Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Avatar" and its conservative critics

There appears to be no dearth of heated commentary on “Avatar,” James Cameron’s futuristic film that is taking the movie-going public by storm. Herewith my two cents: It is an intensely political film, notwithstanding Cameron’s later downplaying the politics of it. It is anti-imperialist, pro-ecological, and highly critical of capitalism’s world view. All of which is for the best.

To sum the story: a human (read U.S.) military and scientific expedition to Pandora, a mind-bogglingly lush world with beautiful humanoid inhabitants, is undertaken to extract from that world an invaluable mineral, unobtainium, an energy superconductor. To avoid the expense and discomfort of traditional mining, however, the humans would like to blast away vast areas of the planet’s surface to release the mineral.

But the expedition’s leaders do not really want to slaughter the tall, blue-skinned striped humanoids, known as Na’vi, in the process. Not because they care about protecting those people (who are so superior they not only live in balance with plants and animals, but communicate from afar with each other, when in danger, without technology, given the structure of their beings and, indeed, the ecology of their planet). Rather, it’s because genocide tends to foster a negative press, which makes investors unhappy. Of course, there is something investors dislike even more than a bad image—and this is stated explicitly: a financial statement showing a decline in profits or, God forbid, a loss.

So scientists on the mission have developed a system in which some of the marines can become Avatars, that is, duplicates of themselves but in Na’vi form. The aim is to identify with the Na’vi, learn their culture from the inside, win their confidence, and persuade them to leave certain areas of their homeland which, alas, have to be blasted for the profitable mineral. If it doesn’t work, the marines will have no choice but to go in with their super weapons, and shock and awe (yes, that phrase too is used) the natives. Whom they eventually refer to as terrorists.

I won’t go into any more detail about this astounding film. Technically and esthetically, I think it is easily a match for Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter films. Politically, the message is clear as air: As soon as the expedition’s CEO holds up a sample of unobtainium, the image of the U.S. invasion of Iraq comes to mind. (Of course when we invaded, we claimed a defensive reason: weapons of mass destruction, which did not exist; a revenge reason: for 911, in which Sadam Hussein's Iraq played no part; and a quasi-benevolent reason: to bestow the blessings of democracy. Does anyone still hold to that nonsense?) Unobtainium, clearly, is a metaphor for oil, and the Na’vi are the inhabitants of a land in which it is plentiful, as was Iraq.

To be sure, some observers see unobtainium as a metaphor for coal, and Pandora as a version of a once-lush Appalachia. That rings true, but it doesn’t negate the anti-imperialist argument; if Pandora is Appalachia, then its devastation for coal is an example of domestic imperialism. Others see the Na’vi as reflecting the early Native Americans and that, too is no contradiction.

Anyway, the anti-imperialist message is so strong, so powerful—not simplistic--that some leading conservative columnists must have felt it imperative to turn the message upside down, and condemn the movie for, of all things, serving as a racist justification of the imperialist “white man’s burden!” (This is bitter irony: not too long ago, the right was largely defined by its justification of imperialism and white racism.)

See, for example, David Brock’s NY Times column in which he writes “[The film’s message] rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.”

There is so much malarky in this argument it’s hard to know where to begin. First, the film does not portray the natives as only “spiritual and athletic” in contrast to the rational white (human, American) invaders. In addition to their spiritualism, the Na’vi are portrayed as intellectually advanced—so far beyond humans that they can communicate with each other without a separate technology, as shown during the war against the invaders. Further, they are hardly illiterate: they have their own language, and some have learned the invaders' language. Nor are the invaders--you and me--presented as unspiritual: they too believe in their God, even as they sneer at the Na'vi deity.

Second, the invaders themselves are presented as highly “athletic”—fast moving, physically powerful, with the well-sculpted bodies and stamina common to marines.

Third, the Na’vi are not presented as needing any White Messiah to lead their “crusades,” since they have no crusades. What they do have is an invasion by a military superpower, against which their weapons are not much of a match. This is hardly fable; it is history. Think back a few generations to England's invasions of India and North America, or to Spain's invasions of South America, or to France's invasions of Africa and Haiti--all with their superior arms. Indeed, think of any land the Europeans conquered, and of any the US conquered. This is fact, not fantasy.

But "Avatar" is, after all, a fantasy movie. So in it, a human with the skills and knowledge of human weaponry turns against his "race," thereby helping the Na'vi reinforce their native weaponry. Does this reflect a pathetic guilt complex, as conservatives argue? Claptrap. It reflects awareness: Wouldn't it have been nice had any of those Europeans or Americans turned around and actually saw, with horror, what their countrymen were doing? And then used their countrymen's own technology to defeat those invaders? Not guilt, but courage, heroism.

And finally, the Na’vi are not at all depicted as “supporting actors in our journey to [human] self-admiration.” How anybody who actually sees the movie can emerge with a sense of self-admiration is beyond me. At most, at the end of the film, very few humans, a tiny handful, are accepted by the Na’vi as decent. Humans in general are presented as imperial, greedy destroyers, and are eventually sent off back to their home world. This hardly reflects self-admiration, let alone a white "guilt complex;" it reflects a long overdue awareness of our own history.

Hopefully, this film will generate at least some feelings of disgust at what we have been, and what so many of us, or at least our political and economic leaders, are today. And how we might change. But don’t hold your breath.

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