The Randomness Of Our Leaders, In Fiction And In Life

Noah Berlatsky thinks it’s kind of dull when characters are singled out for no particular reason in young adult novels:

Now, in light-hearted fare like Tintin or the How to Train Your Dragon books, the fact that the unassuming main character keeps stumbling into Very Important Situations is part of the lark. Harry Potter and the Hunger Games, though, both have pretensions — and thus, inevitably, both series struggle more and more under the weight of their own preposterousness as they go along. Voldemort’s elaborate plan to enmesh Harry in the tri-wizard tournament, or President Snow’s elaborate plan to enmesh Katniss in the Hunger Games again…they both make little sense from the perspective of an actual villain who wants the protagonist dead. You want to kill someone, you kill them; you don’t construct an elaborate game which takes a whole novel to elucidate.

But elaborate games make a lot of sense from the perspective of the watching demiurge who wants the protagonist to have a chance to demonstrate his or her glorious bravery and wit and angsting. Along those lines, when Ron gets all pissed at Harry because Harry is always in the thick of everything and it’s not fair, you can’t help but feel that the kid has a legitimate grievance. It really isn’t fair — and the fact that it’s such flagrant special pleading incidentally makes it a lot less fun to read. Harry doesn’t need superpowers because he’s got the greatest power of all — that of a rolling Mary Sue ex machina.

I agree that it becomes tiresome after a while when a villain just can’t finish a fairly vulnerable hero off. But the reason I singled Katniss and Harry out in the post Noah’s responding to is that I think chosenness is one of the biggest strangenesses of our political system. Whether it’s the fact, as Ian Millhiser wrote last week in what should be a must-read post, that our judicial nomination process is designed to prevent people with actual opinions and prior substantive work from reaching the highest benches in the land; the fact that our presidential candidates are more products than they are people, the relationship between merit, experience and ascendency feels distorted and irreversible. Characters like Katniss and Harry help us reckon with the arbitrary events that elevate our leaders, and reconcile ourselves to the idea that sometimes the best we can do is mobilize hard behind what we’ve got.