THE PARADOXICAL POLITICS OF AVATAR

A Hollywood Simulacrum of Indigenous Struggle

by Bill Weinberg, Indian Country Today

The science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, when asked where he gets his ideas, famously always answers: "Schenectady."

Well, Harlan Ellison may get his ideas from Schenectady, but James Cameron, the director of Avatar, appears to get his ideas from Ursula K. Le Guin.

For all the ink that's been spilled on Avatar, no critics have noted that the plot appears to be drawn directly from that of Le Guin's 1972 book The Word for World is Forest, set on the distant forest planet of Athshe. A couple of centuries in the future, the capitalist system is still going strong down here on Earth; all of our forests have long since been destroyed, so timber is being imported from this pristine woodland world. But there is a native race on Athshe of indigenous humanoids. Instead of giant blue men as in Avatar, it's little green men. But it is still a hunting-and-gathering society of tribal peoples who use bows and arrows and spears—and have psychic abilities, communicating by going into dreamlike states. After seeing their forests gutted, their tree-dwellings destroyed by helicopters mounted with flame-throwers, they use these extrasensory powers to organize a planet-wide uprising and drive off the technologically superior human invaders. Sound familiar?

Le Guin's gung-ho Captain Davidson is a clear model for the evil Marine commander in Avatar who wants to exterminate all the Na'vi, the indigenous blue giants. In the novel, there is a division between the hardliners around Davidson and the dissident anthropologist Lyubov—the model for Grace, the scientist played by Sigourney Weaver in Avatar. He is also something of a model for the lead character in Avatar, the paraplegic renegade Marine Jake Sully. Lyubov isn't a fighter, but after studying the little green Athsheans, he gets to know them and comes to appreciate their culture—and doesn't want to see them exterminated. He turns traitor, and starts feeding the furry fellows intelligence that allows them to overrun the humans' central command post on the planet.

In Avatar, the Earthlings are seeking a mineral rather than timber, but that's a minor point. The most significant difference is that in the novel there is no human who actually fights for the little green men—the hero who leads the rebellion is himself a little green man. His name is Selver, which the astute will recognize as drawing upon the Latin word root for "forest" (as in selva, Spanish for jungle; or Pennsylvania—Penn's Woods)

Of course the "avatar" concept doesn't appear in the book—but this idea is hardly original, being a straight rip-off of The Matrix. In the Matrix movies it is a technological avatar, while in Avatar it is biological—but it is the same notion of animated surrogate beings remotely controlled in a parallel world. And both The Matrix and Avatar tap into popular alienation from the industrial system and technosphere. (There have also been speculations on the sci-fi blogs that Cameron lifted the avatar concept from a 1957 Poul Anderson novella about a paraplegic who telepathically controls a surrogate body on another planet, Call Me Joe.)

In the 1950s—and even into the '60s, with Star Trek's imperial Federation and capitalistically dubbed Enterprise—it was still possible to produce science fiction in which the imperialists were the good guys. But there was a real turning point in the post-Vietnam era, after which that just wasn’t going to fly in popular culture.

So it was necessary that in the Star Wars movies the rebels be the good guys, and the Empire the bad guys. And the Ewoks—the low-tech guerilla teddy-bears who bring down the ultra-mechanized Imperial forces on their forested moon in Return of the Jedi—both echoed the Athsheans and predicted the Na'vi. Their tree-top dwellings were probably an inspiration for those of the Na'vi in Cameron’s creation, along with those of the elves of Lothlorien in The Lord of the Rings, who resist the genetically-engineered and proto-industrial goblin armies of the Dark Lord.

There was a bit of a backlash in the Reagan era—and it is very telling that the Star Trek series hit the silver screen in the '80s. But backlash never plays like the real thing.

Avatar, to Cameron's undoubted joy, has become a football in the current culture wars. Right-wing pundits bash it as anti-white propaganda, while the politically correct lament that it is another picture in which the hero is a white guy who goes native, in the tradition of Lawrence of Arabia or Dances With Wolves.

On the other hand, South America's first indigenous head of state—the Aymara president of Bolivia, Evo Morales—has praised Avatar as a "profound show of resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defense of nature."

In a wink to the politically hip, Cameron's Colonel Quaritch, the gung-ho Marine who wants to exterminate the Na'vi, is a veteran of counter-insurgency wars in Venezuela (where the left-wing populist Hugo Chávez is sticking it to US oil companies here in the real world) and Nigeria (where indigenous militants are sabotaging the operations of Shell and Chevron).

More vulgar leftists see Avatar as an analogy for Iraq or Afghanistan, and those are legitimate parallels—as the Hobbit-heads used to say back in the '60s, "Roll your own." And certainly Le Guin was riffing off of Vietnam in The Word for World is Forest. But the far more obvious parallel is to the world's indigenous peoples. The jungle environment, hunter-gather culture, talk of "flows of energy" and "animal spirits"—all speak to the shamanic peoples of the world's threatened rainforests. Even the Na'vi's mystical communion with all life forms via their sacred tree (seemingly lifted from the dreamtime of Le Guin's Athsheans) recalls the ritual use of hallucinogenic brews by traditional rainforest healers to communicate with spirits—the ayahuasca of the Amazon peoples, the iboga of Gabon's Bwiti.

