violence in "Catching Fire," Katniss has a nightmare in which she tries “to reach a pool of water that recedes every time I’m about to touch it.” It is prescient, both in the literal sense of thirst and in the sense that, in the future, she will have to work hard to chase something down that will always seem just out of reach.

In the third book, "Mockingjay," Katniss temporarily moves to an underground complex where people eat food grown in underground farms. Food is measured into exact portions according to an individual’s nutritional needs, so “there are never seconds here,” and they cannot take uneaten food out of the dining hall. “We know how to be hungry, but not how to be told how to handle what provisions we have,” she complains. In fact, when the government tries to erase Peeta’s memories, one of the first memories to return is the first day he met Katniss, when he secretly gave her a loaf of bread. His decision to share his food with her was of great personal significance. The social system in the underground district eliminates this personal autonomy, and it is difficult for them to adjust to it. When she has the occasion to get a good meal, she thinks about how a good meal “can make people kinder, funnier, more optimistic, and remind them it’s not a mistake to go on living. It’s better than any medicine.”

In Mockingjay, Katniss learns that the wealthy class has “given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power” in exchange for “panem et circenses,” Latin for “bread and circuses,” food and entertainment. They do so on the backs of people who go without food and who send their children to die for entertainment. Katniss becomes a symbol of the growing rebellion against the government. People’s hunger shifts from a physical need to a moral need. “It’s the sight of me, alive, that is the inspiration. Hungry fingers devour me, wanting to feel my flesh,” she reflects.

The evolution of hunger in the Hunger Games trilogy portrays a growing awareness in the young characters that there are different things for which they can be hungry. As children, they were aware of their empty bellies. During the year in which they become adults, they learn that they can hunger for freedom, justice and revenge. Fighting for these “higher” ideals makes food seem to them – at least most of the time – less interesting.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What a 'Mockingjay' gives up: Sacrifice in the 'Hunger Games' trilogy

"The Hunger Games," a fantasy trilogy written by Suzanne Collins, begins with the sacrifice of children. The heroine also learns the meaning of voluntary sacrifice.

Originally posted to Helium Network on June 30, 2013.

"The Hunger Games," a fantasy trilogy written by Suzanne Collins, begins with the sacrifice of a couple dozen children. With varying levels of training as fighters, they are dumped into an arena with instructions to kill each other. The last one standing will “win.” It is part of their cultural expectation growing up, as the state reenacts the games annually: different year, different children chosen by lottery to be sacrificed. Some families whose children are not selected nevertheless prove themselves actively willing to risk the sacrifice; they agree to enter their children’s names multiple times in the lottery in exchange for extra food rations.

In the first book, "The Hunger Games," the heroine and narrator, Katniss, enters the arena on the premise of an additional, deliberate sacrifice: her sister has been selected in the lottery, and she offers to take her sister’s place. Once in the arena, Katniss must kill people whom she would, in other circumstances, have nothing personal against. This moral concession to circumstances is another sacrifice for her. She must form alliances with people she does not especially like, and in particular, she discovers that she must spark a romance (at least for the audience’s benefit) to stay alive. The boy truly falls in love with her, and at one point, he drops his weapon, signaling his willingness to be killed rather than to kill her, as only one of them is allowed to win. The moment at which the Games end hinges on their own threatened ultimate sacrifice that goes a step beyond this gesture of surrender.

It is no surprise that Katniss survives the Hunger Games (else, how could she narrate the story?). In the second book, "Catching Fire," she is forced to persist with the illusion of a romance, and she must enter the arena to fight again. Every detail of her life and death seems controlled by the state. Yet there are some positive aspects to these sacrifices. One individual follows her example, volunteering to take another’s place in the arena. Katniss herself decides that resolving to keep another person alive in the arena and giving up hope of her own survival is a worthwhile sacrifice that will give her something meaningful to fight for. She even gives up the opportunity to run away with someone who is interested in her, as his elopement plans do not include the rescue of anyone else Katniss cares about.

In the third book, "Mockingjay," Katniss’s ideals enlarge. Her life is no longer defined by the possibility that she might sacrifice herself for only one person, and she no longer assumes that the existing political order is an eternal given. She grows to be an icon as well as an active fighter in a movement to overthrow the tyrannical government. To be good soldiers, she and her comrades often think of themselves as willing to sacrifice themselves for each other, but this is primarily a mental strategy that keeps their task psychologically manageable and that reinforces their loyalty to each other. They are actually fighting with the possibility that they could sacrifice themselves for the cause. They don’t want just to survive the Hunger Games or to avoid the wrath of the ruler. They want to live in a world where everyone is free from the fear of cruelty and tyranny.

At times, Katniss is frustrated with belonging to the human race, since, as she puts it, “something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences.” This is sacrifice of a negative kind: the sacrifice of victims who do not consent. On her journey, however, Katniss also learns about voluntary sacrifices and makes many of her own. She learns that the full meaning of giving up a person to the enemy’s calculated plans or to the ravages of war depends on how much she cares about that person and how much she feels she owes them. She learns, furthermore, that taking on the responsibility of serving as the symbol of a rebellion – the "Mockingjay" – means letting go of most of one's private concerns and beginning to make choices for the welfare of a nation.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

How the 'Hunger Games' heroine learns to kill and to regret killing

Unpacking the meaning of the violence in 'The Hunger Games' is key to understanding the story and the depth of the characters.

Article originally posted to Helium Network on June 30, 2013.

Violence is a dominant theme in the "Hunger Games" trilogy. Author Suzanne Collins creates a fantasy world in which the teenage heroine, and everyone around her, suffers from chronic violence on multiple levels, both physical and psychological. Unpacking these different types of violence and the characters’ responses is key to understanding the story and the depth of the characters.

When the father of Katniss, the heroine, died in a mine explosion when Katniss was eleven years old, “there was nothing even to bury.” Her family lives in a society where stealing is punishable by death, capital punishment being best understood in this context as a kind of violence wielded by the state. The threat of being called by lottery to fight to the death in an arena hangs over the head of every child. Families who live in wealthier areas train their children in martial arts, but when Katniss is called to the arena as the first book opens, she has only her self-taught skill with a bow and arrow (gained at great personal risk by illegally hunting to provide food for her family), and she cannot be sure that she will be provided with this type of weapon when she enters the arena. Katniss knows it will be easier to kill other children if she can dehumanize them and pretend she’s targeting game animals.

To maximize the entertainment value for the viewing public, the children are provided with interesting tools with which they think of innovative ways to kill each other. When Katniss is stuck in a tree, she is nevertheless able to dump an especially venomous bees’ nest onto her pursuers below. She says “technically I’d get credited” for killing two people by this maneuver, but she feels somewhat detached from the consequences of the action. She is more troubled by a different kill, who was “the first person I knew would die because of my actions." Later, in the second book, "Catching Fire", she is disturbed to learn the name of one of the people she killed. It was easier for her not to have that human connection.

