A few years ago, I was working at an arts center for an afternoon. I’d been infuriated by a slew of editorials coming out against special high schools for Queer youth. One had been by a young man who had come out while in a regular high school and toughed it out (so everyone can right?), and the rest of the editorials and letters had followed suit, insisting that young LGBTI folk just gotta learn to face the “real world.” What wasn’t being said in any of these editorials was that these kids are often in very real danger in regular schools, like the kind that ultimately ended Lawrence King's life:Boy’s Killing, Labeled a Hate Crime, Stuns a Town
I was complaining about these editorials because they had missed the reality that kids rarely end up in these kinds of schools until after they’ve had severe problems. The entirely wonderful fact that one gay kid didn’t experience homophobia doesn’t mean that homophobia isn’t real—and the fact is that hate is never distributed equally. Certain people end up receiving more abuse than others, often for reasons that are random and external. For the kids at Harvey Milk High School, functioning in the “real world” (here meaning a regular high school) is already out of the question—not because they aren’t tough, but because they are in danger. As the Harvey Milk High School puts it, these kids are “at-risk.” Lawrence King, by all accounts, handled his bullies incredibly well. He never took on their damage as his own, and he turned their sexual hang-ups back on them. In fact, it’s hard not to imagine that his murderer was so desperate to get rid of his hate that when King wouldn’t take it, he shot him to force it on him. So when a woman at the table near me took the side of the editorialists, singing the praises of standing up for oneself, I said, "you’re right. Those gay kids should just stand up for themselves-- like those Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. Maybe Ann Frank should have learned to stand up for herself. I’m sure things would have worked out a lot better for her"
Which brings me to Avatar. It’s almost impossible not to see Avatar as a retelling of the Native American genocide, slightly mashed up with Vietnam and hint of Shell Oil’s exploitation of the Ogoni People of Nigeria. Reviews tend to point out that the plot of Avatar seems taken from Dances with Wolves and the story of John Smith and Pocohantas (the grade school version, not the more complicated historical narrative). The Native American parallels to the Na’vi people are obvious even as they get mixed in with a touch of post-Matrix rasta. The Na'vi are a hardy race of nature dwelling people (with wide set eyes and flat noses) encountered by a technologically superior race of less hardy white folk (humans) who want the natural resources that they see the natives as incapable of appreciating/exploiting.
Again, as is often the case for James Cameron, the corporation is the bad guy (Terminator II, Aliens). The Na’vi need to be kicked off their land in order to satisfy a corporation's need for "unobtanium" (I kid you not), and the avatar liaisons (Jake Sully, as played by Sam Worthington, in the role of John Smith) to the Na'vi are supposed to be either persuading them to leave their home (the site of a rich unobtanium vein) or figuring out how to hurt them so that they’ll go away. The Na’vi are about 15 feet tall and agile, and quite literally in touch with nature. The vegetation of the planet is essentially a giant brain, and they can tap into its consciousness.
There’s a moment when the Na’vi people are being driven from their land. Their home has been destroyed and they move out into the surrounding forest. I almost thought that the movie was over. I was actually surprised that a movie would be so honest—that it would show us a people displaced and humiliated Might was winning out handily over right, with a sequence of humiliations in Na’vi’s future as they would have no choice but to cede more and more territory as the human’s took more and more from their planet. As a parallel to the Native American genocide, it felt remarkable to sit with the pain of injustice.
But this is Hollywood. Almost immediately, the Na’vi begin to retaliate with war, and our human hero (and perhaps one should be cautious when the native stand-ins are literally not human) manages to figure out a battle plan such that the Na’vi can win. The movie then lurches into lush and panoramic battle scenes.
On one hand, this felt like a refusal of the idea that suffering might not be ameliorable. The movie, not surprisingly, refused the possibility that there are wars one cannot win, that there are powers—wrong and evil though they may be—that cannot be defeated. Or rather, that there are powers against whom it is not simply a question of the right battle plan. I couldn’t help feeling that in casting the Native American/ United States-ian conflict in terms that that the Native Americans could win, the Native American become retroactively culpable. If they stood up for themselves and lost, then they should have stood up for themselves better. Like that editorialist who blames gay kids for weakness if they ask for protection, the movie shows a world where blame rests with the loser.
