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Going traitor: Avatar versus imperialism

"How does it feel to betray your own race?" These are the infamous last words of the mercenary colonel Miles Quartrich, snarled at the hero Jake Sully in the final minutes of James Cameron's Avatar; set a century and a half into the future and 25 trillion miles from our planet. But Sully and the tiny minority of humans who change sides to fight alongside the Na'vi people in the 3D sci-fi epic were far from being the only ones who became traitors.

In the here and now of Earth in 2010, in the darkness of thousands of movie theatres, though purely passively and for the brief period of two and a half hours, more than one hundred and fifty million people (so far) have enthusiastically betrayed their 'own race', cheering on in their hearts- and often out loud- the defensive war of the imaginary blue-skinned Na'vi of the planet Pandora against the predatory corporate, militaristic, and environmentally destructive forces of homo sapiens.

And how did that feel? It felt very good; even, apparently, for the millions of people in the USA who have watched the movie. Under the headline 'Avatar: the most expensive piece of anti-American propaganda ever made', Dr Nile Gardiner wrote in the Daily Telegraph, a British Conservative newspaper:

When I saw the movie last night in a packed theatre, I was disturbed by the cheering from the audience towards the end when the humans – US soldiers fighting on behalf of an American corporation – were being wiped out by the Na’vi. Washington is one of the most liberal cities in America and you come to expect almost anything here – but still the roars of approval which greeted the on-screen killing of US military personnel were a shock to the system, especially at a time when the United States is engaged in a major war in Afghanistan.

That Dr Gardiner was shocked and disturbed by those roars of approval is quite understandable. He is an Englishman who works in Washington, for a very wealthy and influential right-wing US think tank, the Heritage Foundation. His mini-biography, published on the Heritage Foundation website, records:

Nile Gardiner is Director of The Heritage Foundation's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

His key areas of specialization include: the Anglo-American "special relationship," the United Nations, post-war Iraq, and the role of Great Britain and Europe in the U.S.-led alliance against international terrorism and "rogue states," including Iran . He was recently named one of the 50 most influential Britons in the United States by the London Daily Telegraph.

As a leading authority on transatlantic relations, Gardiner has advised the executive branch of the U.S. government on a range of key issues, from the role of international allies in post-war Iraq , to U.S.-British leadership in the War on Terrorism. His policy papers are read widely on Capitol Hill, where he is regularly sought after for advice on major foreign policy matters.

Prior to joining Heritage in 2002, Gardiner was Foreign Policy Researcher for former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Working in her Private Office, Gardiner assisted Lady Thatcher with her latest book, Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World, published by HarperCollins. He served as an aide to Lady Thatcher from 2000 to 2002, and advised her on a number of international policy issues [...]

He appears frequently as a foreign policy analyst and political commentator on national and international television and radio, including Fox News Channel, CNN , BBC, Sky News, and NPR . He has made over 500 television appearances, and given more than 400 radio interviews, discussing foreign policy issues.

In his Telegraph article, Dr Gardiner gives a summary of the plot and theme of Avatar:

The story is set in the year 2154, and centres on an attempt by a US conglomerate to exploit valuable mineral wealth on the planet of Pandora. In the background, earth is dying with limited resources, no doubt because a climate change deal could not be finalized at Copenhagen.

The American firm employs an army of marines to fight on its behalf against the Na’vi, who seem to be modeled loosely on native American tribes. Slogans such as “shock and awe” and “fighting terror with terror” are deployed to give the film a more contemporary feel. The US forces are portrayed in one-dimensional terms and are led by a sadistic general [sic], while the Na’vi are spiritual, nature-loving and peaceful tribesmen at one with the earth and creation. Humanity is ultimately redeemed by a paraplegic soldier (played by Sam Worthington) who goes native and sides with the locals against his own people.

In many respects, Avatar is a highly manipulative film [...]

Avatar is more than just a 160 minute-long cinematic thrill-ride. It is an intensely political vehicle with a distinct agenda. In fact I would describe it as one of the most left-wing films in the history of modern American cinema, and perhaps the most commercially successful political movie of our time. While the vast majority of cinemagoers will simply see it as popcorn entertainment, Avatar is at its heart a cynical and deeply unpatriotic propaganda piece, aimed squarely against American global power and the projection of US economic and military might across the world.

