Monday, February 8, 2010

Avatar and US Hegemony

James Cameron’s Avatar is indeed a movie worth seeing. His rich imagination is a treat that can overwhelm the senses, in a good way of course. It is rare that an extremely animated and alien movie can and will elucidate on topics beyond the end of the world as we know it. For in how many alien and futuristic sci-fi films do we see the role reversed, where the Earthlings are not the race to be conquered but is the one doing the conquering?

Avatar is the story of Jake Sully’s rebirth. An ex-Marine paraplegic, he was forced to take his brother’s place in a crucial military and scientific endeavour in another planet, Pandora. Part of the team of Scientists who study the planet and its inhabitants to facilitate the _________ Clan of the Na’Vi people’s relocation, Jake becomes an avatar.

An avatar, tracing its origin to Hinduism where gods like Vishnu and Shiva’s embodiments are called such, is a bodily vessel that resembles the Na’Vi but is controlled by the human mind. It is a matter of being in two places at the same time, one at the lab where the body goes into a deep sleep and the other where the mind or ‘consciousness’ is transferred into and active in the avatar’s.

A high-ranking military officer, Colonel Miles, working on the military side of operations promised Jake an expensive surgery to regain his legs in exchange for a deal, to be a double agent. He would continue to work with the scientists but will report to him.

Jake reaches a conundrum when in later times, he is forced to choose which race to ultimately serve.

It turns out, the big military and scientific interest in Pandora and particularly in the Na’Vi are all part of a big private company’s project to extract unobtanium that is highly concentrated in the __________ Clan’s territory. Unobtanium, a definite play on words, is a mineral that sells for 20 million USD per kilo.

More Than Entertainment

More than a movie about aliens vis a vis Earthlings, Avatar is a political, social and environmental commentary.

It touches on the military’s role in private ventures. It touches on the brute force that the powers that be impose on its subjects. It touches on the relationship of man and nature, of man and man. It touches on the prevalent preference for individual profit and gain over the goodness of all.
The keen undertones of aggression and resistance is subtly set throughout the whole film. It calls to mind films like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and even Voltes V for its similar theme of goodness versus evil. However, Avatar hits much closer to home. It in itself is an avatar of the current political and military climate.

US Imperialism

In Avatar, the general, representing the US’ aggressive streak, dismisses the efforts of the scientists to study the Pandora and the Na’Vi people’s way of life to initiate a probable diplomatic solution to the problem and advocates the military solution. With the obvious gain of the private company funding the operation from the future sales of unobtanium, it is easily the solution that gained its ear.

James Cameron effectively portrayed the inextricable ties of the government and the private sector especially in the country portrayed in the movie, the US. For why else would the state’s vast military assets be utilized by a private company, led by Parker, if there are no ties that bind? In the US, it is a fact that its government is controlled by a few corporations who benefit most from the capitalist system of production. In particular, the US military complex, private companies that sell war material to the government, continue to have a say in government policies. “The Marines fight for freedom,” Jake said,” but in Pandora, they are hired guns taking the money from the company.”

In the US, capitalists naturally look for more ways to extract more profit. To do this, they colonize other countries, direct and indirectly, and control the native government to do their bidding. In doing so, they retain monopoly on both the resources extracted from that country and the market that consumes the finished products. Thus capitalism has evolved into imperialism. In both stages, capitalism and imperialism couldn’t care less on the social, economic and environmental effects of their ventures.

As in the movie Avatar, the US or the sky-people moved in on Pandora to exploit its rich mineral resource, the unobtanium regardless of its implication on the native inhabitants and the place itself. The diplomatic solution the scientists are proposing is for the Na’Vi to be allowed ample to be convinced to resettle somewhere else. But the military solution that has gained the momentum waylaid all diplomatic efforts and proceeded to destroy the Sacred Tree, displacing and killing many Na’Vi.

Wars of Aggression

It cannot be denied that this has happened not a few times in the history of Man. Before the industrial period, back when slaves were used to fuel backward, agricultural economies, the most powerful countries of that time have fought wars and divided the world and its resources amongst themselves.

