Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Avatar: Where Men Win Glory

Today five Canadians were killed in Afghanistan:  four soldiers and a journalist.  That's 32 Canadians this year, 138 in total.  This is a timely post about a book on battles in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a movie on being invaded.  Both focus on an individual soldier on the field:  Pat Tillman, a real-life American who left a huge football contract in order to fight for his country, and Jake Sully, a fictional paraplegic marine sucked in to re-enlist to fulfill the dream of his dead twin brother. 

I saw the film Avatar, and then I read the book Where Men Win Glory, by Jon Krakauer, and the two have merged in my head so that I can't consider one without thinking of the other. Both are extraordinary and not to be missed.  My thoughts here are only slightly environmental, more philosophical, but it feels like not many people read this blog anyway providing me with the freedom of the un-read.  There are spoilers below, but nothing that would actually detract from either work....

Both Avatar and Where Men Win Glory hold up the soldier as the ideal man, question the actions nurtured by our democratic world view, and consider our fixation with progress.  But they come to significantly different conclusions.

At the beginning and ending of Krakauer's book, reference is made to an essay written by Fukuyama (later  turned into a book) which seeks to add some specifics to Nietzsche's analysis of modern man in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  The gist is that capitalism makes men too satisfied with their lives; they become complacent.  Fukuyama says, "Men with modern educations were content to sit at home, congratulating themselves on their broadmindedness and lack of fanaticism."  Nietzsche mocks, "Thus you stick out your chests - but alas, they are hollow!"  These are the last men, the end of an evolving history, because there's no further antithesis and synthesis to come; they're just satisfied enough to stop trying.  They're hollow because their honour and status are not a product of victory or virtue, but of mere accumulation. The heroes of our day are IT guys on the other end of the phone and stores with a good supply of whatever people are clamoring for next.

Fukuyama ends his essay with this lament for conflict:  "The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands."

But we got bored of this already and started invading again. We're not allowed to colonize countries overtly anymore; we have to be sneakier about it.  But we're not going to stop just because we've got everything we need here at home.  We will never have enough.  It seems to me that this hardly marks the end of our evolution because the human condition in many parts of the world can't tolerate satisfaction or contentment, and we don't want to be equal or mediocre.  We need drama and status.  If it doesn't present itself, we'll create it.  We get distracted by religion and television and sports, but ultimately, we want more to life.  We want to create a name for ourselves, to be distinguished.  We get status through our stuff, but that race soon goes nowhere for many people.  We create opportunity for courage and strength through conflicts like going to war. 

Written twenty years ago, the Fukuyama essay seems oddly placed in the book as something for the author to argue against.  Krakauer's thesis is that there are still ubermensch out there, incredible people like Pat Tillman, those that fight for freedom and strive for excellence in all they do.  And he glorifies the alpha male quality of taking a calculated risk, balls out, for the betterment of society.

Tillman's an excellent example of the ubermensch, "virtuous, loyal, ambitious and outspoken, disdainful of religious dogma and suspicious of received wisdom, intensely engaged in the hurly-burly of the real world...passionate - a connoisseur of both the highest joys and the deepest sorrows," (343) but for one exception.  He recognized that he wasn't really in Iraq for a just cause:  "....we have little or no justification other than our imperial whims....[but we have] willingly allowed ourselves to be pawns in this game and will do our job whether we agree with it or not."  He didn't want to be part of the Iraq invasion, but resigned himself to take orders to get that thrill of the challenge and of the fight.  He made a commitment to the army, and he was determine to uphold it even though it took a wrong turn for a while - even though it was clearly unjust to him.  Nietzsche's overman would not follow orders to do something against his own principles.  That  misses the whole point as Nietzsche cautioned, "He who cannot obey himself will be commanded." (II 12) 

Jake Sully, by contrast, gets into the fight, recognizes the war he signed up for is corrupt, and he switches teams.  He's clearly a traitor, yet his part is played as a hero.  Avatar is an important and significant film because it holds more than just the war-is-bad message of many movies previous.  This movie presents a new morality:  killing your Colonel and comrades is totally cool when their mission is unjust.  In fact, it's the only right thing to do.  And you'll be rewarded with life-long love of a beautiful woman, community respect and acceptance, and blue skin.  Sully is the real ubermensch here.  

Fukuyama further posits that, "There is no question but that the world's most develop countries are also its most successful democracies."   I challenge this assertion with ideas from another character mentioned repeatedly throughout Krakauer's book:  Noam Chomsky.  The US is not a democracy wherein the people get a say in how they are governed.  It's a surreptitious dictatorship that has craftily made people believe that they are free to do as they like by filtering the media in such a way as to manufacture the consent of the people.  Citizens think they have the knowledge to make informed choices, but that knowledge has been largely tainted by big business.  Krakauer does a remarkable job of reporting, in a very readable way, the many ways one of the most democratic governments in the world blantantly misleads the public in order to get support for an illegal invasion. 

Chomsky directly addressed Fukuymama's essay; he mainly exposed the worldwide free market tragedies that were a result of American victories to show how far we have to go to get to this stage of the last man. (Naomi Klein does that in more detail in Shock Doctrine.)  We're not fully evolved until everyone's satisfied, and if you focus on the victims of our exploits, that's a long way off.

Avatar takes that focus immersing us in the Na'vi culture as they are being invaded by humans who want to mine some rare and highly profitable substance found only on their planet.  It's the story of the cacao plantations in the Ivory Coast, or the coltan in the Congo, or the diamonds in Sierra Leone.  We want our chocolate, cell phones and shiny things, and we'll get them as cheaply as we can at the expense of cultures, childhoods, limbs and lives.  The people in the movie hope to negotiate with the Na'vi, but there's nothing these creatures want.  They're content.  So the humans are "forced" to use violence to get what they want.  Same as it ever was.