On the other hand, at this point in the movie, the viewer was expected to have sided with that Na’vi, and to have sided against the humans. Of course, there were a good five or six humans on the Na’vi side for the audience to identify with. But as the lush battles raged, I felt horrible for each human that died. I was taught that when God brought the Hebrews through the red sea, and then drowned their Egyptian pursuers, the angels began to sing songs in praising God in celebration of the Egyptian deaths. God silenced them, saying “those are also my children.” At the Passover seder, I was taught that we remember the suffering of the Egyptians at the plagues—we do not rejoice or take pleasure in the suffering of others—even when it is securing our freedom. Hadn’t this movie been teaching us to value life—human and Na’vi? Why now was I supposed to take pleasure in death?
Perhaps I’m a bad viewer—I’m certainly not being much of a New Critic. I couldn’t watch the
movie without a rather specific historical context as a paradigm. I'm sure that everything I'm saying could easily be disputed as being about my projections, not the film itself.
And I’m aware that what I’m saying may seem incompatible with activism. But to view past injustice with compassion and sympathy is not incompatible with viewing the past with a strategist’s eye. In some ways, I am not a very good activist. Anger tends to distort my reasoning rather than sharpen it; my anger tends to seek an object nearby, and it tends to turn against me or explode in outburts. To confront those who hate me on a day to day basis saps my energy rather than motivates me. I do better when I’m supported and cultivated; I do better when I can support and cultivate others. I like teaching. I like being taught. But in other ways, I know that action can be (for me) an alternative to anger. I know that knocking on doors and talking to voters is better for me than imagining who voters are (and why they vote the way they do). I don’t think that we should look at history and not learn its lessons—but I feel that a movie like Avatar ultimately telegraphs a morality that blames history’s victims while keeping in place a kind of secular Calvinism—the victorious are deserving, and you shall know them by their victories. In this case, it seems wrong to me to recast the Native American genocide with the happy ending that it didn’t take place. It did. And that has to hurt. We have to accept that hurt.
I really don’t know what it means to live in a country that is founded on genocide—and I haven’t earned the right to talk about it, because I haven’t done much to figure it out. I don’t have a sentimental view of the Native Americans. I agree with Slavoj Zizek that “white guilt” is another face of white supremacy, and I’m not suggesting that we can make this right. What I’m suggesting is that at a certain point we have to accept that some things—many things—can never be made right. We have to live in the wake of what can never be made right. We should tell ourselves stories grown up enough to reveal that the horrors of history cannot be undone.
My husband really enjoys cop shows like Law & Order Miami and Criminal Minds. For him, they’re about the restoration of order—a formulaic and comforting procedural that goes from disruption of order to the restoration of order. But I find them deeply disturbing because I can only see them as a record of wrongs that can never be fixed. There is amelioration, but there is never restoration.
So where is the poem here? I wanted to end with two poems. One of them may not be a poem or may be too much a poem. It is the speech with which Chief Joseph of the Nez-Pierce surrendered in 1877 to his US Army pursuers. The Nez-Pierce were trying to flee to Canada rather than be relocated; they were not successful. The speech may in fact be the work of poet Charles Erskine Scott Wood, but was widely reported as a verbatim transcript Chief Joseph’s words:
Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.
The second is by Dan Pagis, a sadly overlooked poet, who survived a concentration camp, and after moving in 1946 to the land that became Israel, began writing in Hebrew. The translation is by Stephen Mitchell (you can order it here: The Selected Poetry of Dan Pagis). I think that all I’ve struggled to say here, may be better expressed in this small work.
Draft of a Reparations Agreement
All right, gentlemen who cry blue murder as always,
Everything will be returned to its place,
paragraph after paragraph.
The scream back into the throat.
The gold teeth back to the gums.
The smoke back to the tin chimney and further on and inside
back to the hollow of the bones,
and already you will be covered with skin and sinews and you will live,
look, you will have your lives back,
sit in the living room, read the evening paper.
Here you are. Nothing is too late.
As to the yellow star:
it will be torn from your chest
and will emigrate
to the sky.