In "Catching Fire", Katniss comes to learn more than she ever wanted to know about the cruelty and manipulation perpetrated by the ruler of the land. She has to tell her friend, Gale, that “President Snow personally threatened to have you killed.” In reply, the teenager gives “no real show of fear or astonishment.” He simply asks who else is on the hit list and what they need to do to avoid their fate.

When she enters the arena a second time, Katniss already knows that, regardless of what she feels for other victors, “all of them must die” – as she herself must die – “if I’m to save Peeta,” one of her friends and love interests. However, anticipating and contributing to the deaths of others is difficult after alliances are built. These alliances are supposed to be temporary, because, after a certain point, every person is in the game for himself or herself, as there can only be one victor. But Katniss is troubled by the prospect of harming those who have only recently saved her life and Peeta’s. She has a strong sense of loyalty that tempers her willingness to use violence. She also is attuned to the idea of sacrifice.

The greatest act of violence, solely measured by the number of casualties, must be the government’s annihilation of Katniss and Peeta’s home district. In the third book, "Mockingjay", there is a strong people’s rebellion against the government in response to this offense. Peeta makes the first-ever truthful, personal statement on state-controlled television about what it’s like to fight in the arena: “It costs a lot more than your life. To murder innocent people? It costs everything you are.” (Katniss is also personally familiar with “the aftermath of killing a person…how they never leave you.”) Soon afterward, television is in the hands of the rebels, and Katniss makes the first-ever televised statement against the government.

"Mockingjay" reflects upon the proper use of violence in justified rebellions and in the rules of war, with the aim of minimizing casualties, even on the enemy side. Katniss’s childhood friend Gale doesn’t see anything wrong with luring bystanders into an area that is about to be bombed or with annihilating large areas without giving people a chance to identify themselves and to surrender. Katniss, on the other hand, while possessing a fire for vengeance, has no liking for permanent war. “We almost went extinct fighting one another before. Now our numbers are even fewer. Our conditions more tenuous,” she worries. “Is this really what we want to do? Kill ourselves off completely? In the hopes that – what? Some decent species will inherit the smoking remains of the earth?”

The "Hunger Games" trilogy explores violence in different scenarios. It examines the reasons the powerful and the powerless use violence to achieve their goals. The novels implicitly accept that there are certain scenarios where violence may be necessary for the otherwise powerless and oppressed to remain alive, but they leave a gaping question about whether all-out war can ever be justified or will ever be productive.

Image by: Wikimedia Commons user 'Rama' © 'Free software' under CeCILL (

Monday, July 14, 2014

What does it mean for Katniss to 'survive' in 'Hunger Games'?

The character Katniss faces many challenges in the "Hunger Games" trilogy. She faces starvation, violence, and other threats to her life.

Article originally posted to Helium Network on June 30, 2013.

In the "Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the heroine and her friends must fight to survive. The first book introduces the heroine, Katniss, who is drafted to fight to the death against other teenagers as a kind of televised entertainment. Katniss knows that the boy from her home district is "fighting hard to stay alive,” going so far as to make an apparent alliance with the well-trained fighters from wealthier districts, which also means he's "fighting hard to kill me." Survival in the face of multiple kinds of violence takes on many meanings.

Although Katniss doesn’t want to kill anyone, given the situation, she is forced to do so for her own survival. She is also motivated by her family’s need:  if she doesn’t come home alive, her mother and sister could starve. So, she develops a hatred for certain other fighters in the arena. Regarding the inevitable encounter with a particularly strong, intimidating, brutish boy named Cato, she thinks to herself: "...I'd shoot. I find I'm actually anticipating the moment with pleasure." When a more sensitive boy, Peeta, apologizes for the death of someone who ate poison berries, Katniss tells him: "Don't apologize. It just means we're one step closer to home, right?" After all, the last one standing gets to go home.

Survival of personal identity is a separate question from physical survival. Peeta worries that participating in the game will change who he is, and he prefers to die without giving up his authentic nature as a peaceful person. Katniss, on the other hand, acknowledges that she is already a slave of the state, and her way of protesting is simply to remain angry. When another fighter offends her, she has
"enough fury I think to die with some dignity. As my last act of defiance, I will stare her down as long as I can see, which will probably not be an extended period of time, but I will stare her down, I will not cry out, I will die, in my own small way, undefeated."

In the second book, "Catching Fire," Katniss and Peeta must pretend to be in love with each other. It is part of a psychological game that the ruler imposes upon them. The ruler is aware that a rebellion could sweep the country, and he wants the populace to see Katniss and Peeta as silly children in love – thus Katniss’s assigned stylist goes for “girlish, not sexy” – and not as vital young resistance leaders who point out the chinks in the state’s armor. If Katniss and Peeta don’t do as he says, the ruler can easily have them and their families killed. Katniss understands the ruler’s motivations better than Peeta does, and she believes that “Peeta will perform well whether he knows what's at stake or not.”

Part of what most people think of when they think of “survival” is for things to operate at some level of normalcy. Katniss feels that life is back to normal when the personal stylists assigned to her by the state are no longer requiring her legs to be shaved. Peeta feels more like himself when he can paint a canvas. Being able to go back to “the way things used to be” can be part of psychological survival.

On the other hand, being able to move forward into the future and to adapt is also an important component. If time moves on and leaves someone behind in the past, that person may not survive in the full sense of the word. Katniss’s mentor Haymitch tells her: “You’ll see, the choices you’ll have to make. If we survive this. You’ll learn.” One of the many things Katniss needs to learn is to see things from other people’s perspective. She wonders “how it must have looked from Peeta’s perspective when I appeared in the arena having received burn medicine and bread when he, who was at death’s door, had gotten nothing. Like Haymitch was keeping me alive at his expense.” She also has to understand the choice from Haymitch’s perspective. Understanding why people make certain choices will enable her to predict their actions, which in turn will enable her to prepare and to survive.

When people are focused on survival, they are not able to focus on flourishing, so, in most ways, they are cramped and have few options. There is one sense, however, in which a singular focus on survival can be freeing. After Katniss has tried to meet the ruler’s demands and believes that he is dissatisfied with her, she thinks to herself,
"I can’t guess what form my punishment will take, how wide the net will be cast, but when it is finished, there will most likely be nothing left. So you would think that at this moment, I would be in utter despair. Here’s what’s strange. The main thing I feel is a sense of relief...That if desperate times call for desperate measures, then I am free to act as desperately as I wish."

Katniss begins to feel released from certain routines, social mores, and ethical constraints that could limit the way she fights for her survival. As a general principle, if someone is cruelly prevented from having breakfast every morning, they might resign themselves to keeping track of lunch and dinner, but if the same person is entirely starved, the steps taken to save his or her own life will look like a whole different ball game. They are prodded into fighting back against the person who is depriving them.

