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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 1/12/10

David Brooks, James Cameron's "Avatar," and the Evil American Empire Abroad

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) January 11, 2010 -- The New York "Times" cultural critic David Brooks, himself a white Jew named after the fabled anointed Jewish King David, whose fabled anointment by the prophet Samuel meant that he was the messiah (literally, the anointed one), has alerted us to how James Cameron's special-effects movie "Avatar" features a white messiah figure.

Brooks finds Cameron's fable about a white messiah figure "kind of offensive" because the natives in the movie evidently need to have a white man become their leader against the inroads of white imperialism. Indeed, by the standards of today's political correctness, the movie should be deemed to be offensive, as Brooks says.

But it is kind of strange to find Brooks, a self-described conservative, upholding the standards of today's political correctness, which is usually the shtick of liberals.

Of course certain imaginative ancient Jews appropriated the imagery that had for centuries been associated with King David and the Davidic line of kings about a messiah to fabricate a special-effects fable about a Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth, featuring such special effects as nature miracles and extraordinary healings and Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Their special effects fable has become known as the greatest story ever told.

Evidently, this special-effects fable is so well known that Brooks the cultural critic does not need to advert to it explicitly or discuss its offensiveness to many ancient Jews who did not appreciate it.

But isn't it kind of offensive to Christians today for Brooks the Jew to refer to a fable about a white messiah when Christians just happen to believe a fable about a white messiah and shortly after the Christmas season at that?

In any event, in Cameron's movie the white messiah figure goes native and ultimately emerges as the leader of native resistance. As Brooks intimates, the natives in the movie are highly romanticized.

But a century or so ago Joseph Conrad wrote a cautionary tale about a talented white man known as Mr. Kurtz who goes native and emerges as the leader of some natives who have become his followers in King Leopold's atrocious Congo empire. Whatever else may be said about the portrayal of the native Africans in Conrad's short novel, they are not romanticized, as the natives in Cameron's movie are.

Shouldn't Brooks the cultural critic have at least discussed Mr. Kurtz in Conrad's short novel "Heart of Darkness" in connection with Cameron's theme about the white guy who goes native and emerges as the leader of some of the natives?

About a half century ago, the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe centered his famous novel "Things Fall Apart" (1958) on a native leader named Okonkwo who wants to lead his people in armed resistance against the inroads of the British empire into their part of Nigeria.

Unlike Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" presents a remarkably sympathetic but not uncritical portrayal of the native Nigerian culture and its customs.

But Achebe does not romanticize the native Africans, as the natives in Cameron's movie are romanticized. In short, Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" is serious literature, but Cameron's "Avatar" is kitsch, escapism.

But Okonkwo's understandable attempt to lead his people in armed resistance fails, because his people understand that the British empire is far more powerful than they are so they do not follow his lead.

As a result, the would-be native leader of armed resistance commits suicide, instead of allowing the British to execute him for his resistance. Thus Okonkwo represents not a successful hero such as King David, but a failed hero such as Hector and Jesus the Christ and Beowulf.

But in the Age on the Antihero in serious literature, popular movies such as Cameron's "Avatar" yearn to resurrect the old heroic spirit that has given us Okonkwo and Beowulf and Jesus the Christ and Hector.

So who's got it right the authors of serious literature who have created the Age of the Antihero, or the fabricators of escapism who have created action heroes in movies? Has the time come for us in Western culture to resurrect the old heroic spirit? Or has the time come for us to resurrect the courage of the old heroic spirit but commit ourselves to nonviolence?

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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