What Cameron is playing on here—or, to be more cynical, exploiting—is that we all intuitively understand, even without knowing the details, that our way of life is destroying indigenous cultures that live close to the land all over the Earth, and is ultimately destroying the planet itself. So, intuitively, movie-goers are going to want to root for the big blue giants defending the rainforest—especially if they ride around on pterodactyls, 'cause it doesn't get much cooler than that.

So Evo Morales may have a point that after seeing the movie, people will be more inclined to side with indigenous peoples in their struggle against the global industrial leviathan.

But you can't root for indigenous peoples if you don't know about them. And while the current FX fest, set on another world in the distant future, is on the tip of the tongue of every teenage popcorn-head and media pundit—whether they are praising or bashing it—the real-world survival struggles of indigenous peoples are safely invisible.

Last year saw an indigenous uprising in the Peruvian Amazon, over government plans to privatize tribal lands to oil companies—climaxing in the June massacre at Bagua, where the security forces opened fire on a protest roadblock. It made practically no headlines in the US.

In Indonesia's restive West Papua, armed attacks are growing against the mineral operations of the US multinational Freeport-McMoran—and rights groups are protesting the appointment of a new regional military commander who is a veteran of several bloody campaigns against peoples struggling for land and autonomy throughout the archipelago.

But while everybody knows about the fictional Na'vi, practically nobody knows what is going on in West Papua. It recalls Jean Baudrillard's warning that "everything is replaced by its own simulacrum."

The movie's McDonalds souvenir tie-ins are particularly telling—even if Mickey-Dee's, unlike other burger chains, claims not to use rainforest beef. It is the perfect tip-off that Avatar represents the capitalist spectacle commodifying and recuperating our alienation from the capitalist spectacle.

In her 1973 essay "The Stalin in the Soul," Ursula Le Guin raised some caveats about her own genres of science fiction and dystopian fantasy. While censorship occurs in totalitarian regimes by bureaucratic fiat, she argued, there is a more subtle phenomenon of market censorship in the "free" capitalist world, in which economic forces impose trivialization:

Recent science fiction...is full of edifying and hideous pictures of terrible futures—overpopulated words where people eat each other in the form of green cookies; postholocaust mutants behaving in approved Social Darwinist fashion; nine billion people dying various awful deaths by pollution at the rate of a billion per chapter, and so on. I have done this myself; I plead guilty. And I feel guilty. Because none of this involves real thought or real commitment. The death of civilizations, the death of a species, is used the way the death of an individual is used in murder mysteries—to provide the readers a cheap thrill. The writer holds up a picture of overpopulation, or universal pollution, or atomic war, and everybody says Ugh! Agh! Yecchh! That is a "gut reaction," a perfectly sincere one. But it is not an act of intelligence, and it is not a moral act.

Man does not live by gut alone. Reaction is not action.

Novels of despair are intended, most often, to be admonitory, but I think they are, like pornography, most often escapist, in that they provide a substitute for action, a draining off of tension. That is why they sell well. They provide an excuse to scream, for writer and reader. A gut reaction, and nothing further. An automatic response to violence—a mindless response. When you start screaming, you have stopped asking questions.

Yeah, there's a possibility that movie-goers who have seen Avatar will be more likely to root for indigenous peoples on the six o'clock news. Except that indigenous peoples don't make the six o'clock news.

The struggle of the Papuans against Freeport-McMoran's gold and copper interests in Indonesia doesn't make the six o'clock news. The struggle of the Ijaw people fighting against the Nigerian military and Shell Oil in the Niger Delta doesn't make the six o'clock news. The struggle of the Penan, blockading the logging roads in the rainforests of Malaysian Borneo, doesn't make the six o'clock news—despite the fact that these peoples are fighting and dying for their land every day.

The fact that remote Ashuar bands in the Peruvian Amazon are threatened with actual extermination as their lands are sold to oil companies without their informed consent—that doesn't make the six o'clock news. And even when the rainforest peoples of Peru—the Ashuar, the Ashaninka, the Matsigenka, the Harakmut—block the access roads and seize the oil pipelines, armed only with their spears and blowguns and machetes, it still doesn't make the six o'clock news. And when they are fired upon by the security forces of a government that has just entered into a Free Trade Agreement with the United States—as precisely happened last June at Bagua—even then, it doesn't make the six o'clock news.

And when, in the wake of the massacre, a general uprising is threatened across Peru's jungle, and the government blinks and agrees to negotiations, and indigenous leaders with their face-paint and feathers meet with cabinet ministers in Lima, an utterly unprecedented victory—still nothing on the six o'clock news up here in Gringolandia, the intended destination for most of that rainforest oil.

So how are we in North America—where we consume some 60% of the world's resources, the destination for a disproportionate share of all that oil and copper and timber—supposed to root for indigenous peoples if we don't know about them? We don't know the names of the Ijaw and Papuans and Ashaninka. But we all know abo