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Suzanne Collins’ Panem, her imagined society of The Hunger Games where a small minority dominates the majority, is offered as a consequence of a thinly described war some 74 years in the past. Amid turmoil rooted in social upheaval, a war ensued and ended with the Treaty of Treason wherein the Hunger Games were established to cement and perpetuate the Capital’s dominance over the 12 Districts.

There can be no greater submission to the will of others than to surrender your own children to near-certain death in the Games.

It is hard to imagine a world where a majority has been more completely coerced and dominated. While Collins doesn’t dwell on the origins of conflict, the consequences are the heart of her theme. This is what happens when a minority finds levers of power to use against the rest to present a single, binary choice:

Rule or Ruin.
Or perhaps we can characterize it as Ruin or Ruin, since the “rule” choice blesses the minority’s intention to act in its own selfish interest regardless of the harm it causes others.

Our road to Panem may be approaching that intersection. A minority in Congress has decided to hold the entire government hostage over a variety of pet peeves.  The choice they offer the rest of us is a) we rule you, or b) we ruin you.  This is coupled with the clear whiff of disdain for the legitimacy of the rest of us.

We’ve been here before, over 150 years ago.

In 1859, On the eve of the Civil War, a Presidential aspirant, Abraham Lincoln, gave an address at the Cooper Union that electrified his supporters and plainly laid out the struggle of the age over slavery [thanks to diarist madasheck for bringing this up this week]. At that point, the South was aggressively attempting to perpetuate slavery both in their own territories and in the new territories being opened in the West, coupled with the threat to secede from the Union if they did not get their way.

Lincoln was refuting the argument that there was an “implied” if not express right in the Constitution to own slaves. Lincoln deftly tore apart the historical argument of the founders intent, casting the issue as–at best–a matter of interpretation and historical context. That, of course, was insufficient for the secessionists, whose position Lincoln boiled down thus:

But you will break up the Union rather than submit to a denial of your Constitutional rights.

That has a somewhat reckless sound; but it would be palliated, if not fully justified, were we proposing, by the mere force of numbers, to deprive you of some right, plainly written down in the Constitution. But we are proposing no such thing.

When you make these declarations, you have a specific and well-understood allusion to an assumed Constitutional right of yours, to take slaves into the federal territories, and to hold them there as property. But no such right is specifically written in the Constitution. That instrument is literally silent about any such right. We, on the contrary, deny that such a right has any existence in the Constitution, even by implication.

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.

He challenged the South to live up to the promise and burdens of democracy. Lincoln conceded in the speech that slavery in the South was there to stay, drawing his line only over whether slavery was acceptable elsewhere. What happened thereafter was war.

This all sounds a little too familiar. Once again, a minority group is threatening to destroy the Union if it does not get its way.  Once again a minority is attempting to short circuit or break–outside the normal processes–democratic decisions with which they disagree, in effect making the survival of the Union conditioned on submission to their terms.

Rule or Ruin.

Nor is this some sudden burst of suppressed opposition coming out of nowhere. It is an open secret that this crisis has been in the planning for months in Republican circles. But that understates the time span within which the desire for crisis has been fermenting. Lest you forget that many of these Congressmen ran–in some cases over several cycles–on the promise to shut down the federal government, Rachel Maddow’s recent segment on this is a must-see:            

There is more to this than meets the eye.

In what way is this different from the slavery controversy at the heart of the Civil War? Electing representatives who openly intend to harm the government is little different from electing representatives on a pro-slavery, pro-secession ticket. In the most fundamental sense it presents the same existential threat to democratic governance. The subject matter and threat modality may be different, but the risks–should the trajectory of the controversy remain unchecked–are clearly the same.  Because democracy assumes that all players will accept democratic outcomes so long as they can fairly participate in democratic processes, the rejection of that principal by a minority undermines and threatens the legitimacy of the democracy itself.

Rule or Ruin.

Should you perceive this argument as alarmist?  Sure, why not.  But then, even as late as 1859 smart people like Lincoln thought the South would pull back from the brink. To this day, some in the South perpetuate a denial of what the Civil War was about, cloaking their denial in the phrase “war of northern aggression.” For some, that war has not ended (though exactly what their stake is in that old conflict is unclear).  Keep that mind.

If the minority will not accept democratic rule, then we are going to war.  Really.  The rest of us won’t start it, but it will come anyway just as the South fired the first shots in the Civil War. It is the only logical outcome of their position; their insistence that democratic outcomes with which they disagree are illegitimate. And let’s face it: thanks to the NRA this country is armed to the teeth. Perhaps we need to pay closer attention to whack-nut calls for insurrection or coup, especially when linked to a major political party. Colby King thinks the coup by the New Confederacy will be bloodless; I say that ultimately the bloodletting becomes inevitable if we continue down this road.

The problem with wars hot and cold is that the outcomes are never certain and unintended collateral damage is the norm. We are, in the aftermath of WWII, accustomed to thinking of war as a good vs. evil endeavor (more recent evidence to the contrary notwithstanding) in which good will always find the way to overcome evil. Historically, of course, war is far more about the application of power by one population to obtain submission from another. Collins’ Panem represents the kind of perverse result that can plausibly flow from a modern civil war, especially when one side controls key technologies and is determined to fully disenfranchise the rest. Some of the bitterest southern “memories” of the Civil War are from the immediate post-war period when the Union suppressed the South in various ways. Even good people behave badly under the right circumstances; it is an aspect of human nature we should never forget.

The future is only what may come to pass. That uncertainty can induce complacency that somehow, given enough time, our current problems will be solved without harm. Often that works out. Problems that challenge the foundations of our society are not ordinary problems, though, because they question the essential mechanism of our self-governance. In that context, complacency will pave the road to Panem. There comes a time when you have to recognize that the direction you are headed leads to an undesirable future if you don’t change course.

That time may be here.

Originally posted to Sagebrush Grouse on Sun Oct 06, 2013 at 12:25 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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