Societies that have been content to stay put, to end progress at the basic agrarian stage and not proceed further, could mark the end of history instead of the capitalist era being the final summit.  Because we've moved from one to the other isn't a confirmation that this is the final stage, but merely as far as we can see for now.  Movies like Avatar indicate a longing for that less technological natural life, a Shangri-La; the very animal drive to make our own homes by hand and find our own food might bring us to a different final stage.  But we can't get there if the primitives keep getting invaded by the moderns.     

It seems almost inevitable that we have two types of cultures, the satisfied accepting and the discontent striving.  And the satisfied get invaded over and over rarely able to defend itself because it puts more energy in community than military needs, or because it trusts people and accepts their gifts of smallpox-laden blankets, or because it succumbs to materialist greed from the offer of goods from the invaders like liquor and guns. In Avatar, the Na'vi are rare in that they really don't get sucked into covetous behaviour.  But their first mistake was trusting the enemy, and their second was using spears against machine guns.  If the wildlife hadn't joined the fight, they would have been toast.  Woodland creatures saving the day is a familiar out:  ants separate grain for Psyche, mice help Cinderella make a dress, elves make shoes all night, etc.  We need reminding that we have to work with the forest to survive ourselves and that "lesser" creatures have a purpose and value we don't always see.
Avatar is  Lost Horizon meets FernGully: the Last Rainforest*. The plot is the story of  FernGully in which a fairy, Crysta, meets up with Zak, a human who is helping to demolish the rainforest.  She puts a spell on him to shrink him down to fairy size, they fall in love, and once Zak sees the beauty and interconnectedness of the forest, he vows to save it from his own people.  Sound familiar?  But thematically it's Lost Horizon:  the  science/religion argument has evolved into a technology/nature debate, but the east/west aggression/acceptance passion/calm act/contemplate duels are still the same.

The High Lama of Lost Horizon, written in 1933, explains how Shangri-La came to be:

"I saw all the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in the vulgar passions and the will to destroy. I saw the machine power multiplying, until a single weaponed man might match a whole army. I foresaw a time when man, exalting in the technique of murder, would rage so hotly over the world, that every book, every treasure, would be doomed to destruction. This vision was so vivid and so moving, that I determined to gather together all things of beauty and of culture that I could, and preserve them here, against the doom toward which the world is rushing. Look at the world today. Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is! What blindness! What unintelligent leadership! A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity, crashing headlong against each other, propelled by an orgy of greed and brutality. A time must come my friend, when this orgy will spend itself. When brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword. Against that time, is why I avoided death, and am here. And why you were brought here. For when that day comes, the world must begin to look for a new life. And it is our hope that they may find it here. For here, we shall be with their books and their music, and a way of life based on one simple rule: Be Kind! When that day comes, it is our hope that the brotherly love of Shangri-La will spread throughout the world. Yes, my son; When the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled and the meek shall inherit the earth."

It happened that way in Avatar, but the movie left me depressed because, really, they wouldn't win. The meek don't win in this world because the strong don't devour each other; they make allies and bludgeon the weak together. The creatures would have been destroy completely, and any animal that didn't hide from the commotion would have been obliterated too. Scorched earth.  That's what we do best.

We are obsessed with progress.  And it's not just enough that we reach the highest peaks ourselves, we insist the entire world should come with us, should be like us.  Krakauer laments that Afghanistan hasn't changed significantly since it emerged as a nation in 1741.  Typically our obsession has been largely with a progress that fixates on technology, not morality, as we overtake people we call primitive.  But the recent battles have been centered on how people think, not how they live.

Afganistan is an advanced societies ravaged by civil wars.  Much of the citizens follow a Pashtun morality of Pashtunwali which focuses on honour and insists on revenge not unlike Aristotle's ethics.  It's not such a bad system, except revenge is in wait for the U.S. right now.  It's a personal issue bin Laden has with specific leaders, but he plans to enact revenge on the country, not the people.  This isn't an act Aristotle or Pashtunwali would condone. Pat Tillman had an incident in which he took revenge on the wrong guy, and he was immediately remorseful. Yet bin Laden also, at least in part, exemplifies Nietzsche's ubermensch.  Perhaps the ubermensch is not something to glorify.  It puts individual principles ahead of the needs of the community.  It puts passion ahead of caring.  It cares more for the will to power of the strong than the survival of the lesser creatures. 

Chomsky's rebuttal of Fukuyama closes with an address to the western world spoken by Father Ignacio Ellacuria shortly before he was assassinated by elite government forces in San Salvador in November 1989:

"You have organized your lives around inhuman values. These values are inhuman because they cannot be universalized. The system rests on a few using the majority of the resources, while the majority can't even cover their basic necessities. It is crucial to define a system of values and a norm of living that takes into account every human being."  

Chomsky adds, "In our dependencies, such thoughts are subversive and can call forth the death squads. At home, they are sometimes piously voiced, then relegated to the ashcan in practice. Perhaps the last words of the murdered priests deserve a better fate. "

*Apparently, ...meets Dances With Wolves, which I've never seen. 


Anonymous said...

Well written. I hope more people realise these things bc our nation is often in the wrong both at home and abroad. We waste. We consume. We profit. So 1 at a time u, me and the next guy start doing the right things. We do bc we understand It's better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.

Marie said...

Thanks Anon!