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.


Chris said...

I don't see this movie as being against corporations, but rather as being against the consolidation of too much power in the hands of a single corporate entity. You said of corporations that "No physical coercion is used." This, however, has not always been true in the history of corporations. And perhaps more importantly, corporations have often used other kinds of coercion with equally devastating consequences. I am reminded of the East India Company, Hearst's media empire, the railroad robber barons, and Eisenhower's warnings about the military industrial complex. There is danger in letting corporations have too much power, just as there is danger in doing the same with governments.

But whatever Avatar's undertones with respect to corporations, I saw the movie's political message as being primarily about environmentalism, not about politics or corporations or governments or anything like that. It was glorifying harmony with the environment over against exploitation of the environment.

And while I agree with you that there are serious problems with the glorification of hunter-gatherer cultures as well as with the portrayal in the movie, I think we have to remember that this is story is supposed to be mythic. It's not supposed to make us literally return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It's supposed to make us think twice about the exploitation of peoples and resources. The oversimplified narrative structure is actually fairly well-suited to accomplish such an end, even if it lacks historical realism and has some other embedded messages that may be less desirable.

Virginia Conservative said...

I wouldn't say that I'm up in arms against this movie. When The Da Vinci Code came out in theaters many people in my church boycotted the movie and even held a class explaining why the movie shouldn't be seen. That sort of behavior I would call "up in arms". (Then again, I ended up watching the movie even though I originally didn't have any interest in doing so simply as a result of that kind of controversy)

True, one is not invited to explore what must be the rigid nature of the Na'vi society. Although certainly conservative by the traditional meaning of the word, conservativism has come to mean something far different in American politics (at least I certainly hope so).

You present an interesting counterplot that I would love to see developed. Force in defense of liberty is really the only kind of just war in my mind.

Izgad said...


I made the argument in this essay (perhaps I will expand on it in a full post) that private businesses are by definition entities that do not have the power of coercion. This is a play on the concept of the state having a monopoly on violence. This raises the obvious question when, for example in the movie or the real life cases you mention, you have private businesses wielding armies not just for self defense, but for offensive action as well. My response is to say that such entities stop being private businesses and must be viewed as governments. This is not just semantics. Government is something different precisely because of its ability to engage in physical force. Take Shylock’s pound of flesh. Our legal system would automatically consider the pledge of a pound of flesh to be invalid and throw out the entire case. Now a government can make a pound of flesh agreement. You and I have both made one with this government. By agreeing to be citizens we have obligated ourselves to take up arms and charge up into enemy gunfire and certain death if our government ever so chooses to ask us. Compare what the government can do to soldiers who disobey orders to what private security companies can do.


Welcome to Izgad. You were an example of a conservative who was clearly not pleased with the movie. I put you up precisely because you spoke intelligently and did not foam at the mouth, which is a major part of what this blog is about. I grant you that this may mean that my decision to use the term “up in arms” was a mistake. I’ll take that one on my “Chinn.”

“Although certainly conservative by the traditional meaning of the word, conservativism has come to mean something far different in American politics (at least I certainly hope so).”

I am what is commonly referred to as a conservative libertarian. Conservatives, with the help of the so called liberals of today, have done a good job at mudding up the word “liberal.” I like to think of myself as a fighting nineteenth century liberal and would like to reclaim liberalism. For something that is for real tolerance, not just identity politics, and for real free markets, meaning private businesses having to struggle on without the aid of government welfare or military.
If you are interested in science fiction where people revolt against the forces of government so that they can have some honest liberty, I recommend Heinlein’s the Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Miss S. said...

Oh wow, all sorts of people are getting offended by this movie! Frankly I am not surprised that conservatives have a problem with this. But I can't believe the energy that is being put into all this dissention.

I don't know about anyone else, but I don't look to movies in order to learn my morals and see society's ideals. That may happen, from time to time, that I watch a movie, and I get "enlightened". My overall goal when I sent down to watch a movie is to be entertained. This is probably why Chris Rock used heavy doses of humor in his film Good Hair because who wants to pay to see a serious movie about women processing their own hair and buying wigs? And speaking of money, few people (if any) make films to lose money. No, they want to make lots and lots of money! If that is the case, you better focus on the entertainment side of things; and not focus on teaching sociological lessons.

cory said...

i don't have anything substantive to say. I just enjoy your writing. thanks!

Chris said...

Hey Ben,

It seems to me that you need more than just the ability to engage in physical coercion to qualify as a government. But in any case, the simple fact that corporations could cross that line (and have done so in the past) suggests to me that the danger must be taken seriously.

I sometimes describe myself as a libertarian too, but I'm not a hard-line free-market guy. I think the market has to be regulated in some respects, and anti-trust laws are one of the most obvious cases of that. The FDIC, I'd argue, is another. Americans learned the necessity of such measures from hard experience.



Izgad said...


“It seems to me that you need more than just the ability to engage in physical coercion to qualify as a government.”

You need to be able to engage in physical coercion unchecked by any higher authority. Explain to my how the corporation on Pandora in the movie is not a sovereign state. It makes its own laws and has its own military to enforce those laws and there is no higher authority to restrain it.

“… the simple fact that corporations could cross that line (and have done so in the past) suggests to me that the danger must be taken seriously.”

Obviously. The main point of having a government is to make sure that I do not rape you to death, skin you and wear it even if I am nice enough to do it in that order. I am not anti government; I want a government that does certain very specific things and nothing else.

“I think the market has to be regulated in some respects, and anti-trust laws are one of the most obvious cases of that. The FDIC, I'd argue, is another.”

Anti-trust laws and the FDIC do not rank as high as the minimum wage, health care and public schools in terms of government programs that I wish to get rid of. That being said I do not see the need for them and see how they can actually do quite a bit of harm. No company is going to be able to create a monopoly and hold on to it without some government aid or some action that would be illegal even under a libertarian government. If you are really so worried about your bank collapsing you need to consider whether it is really a worthwhile place as it stands for you to place your money. Why can’t you or your bank simply buy an insurance policy without the government? All government programs by definition are dangerous no matter what they themselves are for. It is in the interest of politicians, lawyers and lobbyists to expand government power into new areas. For example, if government aid is supposed to be about helping poor people why is that programs also cover people who are not poor?

“Americans learned the necessity of such measures from hard experience.”

Be very careful about making arguments that rely on the assumption that the New Deal actually did anything to help with the Great Depression.

Chris said...

Hi Ben,

I'm all for privatizing the public schools and such. But I must admit I expect my government to protect me from a lot more than just you raping me to death. I also want it to protect me from things like breach of contract and various kinds of nonviolent coercion. And while a private firm could probably fulfill the same function as the FDIC, I have no complaints about the government having taken up that role. Nobody else was doing it, and the government seems less likely to collapse and be unable to meet its obligations during an economic crisis than a private insurer might be. In terms of providing valuable services at low cost, I think the libertarian insistence on private industry is almost always going to be on the money. But in terms of providing reliable protection and security from various kinds of threats, the government has a pretty good track record.



Izgad said...

“I also want it to protect me from things like breach of contract and various kinds of nonviolent coercion.”


Physical harm includes your money. I do want the government to protect me from being robbed. That includes not just some inner city youth mugging me, but also my stock broker. The government protecting me from being robbed is also going include the government interpreting and enforcing a contract. Even under a libertarian government there would still be a field of business law and the judges and lawyers to come with it.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff. USA!