The racial politics of *Avatar*

Chris Hayes pointed me to this article, with this good passage:

Think of it this way. Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. Jake never really knows what it's like to be a Na'vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode. Interestingly, Wikus in District 9 learns a very different lesson. He's becoming alien and he can't go back. He has no other choice but to live in the slums and eat catfood. And guess what? He really hates it. He helps his alien buddy to escape Earth solely because he's hoping the guy will come back in a few years with a "cure" for his alienness. When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it's only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.

I also enjoyed Ross Douthat's take.


I would like to receive some Oppression of the Asian or Indian variety in the form of a higher monthly salary and carreer/educational prospects. Or would that be privilege? Or just the result of brains and hard work? Ugh. This is all so confusing to me. I wish things weren't so messy. I just need to know who the villains and heroes are so I can jump on the right bandwagon.

And those Jews. Someone's REALLY greasing the skids for those folks. Lord knows they couldn't have any better intelligence or work ethic than anyone else. How else could you explain their achievements except by.... privilege. What a great idea!

All the pieces seem to be coming together now.


This proves D's points, that discrimination or prejudice is not what keeps some populations in poverty.

So, if this is a good passage, what would a bad one look like?

If James Cameron had been born in Canada in 1854 instead of 1954, but with the same huge combination of ambition, technical skills, vision, and persuasiveness, he probably would have migrated to London, the reigning power center, and become a leading advocate of the ideology of the British Empire at its Edwardian apogee: an admiral in the Royal Navy, an imperialist in the Cecil Rhodes mode, or a jingoistic Fleet Street newspaper baron like his fellow Canadian Lord Beaverbrook ... something like that.

Today, he migrates to Hollywood and sugarcoats his nature in the reigning minoritarian prejudices of Hollywood: e.g., WASPS are evil (cf. Titanic), technology is evil, etcetera etcetera ...

But, underneath it all, he's the same guy. I suspect the 1854 version of Cameron would have been less devious.

From the article:

I'd like to watch some movies about people of color (ahem, aliens), from the perspective of that group, without injecting a random white (erm, human) character to explain everything to me.

Many such movies exist--they're just not Hollywood blockbusters. But more would be welcome. My nomination is a film adaptation of 'An African in Greenland'.

The passage also reminds me of BSG and the behavior of the sleeper Cylon models over time.

Privilege and oppression theories don't explain the differing results of blacks native to the USA vs immigrant blacks from the carribean. When poor blacks have a culture and results similar to poor southern whites and similar to previous generations of immigrants that formed the roots for that society, then the simplest explanation seems to be related to cultural values rather than oppression.

You can try and explain it in terms of self-selection for immigrants, but that doesn't explain the differences for straight out poor refugees, nor for the Chinese immigrant laborers of yesteryear.

It also doesn't explain the similar results based on worldwide minority and immigration numbers as well as cultural influences do.

Take up the white man's burden meets up with War is a Racket.
Toss in some 4th gen war making and a finely designed set of property rights for the blue folks.
And a happy ending with the imerialist lackeys starting on a remake of Bataaning the Blues. A fine movie for those who hate the Romans at Christmas.

The article was about the "white guilt" fantasies that have developed around the destruction of various indigenous peoples by European states and their armies during the colonial period, i.e. episodes of genocide, enslavement and the deaths of almost entire native populations from diseases introduced by settlers. The "privilege" the author is talking about is total militarized domination and the extinction of some groups, it isn't about whether affirmative action is good or whether current income gaps are due to racial privilege. I don't know what produced D's howls of indignation, but it certainly wasn't any kind of attempt to read the article.


Why are you asking a question I answered in the body of my previous entry. Do you delight in redundancy?

I generally find anything written by Christians about religion like Douthat's article pretty incomprehensible...

Re: Douthat's post

Does anyone else find it weird seeing a Christian argue for Christianity from the premise that it's nothing more than socially useful make-believe? I mean, that's what it is, but typically people who acknowledge that are atheists.

Well said BKarn. Well said indeed.

"When whites fantasize about becoming other races"

Like am I clueless or do people actually fantasize about becoming "other races"? Or is it just a really stupid remark?

Dune was a lot more interesting because The Spice was portrayed as being incredibly awesome and it was obvious that millions could be killed fighting over its control. Cameron barely explains what "unobtainium" is used for and the people controlling the corporate interests aren't a tenth as devious and craven as the House Harkonnenn.

