"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

At Court

Last week I served as a juror on a criminal case in federal court. The unpleasantness of having to hear testimony about nasty human behavior was significantly counterbalanced for me by my experience in the jury room, where all the members of the jury, of various walks of life and varying experience, deliberated with care, intelligence, responsibility, and determination to reach a fair and truthful verdict.

The experience renewed my faith in the wisdom of the Founding Fathers’ commitment to trial by jury. It occurred to me that most of what we hear about the behavior of the fellow human beings whom we don’t know personally is via the news, and most news is about bad human behavior. But here were eleven people whom I did not know, randomly chosen, seriously trying to do the right thing as I was and thereby justifying the Founders’ trust in their collective wisdom. It was the opposite of the news. It was good news.

When I returned to school and described the above, one of my colleagues suggested that my faith in the goodness of human nature had been renewed. I said I had no faith in the goodness of human nature. (There’s Rousseau again, blowing smoke.) Any particular human being’s nature may be good or bad; in general human nature is plastic, malleable, able to be influenced by training for good or ill, and at least in part subject to the government of the free will. I did not see how one could hear the testimony I heard and still believe that man is naturally good.

But what my experience did renew was my appreciation for the power of culture, tradition, education, social pressure, and law, when they are intact and rooted in wisdom and virtue, to influence people for the good. More specifically I found that in a relatively random sample of my fellow American citizens, the values of reason, patience, truth, the rule of law, common sense, politeness, honesty, and justice were very much in evidence.

Given the corrupting influences of our entertainments, schools, celebrities, politicians, and the usual news, the likelihood that such values will continue to characterize a random sample of citizens may be doubtful. But the behavior of my fellow jurors on last week’s trial persuaded me to hope that perhaps we are not so far gone as a culture as it sometimes seems.

The Irony of Avatar

I found Avatar entertaining, intellectually offensive, and ironic in the extreme.

The story was engaging—a stock tale of sci fi adventure in which the hero goes native, defends his new underdog community from his own oppressive kind, and gets the girl. The film was visually compelling, with imaginative computer imaging, effective 3-D, and enjoyable alterations of garb and scale applied to flora and fauna—calla lilies, jellyfish, and trees; horses, wolves, monkeys, elephants, rhinos, and pterosaurs.

There was one authentically moving moment in the human/humanoid events of the movie: Challenged to a duel by his rival for power and for the girl, the protagonist pulls his knife, then throws it away, saying “I am not your enemy.” It was a gesture of courage, brief but dramatic and noble. Of course it didn’t impress the rival, who is prevented from hurting the hero only by a threatening, tooth-baring hiss from the knife-wielding heroine.

Which brings us to the intellectual offense—the film’s outrageous festival of propaganda. Reality is caricatured as a Manichean war between the forces of light—the nature-wise noble savages of the feminine planet Pandora—and the forces of darkness—the pseudo-military, mineral-hungry, macho capitalist invaders from English-speaking earth. (Pandora means “all gifts” and is the name of the first woman in Greek myth.) Here are some of the pro and contra opinions the movie is trying to make sure we hold:

We are to be in favor of nature; animals, plants, and particularly trees; the heart; science as curiosity; females and feminism; woodcraft, environmentalism, equality, and non-verbal communication; hunting and gathering; indigenous peoples; dreadlocks; tribalism; and paganism.

We are to be opposed to civilization; technology, metallic machines, and particularly war machines; the mind; science as conquest; males (unless they are rogue males with a feminine side who rebel against evil civilization) and machismo; industry, capitalism, hierarchy, and military orders; mineral (read oil) extraction; white (and token non-white) Americans; uniforms; imperialism; and materialism. (The earth’s great religions are not included among the ideas to be opposed. This is only because there is not the least hint that any of them exists.)

Think American marines in Iraq with Saddam Hussein as Sitting Bull, or in Afghanistan with Al Qaeda as basket-weavers and opium poppies as Gaia’s intercom.

On Pandora all the trees intercommunicate through their roots, making a vast planetary computer that might be called “mother nature,” which can do better anything that science and technology can do (e.g., move a soul from one body to another). The heroine is sufficiently liberated from pre-feminist stereotype to be able to run, fly, fight, and kill. She (or was it her oracle-mother?) observes that “They have destroyed their planet and now want to destroy this one”—i.e., Al Gore was right. She observes about the hero that “Your heart is good, but your mind is very stupid”—i.e., Rousseau was right: gut feelings are to be trusted, rationality is not.

In condescending kindness (which soon blossoms into erotic love despite the androgynous physiology of avatar bodies) she teaches him to become his true and better self. This she does by training him not only properly to run, fly, fight, kill, and generally behave himself on Pandora (e.g., to apologize to a food animal before delivering a coup de grace and to tame one’s horse or pterosaur by grokking it via the mutual intertwining of the split ends of the braids shared by all species). Philosophically, he must also learn from her that man is not rational spirit united to nature but merely nature itself in one of its variations.

In short, Pandora is a literal apotheosis of the neo-pagan nature-worship of late Romanticism.

Movies touting such Rousseauist propaganda have been with us for a long time, and there is no sign that they will soon be grown out of. This one, however, struck me with a particularly intense irony: Avatar could not possibly exist as the nature-worshipping movie it is without the most complex technology of the most machine-loving society in human history. Think of the computers it took to make it, or just read the credits. And the money spent by the billion viewers whom it is teaching to despise capitalist America is going to precisely the kind of mega-corporation the film itself condemns.

How is it possible for this self-contradiction not to be registered by the romantics exiting the theater yearning to be translated into avatar-bodies on Pandora? Can there be a more extreme example of the lack of integrity of the Hollywood enterprise? Argue all you want that this is to treat too seriously what is meant as mere entertainment. Entertaining art has power because it allows us to see what we wish to believe. Does the nature we wish to believe in make us so very mindless that we are blind to such an irony?

As propaganda Avatar seeks to deceive others into believing what its computer-wielding makers cannot possibly themselves believe (see pro and contra lists above). Like the soma of Huxley’s Brave New World, it calculatingly stupefies people into desiring their own dehumanization. Winning our hearts with romance and pyrotechnics, it attempts to clip from our minds Aristotle’s concept of the proper function of man—to reason well consistently with virtue. Then its makers take the clippings to the bank.