Sense of Wonder: Conservative critics carp at Avatar (surprise!)

ABC News has a doozy of an “article” titled “The Politics of ‘Avatar:’ Conservatives Attack Film’s Political Message“. I use the quotations marks around the word article, because Huma Khan’s piece is not really a work of reporting; it’s a big megaphone to amplify conservative voices, whether or not they have anything to say. Their views are not held up to scrutiny, as to whether or not they are a valid assessment of James Cameron’s film, nor are they balanced by any opposing liberal views. In other words, it is yet another in an unending series of examples of the so-called “liberal media” bending over backwards to appease conservatives by giving them free reign to vent, in the process legitimizing their views. After all ABC News wouldn’t post this kind of stuff if it didn’t contain some validity, right?

Yeah, right. I was going to do a point-by-point take-down of the three-page piece, but I just don’t have the stomach to flog a dead horse that’s already such an emaciated skeleton it’s ready to collapse into a heap of dust at the sound of my approaching footfalls. Instead, I will make some general observations.

First, nobody makes a good argument against the themes in AVATAR. True to form, the conservative critics are simply ticked that the themes are on display at all.

Second, although Cameron wraps his ideas up in a science-fiction context, which theoretically should allow him some latitude in expressing his ideas, there is a tendency among conservative critics to read the film as a direct one-to-one metaphor that can be criticized for not accurately reflecting reality.

For example, African Studies scholar Travis Kavulla complains that the film “gives a false sense that natives are always in harmony with nature.” Um, Travis – no, it doesn’t. AVATAR tells us only that the Na’vi – a race of aliens who exist only in the film – are in touch with their planet, which has it own unique eco-system, which includes something akin to planet-wide nervous system. Cameron can portray the Na’vi however he wants because he is creating something fictional, not recreating reality.

Even better is Jonah Goldberg’s complaint that AVATAR is an attack on the Bush administration:

“… The guy is not even president anymore. … It’s bravery at the cheapest for Cameron to think, if he thinks that, this took courage on his part to make.”

Accusations of cowardice are rather amusing, coming from Goldberg (who, in an online contretemps with Juan Cole, tied himself into knots trying to explain why he supported Bush’s War on Terror while declining to enlist himself – even though he is of age to serve). However, the real source of mirth is the implication that Bush should receive hands-off treatment because he is out of office. Neglecting for a moment that Goldberg and his ilk would never apply this approach to Clinton or any democrat, one need only imagine what Goldberg would have said had AVATAR come out during the Bush presidency: then, no doubt, it would have been a crime akin to high treason to trash a sitting president. In short, there never is a time when attacking a Republican is suitable for public discourse. It’s either too soon or too late; unlike Goldilocks, it is never just right.

I could go on, but it’s really not worth my time, except for one more, parting shot:

AVATAR is a film that goes out of its way to cloak its message its message in science fiction trappings. We recognize the forces of evil by their actions, not their identity; they are not labeled as conservatives or Republicans. Yet for some mysterious reason, conservatives critics see the greedy corporate bastards who rely on ruthless military action to achieve their goals at the expense of innocent others – and in seeing this, they recognize themselves.

Their defensive reactions ultimately say more about the degraded state of their own minds – and their souls – than it does about the film. One wonders: if Heart of Darkness were published today, would they be blasting Conrad’s anti-colonialism as trite and simple-minded hippie tree-hugging philosophy? And would they look deep into the dark heart of the mad Kurtz and see a kindred soul?

UPDATE (January 8, 2010): Due to technical difficulties that have recently restricted access to the Internet, the above piece was written in some haste, omitting a couple of points I should have made.

First, I think the following quote from John Podhoretz at the Weekly Standard is worth singling out for particular scorn:

“The conclusion does ask the audience to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency. So it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism-kind of,” [...]

The very language betrays a hint of silliness, veering from emphatic (the anti-Americanism is “deep”) to wishy-washy (”kind of”) in a single sentence. More important Podhoretz overlooks the fact that there are no American soldiers in AVATAR, only mercenaries from Earth, whose nationality is never specified. Soldier fight for reasons of patriotism and national defense; mercenaries do it for the money.

Only in the cuckoo crazy conservative world of Podhoretz and his ilk could defeating mercenaries be read as “anti-American.” Stop and consider the premise underlying this thesis: aggressive military action in defense of coroporate profit, regardless of the harm to innocents, is equated with “Americanism,” and being against this is somehow un-American. You have to wonder what kind of “America” Podhoretz imagines he is living in.

The second point I overlooked is more of a Big Picture type: the real reason conservatives gasbags are ganging up on AVATAR is that it is popular. They may whine that the film is simple or not nuanced, but this is mere camoflage; what really bugs them is that people are responding to it in an overwhelmingly positive manner.

Why is this an issue? Because one of the myths of conservatism for the past few decades has been that movie ticket sales are down because Hollywood has lost touch with real American values. Never mind competition from television, home video, computer games, and the Internet; the conservative party line is that American is a bastion of conservative values, but Hollywood is preaching a liberal message that appeals only to hippies on the West Coast and the liberal elite on the East Coast. They like to point to weak box office performers like REDACTED as proof of this belief, and rather unconvincingly claim that blockbusters like THE DARK KNIGHT offer support for Bush’s War on Terror. When a truly conservative manifesto like AN AMERICAN CAROL tanks, they blame liberal conspiracies to suppress conservative voices. And when something like AVATAR comes along and makes millions, these pseudo-intellectuals suffer from an overdose of cognitive dissonance.

Personally, I thought James Cameron was a bit too ham-handed with his message in AVATAR, but now I am starting to enjoy that fact. Had Cameron been subtle, no doubt his conservative critics would be accusing him of insidiously indoctrinating American viewers on a subliminal level. With the message right out there in the open, there can be no doubt that America has embraced the film’s themes without falling for any subterfuge. It turns out that viewers will patronize a liberal-minded film without apology and with no need to tone down the message to appease the apologists for colonization, greed, and mindless military action.

It’s enough to make the gas bags’ heads explode.

This article has been edited since its original posting, to correct errors and clarify meaning.


About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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