Saturday, January 09, 2010

White Man's Burden

As I've mentioned before, Avatar has prompted some interesting social commentary. The commentary continued yesterday with a column by David Brooks of the New York Times. Brooks critiques the racial narrative in the film. Check it out:

" 'Avatar' is a racial fantasy par excellence. The hero is a white former Marine who is adrift in his civilization. He ends up working with a giant corporation and flies through space to help plunder the environment of a pristine planet and displace its peace-loving natives.

The peace-loving natives — compiled from a mélange of Native American, African, Vietnamese, Iraqi and other cultural fragments — are like the peace-loving natives you’ve seen in a hundred other movies. They’re tall, muscular and admirably slender. They walk around nearly naked. They are phenomenal athletes and pretty good singers and dancers.

The white guy notices that the peace-loving natives are much cooler than the greedy corporate tools and the bloodthirsty U.S. military types he came over with. He goes to live with the natives, and, in short order, he’s the most awesome member of their tribe. He has sex with their hottest babe. He learns to jump through the jungle and ride horses. It turns out that he’s even got more guts and athletic prowess than they do. He flies the big red bird that no one in generations has been able to master.

Along the way, he has his consciousness raised. The peace-loving natives are at one with nature, and even have a fiber-optic cable sticking out of their bodies that they can plug into horses and trees, which is like Horse Whispering without the wireless technology. Because they are not corrupted by things like literacy, cellphones and blockbuster movies, they have deep and tranquil souls.

The natives help the white guy discover that he, too, has a deep and tranquil soul.

The natives have hot bodies and perfect ecological sensibilities, but they are natural creatures, not history-making ones. When the military-industrial complex comes in to strip mine their homes, they need a White Messiah to lead and inspire the defense." (Read the whole thing here)

While you're at it, I'd recommend reading this blog post discussing both race and gender issues in Avatar.

I really enjoyed Brooks' column, but it struck me that what he was referring to as the "white messiah" could be viewed as a kind of twist on the concept of the "white man's burden". Back when it was cool to conquer and colonize all over the planet there emerged the notion that it was the "burden" of whites to civilize the savage hordes. Whites were on a mission to save colonized peoples from the defects of their cultures, to save them from themselves.

However for some whites, especially in the post-colonial era, the "burden" has changed. For them the burden is being part of a culture that is experienced as spiritually or existentially empty. An encounter with an "alien" culture provides an opportunity to relieve this burden.

For most people the encounter itself, involving the appropriation of the aspects of the alien culture, is enough to fill this emptiness. For messianic types though, a new burden emerges. In this case the burden is saving the other from the perceived defects of the one's own culture. Why? Because they apparently cannot do this on their own and thus need a white savior. What is generally not acknowledged by these messiahs is the possibility that their true motive is to save themselves from their own sense of emptiness by playing the hero.

I'm reminded of commentary from the document Century of Light that was commissioned by the Universal House of Justice:

"Throughout history, the mass of humanity have been, at best, spectators at the advance of civilization. Their role has been to serves the designs of whatever elite had temporarily assumed control of the process. Even the successive Revelations of the Divine, whose objective was the liberation of the human spirit, were, in time, taken captive by 'insistent self', were frozen into man-made dogma, ritual, clerical privilege and sectarian quarrels, and reached their end with their ultimate purpose frustrated.

Baha'u'llah has come to free humanity from this long bondage, and the closing decades of the twentieth century were devoted by the community of His followers to creative experimentation with the means by which His objective can be realized. The prosecution of the Divine Plan entails no less than the involvement of the entire body of humankind in the work of its own spiritual, social and intellectual development." (pg. 110)

If the entire body of humankind is to be involved in its own spiritual, social and intellectual development, there is no need for white messiahs to save anyone. The burden must be shared by all of us.

What do you think reader?