In the third book, "Mockingjay," Katniss has a position of responsibility within the citizens’ rebellion against the government. She worries that, if she fails to survive psychologically, she will be of no use to the movement, and then the physical survival of herself and everyone around her will be jeopardized. “What,” she frets, “will break me into a million pieces so that I am beyond repair, beyond usefulness?”

Surviving in the arena turns out to have been good practice for surviving during the rebellion. For those who support her in the rebellion but do not survive, Katniss is aware that she owes them “a debt that can only be repaid in one way” – namely, winning what they set out to do.

Survival is not always a straightforward matter. Just as there are many types of threats, there are different routes that must be taken to survive. People put a lot of energy into their survival strategies, and sometimes the strategies fail. The "Hunger Games" trilogy, exploring the idea of survival from the point of view of a fictional teenager, highlights these complexities.

Image by: Wikimedia Commons user 'Rama' © 'Free software' under CeCILL (

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Gale or Peeta? Katniss's choice in 'The Hunger Games'

"The Hunger Games" is not a love story, but it reveals complexities of relationships, especially within the context of the pressures of war and subterfuge.

Originally posted June 30, 2013 to Helium Network.

"The Hunger Games," a trilogy for young adults by Suzanne Collins, features a heroine who, along with other teenagers, is sent into an arena with lethal weapons and instructions to try to stay alive. The melee is broadcast on live TV for days. The children are sacrificial gladiators for entertainment of the privileged class and for psychological control of the masses. As the story builds through the second and third book, the heroine matures to adulthood by taking a key role in a rebellion against the cruel government.

The theme of love, then, is tricky. The heroine, Katniss, grew up under the threat of starvation and learned to hunt game illegally to provide for her mother and younger sister. Her sister “is the only person in the world I'm certain I love,” she says. (She’s content to receive “no hissing” from the family cat.) She is close friends with her hunting partner, a boy named Gale, and they have some possible mutual romantic interest, but they have not quite established themselves as a couple when Katniss is called into the arena. This takes place in the best-known first book.

For a while, in the arena, she looks out for a younger girl, a sort of substitute for her younger sister at home. The girl is fatally attacked, and in one of the book’s more poignant scenes, Katniss cradles her and sings a lullaby: “Here is the place where I love you.”

The real love story, however, involves a boy named Peeta. He is also one of the other children Katniss is told she must slaughter in the arena. Back home, Peeta once gave her bread, and Katniss worries that kind people such as him could end up “working their way inside me and rooting there.” They form an alliance in the arena, and this makes Katniss nervous, as all such alliances must be temporary. She kisses Peeta for the benefit of the television cameras, and she finds that playing to the audience in this way seems to improve their survival chances. Initially, it is a pure calculation on her part, but gradually, something grows. “I realize how much I don't want him to die,” she thinks. “And it's not about the sponsors. And it's not about what will happen back home. And it's not just that I don't want to be alone. It's him. I do not want to lose the boy with the bread."

Of course, Katniss cannot sort out her true feelings for two boys while running around the wilderness trying to avoid being brutally murdered. In the second book, she is forced into more introspection after the president himself visits and tells her that he had “doubts” about her romantic performance in the arena. This is the same ruler who put her in the arena to begin with. He orders her to convince him and the public that the romance is real. Katniss and Peeta take a sort of public relations tour to convey their love for each other, but violence erupts. Katniss is going to be forced to marry Peeta, and Gale wants to run away with her before that happens. She declines, although she wishes Gale could know “how much better my life has been...for loving him, even if it’s only in the limited way that I can manage.”

In the third book, the relationships become more nuanced. Katniss, Gale and Peeta are heavily and inextricably involved in a full-scale rebellion against the government. Gale and Peeta do not like each other, but they protect each other because they have Katniss in common. They love Katniss, and they know that Katniss loves them both, in her way. They alternately believe that Katniss may turn her affections toward whoever is most pitiful and needs her help to survive, or toward whoever will somehow help her survive.

In planning war tactics, Gale reveals an especially calculating side of himself. He is keenly aware of the enemy’s cruelty and thought process – as, for example, in their willingness to target injured or unsuspecting people – and he takes an “eye-for-an-eye” approach in his desire to return those tactics. Katniss herself can be calculating, and this plays a factor in her romantic decision.

"The Hunger Games" is not a love story, but it does reveal interesting complexities of relationships, especially within the context of the pressures of war and subterfuge. The characters mature significantly during the course of the year that the story spans. As they mature, they are able to reveal more of their own unique virtues and personal desires.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The struggle for power in 'The Hunger Games' trilogy by Suzanne Collins

In the "Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the teenage heroine and narrator Katniss comes to grips with the power that the state wields over her life.

In the "Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the teenage heroine and narrator Katniss comes to grips with the power that the state wields over her life. The state has no qualms about killing its own citizens, including children, in psychologically damaging ways. The state expresses no concern about fairness. Growing up, Katniss learns that “power” is the ability to squash someone like a bug. Her coming-of-age journey is about discovering her own power and the power of the masses to rise up.

In the first book, "The Hunger Games," she looks out for her mother and sister’s welfare but acknowledges that she’s "powerless against the reaping" – that is, the lottery that could call her sister into an arena to fight to the death as a form of entertainment for the state’s wealthier classes and as a method of subduing the rest of the population. The game "is the Capitol's way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy." It is Katniss, not her sister, who ultimately winds up in the arena. Katniss is clear that “it's the Capitol I hate, for doing this to all of us,” not her fellow condemned tributes who are forced to slay each other. She believes that, if she survives, she doesn’t want to marry or bring children into this sort of world. In this situation, she says, "I feel my impotence. There's no way to take revenge on the Capitol. Is there?"

In the second book, "Catching Fire", Katniss must contend with having accidentally sparked a rebel movement. The cruel president wants words with her. Katniss suggests to him that, if her spontaneous, clever actions threaten the Capitol, then the Capitol “must be very fragile.” The president responds: "It is fragile, but not in the way that you suppose." The meaning of this isn’t immediately apparent, but he is referring to the Capitol’s derivation of its wealth from exploiting the poorer districts. If the districts were to rebel against the existing order, the Capitol would collapse economically. He demands that Katniss distract the public from the rebellion she has inadvertently started by pretending to be a silly girl in love. He wants her to provide an alternate interpretation of her actions in the arena: she is to say that she was motivated by personal passion, not by political beliefs. He does not make his agenda quite this explicit, but Katniss gets the idea. She knows she must do as he says.

