Monday, February 22, 2010

Avatar: Liberal Guilt and Liberal Fantasies

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:
They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things..... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Thus begins Howard Zinn's magnum opus "The People's History of the United States". It is a book that many a "Proud" American would place in his closet rather than his bookshelf. The stories of heroism that he tells his children in late night stories and school history books, the inheritance to the Western enlightenment and visions of democracy that he so vehemently proclaims, would be reduced to a mere exercise in rhetoric and hypocrisy, if history was known to the ordinary man as in this fashion.

James Cameron has brought out the skeleton from the closet. In this he has not said anything new. In fact a thousand activists are fighting Jake Sully's battle at this very moment, as I write. These battles are being fought with more ordinary weapons, and the familiar unfairness that God bestows upon reality. Jake Sully's tale is another fairy tale from the big screens of Hollywood, but it is unique in its exploration of the issue of development, in "entertaining, mainstream cinema", in the pop-corn munching, soda sipping multiplexes,those mosques of urbanity, which, ironically, are often the very symbols of the development that Cameron questions.

Cameron has also played out the ultimate intellectual's fantasy, in pitting the liberal,eco-friendly, pacifist, science PhD intellectual brigade against the unholy alliance of the headstrong stupid six pack, and the suave, clean shaved cold blooded calculating businessman (I was often tempted to replace W and Cheney in these two positions as I watched the movie!).As Col. Qaritch talks of pre-emptive attacks, and Selfridge talks of the quarterly earnings, the liberal is taking his sweet revenge over an world it has failed to control.

Avatar's position on the politics of development does not come out loud and clear though. In fact, it seems, it is happy to take the Luddite position, without much explanation. It is in the end, only good triumphing against the evil. But is the evil a necessary one? Avatar refrains from answering this all important question (But then, it is probably expecting too much from a fantasy film of sorts). However, it is a question that requires a deeper thought. For Avatar's villains are also the heroes that we have worshiped since the dawn of civilization. If Christopher Columbus is a shame that the white man would like to hide in the myriad descriptions of conquests, so are the early Aryans, whose invasion of India left very few traces of its original inhabitants.Almost all of the world's greatest civilizations have been constructed over the carcasses of a weaker people. Development, too, has followed a similar path. And it is not the greedy capitalist or the feudal emporer alone, who have wreaked the havoc. The cherished Empire of the people, Stalin's USSR sacrificed millions to the altar of development. Today, as India's "socialist" Government goes on a development spree to become a superpower, we see the all too familiar faces. From the Sardar Sarovar project in Gujarat, to Nandigram in West Bengal it is the same question that haunts the modern liberal intellectual, the child of Socrates and Columbus. In fact, one cannot hide a chuckle at how Art imitates life, when the Vedanta Inc. threatens to take over the Nyamgiri mountains in Orissa, home to the Nyam Raja, the deity of the Kondh tribals who inhabit the adjoining area.

Very soon, such insignificant details would be buried within the weight of history books, and the obscurity of academic theses. The history of India's development, would probably have such trivia as mere footnote, or may omit them altogether. For as Kundera says, the powers that be do not want to change the future, but want the authority to rewrite its past. As the deeds of Columbus, or W or Chidambaram are erased from the books of history, and the memory of the people, sometimes, they would peek from obscurity in the form of Clementin's fur hat, or Cameron's movie.


Munmun Talukdar said...

It's a strange kinda post! Started from d movie, 'Avatar" to connected it wid the "socialist" govt and their policies and stuff.I can give a credit to the author 4 dis kinda thought or for his "IMAGINATION" I sud say...
I went through ur others posts b4. Pretty impressive wid lots f variety. But I think this 1 s d the "BESTEST" POST IN UR BLOG...

cringe-all said...

I know a large swathe of the liberal intelligentsia is seeing some cause for celebration in the very idea of a globally relevant political issue being showcased by a Hollywood fantasy potboiler, but does it really add much value to their cause, beyond some glamor? To me the greatest tragedy remains that a liberal cause championing text still has to lapse into a reverse "us vs 'em" discourse to appease the masses. Most of your post is about the politics of the world, which I can agree with, but maybe you should add a bit more to your discussion of the politics of the movie and your take on it?