Some of these are : The War of 1812 between Britain and US where British ships frequently flagged down American ships, confiscated their cargo and captured the American crew members; the Queen’s War staged by Louis XIV to add the Spanish Netherlands to his kingdom; the Anglo-Dutch Wars from 16-52 to 1654 and 1664 to 1667 where two maritime leaders where engaged in a bitter commercial and military struggle; the War of Spanish Succession from 1701 to 1714 of the Grand Alliance led by England against a coalition led by France and Spain which is essentially a struggle for political ang military hegemony ang territorial aggrandizement.
Of more recent memory is the World War I during 1914 to 1917 and the World War II during 1939 to 1945. World War I is deeply rooted in the prevailing political and economic policies in Europe after 1871, the year when Germany became a major European power, Essentially, it is a war to redivide the spoils. World War II however came at the heels of the conflagration of communism, which threatens to reduce the world imperialists profit and the Great Depression of the 1930’s. It is a war to defend imperialist interests.

After World War II, the US emerged as one of the superpowers of the world, along with the Soviet Union. The US mainland, having withstood the War without much damage to its economic base, moved on to establish itself in the world. It engaged the Soviet Union, then at the forefront of great societal change, in the highly unnerving war of the nuke technology, the Cold War.

Posing as the guardian of freedom and keeper of the higher morale ground, the US further launched a war in Vietnam on the basis of the “domino effect”. The domino effect is the theory that when Vietnam falls into Communist hands, the rest of Southeast Asia will inevitably follow. The US lost that war and it cost it 30,000 lives lost. The US also launched a war against Korea, fearing that the Communist North will consolidate its power.

In both wars, the US used indiscriminate bombing, air strikes and strafing, killing thousands of civilians and unarmed people. As in Avatar, it showcased the military might of the most powerful state, such as big, powerful aircrafts, superior firepower, and highly-trained and ready-to-die soldiers. Put up against the native Na’Vi armed only by their indigenous armaments like bows and arrows, the sky-people is readily on the higher ground.

The Bush Doctrine

However, following the decline of the Soviet Union’s power in 1991 when it has ceded making pretences on being a socialist country and unmasked the revisionist within by ending the Cold War, a lone superpower emerged, the US. Since then the US had the hegemony all-over the world unchallenged by any nation. It made him all the more arrogant to incite wars.

Since 2000, the US economy is not doing so well. The American corporations have a 23% bankruptcy rate. More than a million Americans have lost their jobs and 8.6 million more are looking for work. By 2003, the US budget deficit has reached more than $300 billion. These figures, according to the US Congressional House Appropriations Committee is the bleakest in over a decade. Thus, it is not surprising to note that the US started its warmongering at this time.

Once again taking the role of a peacekeeper, then Pres. George W. Bush, drafted a new foreign policy that seeks to deprive other nations the so-called weapons of mass destruction. This came in the wake of the deadly September 11, 2001 attacks which people now are claiming have been orchestrated by the US government itself. In his speech, Bush said “We must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass-destruction...”

This is the same reasoning, pre-emptive strike, that the general took in Avatar. He knew that it is only a matter of time when Jake turns his back on him and lead the Na’Vi against the sky-people. So while Jake and Professor Grace continue to do their best to convince the Na’Vi to relocate and spare the rest of the people the inconvenience of a war, the general went ahead and bombed the Sacred Tree.

Today, the US continue to impose its military supremacy over the Afghanistan, the Balkan Peninsula, Yemen, Columbia, North Korea, China and the Philippines, among others.

And after the murders, the bombings and strafing and inevitable “collateral damage” carried out in the name of the war on terror, in the name of freedom, Bush promised to “protect Americans from... investigations, inquiry or persecution by the International Criminal Court” whose jurisdiction the US does not accept.
The Resource Angle

Very eerily like the true wars of aggression waged by the US during different times, the war in Pandora goes back to the resource angle, unobtanium.
The 2003 war focused its attack on Iraq and Afghanistan citing terrorism as the major cause. This is in “retaliation” for the 9/11 bombings. I place retaliation in “quotes” because recent findings disprove the terror allegations. Instead it points to the rich oil resource in that region as the main motive to wage war in that area and eventually control it.

The Balkan Peninsula is also a place of contention as the imperialists want to control this very strategic area for commodity shipments, troop deployment and rich oil reserves.

In the Philippines, our permanent visitors are obviously laying the groundwork to channel our oil reserves into their pockets. Our mineral rich mountains which contain gold, silver, chromium etc, are also hard to resist.

