Avatar and the American Empire

By Naomi Wolf

NEW YORK - Do nations have psychological processes - even Freudian processes, such as collective egos that can be injured, and repressed guilt feelings that can well up from the collective unconscious - just as individuals do? I believe that they do.

I also believe that just as an individual's dreams and slips of the tongue reveal his or her repressed knowledge, so a culture's "dreamwork" - its films, pop music, visual arts, and even in the resonant jokes, cartoons and advertising images - reveal the signs of this collective unconscious. Moreover, a nation's "irrational dreamwork" often reflects its actual condition more truthfully than its "ego" - its official pronouncements, diplomatic statements, and propaganda.

Scenes from Avatar: The indigenous people are an amalgam of echoes from all the great wars of empire that have troubled the recent American conscience.

So take this theory with you when you see James Cameron's Avatar, and watch for two revealing themes: the raw, guilty template of the American unconscious in the context of the "war on terror" and late-stage corporate imperialism, and a critical portrayal of America - for the first time ever in a Hollywood blockbuster - from the point of view of the rest of the world.

In the Hollywood tradition, of course, the American hero fighting an indigenous enemy is innocent and moral, a reluctant warrior bringing democracy, or at least justice, to feral savages. In Avatar , the core themes highlight everything that has gone wrong with Americans' view of themselves in relation to their country's foreign policy.

The hero, Jake Sully, is crippled from combat in a previous American conflict, but is not well cared for by his own country; if he does his job of genocide properly, "the corporation" will reward him with proper medical treatment. He signs on, essentially, as a corporate contractor - shades of Blackwater's massacre of civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square.

The enterprise is a "mission" in which the soldiers fight not "for freedom" but "for a paycheck." They take their direction from corporate bureaucrats in waging war against the indigenous people, whose sacred land is sited on vast reserves of "unobtainium," which the corporation wishes to secure at all costs.

The soldiers are portrayed as being manipulated by their leaders - through vicious racism and religious derision - into brutal action against the non-aggressive "hostiles." When the villain, the American military leader of the attack, plans to bomb flat the indigenous people's sacred tree, he boasts that he will blow such a massive hole in their "racial memory" that they won't come "within a thousand clicks" of the place again.

Even the machinery of US military combat is portrayed non-heroically. Instead of the classic images of the US Cavalry courageously sweeping down on the savages, or of decent American doughboys bravely clearing out nests of Nazis, bored technocrats, insulated by immense layers of technology, firebomb green valleys, slaughtering enemy warriors and defenseless women and babies while sipping coffee and casually fiddling with touch screens.

The characters' lines (all quotes are approximate) are those that never pierce the bubble of American self-regard with respect to Iraq and Afghanistan. "You should not be here!" exclaims the indigenous heroine, and eventual love interest, Neytiri, as if she is speaking of the entire US enterprise overseas. "You are like a baby." Gesturing at the mayhem caused by the destructive but self-regarding hero, before he "goes native," she says, "This is your fault. They should never have had to die."

Later, as Sully starts to become sympathetic towards those whom he has been sent to betray, he tells the bureaucrats: "If people are sitting on something you want, you call them the enemy." When he has fully identified himself with their cause, he joins a movement that is essentially a counterinsurgency, even a jihad ("Let's show the Sky People [the US] whose land this is!"). He and his small band of Americans are even locked in a small Guantánamo-style cell and called "traitors."

The indigenous people are an amalgam of echoes from all the great wars of empire that have troubled the recent American conscience. Although they are physically a fantasy sci-fi mix of blue skin and cat-like movement, they are culturally a mix of Native Americans and Vietnamese, with Arabic accents thrown in.
They have qualities that Americans would do well to emulate. They respect their environment, whereas the Americans must "return to a dying planet," because, as the indigenous people put it, "they have killed their own mother."

Sully's journey is not one of conquest but of awakening to his and his people's true relationship to others: "What am I, the bad guy?" he laughs at first, as if that were impossible. In the end, however, he tries to warn his own imperialist team of the futility of their brutal approach: "What do we have to offer them? Light beer? Blue Jeans? They will never leave the Hometree [their sacred land]. We have nothing that they want."

Ironically, Avatar will probably do more to exhume Americans' suppressed knowledge about the shallowness of their national mythology in the face of their oppressive presence in the rest of the world than any amount of editorializing, college courses, or even protest from outside America's borders. But I am not complaining about this. Hollywood is that powerful. But, in the case of Avatar, the power of American filmmaking has for once been directed toward American self-knowledge rather than American escapism.

(Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.) Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010. Exclusive to the Sunday Times

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