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Agreement from an unexpected source - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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January 8th, 2010


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12:50 am - Agreement from an unexpected source
So, I saw that NYT commentator David Brooks was writing about Avatar, and I expected to disagree with his ideas, in large part because I disagree with almost all of his conclusions. The fact that many conservatives loathe that film because they find the idea of people fighting back against a rapacious military-industrial complex to be offensively anti-American made me even more dubious. Brooks is about at conservative as an American can be and not be insane, and about the only other thing that he's written that I've agreed with is that the bulk of the Republican party is controlled by insane people. So, the last thing I expected to read was"
"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."
This sums up my objections to Avatar very nicely. I completely did not expect that.
Current Mood: shockedshocked

(28 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:alobar
Date:January 8th, 2010 09:34 am (UTC)
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I have not seen Avatar, but from various blogs of friends, many come to the same conclusions as Brooks.
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From:heron61
Date:January 8th, 2010 09:46 am (UTC)
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Indeed, but I didn't expect someone nearly as conservative as him to do so too.
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From:heron61
Date:January 8th, 2010 10:02 am (UTC)
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I don't see any way around the fact that it's yet another white guy saves the "natives" who can't save themselves story. That's an inherently offensive story.

Jake did not save the Na'vi, he merely taught them how to fight the humans,

While also being the one to give the Na'vi the big rousing speeches and being specially chosen by their deity/planet. He's clearly the same white guy savior/heroic warrior figure that we've seen far too much of. The problem with this genre is that it's all about a white man going in, learning another culture, and being better at it than the locals.
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From:nancylebov
Date:January 8th, 2010 10:48 am (UTC)
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Have there been any movies or novels where that part was played by a black character?
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From:heron61
Date:January 8th, 2010 11:14 am (UTC)
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I can't think of a single one - plenty with black sidekicks (even when the culture being infiltrated was alien to both the black and white character), but no black protagonists that I know of.
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From:heron61
Date:January 8th, 2010 11:12 am (UTC)
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True, but getting a non-obvious issue involving racism is impressive.
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From:chiashurb
Date:January 8th, 2010 11:32 am (UTC)
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And I think the fact that Avatar has gotten so many white Americans discussing the "white messiah fable" at all makes it, in the end, a good and useful movie.

Really, the conservatives think it's anti-american? That's hilarious; I had not seen that analysis.
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From:krinndnz
Date:January 8th, 2010 05:11 pm (UTC)
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The set of "works of media that authoritarians think are anti-American" is a very, very large set.
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From:teaotter
Date:January 8th, 2010 06:36 pm (UTC)
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Yes, it's a good and useful movie -- for white Americans.

I'm not sure I don't agree with your point in the long run -- after all, white folks are still the majority here in the US, and it'd be nice if a larger number of people were more aware of the common racist cliches that are still in use. But I do think the phrases "useful to white Americans" and "useful" aren't necessarily synonymous.

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From:chiashurb
Date:January 9th, 2010 02:32 pm (UTC)
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Well, I suppose that's true…

Though "useful to one group" is usually a subset of "useful," unless it is outweighed by counter-productiveness with other groups.

I suppose that this movie may not be so short-run useful for indigenous peoples (especially children) fighting against stereotypes and confronted with yet another movie that shows shamanistic "backwards" indigenous people with bones in their septa…
(Deleted comment)
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From:teaotter
Date:January 8th, 2010 06:37 pm (UTC)
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I haven't seen much discussion of this. Does he actually *do* anything, plot-wise, in his own body? Or is it something the director takes off-screen as quickly as possible?
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From:aekiy
Date:January 8th, 2010 06:44 pm (UTC)
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He doesn't do much in his own body. It's clearly demonstrated that one of his reasons for wanting to take the job as a diplomat to the Na'vi is that he can finally live a life with working legs (which he could get for his original body if he weren't also poor).
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:January 8th, 2010 01:56 pm (UTC)
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The idea that illiteracy and ignorance lead to grace is one that I find patently obscene. I have seen this used as justification in more than one religion for turning off one's mind and submitting unconditionally to a cult leader. I

I'm glad I can't see Avatar anyway due to motion sickness, because I'm sick and tired of this movie already.
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From:kinkyturtle
Date:January 8th, 2010 09:04 pm (UTC)
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Thing is, I saw the movie, and I don't recall any scene, or anything in the plot, about illiteracy or ignorance being held up as any kind of virtue. I don't know where this interpretation comes from, but I suspect it's from someone who hasn't seen the movie.

