Avatar Half-Tells a Story We Would All Prefer to Forget
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While the Spanish were mostly driven by the lust for gold, the British who colonised North America wanted land. In New England they surrounded the villages of the native Americans and murdered them as they slept. As genocide spread westwards, it was endorsed at the highest levels. George Washington ordered the total destruction of the homes and land of the Iroquois. Thomas Jefferson declared that his nation's wars with the Indians should be pursued until each tribe "is exterminated or is driven beyond the Mississippi." During the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, troops in Colorado slaughtered unarmed people gathered under a flag of peace, killing children and babies, mutilating all the corpses and keeping their victims' genitals to use as tobacco pouches or to wear on their hats. Theodore Roosevelt called this event "as rightful and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier."
The butchery hasn't yet ended: last month the Guardian reported that Brazilian ranchers in the western Amazon, having slaughtered all the rest, tried to kill the last surviving member of a forest tribe. Yet the greatest acts of genocide in history scarcely ruffle our collective conscience. Perhaps this is what would have happened had the Nazis won the second world war: the Holocaust would have been denied, excused or minimised in the same way, even as it continued. The people of the nations responsible – Spain, Britain, the US and others – will tolerate no comparisons, but the final solutions pursued in the Americas were far more successful. Those who commissioned or endorsed them remain national or religious heroes. Those who seek to prompt our memories are ignored or condemned.
This is why the right hates Avatar. In the neocon Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz complains that the film resembles a "revisionist western" in which "the Indians became the good guys and the Americans the bad guys." He says it asks the audience "to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency." Insurgency is an interesting word for an attempt to resist invasion: insurgent, like savage, is what you call someone who has something you want. L'Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, condemned the film as "just … an anti-imperialistic, anti-militaristic parable."
But at least the right knows what it is attacking. In the New York Times the liberal critic Adam Cohen praises Avatar for championing the need to see clearly. It reveals, he says, "a well-known principle of totalitarianism and genocide -- that it is easiest to oppress those we cannot see." But in a marvellous unconscious irony, he bypasses the crashingly obvious metaphor and talks instead about the light it casts on Nazi and Soviet atrocities. We have all become skilled in the art of not seeing.
I agree with its rightwing critics that Avatar is crass, mawkish and cliched. But it speaks of a truth more important -- and more dangerous - than those contained in a thousand arthouse movies.