Its a shame because its probably the most amazing looking movie that we will see in the next five to ten years.

Douthat's sermon is laughable. How does one practice such a self deception and go on to look down on someone else's?

Or, as my BIL pointed out, why the Navi couldn't just drop rocks through the fricking engine blades. Seriously, movies like this are written by morons.

Wow. I never guessed people would be sitting around the coffee shop debating the deeper meaning of a James Cameron flick. Where to start.

Yes, Hollywood are a bunch of dips. That's a known issue. Religion? Hmmm. I wouldn't worry about it. They all have about 10 marriages and mostly die before they are 40, so they can't be very happy. Who would take them seriously (aside from the British)? However, Douthat is correct, I wish they'd just make movies because they're politics suck and they suck at portraying politics. Cameron's portrayal is acceptable because it is an inherently public choice theme.

I think it's a big deal to figure out what is actually racism versus cultural judgment. Some cultures are bad, or at least not good at providing their people the goodies they think my culture is stealing from them. Apparently not many other people care about this distinction, or think such a distinction is inherently racist. I've said before, both my parents were from single mother families and had zero except the will and opportunity to work their ends off. I can't remember a single grant announcement or scholarship sent my way that didn't require that I be a woman, a minority or live on a submarine, so my only question is when can we call it a day on the affirmative action stuff? At the very least, stop sending them to me.

I was under the impression from the trailers that the movie was about somebody's land being taken without just compensation. The lack of specificity about unobtainium (he actually calls it unobtainium?!?) reinforces my view on this. Maybe the film is about different perspectives. But, I'm not sure why I'd care anything about what James Cameron thinks other than what he thinks about making movies, at which he is the master.

I think I may have just read the most right-on film review in history.

I disagree. At least for some of the movies he mentions, maybe Avatar but definitely Last Samurai, it is for sheer credibility that the natives are led by a white male. When a primitive army with sticks and swords runs up against a trained military machine with guns and artillery, the only possible way it can end any other way but "total defeat" is for the primitives to have insider knowledge, which means a traitor.

"Jake never really knows what it's like to be a Na'vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode. Interestingly, Wikus in District 9 learns a very different lesson. He's becoming alien and he can't go back."

Did I miss something here...

Jake chooses to risk his life at the end of the movie to go through the ritual to permanently become a Na'vi. He can't go back. He's given the choice to stay human and presumably even return to Earth if he wants and instead he becomes Na'vi, risking his life to do so. Wikus is forced to become an alien and Jake chooses to become one permanently. Their motivations are different, but the outcome is the same.

Wikus' motivations to stay human aren't just as simple as not wanting to become a racial minority. By becoming an alien, he is forced to give up his human life along with his wife and family, which the director shows he is longing for at the end with those pieces of origami or whatever it was that he was leaving on his wife's stoop (been a while, forget what they were). Meanwhile, Jake seems to have no life to go back to at all so he's given up nothing to become a super-athletic, superhumanoid and only trades in his frail, paralyzed body to do so.


That's exactly what I'm talking about. Did the guy writing this just shut off the movie without seeing the last 5 minutes?

How can he choose to become a Navi? Could he not still choose to leave the avatar control chamber?

While I acknowledge other interpretations, I see the theme of movies such as Avatar and those similar to be about restraint, power, and the corrupting influence of power.

I'm reminded of quote by Abraham Lincoln that "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

the obsession that white liberals (coolies) have with race mirrors that of the nazis. and these are the same people who have the nerve to call black conservatives "uncle tom." well, what does that make blii clinton or james cameron of george clooney? nothing but the white version of an uncle tom, thats what.

Oh come on, this is comparing apples to oranges. The "Avatar" Na'vi were the inhabitants of Pandora. The "District 9" prawns were visitors to earth, and a hated minority here. To be a Na'vi on Pandora would be great. To be a prawn on Earth would be horrible. The native species, which runs the planet and greatly outnumbers the alien prawns, all hates the prawns and subjects them to horrible treatment with no rights, etc. In "Avatar" the humans are the minority on Pandora, though they are more technologically advanced than the big blue Na'vi.

This is probably the dumbest comparison I've ever read. This guy most not have seen either Avatar or District 9 to be making such a comparison.

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