As I recall, it's not that Jake knows the Na'vi culture better than they do or anything like that, it's that he knows the Marines, having been one himself, so he has inside information to help the Na'vi defeat the soldiers.
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From:eggshellhammer
Date:January 9th, 2010 04:46 pm (UTC)
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Which we never see him actually share with the Na'vi.
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From:silvaerina_tael
Date:January 8th, 2010 05:24 pm (UTC)
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Regarding the above conclusions, didn't I say something akin to that months ago when it was first being discussed, before the movie came out? That is was the white guy coming in and saving the alien race, and not them being able to save themselves? (Grant you I didn't say "messiah complex"... And confused it with a manga on a similar name)
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From:teaotter
Date:January 8th, 2010 06:28 pm (UTC)
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I think many people did. It was fairly obvious from the trailers.
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From:silvaerina_tael
Date:January 8th, 2010 06:38 pm (UTC)
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I just found it rather ironic... I would like to see a movie where the race being invaded infiltrates the would be oppressors, learns their tech and teaches their peers to use it against them, or come up with something indigenous that effectively nullifies the tech, thereby driving off the invaders.
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From:alephnul
Date:January 9th, 2010 08:55 am (UTC)
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The Spook Who Sat by the Door is the movie that leaps immediately to mind, although it is about black Americans resisting white oppressors, rather than indigenous people resisting colonizers.
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From:mindstalk
Date:January 8th, 2010 06:48 pm (UTC)
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There's David Brooks and David Broder. I think Broder is mushier, though Brooks would piss me off against Marc Shields on the Lehrer News-Hour. No wait, that was David Gergen. WTF, too many Davids.
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From:cusm
Date:January 8th, 2010 07:19 pm (UTC)
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Yea, its not exactly a challenging plotline here. Cameron was clearly going for maximum accessibility, and White Messiah Walks Path Of The Hero about nails it for archetypal plot for his target audience. Its about as surprising a story as Titanic (spoiler alert: the boat sinks in the end). I'm glad people noticed, the White Messiah meets the Noble Savage thing is really past its time.

But I have to admit, it works. It works well. The character is easy to identify with, and through his journey the viewer experiences a different paradigm. Wherein they are rewarded with some heroic fantasy cliche, naturally. But the journey is a win for the ride and the scenery. For as much as I bitched that the script came out of a can, I still went to see it twice. Hot psychic cat-elves riding dragons for the win :)
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From:slothman
Date:January 9th, 2010 05:55 am (UTC)
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An alternative perspective on Avatar that I found interesting.
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From:heron61
Date:January 9th, 2010 08:07 am (UTC)
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Absolutely fascinating - I don't think it at all invalidates the other PoV, but I can see it also being true, especially since Wayne Barlowe clearly knows his stuff.
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From:rjgrady
Date:January 10th, 2010 10:51 pm (UTC)
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Mind you, I haven't seen the movie, so I'll report back after I watch it if I have any thoughts worth sharing. The problem is that this perspective doesn't seem invalidate the premise of might = wisdom. If the Tree God is real, that simply endorses the Christian imperial mystical-evangelistic viewpoint over a 19th centurty rationalist-racist viewpoint. The white protagonist must "find God," purify his soul, master a technological force, and bring salvation to primitive peoples. It's bayonets and Bibles. A thin loyalty to futuristic visions of humanity does not preclude imperialism.
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From:eggshellhammer
Date:January 9th, 2010 04:48 pm (UTC)
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I honestly don't think James Cameron is clever enough to think along these lines.
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From:heron61
Date:January 9th, 2010 09:28 pm (UTC)
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I agree, but I'm fairly certain that Wayne Barlowe (the artist who designed the creatures) absolutely is, and so my guess is that both are accurate readings of the film. Sadly, 90+% of viewers will miss Barlowe's version of events.

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