So I finally saw Avatar yesterday. On balance, I loved it. Even though the plot was ripped right of Fern Gully and consisted of a lot of stapled-togeher cliches, the execution was fantastic. I was really mesmerized by the beauty and wonder of Cameron's world.
But back to the plot. Around halfway through the movie, I was getting pretty tired of the cheap way the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were exploited to tell a morally simplistic good vs. evil tale. We see cruel, one-dimensional corporate tyrants stopping at nothing to exploit a foreign land and obtain a precious resource. We hear about the failure of social scientists, enlisted into imperial service, to win the hearts and minds of the locals. We see racist, bloodthirsty military contractors who cheerfully unleash mass violence on innocents. We hear about "fighting terror with terror" and "shock and awe."
Enough already, I thought. I get it. James Cameron has a statement to make, either because he actually believes it or because he knows the themes will resonate with his audience. But please, I thought. Couldn't he aim for a little more nuance and moral complexity?
And then I had a terribly chilling thought: this morally simplistic tale of invading capitalist armies massacring foreign innocents is really how many Arabs view American foreign policy.
They really do. Even some of my university professors, who studied in the US, really do believe America invaded Iraq to make Dick Cheney rich or give American oil companies control of Iraq's black gold. Many Arabs believe the US government orchestrated September 11th or at least let it happen. They really think Bush is cut from the same cloth as Cameron's evil corporate manager. They feel the same way about Israel. Arabs view the 2008-2009 Israeli incursion into Gaza the same way that moviegoers view the horrific crisis that occurs near the climax of Avatar.
As the movie unfolded, I realize many Arabs don't just understand understand the world this way; they feel
it this way. Even though I thought the movie's themes were simplistic and even a little offensive, Cameron's magic still worked on me. By the time the movie reached its climax, I was under the spell. I had shivers running up and down my spine and felt the agony of the characters. I felt the fear, felt the desperation, felt the hate. In other words, I felt all the things you're supposed to feel when a good storyteller is weaving his magic. And it occurred to me that this, this
, is what Arabs were feeling inside when they watched the Israeli incursion into Gaza in 2008-2009. This is what they're still feeling every time they hold a demonstration. It was an epiphany for me. Making general contact with the "other" is extremely difficult, but for a few moments, I felt like I was experiencing the world the way many Arabs experience it. I thought their thoughts, felt their feelings.
It was a little frightening, because the Avatar worldview has little to do with reality. If Americans are really viewed through such a distorted lens, what hope is there for us to operate effectively in this part of the world?
We don't live in Avatar's world of stark black and white. We live in a morally complex world of diverse actors seeking diverse interests. We live in a world where good and evil do not neatly separate nations, but cut through the heart of each individual man. We live in a world of disastrous US invasions, but also a world where Saddam Hussein tyrannized his population and massacred his people. We live in a world where Blackwater mercenaries killed innocent people, but also a world where Iraqi insurgents tortured each other with power drills and bombed mosques. We live in a world where Israel unleashed terrible collective punishment on Gaza, but also a world where Hamas fired indiscriminate rockets at Israeli innocents and used fellow Palestinians as human shields. We live in a world where Israel is refusing to implement a real settlement freeze, but also a world where Arabs have consistently invoked anti-Semitic beliefs to attack or expel Jewish neighbors. We live in a world where extremists on both sides have sabotaged efforts at peace. We live in a world where there is a lot of badness to go around.
We also live in a world of common humanity. President Bush was dead wrong about a lot of things, but he was not a monster. Paul Wolfowitz, despite playing a key role in the fiasco of Iraq, was at least well-intended. He sincerely believed in championing freedom and liberating oppressed peoples from tyranny. Israelis do not enjoy killing Palestinians; they are doing what they think they must to live in security and relative peace. Most Arabs, in turn, do not care about violent jihad or aspire to be suicide bombers. They want to provide for their families and live in peace.
We can't have real conversations about foreign policy, war, peace, or justice until we get these basics right. I'm deeply concerned because I don't often see that level of analysis in this part of the world. Instead of really digging into a true understanding of regional conflicts, all sides cling to simplified myths that legitimize their own side while dehumanizing their enemies. I'm familiar with our own American myths, but Avatar helped me understand the myths that define the other side.