The state uses violence, swiftly and publicly, to make its points. After her friend Gale is publicly whipped, she reports that “most of the square has emptied, fear getting the better of compassion. But after what just happened, I can’t blame anyone.” Katniss is not convinced that, even if she complies with the president’s orders and marries her ostensible fiancĂ©, Peeta, that she and Peeta (and perhaps Gale and everyone she knows) won’t be killed anyway. She must wear a prescribed wedding dress that may have “power” to “manipulate the crowd.” But what will happen to her when she is no longer useful to the president as part of his televised entertainments?

The police force known as the Peacekeepers attempt to kill her or at least contain her with an electric fence. Luckily, she manages to sneak out of it. She knows she could be arrested for any reason, “based on past crimes,” which include subsistence hunting, “but maybe he has to have something really irrefutable to do it, now that I’m a victor.” In other words, Katniss feels her power rising. Having survived the Hunger Games and gained the status of a victor, she is a public figure. She begins merely as a celebrity. If the state arrests her for no reason, she may become a symbol, inflaming a rebellion. This status gives her bargaining power.

Information is also presented as a kind of power. In this story, the useful information regards how the state is attempting to corner and kill the rebels, including through hostile people who may appear to be individually motivated but whose fundamental reason for violence traces back to the fact that they live in an oppressive state. One of the most dangerous mistakes is to misjudge someone’s true loyalties or intentions.

In the third book, "Mockingjay", the rebels have joined an underground society to stay alive. They talk about forming a democracy, but for the moment the social system is based on precise control of everyone’s diet and daily schedule. When Katniss sees someone bruised, she remembers “how impotent I am.” Yet this sensation is turned on its head when she realizes that an up-and-coming leader must “publicly remind her people that I am not in control.” As a symbol of a revolution, “I have a kind of power I never knew I possessed,” she thinks. This enables her to make a public statement in favor of the rebels declaring “freedom” from the Capitol.

The Hunger Games trilogy is about the state having the power to decide who will be permitted to eke out survival and who will meet a precisely predetermined demise. It is about an awakening that life could be different and that individuals can have power to change the political situation. The uprising is not without violence, and the understanding of power within the story generally includes the capacity to physically defend oneself or to ally with someone who can.

Article originally posted to Helium Network on July 1, 2013.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

'If we burn, you burn with us': Rebellion in the 'Hunger Games' trilogy

Katniss Everdeen learns about rebellion the hard way in Suzanne Collins's "Hunger Games" trilogy, in which a miserable populace rises up against an oppressive government.

Rebellion is one of the most complex themes in the "Hunger Games" trilogy. In this fictional dystopia created by Suzanne Collins, the government known as "the Capitol" keeps its twelve districts geographically and informationally isolated from each other, leaving them in varying degrees of poverty. Most famously, each year the Capitol forcibly drafts a boy and a girl from each district by random selection to fight to the death in a technologically enhanced wilderness arena. With 24 teenagers pitted against each other, only one can survive. The Capitol's purpose behind this exercise is to remind the public of a failed uprising that had occurred 75 years previously, emphasizing its victory and continued power and warning them against attempting to rise up again. Despite this expressed intent, on practical and symbolic levels this arrangement cannot but foment politicized anger, and while the motif of the first novel mostly focuses on the morbid thrill of the game, the second and third books in the trilogy follow the citizens' rebellion.

The teenage heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is a rebel from the beginning. It is not that she has a naturally rebellious personality, but she has a fighting spirit, so, for example, she hunts game to ensure that her mother and sister do not starve in their poor district despite the illegality of hunting. In a limited sense, this already makes her a rebel against the Capitol's power.

Book 1

The first instance of collective rebellion occurs early in the first book, "The Hunger Games," when Katniss is chosen to be sent to fight to the death in the Hunger Games arena. Her younger sister was chosen by lottery, and Katniss publicly volunteers to take her place. The master of ceremonies shouts, "Let's give a big round of applause to our newest tribute!" But, according to Katniss's narration, "To the everlasting credit of the people of District 12, not one person claps...[this is] the boldest form of dissent they can manage. Silence. Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong." Additionally, Haymitch - one of the officials who helps to run the Games and who will become her ally - says that Katniss has lots of spunk, and then points to the camera and says: "More than you!" Katniss wonders if he is "taunting the Capitol."

Katniss performs small acts that resist authority if she believes she can get away with them. Before the Games start, when she is in training at the Capitol, she eats with her fingers and wipes her hands on the tablecloth to protest the assumptions of her handlers. When the Gamemakers pay more attention to their dinner than her archery during training, she shoots an apple out of their roasted pig's mouth and leaves "without being dismissed."

Friendship is a kind of rebellion in this kill-and-be-killed society. When a younger girl, Rue, dies in the arena, Katniss decorates her body with flowers - a gesture that the Capitol does not show on the retrospective video. Before the games begin, Katniss's stylist recommends that she publicly hold hands with the boy tribute warrior from her district, which Haymitch calls "just the perfect touch of rebellion"; at the end of the games, the rebellion is far more brazen, when she and the boy threaten to commit suicide together. She is compelled to argue publicly that this was an act of romantic passion, not a calculated act of rebellion.

Book 2

At the beginning of "Catching Fire," Katniss recalls:

"All I was doing was trying to keep Peeta and myself alive. Any act of rebellion was purely coincidental. But when the Capitol decrees that only one tribute can live and you have the audacity to challenge it, I guess that's a rebellion in itself."

She knows the president will never forgive her for this. She apologizes: "I didn't mean to start any uprisings." He replies: "I believe you. It doesn't matter."

Now, when the public sees her appear as a victor of the Hunger Games, they greet her with a special salute: a kiss blown with three fingers of the left hand. This is an active gesture of resistance, rather than the passive gesture of silence that they offered when she was drafted. Something has changed in the public's consciousness. They are honoring the image of a mockingjay - a kind of bird in their fictional world - simultaneously to honor Katniss and to symbolize their rebellion. The double meaning of the symbol is kept secret from the Capitol to maintain its usefulness.

"When they chant my name, it is more of a cry for vengeance than a cheer. When the Peacekeepers move in to quiet an unruly crowd, it presses back instead of retreating. And I know there's nothing I could ever do to change this."

Katniss feels upset that her actions, meant only to promote her own survival, have somehow triggered an uprising in one of the districts. She tells her friend Gale that she wishes everyone could be safe. Gale responds excitedly that the people want freedom, not safety. "It's finally happening!" he says, speculating that the uprising could spread across all the districts.

It was Katniss's threat in the arena to kill herself and the other tribute from her district that has inspired the districts to rebel. When she thinks back to that action, she wonders what she intended by it.

"I realize the answer to who I am lies in that handful of poisonous fruit. If I held them out to save Peeta because I knew I would be shunned if I came back without him, then I am despicable. If I held them out because I loved him, I am still self-centered, although forgivable. But if I held them out to defy the Capitol, I am someone of worth. The trouble is, I don't know exactly what was going on inside me at that moment."

