After the usual right-wing vapors over the anti-capitalist and pagan implications of David Cameron's Avatar, rightist David Brooks has expropriated the left-wing critique of the film as a White Messiah fable. Echoing Haiti-born Ezili Dantò's widely disseminated critiques of the film, Brooks castigates the film's hypocrisy that, while it fulfills what he calls the "formula" of "loincloth-clad good guys sticking it to the military-industrial complex," it is a "racial fantasy par excellence," in the tradition of Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai. In such films, Brooks reminds us, "[n]atives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration." The controversy has spread and is now the subject of an AP article by Jesse Washington.
Brooks and other rightists ignore what Ezili Dantò, a poet and human rights attorney, reveals about imperialism's contribution to Haiti's current apocalypse. Instead, they distort her critique to assert that the imperialist/indigenous conflict is part of a false narrative. They seize on the weaknesses in Cameron's fantasy to accuse Americans in solidarity with the wretched of the earth of self-aggrandizing fantasies.
To Ezili Dantò, what imperialism has done to the economy and culture of Haiti is no fantasy. She notes how the "Tree of Voices" and "Hometree" of A vatar's indigenous Na'vi people resonates with the Haitian Vodun belief that trees were "living energies that provided strength to the people." Cutting trees down was thus "relatively taboo." However, in the 19th and 20th centuries, US lumber, sugar, and fruit companies (with an occupation by US marines 1915-1934) confiscated ancestral lands and cut down wide swaths of Haiti's forests. Complementing the work of these business interests, according to Dantò, the Catholic Church waged "brutal anti-superstition campaigns" against the Africanist and pagan Vodun, making it "alright to destroy trees." Now, what agribusiness has not cut down, impoverished Haitians have, in pursuit of cooking fuel.
Indeed, Dantò notes how Avatar specifically attacks Vodun. She recalls how Dr. Grace Augustine, the human anthropologist played by Sigourney Weaver, defends the Na'vi Hometree by saying something like, "This isn't some pagan vodun, this is their home." Augustine might have intended an irony that Brooks and Dantò misread, but more of that later.
Neither Brooks nor mainstream liberal commentators mention how recent neoliberal economic policies imposed on Haiti have made Haitians import-dependent and have continued to drive them out of the countryside and into cities of fragile, jerry-built shanties. According to Kim Ives, journalist for the US-based Haiti Liberte', while "Haiti was self-sufficient thirty years ago in its production of food," under the "neoliberal regime," it is "now required to import almost 80 percent of its food" (interview by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, January 13).
Now, I have a personal interest the esthetic side of these political issues. I published a novel in 2007 called The Mother Earth Inn. Set during the Bill Clinton years, it deals with the encounter between American adventurers, diplomats, and entrepreneurs and the indigenous of an Andean paradise much like Ecuador, where I have lived and taught. My hero, an American named Hal Rivers, is constantly reminded how his dreams of "doing well while doing good" are akin to the illusions of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim or James Hinton's Conway in Lost Horizon, White Messiah fables in their own rights. I wonder sometimes if my readers will miss my irony as Hal Rivers is rescued from heat stroke one day by the timely arrival of the country's general manager of Coca-Cola, which, along with McDonalds, has a definitely non-ironic product tie-in with Avatar. Slaking his thirst on a Coke, Hal has a near-mystical experience as the drink "frothed into every parched crevasse of his mouth." "Man!" exclaims Hal, "that's the real thing!" When a disastrous landslide gives Coca-Cola and the oil companies a chance to remove the indigenous and ram through their highways and pipelines into the rainforest, Hal, like Avatar's hero Jake Sully, must decide whom he must follow. Unlike Sully, Hal is at best a junior partner, not a leader. May no rightist misappropriate my critique or misread my irony. May James Cameron poke his head out of the billions in cash his beautiful Avatar is generating to see what Coca-Cola and McDonalds are doing to our own Pandoras to grow sugarcane and graze hamburger beef.
While it is important not to quibble as we respond generously to Haiti's desperation, we should remember how the U.S. has responded in the recent past to Haiti's difficulties. George W. Bush destroyed democracy in Haiti with a coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Neoliberals like Bill Clinton promoted the destruction of sustainable agriculture and now tout sweatshops as Haiti's path to development.
Begin to educate yourself for the future, but act now with cash. Permit me to suggest Oxfam, an able and aware relief agency with resources already on the ground.