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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: In what ways is ‘Avatar’ — and now ‘Green Zone’ — unAmerican?

I was baffled by all those who took exception to Avatar on the basis of its somehow being anticapitalist, antimilitary, antiscience, and — oh noes! — anti-American. (See here and here, if you want to be baffled too.) It seemed to me that these objectors were saying that destruction and bigotry and horror and selfishness are absolutely inherent qualities — and qualities to be celebrated — of capitalism, the military, science, and America, instead of distortions and avoidable excesses of such. Nothing highlights that better than the fact that so many objectors seemed to find it amusing and ironic that, to their eyes, Cameron made an anticapitalist movie for $300 million and is raking in huge capitalistic profits as a result: these objectors do believe, it seems, that there is no excess of capitalism — up to and including the destruction of another culture in the pursuit of profit — that should be criticized as wrong, that the excesses aren’t excesses at all.

It seemed to me that these objections say a lot more about what the objectors think about America than what Avatar and James Cameron think about America.
And now the same thing is happening with Green Zone, in a more specific way. I found fault with the movie in how it fails to even name the real perpetrators of real crimes (and in fact it gives them a bit of plausible cover that real life has yet to grant them), but apparently for others, the movie is slanderously anti-American because it has the temerity to highlight an unpleasant reality (at least partially) that does not place the United States in the best position ever. The facts that underlie the film’s fictionalized story are indisputable: there really weren’t any WMDs in Iraq and the evidence really was cooked before the war to convince the American public that we needed to invade a sovereign nation that did not threaten us. But as with Avatar’s objectors, it seems that inherent in these protests is the notion that the United States can do no wrong, no matter what it does.

Not only do I find such an argument the opposite of patriotic — that’s just unthinkingly nationalistic — it offends me intellectually that supposedly smart people can be so blindered.

But maybe I’m missing something. In what ways are Avatar and Green Zone — unAmerican?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • Cori Ann

    Isn’t the whole point (theoretically, anyway) of America’s ideal to call BS when the powers that be are perpetrating (and getting away with) things that are just plain wrong? In that way, I would say these films are then extremely American, rather than anti-anything. Though I haven’t seen them so I can only suppose.

  • Josh C.
  • Martin

    As far as I’m aware (and what would I know, I’m a decadent Brit) the term Un-American is a shorthand for “I don’t have any facts on which to argue with you but I’m gonna do it any way”.

    It’s the worst of patriotism, disqualifying anyone that dares criticise, when the country itself is based on the notion of free speech.

    In fact, calling someone Un-American is Un-American.

    And I’ll just go vanish in a puff of logic…

  • Isobel

    I too am a decadent Brit and being patriotic is one of those things that I sort of don’t get. I love being English and I’m very fond of England, but I’d be the first to admit that it has it’s problems (the fact that there are 59 million people living in a country the size of Wisconsin is the least of our worries – it’s no wonder Americans find our homes small!).

    Anyway, the concept of something being ‘un-American’ is just odd to me. Why is it so important to some people that all Americans are seen to think in the same way? Why is criticising some aspects of capitalism such a terrible thing to do? Capitalism & democracy is probably the best model for running a country, but it’s not perfect by any means. Surely criticism and learning from mistakes (such as that destruction of other cultures is never good – look at the current sitatuion in ex UK colonies) is a good thing leading to positive growth?

  • stryker1121

    Avatar struck me as anti-American (different meaning from “unAmerican”), and in fact I was on these boards after seeing the movie stating my reasons for feeling as I do.

    Put simply, Cameron draws IMO obvious parallels to Iraq/Afghanistan through references of terrorism, infrastructure building, “unobtanium” (oil), and the ham-handedly specific use of the phrase “shock and awe.” The final battle pits the evil American mercs against the pure, flawless Na’vi, with the Americans led by a buzzcut R. Lee Ermey clone. We are supposed to root for the Americans to get their comeuppance. Not saying Cameron is suggesting that it’s a good thing when American soldiers die, but I found the whole set-up very weird and off-putting, and this is coming from someone who was against the war in Iraq.

  • marshall

    Well, considering that I am against rampent capatalistic and militaristic growth, then I guess that makes me un-american to think we have a much better potential that what we are currently striving for. Anti-Science? I didn’t see that. I thought the scientists in the movie were portrayed as wanting to learn more about the Navi and the eco-system, and were at odds with the powers that be – which, holy cow, is another uncomfortable but realistic truth.

    As for Green Zone, I can’t comment completely, but there is nothing wrong with questioning things, and America was built on this principle as a matter of fact. It’s only been in the last decade that it has become popular to decry anything that seeks to question our current courses of action as un-american. The right has taken their tendancy of blind faith and re-defined it as blind-nationality and made it populist.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Avatar is certainly anti-colonialism. Given America’s colonial roots, it’s history of expansion, and some recent history*, it could indirectly be considered anti-American, but that’s tenuous at best.

    If one is inclined to find a story in which the villains are motivated by the pursuit of wealth to be anti-capitalism and therefore anti-American, well… one is going to be offended by a great deal of the drama and literature of the past 200 years. Similarly if the villains are an army (in Avatar‘s case, an unaffiliated mercenary army).

    I still claim that it’s anti-science, but in contradictory and, yes, ironic ways. It’s not that Avatar is “technology=bad, naturalism=good”. The tech is rather indifferent, especially with the back story of the Earth’s environmental destruction excised. It’s more that the naturalism is shown as perfect. This idea was tiresome when the Ewoks managed to fight off a legion of Imperial stormtroopers, and it hasn’t gotten fresher since.

    But that still doesn’t make Avatar anti-American. Its lazy, cliche- and allusion-driven style of storytelling isn’t sophisticated enough to have a message.

    *sorry, stryker, but what is the war in Iraq but some form of postmodern colonialism?

  • Knightgee

    You have to remember that anti-American is often code for anything that dares to suggest that America is not in fact perfect and righteous in it’s every decision and choice now and forever. I think we should keep in mind that those soldiers are mercenaries at the hire of a company. The assumption that they must be stand-ins for America is unnecessary. If you identify with the racists, the war-hungry mercenaries, and the greedy company willing to wipe out an entire species for profit, that says more about what you consider explicitly American than what Cameron does, imo. I didn’t see myself or my identity reflected in those people and it didn’t offend me to see them get their comeuppance.

    As for it being anti-science, that’s absurd. It is science that ultimately saves the day as had it not been for the Avatars in the first place, none of the events would have been possible. The Na’vi world is considered beautiful by the scientists and what makes it extra-fascinating is that this world is the direct result of co-evolution. It takes a scientific outlook to truly appreciate how amazing this world is. That’s why Grace is such an advocate for it’s preservation while the guy from the company thinks that it’s all “just trees”. She can appreciate the complexity of this world because she is a scientist.

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