Katniss continues to feel torn between Gale and Peeta, who see each other as romantic rivals. Both of them are associated with the rebellion: Gale because he has the fire in him, Peeta because he has charisma.

Gradually it becomes apparent that the rebellion is widespread, and the government is using bombs and public executions to quell it. The Capitol experiences shortages of the goods that it normally depends upon the districts to produce. The president makes it clear to Katniss that she is expected to marry Peeta; he hopes that a celebrity wedding will distract the people's energy away from politics. They are kept away from past victors of the Hunger Games.

Before Katniss and Peeta are sent back into the arena to fight again, they each make a display of resistance: Katniss hangs an official in effigy, and Peeta paints a picture of the young girl, Rue, whose corpse Katniss had decorated with flowers, "to hold them accountable, if only for a moment. For killing that little girl." At this point, she is consciously hoping to "give hope to the rebels" by her own unassailable defiance. She is also willing to sacrifice herself in the arena to save Peeta, in part because she believes that he is more valuable to the rebellion.

One of the last powerful images in "Catching Fire" occurs when Katniss's stylist creates a dress for her that, to her surprise, dissolves into smoke while she is on camera, revealing feathers underneath that make her look like a mockingjay. It sends a message to everyone who knows that a mockingjay symbolizes the rebellion. Even though Katniss is not always savvy about politics, outreach, or "messaging," others are able to use her fame to create this kind of language.

Book 3

The last book in the series, "Mockingjay," begins with Katniss's understanding that she must accept her destiny as the face of the rebellion. The rebels continue trying to groom her body and her language for her television appearances, just as the Capitol had done when she was televised on the Hunger Games. Eventually, however, they realize that their effort is backfiring because it makes Katniss seem less authentic: "Every time we coach her or give her lines, the best we can hope for is okay. It has to come from her. That's what people are responding to." Katniss spontaneously comes up with the line: "Fire is catching! And if we burn, you burn with us!" This is the first time in anyone's memory that an explicitly "anti-Capitol statement" is made on television.

There is another leader, Alma Coin, who seems to ally with Katniss, and Katniss expresses her intention to kill President Snow who is responsible for the political oppression, using the line: "Just one more thing. I kill Snow." Katniss's understanding of rebellion is not purely destructive; she has, for example, the optimism that her younger sister could have a career in medicine.

Katniss remembers a song that she heard as a child and had never understood properly. She realizes now why it was banned by the Capitol. In the song, a hanged man asks his lover to hang herself, too. Why? So she won't become the enemy's; so she can avoid turning her knowledge over to them. As she explains it, "the man wants his lover dead rather than have her face the evil that awaits her in the world." She thinks of this song later when she leaves Peeta with a "nightlock" suicide pill.


The trilogy is fundamentally about rebellion, which can be seen even in the titles of the books: "The Hunger Games" are the primary source of the people's misery; "Catching Fire" expresses how an uprising takes hold and begins to spread without necessarily having a single leader who orders and directs it; "Mockingjay" refers to the power of an image to inspire people.

Throughout the series, the themes of rebellion are complex, in part because Katniss is a narrator who does not always understand her own motivations and who, despite caring passionately about others' welfare, has a good deal of emotional confusion and inconsistency. She learns about political rebellion the hard way, by being thrown into it, and the experience defines her entry into adulthood.

Article originally posted to Helium Network on Jan. 3, 2014.

Image by: Wikimedia Commons user 'Rama' © 'Free software' under CeCILL (

Monday, July 7, 2014

'Hunger Games' based on the Minotaur legend: A review of the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy

Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games is a brilliant fantasy about teenagers forced by the state to kill each other.

The theme is plausibly drawn from the Greek legend of the Minotaur, a mythical beast caged inside a labyrinth. The Minotaur was fed adolescent human beings, seven boys and seven girls, sent from Athens every year as tribute to the King of Crete.

In the Hunger Games twist on this ancient motif, twelve boys and twelve girls are demanded as annual tributes by the Capitol of the land of Panem representing its twelve districts. Those sent are chosen by lottery. They are thrown into an unforgiving outdoor arena from which twenty-three must be removed as corpses and only one may leave alive. While in the arena, they are given meager food rations, inadequate survival gear, and simple weapons to encourage them to kill each other in hand-to-hand combat. The Capitol televises the "games" over a period of several days and requires the districts to treat it as an annual celebration.

The Hunger Games series was published as a trilogy for young adults: The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010). The narrator is sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen.  She is one of the tributes, and the fact that she is narrating the story — in present tense — strongly hints as to who the winner of the Games might be.

Because this is a classic story line with a diabolical twist, every writer wants a chance to describe the plot, which is undoubtedly part of the reason The Hunger Games received so much media attention when the movie came to theaters in March 2012. In that regard it shares something in common with Life of Pi (2001), an award-winning fantasy novel that reviewers gleefully cheered for being about a sixteen-year-old Indian boy named Pi Patel who was stranded at sea in a lifeboat with a hungry tiger named Richard Parker. Sometimes the very premise of a book is its own endorsement.

The Hunger Games' land of Panem is set in a future era on the North American continent. In some ways it is slightly more technologically advanced than our current society. The inhabitants are able to live-broadcast the Games as a reality television show, aided by tracking devices implanted in the tributes' bodies, and are mysteriously able to capture even quiet conversations in the video. They can nearly instantaneously send gifts to the tributes by remote-controlled parachutes and can quickly remove corpses by hovercraft. They control the outdoor conditions — the terrain and possibly the weather — to a certain extent. They have bioengineered several dangerous, even demonic, new species.

Part of the Hunger Games' literary magic is that these technologies are simply given as facts about the world. There is no attempt, as there would be in "hard science fiction," to explain how any of these technologies work. Perhaps this is omitted because the young narrator would not be expected to find it a matter of concern.

In other ways, however, Panem's culture is primitive. There is not enough food for everyone so many poor people starve to death. Some, like the heroine Katniss, hunt with a bow and arrow if they are lucky enough to have such a tool, or more commonly with knives. There are land mines, but no mention of the existence of guns; most violence is up close and personal. Nor is there any mention of cell phones or personal computers. At school — Katniss's district is located over the land formerly known as Appalachia — they are mostly taught about coal.

The society also seems to be free of religion, at least as Katniss portrays it. Even when facing death, no one ever references a belief in a higher power. The grinding poverty does not seem to generate any kind of communal organization to provide material or inspirational support. The concept of religion seems unknown. The most heavily ritualized aspect of their society is the Hunger Games itself which is run by the state.

This odd premise is reminiscent of the reality show "Survivor," which first aired in the United States in 2000, in which contestants successively vote each other off an island wilderness until only one person remains, a format that naturally inspires them to form alliances early on and later to fend for themselves against their former teammates. As for the fictional land of Panem where the Hunger Games television show proceeds without the full consent of the participants and is a national fixation, it evokes the movie "The Truman Show" (1998). The use of a lottery to mark innocent people for death recalls Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" (1948). The violent society where children are the main agents must inevitably spur references to William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" (1954) and Stephen King's "Children of the Corn" (1977).

