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?