The Anti-American Dream

Right-wing pundits are going nuts over Avatar's 'anti-American' sentiments

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I just spent the last hour reading four conservative critiques of the James Cameron blockbuster Avatar that’s currently breaking box-office records.

While the pundits pile on, one can’t help wondering whether the right has finally tired of attacking President Obama and his administration. More likely, they’re just taking a break. Shooting at a big, easy target can’t be all that fun.

Here’s a brief synopsis of each columnist’s critique of Avatar, a film about a regular guy who goes into the jungle, lives and learns from the good, decent natives/aliens and then, with help from Mother Nature, leads the natives in kicking the asses of his avaricious old pals.

John Podhoretz of The Weekly Standard: He slams the film as “blitheringly stupid,” calling it “an undigested mass of clichés nearly three hours in length taken directly from the revisionist westerns of the 1960s…” These are the ones, he reminds us, that cast the Indians in a good light and made the white people (you know, the folks who stole their land, told them lies, burned their villages, slaughtered them and forced them onto reservations) look like the bad guys.

While Avatar’s plot is too cheesy to take seriously, Podhoretz states that it does contain “mindless worship of a nature-loving tribe and the tribe’s adorable pagan rituals, … hatred of the military and American institutions, and the notion that to be human is just way uncool.”

Hitting his pundit stride, he declares that the film “is more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard-issue counterculture clichés in Hollywood have become by now.”

This isn’t controversial, he notes, but rather is specifically intended “to be most pleasing to the greatest number of people” in spite of its “anti-American, anti-human politics.”

He seemed doubtful that all the technical wizardry and special effects would compensate for the film’s failings of plot (“banal and idiotic”), dialogue (“excruciating”) and humor (“none”), as well as many Americans’ discomfort over their countrymen being the bad guys.

Most moviegoers took a considerably more benign view of the film. As of Jan. 18, according to, Avatar was already the top-grossing film of 2009 and the second-highest grossing picture of all time and is still going strong. Its worldwide take as of Jan. 18 was $1.62 billion.

David Brooks of The New York Times: He takes the position that Avatar is racist, though he softens the charge by saying that it’s a “kind of offensive” White Messiah fable:

“It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades…” He concludes, “It’s just escapism, obviously, but benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind.”

Brooks probably makes the best point of the four pundits, though my response would be, OK, the White Messiah hero outdoes all the aliens but 95 percent of the other humans are greedy, murderous schmucks.

Jonah Goldberg of The National Review: Goldberg, the most predictable and partisan of his breed, uses his criticism of Avatar as an opportunity to whine about traditional Christianity getting no respect while so many people seem to unquestioningly accept generic spirituality, often connected to nature.

“What would have been controversial is if — somehow — Cameron had made a movie in which the good guys accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts,” he writes. “We live in an age in which it’s the norm to speak glowingly of spirituality but derisively of traditional religion.”

The point he finally makes is complicated (or maybe just nonsensical?) but this is how I read it: Many people are receptive to nature-oriented spirituality, as celebrated in Avatar, but they don’t think of it as religion. This means they feel no responsibility to follow through on their spirituality and work with religious conservatives on carving out some sort of “moral unity” about the big questions of the day.

Goldberg’s “moral unity,” I suspect, means everybody agreeing with his conservative values.

Ross Douthat of The New York Times: Douthat rags on Avatar for being “a crass embodiment of capitalist excess” (maybe that’s a compliment?) that’s a “long apologia for pantheism.”

And, like Podhoretz, he notes that mother-nature-doting pantheism “has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now.”

While this has proved to be quite popular with the public, both religious and not, according to Douthat, “the question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response.”

He then notes how truly depressing nature can be: “Pantheism offers … a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped a millennia ago.”

So, really, Avatar is actually just selling a bogus religion that doesn’t promise anything except eternal communion with the dirt and the turnips, something that Douthat suggests isn’t such a good thing.

It probably won’t surprise you that I disagree with these dudes. The plot isn’t some lefty Hollywood wet dream that celebrates nature over religion but is a story line that’s common in Western literature and film going back centuries. You have an Everyman who’s part of the ruling establishment, who is asked to go into an alien environment and do things that run counter to the interests of its inhabitants. He comes to admire the natives, wins their friendship and decides to change sides and work on their behalf.

Religion has little to do with it. Rather, the story plays on people’s natural empathy for the innocent underdog and the rush they get when one of their own manages to help lead the underdog to improbable victory.

It’s precisely why most moviegoers would prefer to see a movie where the revolutionaries throw out the SOBs in power than one where the SOBs in power brutally crush the rebels. It’s also why so many of us despise the New York Yankees.

It’s a wonder that Porhoretz, Brooks, Goldberg and Douthat need to expend so much brain power on the question of Avatar’s appeal and its spiritual focus, when they could just spend a minute remembering that Americans’ reflexive sympathy for the victims of oppression dates back to our country’s revolutionary birth.

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