The series is enormously popular with teenagers. Their interest in the books disturbs some adults because the subject matter is so violent, but the reasons for the books' appeal are clear.

Anyone reading such a story asks: How would I react in this situation? Katniss has known all her life that being called to serve as a "tribute" is a possibility, even a likelihood for her.  She wastes no time feeling scared, engaging in panicky behavior, composing goodbye messages, or pondering abstract questions. She simply does what has to be done. Her lack of introspection and her inhibited emotional range does come back to bite her later, however, indirectly setting the stage for a sequel.

Insofar as there is an interpersonal core to the story, children are likely roped in because it is so obvious to the reader that the boy who professes love to Katniss is sincere, while Katniss erroneously persists in believing he is faking. The reader feels drawn into the story because they know something the narrator doesn't. Katniss may be near-invincible with a bow and arrow but her self-awareness is flawed.

Although adults may find the drama partially ruined by the author's careful explanations of crucial elements, this is presented on the right level for kids. For example, Katniss, accustomed to killing animals, says of her impending role as a gladiator, "The awful thing is that if I can forget they're people, it will be no different at all." This line might be gratuitous if the story were written for adults who could be expected to draw the connection between hunting animals and hunting people. For a child, however, this book could be an eye-opening first exposure to the concept that people have to "dehumanize" each other to be capable of systematic violence toward each other. As another example, Katniss sometimes asks herself questions like "Is he saving that information [about my skill with a bow and arrow] because he knows it's all that keeps him alive? Is he still pretending to love me for the audience?  What is going on in his head?" Again, experienced readers should already be attentive to the mysteries of other characters' minds, but newer readers may appreciate that the problems of these mysteries are made so explicit for them.

Finally, Katniss's strength and resilience may be inspiring to people at a vulnerable young age. After all, Rollo May observed in Power and Innocence that "there seems to be inherent in human life an urge to get over innocence. Is this related, in some curious way, to the urge to get beyond the age when we can be so easily sacrificed?"

From a thirty-something childless guy: Cool parents let their kids read this book.

This article was originally published to Helium Network on April 1, 2012.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The impact of Blackwater's 2007 shooting in Nisour Square

The mass shooting in Nisour Square in Baghdad was a turning point for the U.S.-based security company Blackwater Worldwide and for the U.S. intervention in post-war Iraq as a whole. Iraq subsequently denied Blackwater a license to operate in the country, and diplomacy was strained again when the US dropped charges against the responsible men.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Nov. 23, 2010.

Blackwater trained private security contractors, thousands of whom worked for hire in post-war Iraq as bodyguards and in other paramilitary roles. While these guards generally had prior military experience, they were civilians, were not subject to military rules, and were immune from criminal prosecution while working in Iraq.

Bloomberg News reported that Blackwater contractors "were linked to 195 shooting incidents from 2005 through 2008, with them firing the first shots more than 80 percent of the time, according to a 2008 report prepared by the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee." Pres. George W. Bush's lengthy memoir of his eight-year presidency published in 2010 made no mention of the security company.

The most notorious incident occurred on Sept. 16, 2007, when Blackwater guards opened fire at a busy intersection in Baghdad outside the fortified Green Zone, killing 17 civilians, including women and children, and wounding many others. The guards claimed that they were in the square to respond to a bomb threat and that they fired in self-defense. However, an Iraqi investigation found that the shooting was unprovoked and referred to the killings as "murder." Iraqis were outraged by the incident, and diplomatic relations with the United States were strained.

The US had invaded Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein and had transferred sovereignty back to a newly formed government in 2004. Despite their formal sovereignty, Iraq was unable to prosecute the Blackwater employees, who had immunity under U.S. law.

In October 2007, a month after the shooting in Nisour Square, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the MEJA Expansion and Enforcement Act (H.R. 2740) which would have made U.S. security contractors in Iraq subject to U.S. criminal law; however, the Senate never voted on it. Instead, the "Status of Forces Agreement" between the two countries in December 2008 made the contractors subject to Iraqi criminal law.

Former Blackwater guards Donald Ball, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nick Slatten, and Paul Slough surrendered to the FBI in December 2008, each facing 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter, and one count of using a firearm in the commission of a violent crime. These men, all military veterans in their 20s, pled not guilty. A sixth guard, Jeremy Ridgeway, had already pleaded guilty to one count of manslaughter, attempt to commit murder and aiding and abetting, and had agreed to testify against the other five. The company itself faced no charges. It was the Dept. of Justice's first prosecution of personnel hired by the Dept. of Defense, which is permitted under a 2004 amendment to the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act.

In January 2009, Iraq denied Blackwater Worldwide a license to operate in the country, citing the shooting in Nisour Square. As the incident had damaged Blackwater's reputation, the company re-branded itself Xe (pronounced "zee") the next month. That summer, Blackwater ceased providing services in Baghdad and surrounding areas.

A federal judge dismissed the manslaughter charges against the five guards in December 2009. In a 90-page ruling, he said that federal prosecutors had violated the men's Fifth Amendment rights by coercing them to make statements under the threat of the loss of their jobs. Iraq was scandalized by the dismissal of the charges. On Jan. 1, 2010, Iraq announced it would sue the five guards. Additionally, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told CNN on Jan. 3 that the government wanted to expel from the country anyone who had ever worked for Blackwater and did not intend to inform or consult the U.S. Embassy on this decision.  Vice President Joe Biden, in his role as overseer of Iraq policy, quickly promised Iraqi leaders that the US would appeal the court's decision in the Nisour Square case.

In June 2010, Blackwater's billionaire founder Erik Prince was said to be seeking a buyer for the company. The company was purchased later that year and was rebranded "Academi". In June 2014, it merged with Triple Canopy; the resulting company is called

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A look at the Blackwater controversy in Iraq (2007)

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Dec. 2, 2007.