Gardiner's claim that the movie portrays the US forces in one-dimensional terms- which chimes in with assertions by other critics of Avatar that the film's plot is simplistic- is wide of the mark. The North Americans in the movie are presented as being motivated by three distinct agendas, each personified by its own leader: the business executive Parker Selfridge, whose mission is to ensure the profits of the RDA mega- corporation by whatever means are expedient, including if possible a one-sided deal with the natives by which they would be relatively peacefully dispossessed of their territory and resources; the Marine colonel Miles Quartrich, whose aim is to ensure a brutal military solution to the conflict; and Dr Grace Augustine, the head of the team of scientific researchers who, while being employed by the corporation are motivated by the desire for knowledge about Pandora and its inhabitants, and in that learning process have developed some sympathies for the Na'vi people. 

Before he finds himself won over to a position of total identification with the Na'vi, the hero Jake Sully is conflicted by the demands on him to serve these differing agendas.

Contradictions of capitalism

Despite his relationship with the Murdoch-owned Fox News and Sky, Nile Gardiner's description of Avatar as 'deeply unpatriotic propaganda', as with the other right-wing attacks on the movie, has not been propagated by the news outlets of the Murdoch media and entertainment empire. In fact, the Murdoch-owned Times commented approvingly on the political nature of Avatar in its review of the film:

With the use of such charged phrases as “shock and awe” and Sully’s curt summation of the situation (“When people are sitting on stuff you want, you make them your enemy”) Cameron adds a thought-provoking political dimension to the story.

The Murdoch media empire, despite the usual right-wing bias of its news outlets, has not leant the use of its powerful ideological cannons to the anti-Avatar campaign for a very sound commercial reason. 20th Century Fox, which is part of the Murdoch mega-corporation News Corp, is raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits from the film, and envisages that it will derive hundreds of millions more from the inevitable sequel. Further, the astounding success of Avatar is a commercial vindication of the advances in technology which were gained by means of the many millions of dollars invested in its production, opening up the prospect of a revival in the profits of the US-dominated global entertainment industry.

The film itself contains a scene with some relevance to this contradiction. Explaining the amoral basis of his mission on Pandora, the sleazy mining company executive Parker Selfridge remarks:

"Killing the indigenous looks bad, but there’s one thing shareholders hate more than bad press -- and that’s a bad quarterly statement."

To which one could add that a stunningly successful movie which condemns the killing of indigenous people, along with other aspects of imperialism and capitalism, helps spread the bad news about the system as a whole; but there’s one thing shareholders hate more than bad press -- and that’s a bad quarterly statement.

As Forbes reported on 21st January, the huge takings from Avatar means that News Corp is predicted to issue an excellent quarterly statement in March 2010; its eventual revenue from the movie may be as high as 1.3 billion dollars.

Backward Christian soldiers

Nevertheless, as the audience numbers have risen inexorably, so has the strident political campaign against the message of the film. Robert W. Butler of McClatchy Newspapers observed in a syndicated article published on 21st January:

We all love a success story.

For a couple of days, anyway. Then we can't wait to tear it apart.

That's what has been happening to 'Avatar', James Cameron's 3-D sci-fi epic. Evidently the film is making lots of moviegoers happy. It's raking in the cash and awards - Golden Globes Sunday for best picture and director.

But it also has detractors nipping at its heels like overzealous Chihuahuas protecting their turf from the mailman.

...conservatives hate the film's depiction of a ravenous multiplanetary corporation that invades Pandora, bringing with it a rapacious profit motive and an army of mercenaries to enforce its will against the blue-skinned natives, the Na'vi. It is argued that this depiction puts capitalism in a bad light.

Well, duh.

...'Avatar' may be viewed as a not-so-subtle parody of real-life corporations like Haliburton and the private security firm Blackwater. Thanks to their behavior during the Iraq occupation, the names of these two outfits have become synonymous in many minds with ruthless imperialism, rampant cronyism, unrestrained greed and unprovoked brutality.

Enter the Roman Catholic Church. A Vatican newspaper and radio station have condemned 'Avatar' for becoming "bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature."

They're referring, of course, to the beliefs of the Na'vi, who regard everything in their world - animals, plants, rocks - as having spirits that must be honored. This sort of animism is hardly new, having preceded Christianity by 30,000 or so years, and it continues to be practiced today by some American Indians and by various ethnicities around the world.

This is the sort of 'primitive' thinking that more recent religions (those only a few millennia old) have sought to supplant.

But there is also another reason for the hostility of the Catholic hierarchy towards the movie: the Vatican cannot but be uncomfortable with Avatar's allusions to the period of European colonisation of the Americas, during which the Roman Catholic church served an essential role, giving its blessing not merely to the robbery of the valuable mineral wealth of the continent- notably gold- but also to the process of enslaving and killing 'the indigenous'.

