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The Troubling Politics of Avatar

How long will we afford the myth of native peoples beating back capitalism?

In the coming weeks, indigenous peoples the world over will put on their 3-D glasses and rejoice in the film Avatar, a story of third world triumph over rapacious, militarized, white male capitalism. And we here in the evil West will rejoice right along with them, while our Chinese and Russian friends scratch their heads and wonder if we’ve all lost our minds.

Avatar is the new $230 million triumph of computer-generated filmmaking by director James Cameron. It is a gorgeous piece of work that owes much to science fiction novelist Ursula K. LeGuin and to her anthropologist father, Albert Kroeber. It is the purest cinematic statement of the Vietnam protest generation’s politics since Dances With Wolves, which had the virtue of verisimilitude, in that the Lakota lost their war in the movie as in real life. By contrast, the Navi of Avatar enjoy the help of the creatures of sky and land, and their own prowess as archers and guerillas—and in Avatar, the sleek, dark-hued tribesmen win.

Audiences at the two showings I attended applauded the victorious natives of this film. I wanted to survey my fellow movie-goers: Why, in their opinion, did they think that the historical Native American, Aboriginal Australian and New Zealander, East-, West-, Central-, North- and South African kinsmen of the Navi not win, too? Were not all of them also handsome, lithe, arrow-shooting communicants with the fabulous flora and fauna of their pristine native realms? Did they not all also chant, wear paint, and dwell in various vocabularies of panentheism?

It is tempting to think only of Yoda and the Force as you watch this film, rather than to think about politics and history. But for a generation, for several generations actually, ever since historical peoples lost their desperate fights against the callous, mechanized despoiling forces of militarized commerce, some of America’s leading story-tellers have gotten us dreaming of the virtuous primitives winning. What if, we have wondered, what if the Indians won?

Culture and conflict

We keep telling ourselves this story, but never so lushly as in Avatar, whose message comes at a time of great political flux for the West. We in the West may soon lose our leading role in the world. What we do in our popular culture, I think, influences our politics—reflects our politics but also shapes it. Analysts like Richard Janszen of think that American military power is what keeps America relevant, and that that’s why Obama is correct (and compelled) to invest troops and treasure in Afghanistan. The military and geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan, in his Empire Wilderness, describes the growing gap between the self-indulgent elite consumers of the financialized, movie-making, military-loathing America and the working-class kid-soldiers who get sent around the world to keep our dollar from being replaced by the yuan. Our elite Boomer ethos—that America is wrong, that machines are bad, that the Bad Dad who made us go to Vietnam is who America is—gives us cultural expressions like Avatar that sell massively in theaters and video-game consoles alike and inculcate a species of self-loathing. If stories of heroes are the stuff that keeps cultures going, what we are devouring is another story of a hero who is heroic only in rejecting who we are.

This sort of thinking is distinctive to the post-colonialists of the West. Today’s active colonial powers will have none of that thinking. The Russian state today crushes Chechnya, disrupts Georgia, arms Abkhazia, props up Ossetia, and messes around in Ukraine just as Stalin and Lenin and their predecessor autocrats did, acting the way that a great continental empire acts, and the Russian masses, apparently, believe that that’s the right way to go. We in the West shudder, as the great Cold War novelist John LeCarre did in his 1996 book Our Game, which is about the brave souls in a small nation of the North Caucasus who fight the heroic but doomed fight against Great Russia. But that is not how the popular Russian imagination goes: At best, the Chechens and the Ingush are mafiosi; at worst, terrorists; and the rest of the hundred or more troublesome ethnic minorities in Russia lack, for the Russians, the virtue that Westerners ascribe to them.

Similarly, the dominant Chinese culture has no room for virtuous natives, either. There is broad majority Chinese belief that the central government is correct to continue to crush Tibetans and Uighurs, to vilify the Dalai Lama, and to prosecute minority groups rather than afford them even a taste of self-determination.

Other big and up-and-coming world powers also eschew the myth of the noble savage. Brazilians high and low are unsentimental about Amazon indigenes. Educated Mexicans of my acquaintance, even two socialist friends who help direct human rights efforts there, think of the various Indian groups as poor peasants, not as savants, not as stewards of precious natural treasures, not as worthies to be consulted.

Choosing our stories

Parsing the politics of Avatar, we start with this distinct Vietnam-era sensibility, whose conclusion was that Americans, like the Germans, are villains of history. That’s why it makes sense that in the Avatar story, the crippled soldier, the American Everyman, is restored to manhood—to computer-enhanced manhood, at that —only after he crosses over. He makes the full transition: He becomes the noblest of the noble savages, becoming tall and lithe and dark-skinned, and leaves behind the body of a mere invader, the body whose back the old system literally broke. We already knew that the mystic natives were good and the invaders bad. Now we know that the hero is the one who goes native, more literally than even just by converting in dress, manners, and language. The teens and young adults who will help this $230 million production make zillions more were raised on this message, and will, pretty much, believe this lesson.

Sadly, because in real life the natives don’t win, there is no transformation awaiting today’s young would-be heroes. They are bound to be disappointed. Capitalism and its brutal soldiers and its tree-crunching machines will win, don’t you think? Yet we will keep buying the story Avatar tells, especially if capitalism continues to do such an excellent job of producing them—a job that includes going worldwide to assemble the picture-making and story-telling talent that made this compelling movie. For two-and-a-half hours, we get to imagine, most colorfully, that all that we are can be bested by all that we crushed to get here.

But the Avatar myth does not prepare us for what may be coming next for America—a future in which we are no longer the powerful Bad Dad. What happens when we are no longer rich enough and powerful enough to afford the myths of Yoda, Fern Gully, Dances With Wolves, and Avatar? What new myths will our elite image-makers put forth for our consumption and to shape our political consciousness?

The power to decide what those stories should be won’t be in Vietnam-protesting, father-bashing Boomer hands for too much longer. The mystery is whether the internet world, with its widely distributed content-making, will produce a new mythology that is as libertarian and anti-authoritarian as its driving minds are, or whether the practicalities of voracious capitalism—you know, the Bad Dads who will still run the resource-mining corporations, and who will control finance—will still force capitalism to remain resource-destroying, rapacious, polluting and altogether icky about things like native rights.

My bet is that clever geeks will keep creating Boomer-ethos images so long as they keep selling. And then the stories will abruptly change as soon as the money guys say so. If the money guys (maybe Chinese money guys) become convinced that anti-capitalist, anti-white-male stories will maximize profits and help them politically, then, there’ll be more stories like Avatar. As Sarah Palin would say, “You betcha!” Pass the popcorn.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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