The word "mercenary," meaning a solider for hire, usually has negative associations because such a soldier is often presumed to kill primarily for money rather than allegiance to a government, and because he is often not subject to codes of military law and ethics. As such, Blackwater Worldwide (formerly Blackwater USA), which supplements the U.S. military in Iraq, does not refer to its soldiers as mercenaries. Jeremy Scahill noted in "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army" (2007) that journalists fall prey to a "very sophisticated rebranding campaign" when they "refer to these shadowy forces as 'civilian contractors' or 'foreign reconstruction workers' as though they were engineers, construction workers, humanitarians, or water specialists." (p. xxvi)

Part of the reason Iraq is such a dangerous place today, spurring the work of companies like Blackwater, is the hasty and fumbled decision-making that occurred during and shortly after the invasion. When L. Paul Bremer III arrived in Iraq in May 2003 to serve as the post-invasion administrative authority, he said, "Occupation is an ugly word. But it is a fact." (Scahill, p. 64) Bremer's initial actions have become subjects of controversy. His "Order 1" consisted in firing state workers, including teachers and doctors, who had been affiliated with Saddam's Baath party. Doing business under Saddam's regime necessitated affiliation with the Baath party, so virtually all experienced workers were fired, whether they truly sympathized with Saddam or not. Bremer's "Order 2" was to fire the 400,000 men in Saddam's army, which instantly generated hostility towards the U.S. occupation for a large number of newly unemployed Iraqi men who were trained in firearms. One analyst has said that paying these men for one year, so that they could have continued to feed their families, would only have cost the equivalent of what the U.S. pays to occupy the country for three days.

Guarding the life of this administrator was Blackwater's unenviable job. Just before leaving the country in 2004, Bremer issued "Order 17" which gave the mercenaries, on whom his life depended, immunity from prosecution. (Scahill p. xx) A New York Times story on Oct. 11, 2007 quoted Bremer as claiming that "the immunity is not absolute" and that mercenaries must "respect all Iraqi laws."

The U.S. military in Iraq is bound by American military law [the Uniform Code of Military Justice], but mercenaries for the US in Iraq are not necessarily bound by any law-especially when they are hired by the U.S. State Dept., which is a civilian agency. No mercenary has been prosecuted for any crime during the current occupation, although about 100,000 contractors currently work for the US in Iraq. Scott Horton, a Columbia University lecturer, complained about this absurdity in the New York Times (Oct. 11, 2007): "Imagine a town of 100,000 people, and there hasn't been a prosecution in three years." Horton said he thinks the best chance for a legal tool to hold mercenaries accountable is the Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act.

Blackwater soldiers are placed at great risk. One of the most gruesome images of U.S. fatalities during the occupation in Iraq was etched in memory on March 31, 2004, when four Blackwater soldiers drove through Fallujah. Machine-gun fire tore through their jeeps, and a mob of three hundred people dragged the dead soldiers out of the burning cars and tore off their limbs. Their charred torsos were hung from a bridge over the Euphrates river. Blackwater still argues that the estates and lawyers of the dead mercenaries cannot speak to the press about the company, because the mercenaries themselves had signed a contract that they would not do so (New York Times, Oct. 31, 2007).

Iraq remains a dangerous place for diplomats, too, even with an extensive U.S. military and mercenary presence. As of July 2007, the American Foreign Service Association memorial plaques in Washington had inscribed five names of U.S. State Dept. employees who died during foreign service in Iraq. These include: James Mollen, Edward Seitz, Barbara Heald, Keith Taylor, and Stephen Sullivan. Diplomats from other nations and the UN have also been killed.

The most devastating incident for Blackwater public relations involved the slaughter of Iraqi civilians. On Sept. 16, 2007, Blackwater soldiers opened fire in Nusoor Square in Baghdad, killing 17 civilians, including women and children. The next day, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki requested that Blackwater leave the country. Subsequent investigations by Iraq and by the U.S. FBI concluded that the killings were unjustified. Despite al-Maliki's insistence that Blackwater leave, 845 Blackwater guards were still assigned to protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq at the end of October 2007 (New York Times, Oct. 31, 2007).

Friday, July 4, 2014

What happens if you're caught 'Conning Harvard': A cautionary tale

Adam B. Wheeler made headlines in 2010 when it was discovered that he had gained admission to Harvard under false pretenses. His prize-winning work was also faked.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Jan. 21, 2014.

"Conning Harvard" is the tale of Adam Wheeler, a student of middling capabilities who faked his way into Harvard University and nearly secured a treasured Rhodes Scholarship. The book was capably written by Julie Zauzmer (Harvard '13), an undergrad student reporter at the campus newspaper The Crimson. Zauzmer began reporting on the scandal when the story broke in 2010; the book was published at the beginning of her senior year.

Years ago, writer Ben Marcus warned a group of creative writing students at Brown University that there is no inherent drama in fictionalized accounts of the tense wait for a college acceptance letter. In "Conning Harvard," however, Zauzmer presents a counterexample to this rule. She successfully built a whole nonfiction book around one individual's college application process, and she made it interesting to follow.

Two years at Bowdoin College

Who was Adam Wheeler, really? To begin with, he graduated from Caesar Rodney, a public high school in Delaware. The SAT scores of students at that school were a little below the national average. Wheeler was a perfectionist and performed in the top 10 percent of his class, eking into the school's National Honor Society chapter.

When he filled out the "Common App," a system that can be used to apply to multiple colleges, he cut and pasted passages from the Harvard Crimson's "50 Successful Harvard Application Essays" and clicked the online signature to represent that the application was his "own work, factually true, and honestly presented." He applied to Bowdoin College, and, although his SAT scores weren't especially competitive for that school, he was accepted.

Arriving at Bowdoin in the Fall of 2005, he plagiarized a short passage for his personal statement of goals during his freshman year. In that statement, he claimed that grades were extremely important to him, yet in actuality, he was silent in classes and didn't attend professors' office hours; he was better known on campus for playing Ultimate Frisbee under the nickname "Fudge" on a team called "Stoned Clown." His studies were mainly in English classes. In the spring, he received a poetry prize after submitting a poem he did not write ("Hay" by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon).

He missed the deadlines for his final exams and papers and received an extension from a dean. That summer, he bulked up physically through weightlifting.

Entering his sophomore year, he was placed in a residence in which most students participated in the social organization of the house, but he merely lived there. That spring, he jumped into intermediate-level philosophy classes and was caught by Prof. Scott Sehon passing off sections of journal articles, without quotation marks or citations, as his personal responses to readings. After a hearing by the university, he was allowed to finish the semester but was told that he would face a one-semester suspension after that.

Applying to Harvard

Wheeler hadn't planned to return to Bowdoin, anyway. He'd already been pouring energy into writing a compelling 50-page work of fiction: an application to transfer to Harvard University.
Many students transfer from one college to another. In Wheeler's case, it is interesting because, instead of truthfully representing himself as a product of Caesar Rodney High School and Bowdoin College, he invented a wholly alternate life story.

He faked a four-year transcript from the prestigious Phillips Academy college prep school in Andover, Mass. - which he never attended - as well as a recommendation from someone at that school using text copied from a published book of sample recommendation letters. He claimed to have taken courses at MIT during his junior and senior years at Andover, and he faked a transcript of a freshman year at MIT, during which he supposedly received A's in six classes. (MIT does not even allow freshmen to take that many classes.) He outlandishly claimed that this freshman year featured writing prizes, two fellowships and a plan to teach a course at MIT that spring. If these lies were not brazen and astonishing enough, he forged SAT score reports, claiming perfect scores on the general exam as well as on numerous subject tests. Additionally, he forged perfect scores on no fewer than 16 AP tests.