One of the most intelligent political and military activists against the West Europeans during the early period of colonisation was Hatuey, a chieftan of the Taíno people who resisted the Spanish invaders in the Caribbean islands whose territory is now entitled Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. Hatuey's analysis of the religion of the colonisers was incisive. During a speech to incite a group of the Taíno people to join his struggle, Hatuey showed them a basket of gold and jewels, and declaimed:

Here is the God the Spaniards worship. For these they fight and kill; for these they persecute us and that is why we have to throw them into the sea... They tell us, these tyrants, that they adore a God of peace and equality, and yet they usurp our land and make us their slaves. They speak to us of an immortal soul and of their eternal rewards and punishments, and yet they rob our belongings, seduce our women, violate our daughters. Incapable of matching us in valor, these cowards cover themselves with iron that our weapons cannot break...

Following a bitter guerilla war, Hatuey was eventually captured; the European forces tied him to a stake and built a fire. According to one observer, Bartolomé de las Casas, a priest asked Hatuey if he would accept Jesus and go to heaven. Bartolomé de las Casas recorded:

[Hatuey], thinking a little, asked the religious man if Christians went to heaven. The religious man answered yes... The chief then said without further thought that he did not want to go there but to hell so as not to be where they were and where he would not see such cruel people. This is the name and honor that God and our faith have earned.

The Christian soldiers burned Hatuey alive. Shocked and disturbed by this and many other distressing experiences, Bartolomé de las Casas, who was himself an upwardly mobile priest in the Catholic colonial establishment, went on to become an outspoken opponent of the brutal policies of the Europeans in the Americas, allying himself with the native people and eventually also with the black slaves who were captured from Africa and shipped to the 'New World' to be worked to death in the mines and plantations. Unlike the Jake Sully figure in Avatar, Bartolomé de las Casas did not go so far as to take part in an armed rebellion against the colonial masters. Instead, after being promoted to the rank of Bishop, he returned to Spain and worked to rouse public opinion against the vile methods used by the empire.

Despite that humanitarian effort, the vast majority of the indigenous population of the Caribbean islands were wiped out under European occupation, mainly from a combination of famine as they were dispossessed of their food sources by the colonisers, overwork in conditions of forced labour, and their vulnerability to smallpox and other foreign diseases which the colonists brought with them.

Today, Hatuey is recognised as a historical national hero in Cuba, and the country's most popular beer bears his name and image.

'Left' critique

However, according to Robert W. Butler and many other sources, the shrill chorus against the political message of Avatar includes not only the right-wing neocons and Catholic religious zealots, but also leftists. Butler remarked:

'Avatar' also is taking heat from the left, with some objecting to one of the film's essential narratives: A human comes to live among the Na'vi, is initiated into their society and at a crucial moment leads the tribe in an uprising against its oppressors.

To these critics this is just a variation on the old "white man's burden" thinking, in which the poor benighted savages - people of color, of course - require the leadership of a white male to carry their cause. The assumption is that they certainly couldn't do it without a "racially superior" individual in charge.

The originator of this mode of objection to the movie is a cultural commentator called Annalee Newitz, who describes herself as a Marxist. Newitz posted an article entitled 'When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like "Avatar"?' on her sci-fi website. Ms Newitz alleged:

Avatar is just the latest scifi rehash of an old white guilt fantasy [...]

Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color - their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the "alien" cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become "race traitors," and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It's not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it's not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It's a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

Think of it this way. Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. Jake never really knows what it's like to be a Na'vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode.

This is not an entirely accurate rendition of the plot of Avatar. In the film, Jake Sully is indeed eventually accorded- despite much initial skepticism- a leadership role among the natives; by taking that path he clearly loses the option of re-joining the 'white' side, and by the end of the movie his identification with the Na'vi is so complete that he emphatically closes off the possibility of returning to 'human mode', by deciding to allow his lover Neytiri to kill his physical human body.

Annalee Newitz's own identification with the 'people of color' and, presumably, the exploited population of the Third World, is apparently so complete that she regards it as objectionable that it should be metaphorically represented that one of their struggles against white and colonial domination should be led by a privileged white 'traitor' from the USA; and furthermore she feels she must assume an intellectual leading role on behalf of the non-whites- by pointing out to them and their sympathisers that this is the dreadful subtext of Avatar.

No doubt she believes that it is her duty to do this because, as she asserts in her article:

...the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group [...] is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.

Ms Newitz herself is a privileged white person based in the USA. There is more than a hint of hypocrisy in her position.