  1. you are soooo right on the money with this. i saw it with my husband this evening and we had this very conversation. how long must we continue to be subjected to this idea of the white male being the savior of the world. the "natives" are ruled by instinct, the white savior, by logic. the "natives" have a connection to the earth, in all her savage, untamed glory, in a way that our white savior is not. through them, he will reconnect with that which he has lost, and surpass them, for not only does he possess logic, he now possesses instinct. he will be the best among you AND have your best women, there by showing us his supreme virility and ensuring that his seed shall endure for all generations. oh pleeease spare me. we have seen this movie so many times. it's old now, and quite boring. no matter how much the hollywood cultural engineers CGI it up, it is the same old story. lets move on. I am a black female just in case you are wondering.

  2. Mikki, welcome to the conversation. We need new racial narratives if we want a new civilization.

    What do other people think?

  3. That is certainly an important, and, once again, very pertinent conclusion one can draw from this kind of materialistically motivated narrative we see replayed (endlessly) in the entertainment industry - "The burden must be shared by all of us" (referring back to statement, "the Divine Plan entails no less than the involvement of the entire body of humankind in the work of its own spiritual, social and intellectual development").
    It is perhaps the primary lesson we are out to teach our open-minded friends, who, in the West anyway, have become (or are becoming) largely intolerant of the competitive religious discourse and mindset that flourished in the period of the "Enlightenment" and has since predominated, and which has only in the last few decades begun to be seriously challenged through the emerging interfaith movement.
    The Baha'i Faith, with its timely principles and its unique institutional Order is set to take the lead in and and continue to spearhead this shift from a particularistic (us-and-them/win-lose) to a universal (one human family/win-win) world view.
    The Baha'i concept of salvation is also very different from any prevailing one, emphasizing as it does the need for harmony between religion (divine Revelation in the form of religious Scriptures that are addressed to the needs of the Age - i.e. the Baha'i Writings, and an infallible, exemplary Personage to be emulated - i.e. 'Abdu'l-Bahá) and science (human endeavor, referred to in the above as "creative experimentation" within the framework of a community dedicated to promotion of the oneness of humanity - i.e. the Baha'i community). Such a conception is entirely at odds with, for instance, the dogma prevailing among many Christian sects of a god-incarnate Christ Who will, upon His return, single-handedly transform the world, thus obviating the need for human effort in this regard.

  4. I enjoyed the movie, but agree with the critics.

    Also to answer your question, Yes, I agree that we all need to take responsibility for our own actions. If we all did this, we would probably prevent a lot of bloodshed.

  5. I had often thought of the lead scientist's chain smoking as symbolizing her not "getting it" per " to save themselves from their own sense of emptiness by playing the hero." She couldn't make the transition all the way, or wasn't welcomed all the way, and needed something poisoning her white woman's body to remind her what she liked about being a blue woman or hating about being a white woman.

    But I'd wonder also a bit about the idea that perhaps the best person to respond to a problem is the one most familiar with it - not to deminish an authentic response from any background. But there is something about someone who joins a culture - they are hampered in not being brought up a particular way but they are also not blinded by the assumptions of the culture. In the movie leaping onto the larger flier is presented (if not concluded with) the idea that no one from the bluepeople culture might have thought of. So in that instance in the movie I don't mind the hero being from a different culture, and one of a empowering "can do" culture (which is generally noted of the US vs the rest of the world which is mostly "this is how it's always been done") approach.

    The aspect of the fiber optic links... I think that's a material expression of an gaia idea so I didn't mind it quite as much as the above but I do agree with most of the above commentary.

  6. Great post and very clear thinking.

    Our species's social develoment is never linear and always uneven, and this is a perfect example. The themes you see in Avatar are a huge leap forward from the "White Man's Burden" phenomenon you mentioned, but it still has hints of racism that need to be and will be purged over time.

    In the development field, this attitude is ubiquitous. Western development practitioners, to feel good about themselves, haphazardly barge into developing country environments with the purest intentions, often never bothering to stop and have a dialogue with the people they are supposedly there to help.

    The next great leap is the admission by all human beings that no race or nation has a monopoly on anything, not industrialization, not economic growth, not spirituality, not being one with nature. That way I think notions of helping the poor savages will go away and be replaced by genuine scientific focus on progress.

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