His essays and personal statements were, unsurprisingly, also plagiarized. Zauzmer explains, sentence by sentence, how he concocted this "amalgamation" of academic language written by others. For a writing sample, he passed off poetry taken from Richard Kenney's "The Evolution of the Flightless Bird" as his own.

When a Harvard alum interviewed him in a Bowdoin College library, Wheeler pretended he had finished his MIT semester early and was temporarily working as a professor's research assistant at Bowdoin.

Although the acceptance rate for undergraduate transfer to Harvard from another school can be as low as 1 percent, Wheeler's impressive application got him in.

Two years at Harvard

After that point, the story of who Wheeler "really" was blends into the story of who he pretended to be. Although he'd actually completed his sophomore year at Bowdoin, he was pretending to have completed only his freshman year at MIT, and thus he planned to repeat his sophomore year at Harvard and spend a total of three years there.

Wheeler's introductory email to other transfer students used overwrought language such as "I am sententious, crypto-tendentious, slightly pedantic..." A graduate student described his academic work as stringing together sentences that sounded good: "a somewhat incoherent assembly of 25 really decent sentences." His grades during his first semester at Harvard put him on academic probation, but in his second year at Harvard - allegedly his "junior" year, but really his fourth year in college - he took 11 courses, somehow receiving all A's (only two "minuses" among them).

Submitting a chapter of the Cornell doctoral dissertation of Daniel Brayton under his own name, Wheeler won Harvard's top undergraduate writing award that came with a significant cash prize.

Faking another application, claiming to have been a Harvard student all along and to have taken courses at Harvard Law School, and accompanying it with a nonsensically dense essay on T. S. Eliot, he was admitted to the Bread Loaf program at Oxford University in England in the summer after his junior year. He was awarded an even larger grant than he asked for.


Returning from Oxford, at the beginning of his senior year at Harvard in the Fall of 2009, Wheeler applied internally at Harvard for the extremely competitive Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships. He presented the committee with a completely forged transcript from their own institution, claiming to have taken 34 classes over three years with a 3.99 GPA. He included three recommendations from Harvard professors; one written based upon a professor's favorable impression of his false resume; one that was partially altered; and one that was wholly fabricated. Although all of this could have been easily fact-checked, it was not what alerted the committee to his lies. Rather, Wheeler's fatal step was in his submission of a copy of his professor Stephen Greenblatt's work. The essay sounded strangely familiar to James Simpson, who recognized it as the work of his colleague that had been printed in a limited distribution booklet that he happened to still have on his shelf. Simpson's emergency alert to the review committee interrupted Wheeler's near-inclusion on the Rhodes Scholarship short list.

Wheeler declined to appear at his inevitable plagiarism hearing, announcing instead in a brief email to the dean that he was withdrawing from Harvard. Harvard officials soon realized that his transcripts were forged and that his recent undergraduate academic work was routinely plagiarized from other people's dissertations. Even the date of birth on his passport looked amiss.

Having returned home to Delaware, Wheeler thought an application to Yale would be his exit strategy, but this was not possible. Zauzmer explains that "Harvard made the admirable decision" to treat Wheeler's lies as criminal offenses, causing a public scandal but at least addressing the issue, rather than trying to cover up their own embarrassment over the turn of events. Wheeler was charged with 20 criminal counts: forging signatures, fabricating transcripts, and fraud that netted him over $45,000 in grants and financial aid. A sealed indictment enabled law enforcement to surprise him at his home in Delaware in May 2010. He was jailed for one week and released on bail. He pled guilty in December 2010, receiving a sentence of 10 years probation - banning him from appearing at Harvard, MIT and Andover or otherwise representing himself as a student at those institutions - and an order to pay restitution of all money fraudulently obtained and to seek psychological help.

Wheeler began working so that he could make the restitution payments. In July 2011, having lost his job, he applied - with no obvious purpose - for an unpaid part-time internship, for which he represented himself as a former Harvard student, thus violating the terms of his probation. A judge concluded he had a "mental illness" and that his lies displayed "an element of compulsivity."

As a young child, Wheeler had briefly suffered developmental delays after being shaken as a baby, but even with this knowledge, doctors couldn't identify anything wrong with him and "diagnosed" him simply as a remorseless liar. The judge sentenced him to one year in prison to be followed by mental health treatment.


Zauzmer says she wrote a "cautionary tale" in a climate of college admissions in which, across all colleges, plagiarism and lies can supposedly be found in 14 percent of essays, half of transcripts and nearly all recommendation letters.

It's hard to catch plagiarists. Harvard admissions does raise eyebrows at writing samples that seem "too good," especially relative to other grades and scores, but it's too time-consuming to fact-check every credential from every institution for every person. After all, Harvard received over 30,000 applications to the Class of 2016.

People who only want to claim a credential may just photocopy a diploma. Of people who, by contrast, pretend to be college students or gain admission by fraud, Zauzmer notes that they can be motivated by family pressure, narcissism or the desire for the college experience.

One observation that, had it been included, might have improved the book - although it surely would have upset some at her university - is that Wheeler leveraged a certain style of academic writing that can be so obfuscating that even scholars in the field won't admit to suspecting that a certain passage might be nonsense, not wishing to reveal themselves as unable to understand it. Wheeler was so good at fictionalizing his life and amalgamating passages, he might legitimately have become a novelist. That he chose fake literary criticism rather than honest creative writing, and that he succeeded for a long time in doing so, is a potentially damning indictment of English departments everywhere.

Zauzmer did not interview Wheeler himself or speculate about his deeper motivations. She interviewed people who knew him, but not his close friends or family. By the time the story broke, Wheeler was already in legal trouble. Her book is probably better off without introducing the confusion of whatever Wheeler's version of events might have been or however he might have rationalized his actions. The facts reported by others create a story that speaks for itself.

Zauzmer also avoids giving any strong recommendation about how to avoid passing through blatant fabrications like Wheeler's in the future. It is hard to imagine a solution. Students and faculty can't check the resume of even a small fraction of their colleagues. Besides, informal "resume checks" are notoriously slanted by the prejudice that one is likely to be unqualified based on race, gender or background, and in this regard, these "checks" serve more as social weapons than as quests for truth.

Perhaps a plagiarism check could be most efficiently achieved if it were centralized at the level of each student's Common App before the application is distributed to dozens of colleges. On the other hand, encouraging multiple reviewers downstream increases the likelihood that plagiarism will be detected. What ultimately caught Wheeler's lies at Bowdoin and Harvard was not a computer program, but professors who noticed that his work sounded too good or too familiar and who realized that they personally knew the real author. In other words, it was the attention and commitment of genuinely educated scholars - something for which there is still no substitute.