Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Avatar is Not Liberal Propaganda (It is Something Far More Pernicious)
I went to see James Cameron's new science-fiction extravaganza, Avatar, last night. Let me say, right from the beginning, that I loved the movie. In terms of story, acting to say nothing of the special effects this movie must be judged as a full success. Particular mention should be made of the climatic air battle between the human invaders and the native Na'vi of the moon Pandora. It also should be said that not since Emperor Palpatine's finest Imperial Stormtroopers were routed by the koala bears of Endor in Return of the Jedi has modern armor and lazar guns proven to be so ineffective against Stone Age technology. Liberals correctly criticized the Bush administration for their failure to provide armored vehicles to protect our soldiers against road side ambushes in Iraq. What are citizens of Cameron's future universe to think of their soldiers going into battle in vehicles whose windshields are not even arrow proof? Perhaps in the deleted scenes on the DVD we will find out that Cheney and Rumsfeld were transported to the future to lose this war for the humans. This brings me to the main point of what I wish to discuss here, the movie's politics. Conservatives have been up in arms in attacking this movie, accusing it of being liberal propaganda. There are good reasons for this. This is a movie made for over two-hundred million dollars about an evil imperial corporation (somehow this is not a contradiction) out to destroy a pristine native culture in the service of their greed for unobtainum (yes it sounds as corny as it looks). I believe this is a mistake, one that hides the true dark side of the film's message. When Cameron and other members of the Hollywood left attack free enterprise corporations and venerate hunter-gatherer cultures, they are not being liberal. On the contrary, they set the stage for the destruction of liberalism, for fascism.
For all of their moral flaws, corporations are built around individual freedom. People, of their own free will, choose to work for these corporations and people freely choose to purchase the goods and services provided by them. No physical coercion is used. (Corporations wielding heavy armaments designed for use in offensive warfare are no longer private businesses, but governments. So, when properly understood, Avatar is a story about big government oppression, despite the corporate label.) In stark contrast to this is the hunter-gatherer society, living close to a state of nature. Life in all observed hunter-gatherer societies here on earth is proverbially "nasty, brutish and short." Considering the Skull island quality of the natural life on Pandora, life would be nastier, more brutish and shorter. A society living under such conditions would need to devote itself nonstop to providing food and fending off enemies, creating a militarized leadership. Everyone must carry out their assigned tasks and live their lives according to the decisions made by the leadership. All forms of deviance are, by definition, acts of treason and punishable by death. In other words, this is the conservative society par excellence and one that is inimical to liberty. One might even be tempted to call it primitive Fascism. This is not as absurd as it sounds when you consider that, in the western tradition, it was the same Rousseau, who idealized man in a state of nature and also venerated the Spartan model of society. In the end, Rousseau even denied the notion of personal freedom, choosing to define freedom in terms of subservience to a people. Ironically enough, while the non-evil human protagonists are capable of making individual choices and turn against the evil militarized corporation, the Na'vi are defined by their lack of significant individual choices. (Yes the Na'vi girl makes out with the main character.) We are told that these aliens have no interest in human goods, medicine or technology (though they do speak English at a level far outstripping many Hispanic immigrants and Haredim). We are to believe that not a single member of the Na'vi species, not even their teenagers, can be tempted by fast food, antibiotics or even a ride on a starship, the things that could make liberty meaningful, to vote for selling out on their pantheist religion and their mother trees. Abstract moral choices are only possible in minds educated at above subsidence levels. Only a mind raised on the luxuries of eating every day and effective medicine that will allow it to live to die of old age can worry about things like rights for a less fortunate group or protecting the environment; all these being necessary tools for a Na'vi resistance in the first place. Of course, none of the Na'vi are attracted to human ways, desire to live past thirty and travel to the stars, just as all Palestinians only desire to shed their blood in their nationalist cause of war with Israel, without any coercion or brainwashing.
If I were telling the story of Avatar I would make the corporate hatchet man, Parker Selfridge (played by the talented, but underused Giovanni Ribisi) the hero of the story instead of a villain. He is a young man of enterprise, who, despite growing up in difficult circumstances, has become so rich that he can fund interstellar mining expeditions. His personal background has given him an appreciation for the abilities of other less fortunate people. Because of this, he is willing to make a woman his lead scientist, hire minorities and even a crippled ex-marine. Selfridge comes to Pandora without the backing of the military industrial complex government back on earth and their protection, confident that he can peacefully make a deal with the Na'vi. Instead of guns, he turns to new forms of science that allow him to send his loyal employees to the Na'vi in Na'vi bodies. Many of the Na'vi are eager to trade with Selfridge, allowing him to mine their land, and join him in created an economic paradise for all. The conservative Na'vi leadership, though, concerned about their hold on power, refuse to negotiate and attempt to drive the humans away by brute force. War seems inevitable, as Selfridge finds himself tempted to hire mercenaries and meet force with force, until the crippled ex-marine, Jake Sully, having fallen in love with Pandora's environment and a Na'vi girl manages to find a way that the precious unobtainum could be mined without causing too much permanent damage to the trees. Selfridge is initially skeptical about Sully's tree-hugging liberalism but agrees to go along even though it means making less money than he had initially hoped. Selfridge's employees defeat the conservative Na'vi leadership by demonstrating that they actually have a greater interest in protecting the environment than even the so-called earth lovers. Meanwhile, back on earth, word has spread to the government, about Selfridge's success and they demand that Selfridge pay special taxes and that the Na'vi submit to Earth as a colony. The Na'vi refuse and Selfridge and his employees find themselves agreeing to put their lives on the line to fight for what they have created. Selfridge calls in some favors with some smuggler contacts of his and manages to arm the Na'vi with at least some modern weapons. There is a climactic battle in the air over Pandora as the Na'vi heroically fight off the Earth armada, with Selfridge and his employees manning the front lines. In the end, the Earth military is defeated. Selfridge and his employees permanently join the Na'vi by taking on Na'vi bodies and help negotiate a trade deal with Earth, giving all Na'vians a life of luxury and freedom unimagined by their ancestors.
Now that would be a liberal story and I do not think it would take a Robert A. Heinlein or Ayn Rand to appreciate the dramatic possibilities of it.