Kill more natives

But, rather oddly for a supposedly 'left' critique, the main proponents who have enthusiasically espoused it can hardly be described as leftists. They include John Podhoretz, who wrote in the course of a splenetic article against Avatar in the Weekly Standard:

The only salvation for Pandora lies with our man Jake Sully turning into the leader of the blue-skinned people, rallying them to the cause of protecting their planet against the Evil Corporation. This, too, is unacceptably paternalistic, in my view; after all, why should giant blue people have to learn these things from a shrimpy white guy who doesn't even have a tail or built-in Skype?

John Podhoretz was previously a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, and after that became a passionate advocate for the US invasion of Iraq. When that dream was realised, he criticised the tactics of the invasion from the point of view that the US forces, even under the leadership of George W. Bush, had failed to kill sufficient numbers of Iraqis, particularly those of the Sunni faith; and he extended that criticism to Israel, which in his opinion has not killed enough Arabs. In an article in the New York Post, Mr Podhoretz said:

What if the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn't kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything? Wasn't the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35 the reason there was an insurgency and the basic cause of the sectarian violence now?

If you can't imagine George W. Bush issuing such an order, is there any American leader you could imagine doing so?

And if America can't do it, can Israel? Could Israel - even hardy, strong, universally conscripted Israel - possibly stomach the bloodshed that would accompany the total destruction of Hezbollah?

John Podhoretz is a key intellectual figure of the US neoconservative movement, hence his role as regular writer for the Weekly Standard, which is an influential magazine of the radical imperialist right wing in the United States.

The other main US exponent of the supposedly 'left' objection to Avatar is David Brooks, who remarked in a piece for the (non-Murdoch owned) New York Times:

The plotline [of Avatar] gives global audiences a chance to see American troops get killed. It offers useful hooks on which McDonald’s and other corporations can hang their tie-in campaigns.

Still, would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?

It 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.

Like Podhoretz, Mr Brooks is a prominent right-winger and a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard magazine. He was was a keen supporter of the US invasion of Iraq, and following that he went on to lend his weight to the Republican candidate John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. Recognising that the current US president is making no major shifts in the USA's imperial policy, and is even implementing a big 'surge' in US troop numbers in Afghanistan, David Brooks has since shifted his allegiance to Barack Obama.

Hell is a place on Earth

In Britain, the most strident opponent of the political message of Avatar is Will Heaven, whose three comment articles attacking the film on the basis that it is 'racist' have been published in the Daily Telegraph; a further 'news' article in that Conservative newspaper also promoted the claim that the sci-fi epic is imbued with a racist theme.

In his 18th January article, entitled 'Two Golden Globes won't change Avatar's patronising and racist subtext ', Will Heaven expressed his exasperation at the success of the movie in almost hysterical terms:

Why has the world been so willingly taken in by James Cameron’s 250 million dollar con-trick?

...Cameron’s cringing acceptance speech highlighted the film’s real purpose. “This is best job in the world it really is,” he said. “Avatar asks us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other and us to the Earth.”

It’s an environmental parable, in other words, and a clumsy one at that. I’ve written at length about Avatar’s patronising and racist subtext: how the blue-skinned Na’vi, a pastiche of this planet’s “ethnic” races, are utterly powerless without the help of a principled white man. And how I was disgusted that the Na’vi – like the Africans in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – demonstrate a “triumphant bestiality”. (Cameron is so obviously 2009’s worst lefty.)

What I have yet to hit home, however, is Avatar’s overall failure as a film. But you know what? The Vatican newspaper already has that spot on . It’s “bland”, a reviewer wrote in L’Osservatore Romano last week. “It has a great deal of enchanting, stunning technology, but few genuine or human emotions. Its significance is in its visual impact rather than in the story, and in its messages, despite the fact that they are hardly new.”

Finally, the review lays into Cameron who, “concentrating on the creation of the fantasy world of Pandora, chooses a bland approach. He tells the story without any profound exploration.”

L’Osservatore Romano doesn’t speak for the Pope, but according to Father Federico Lombardi, the pontiff is worried by the transformation of environmentalism into “a new divinity.” He’s right to be worried – but you can bet Cameron, environmentalism’s very own prophet, won’t be listening.

Mr Heaven, an enthusiastic supporter of the US / UK troop surge in Afghanistan, has obvious loyalties to the Vatican; this is also the case with David Brooks, who is an advocate of the 'progressive' historical role of the Catholic church.

John Podhoretz, on the other hand, is Jewish; Annalee Newitz is of half-Protestant, half-Jewish origin. Another Jewish voice, that of the Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center, had a rather different take on the film. He noted:

The film AVATAR is an obvious metaphor for the European-USA destruction of Native America and Africa; for the corporate destruction of the Amazon forest and its tribal human eco-partners; for the US destruction of much of Iraq and parts of Afghanistan [...]