Na’Vi War: a National Liberation War

When the sky-people attacked the Sacred Tree and used the element of surprise and superior military power to their advantage, the nature loving Na’Vi were displaced literally and figuratively. Although they took a defensive stand, their bows and arrows were simply no match to the bombs and fighter aircrafts of the military. They were quickly subdued.

When the smoke cleared, devastation is everywhere. The great Scared Tree longer stands tall and proud. The ground is littered with bodies of fallen Na’Vi, including its chief.Naytiri joined the wails of the others who lost family.

On the other side of the picture, Jake and the Na’Vi-loving scientists were taken as prisoners. But an alliance with Tree of the Air Force proved strong when she defied military rules, mutinied by herself and sprang the prisoners and hid themselves in one of the Hanging Mountains. Jake, Prof. Grace and a scientist friend, once more became avatars and joined the Na’ Vi in their retreat.

But Jake is spurned by his mate for life because of his treachery. He decides to capture the biggest flying beast to prove that his heart is still with the Na’Vi people’s plight. Regaining his place in the Na’Vi community, he urged the people to rise up and fight against the sky-people. They then embarked on a trip around Pandora to organize all Na’Vi.

This is where the pre-emptive strike of the general took shape, seeing a rapid massing up of Na’Vi forces.

The following scenes of battles between the Na’Vi and the sky people, are reminiscent of the Vietnam war, one of the many wars of national liberation of recent date, between the Vietnamese and the US forces.

In Vietnam, the biggest and strongest military troop in the world suffered its most humiliating defeat. Just as the US Military was defeated by the Na’Vi in Pandora despite its more advanced technology.

The Vietnamese, like the Na’Vi, employed both indigenous materials and modern military arms in defence. The Vietnamese used punji sticks and wasps among others to protect their country from the US invasion. The Na’Vi meanwhile used the flying beasts and other animals. Both parties highlighted ingenuity, oneness with nature and courage in their fight against invaders.

Art Imitates Life Imitates Art

This is where art imitates life. The question of colonization has been around for centuries and so has the battle between the colonizers and the colonized. Our own Philippine Revolution in 1898 is part of this battle, as we strived to rid ourselves of the shackles of Spanish colonization, only to be cunningly replaced by American colonization.

But life will continue to imitate art too. In this day and age of imperialism where the one country who wields absolute power over the world is in its worst depression ever, we can expect it to strike down anyone who challenges his political and military authority and pose a threat against its profits. More that this, we can expect it to incite more wars, force other countries to open their economies to the “global market” and exploit poorer countries to spur its economy. In that case, we will never be in short of countries waging a war such as the one waged by the Na’Vi.

To See is To Learn

“The sky-people can never learn what they cannot see.” Naytiri said. It speaks of a global connection, a worldwide web so to speak, that is more than the proponents of free market and globalization can understand.
The Na’Vi are deeply connected with their world and with Pandora, with each connection magnifying its complexity and significance. They have a filament embedded in each being that can connect to another filament, and allow acess to the other’s thoughts, memories and feelings, much like USB ports in a computer. They can connect with each other, with the flying beasts, the big cats, the hyena-like cats and others. Through this filament, they have a direct line to Eywa, their ancestors and the collective memory of their people.
Environmentally speaking, this connection is to see that the people are part of a crucial web of life wherein a loss or surplus of something can send ripples throughout the whole web.

But more than this, the connection that we need to see is the universal law in science that whatever you do rebounds to you. The decision to study and “be friends” with the Na’Vi, to build schools and teach them the English language is part of a grand scheme of things. To clear the Sacred Tree of the _____ Clan and exploit the rich unobtanium deposit there. Everything is interconnected.

From this we can surmise that every decision and every move the powers that be make is also following a grand scheme. A decision to adopt the GATT-WTO in 1997 have deep repercussions in our economy which is bombarded with foreign products and produce that the local economy cannot keep up . The effects of the Mining Act of 1995 continue to be felt with continued and ever-tightening militarization of areas that are covered by mining permits, resulting to internal displacement, damage to the flora and fauna and gross human rights violations against the inhabitants.

We cannot remain complacent and ignorant of the things going on around us as it may mean our survival as a human being, a social being, itself.

That is what the Na’Vi can see and the sky-people cannot. That is why the Na’Vi fought with all their might against a bigger and stronger enemy. And that is what the rest of the sky-people can do if threatened by the likes of the General and Parker.

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