Avatar and the Unabomber  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Stuart at Early Warning has a rather unorthodox review of James Cameron's "Avatar" - Avatar and the Unabomber.

Let's start with the political viewpoint of the movie. When I watched it the first time, I was amazed that I was watching a major Hollywood movie with such a radical message, expressed so overtly. The movie doesn't go in for a lot of moral ambiguity: it's really clear that Sully, Trudy, Grace and the Na'vi are the good guys, who we are expected to view as moral and heroic. Meanwhile, Quaritch and Parker Selfridge are the bad guys, who we are expected to see as in the wrong. Let's break down a bit what the moral rules are behind the behavior of the characters. I took away the following points:

* It's wrong to desecrate natural beauty in order to get natural resources (the bulldozers destroying the Tree of Voices are clearly in the wrong in the movie's moral universe).
* It's wrong to displace native people in order to get natural resources (even Parker is shown shaken and uncertain of himself at what is required to get the Na'vi away from their Home Tree).
* Native people are more spiritually advanced and morally better than civilized people (the main arc of Jake's spiritual growth in the movie is to become one of them).
* If civilized people do, nonetheless, come to desecrate the natural environment and take the resources, native people are justified in violently resisting that effort (this is what the Na'vi do, and we are encouraged to root for them).
* If you, as a member of the civilized society, find yourself in the position of being part of such a resource extraction effort, the morally correct thing to do is turn traitor to your own society and help the native people in their violent resistance (the moment when Trudy says "I didn't sign up for this shit" and turns her guns on her own side).
* Civilization is destroying all other life on the Earth (the movie reports that Earth is no longer a green planet by 2154).

(I should stress before I go on that I'm not saying Cameron believes these things in everyday life, but those are the moral rules he sets up in the universe of Pandora for storytelling purposes).

If you want to place this viewpoint on the contemporary political spectrum, I think you have to go out past liberal democratic environmentalists, past the Green Party, past Earth First, and out to the Earth Liberation Front. ...

That's from the Unabomber's manifesto. We put him in jail because he started killing technologists, stating as his reason that he hated industrial society and wanted to return to a more natural and free state of humanity. He was less successful in the execution than Jake/Trudy/Grace and the Na'vi - who actually succeed in ejecting Parker and Co. from Pandora - but it seems to me that the moral logic is exactly the same. Nature good, technology bad, violent opposition justified.

So, you might want to stop a minute and ask yourself: how exactly does Cameron get mainstream American audiences to root for the Unabomber side in this conflict?
That's quite a trick, isn't it?

No, STOP before you skim over this point. I really want you think about it: do you approve of the Unabomber's actions? If not, but you liked the movie, do you know how Cameron got you to root for that side?

Stated quite so baldly, and stripped of the dressing of stunning CGI and exciting action sequences, I think it's clear that the movie's moral position is a rather extreme and absolutist position. Extracting resources from the natural environment and turning them into tangible wealth or capital - houses and their furnishings, wagons/cars, workshops/factories/offices is what civilizations do. It's not an accidental or optional feature of civilization that could easily be dispensed with if we were only a little more reasonable. Instead, it's absolutely basic to the nature of the beast. Ever since the Natufians started building houses and farming wild grasses, through the Sumerians irrigating the Mesopotamian plains, and the Romans deforesting the Italian countryside and mining Britain, to our modern extraction of all manner of metals and fossil fuels from the earth, cutting of forests for timber, and farming of most of the best soils on the planet, civilizations have extracted resources and done so in ever increasing quantities.

I guess this is one way of looking at it (though maybe a mature civilisation gets over this behaviour and adopts cradle-to-cradle manufacturing systems and quits the extraction business for good).

You could view the basic moral of these tales through a libertarian lens too - the Na'vi "own" their natural world and the interloping Americans have no right to steal their private property at gunpoint - they aren't necessarily paid up members of the ELF...


Anonymous   says 6:40 AM

Let me frame it another way: strangers come to your farm, shoot your family, demolish your house, and start removing the top soil.

Stuart's interpretation breaks down when you look at ownership or social context. Kazinski had no property claims to those things he was allegedly trying to protect. He was also an isolated loner - part of no movement, no social scene, and apparently incapable of compassion or empathy.

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