Why does the Torah command that even in wartime, we must not destroy the enemy's fruit trees? (The US Army did precisely this to the forests of Vietnam; the Israeli Army has done this to Palestinian olive trees; in AVATAR, the invading Earthians do precisely this to the sacred trees of the Na'vi. Why?)

In another article, entitled 'Refuting The "White Savior" Attacks on Avatar Movie', the Rabbi remarked:

Some knee-jerk leftists have criticized the heroism of Jake Sully as merely another racist case of a "white male Marine" becoming savior of the exploited community. Indeed, some conservatives have stolen that rhetoric to discredit a widely celebrated film that clearly threatens to undermine the corporate-military-NeoCon alliance. But there are two mistakes in this rhetoric:

... it is not Sully who leads the Na'vi; it is his Avatar who joins the resistance, becoming a blueskin transformed from his life as a Marine, just as Moses the Egyptian prince remakes himself into a leader of the Israelite slave revolt .

AVATAR describes how some Earthians turn their backs on the military-corporate attempt to shatter the Na'vi and instead join the Na'vi resistance. They become - let's not mince words - traitors. Or rather, they transform themselves into the Avatars that actually become Na'vi, loyal not to oppressive Crushers but to the web of life. What do we Americans, we Westerners -- who have already done so much to crush the life from many parts of our planet and threaten to destroy the rest by choking its Breath, its Climate -- what do we make of that? What do we owe the indigenes of Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Nigeria, Burma?

Traitors and humanists

Avatar is not a documentary, nor is it Dostoievsky; it is mass-market Hollywood fiction. That a colonialist from Earth who learns about the alien natives, connects with them and becomes a military leader in their struggle against imperialism is a reliable plot device, which ensures that we the audience, who are humans and at the start know nothing about the blue-skinned Na'vi, can travel with the main character on a journey of understanding about not only the Na'vi and their culture, but also about the humans and their exploitative culture, from the standpoint of the natives with whom we increasingly identify.

Nile Gardiner remarks that Avatar is 'manipulative' in winning the adudience to cheer the armed struggle of the oppressed Na'vi against the mercenaries who are of our own species; but it is no more or less manipulative than any other successful product of the US film industry. That the former human Jake Sully becomes the action-hero of the alien forces is an extension of a tried and tested Hollywood formula, which- along with the innovative cinematic technology used in the movie- has guaranteed a record-breaking global adudience for a film which carries a pro-environmental and anti-imperialist message.

The allegation that the plot line of Avatar is 'unoriginal' misses the point by a mile. The story of the struggle of the oppressed against the exploiters, as Rabbi Waskow reminds us, is as old as Moses; and within that, the tale of the privileged person who takes the side of the oppressed and eventually becomes a leading figure in their struggle against the exploiters is an archetype which has strong factual roots.

The self-described Marxist Annalee Newitz might recall that Karl Marx and Friederich Engels, both from respectable privileged backgrounds, were the originators of the movement to create a global working class dictatorship and by that means to overthrow privilege itself.

Expelled from Germany for their radical activism, Marx and Engels settled in Britain, whose vast empire included the neighbouring island of Ireland. It is notable that in the struggles of the mainly Catholic Irish against the mainly Protestant British oppressors, some of the most important leaders were either ethnic Protestants, or were of British rather than Irish origin. Among them, Wolfe Tone, the leader of the 1798 rebellion against British occupation and who is considered the father of Irish republicanism, was a Protestant. Erskine Childers, who became a political and military leader of the Irish for independence and national unity in the early 20th Century, was the scion of an elite British-based Protestant family. Childers was executed in 1922 by the dominant faction in the Irish leadership who, having accepted a deal with the British government which involved Britain retaining control of the North of the country, were opposed to the continuation of the struggle to unite the whole of Ireland as an independent nation.

In another former colonial country, South Africa, white-skinned turncoats played a hugely important role in the African liberation struggle. The white males Joe Slovo and Ronnie Kasrils, both from Jewish families, were key leaders in Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress. Slovo was elected general secretary of the South African Communist Party, a party whose membership is mainly black and which is part of the 'Tripartite Alliance' comprising the ANC, the trade unions, and the Communist Party. He died in 1995. Kasrils went on to become Minister for Intelligence Services in the South African government.

Slovo was, and Kasrils still is, a forceful opponent of zionism and the anti-Palestinian policies of the US-sponsored Israeli state. Traitors to their 'race', loyalists to humanity and humanism. If Avatar moves even only a tiny minority of its multi-million audience towards a similar understanding, the talents of James Cameron and his team of actors and technicians have been well employed.