It’s not always that a movie as outrageously entertaining as Avatar hits the big screen. I am one who is loathe to watch movies for the sake of watching any, but this one really stood out, and so I did, thrice – once in Singapore, once in Beijing and a third time in Kuala Lumpur.
I don’t think I am a qualified critique of movies, but I would say that the first part of the movie had a tighter story line before it degenerated into a Rambo-like parody of Americans gone wild. I think the impact that the movie has on intellectual snobs (of which I am a borderline case) was that it outraged them (us) by how successful it has been. It was my 12 year old niece in Kuala Lumpur – a quiet all-As student – who thought that the movie was at best slap-stick compared to “Lord of the Rings” or even “Harry Potter” and she did not think much of it.
But the runaway success of Avatar, the movie, is a reminder that we really should not under-estimate the power of the simple and even improbable storyline. They serve as the lowest common denominator to bring together the largest number of people around the world on a theme. That in essence is what popular culture is about.
I think the simplicity of the movie enabled it to strike a different chord in different people, much like the simplicity of the stories in any of the world religions do to different followers from different cultures.
But it also deals with the gratings of the different civilisations of our times against each other, like tectonic plates. People in countries as diverse as China, India, Africa and the Middle East have something to say about this movie, and not just them, but the left and right of the American mainstream as well – and none too complimentary.
The chord it struck with me was the changing nature of the “Messiah”, or the “Hero.” I gave a lot of thought to this theme as I watched it in different countries, partly to absorb the reactions of the viewers in each of them. In Singapore, the audience was much more sophisticated in a westernised way, so they laughed at all the right jokes on cue, and the sense I got was that the later part of the movie came across as improbable to the audience, and they left quietly at the end.
In Beijing, the movie was a powerful hit. Although the tickets were priced at a ridiculous 150 rmb (US$22) for the 3-D version, it was full house every day for more than a month. So much so that the government had to restrict the showing of Avatar in 2-D cinemas so that it could release another local epic on Confucious – a move that was widely misunderstood in the western press.
In the blogosphere, many Chinese were discussing how Avatar the movie resonated with their own struggles against forced land acquisition by the government and by the new developers to build the modern cities we see today.
In a country where there is still so much to do on the social justice front, the audience just let their own feelings flow with the angst dished out in the movie. Interestingly, at the end of the movie, the audience I was with clapped. The entire story line did not lose any of its resonance with that audience.
When I watched it a third time in Kuala Lumpur, I sensed a lack of unity in the audience. Malaysia, where an older generation grew up going to school in English, understood the movie somewhat differently from the younger generation, who are best described as very fragmented depending on how and where they are schooled.
Only a handful in the audience even laughed at the same jokes on cue, I noticed, and always as a delayed and uncertain reaction. There was no angst of familiarity, it felt as if we were all watching a foreign language movie. Very different from China, where even with an audience that barely understood English, the sense of familiarity was much stronger.
Having said that, it was not as if there were no sophisticated viewers in Malaysia. My nieces for example, would have been able to critique the movie much better than I could.
I was also in Dubai in the past month, but did not get a sense of the movie there. Few people were even in the mood to discuss the movie, given the awful sentiments on the economy. I hear from my friends in India that at the same time as Avatar was making the hits in many countries, Indian viewers were consuming another type of blockbuster, a local one.
Apparently a movie called “3 idiots” had captured the country’s imagination more than Avatar did. It was about how three friends who studied at a prestigious Indian university, learnt how to do their own thing instead of being caught up in the Indian hang up of becoming only a stereotype doctor, engineer or lawyer.
I can understand why a movie like Avatar would not imbue Indians with any more emotional release than a Bollywood flick would. Out of this world imagination, Bollywood has a lot. But “3 idiots” was reality TV in a country being torn apart with forced modernity and fake modesty.
I shouldn’t really be imbuing this movie with too much meaning than it is worth. After all, the amusing thing about a movie like Avatar, is that even as it espouses standing up against the Big Corporation For Profit, it operates well within the grips of its commercial considerations.
The story lines and characters have to be designed to generate revenue from video games, amusement parks, merchandising and so on. So the movie wouldn’t dare offend the likes of a McDonalds or even a Halliburton, even if it appears to be eschewing the Big Corporation as a general idea. This is the nature of popular culture, it touches all without attempting to offend any.
The concept of a hero
I think it is not without reason that it is the Americans who would carry all of us along with the evolving concept of a “white messiah,” as seen in their eyes.
Those who know movies better than I do would probably remember older movies of the same genre. The first of which was “A Man Called Horse” in 1970. The story line is frighteningly similar, with a white man who learns to respect the culture of the native Americans.
Then there was “At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1990)” with Brazilian natives. This was followed by “Dances With Wolves,” a story around the American Civil Way and more recent ones like the “The Last Samurai,” set against a complete historical nonsense of American, instead of what should have been European influences, around the Meiji revolution. Then there are kids fables like “Pocahontas” and “Fern Gully,” that are based on the same themes.
The didactics are similar to Avatar. The “messiah” plot is applied to whoever the acceptably aggrieved victims were to the viewers of that generation – red injuns, Brazilian natives, 19th century Japanese. By the time it got to Avatar, the plot had to caricature people in outer space because the opportunity to caricature World War Two Germans, or wartime Koreans, Vietnamese or Arabs without offending them, had passed.
Also, the concept of good-guy and bad-guy has evolved so much that no cultures that have asserted their self-respect in recent years would appreciate being patronised by any Westerner. This is where the movie walks the thin line between the gratings of the cultural tectonic plates between different civilisations today.
To patronise the Chinese or Arabs today would be deeply offensive because the West has now lost considerable credibility with the lies around the second Iraqi war, and cannot by any measure be described as even understanding why they need to be in Afghanistan. Better not go there – just choose a mythical people from outer space.
American movies in this genre are also the result of another more primordial evolution, of religious and cultural values that it is a beneficiary and not originator of.
It is Protestant Christianity, both as a derivative of Greek mythology as well as the champion of its own beliefs, that gave shape to the concepts of “a messiah”, the need to proselytise, the idea of a day of reckoning – all elements that are only well recognisable in this and other movies of its genre, albeit in a corrupted way.
The Greek art of story-telling involved “creating stories that led to impossible situations that required a god to save,” as one writer I used to read put it.
One of the defining characteristic of the American “messiah” is that he is highly individualistic. He has a highly internalised value system that is demonstrated by his ability to critically evaluate himself. He holds himself highly accountable.
He is highly skilled, as opposed to being dependent on the skills of others, so that his sense of saving a civilisation independently instead of as part of a team is highly amplified. All the others, to be sure, in a movie like Avatar or any of the genre that have come before it, are just supporting casts. The role model of the American “messiah” is one who is fully in touch with himself.
This role model, reative to that offered by other cultures is highly developed. The huge difference between the American model and that of all others is the level of something I call the “internalisation of personal accountability.”
When you think about personal accountability, we assume that all cultures emphasize this. But in reality, I believe, socieities range from being very communalistic to being very individualistic. The sense of “personal accountability” in societies that are communalistic is much lower than those in societies that are highly individualistic.
Just following how individualism and the “internalisation of personal accountability” evolved rom Greek times to where we are today helps me make sense of where it is likely to take us into the next 50 years or so.
I think that this “internalisation of personal accountability” existed in the personalities of Zeus, Jesus Christ and even the prophet Mohammed. In the things that mattered, they and they alone were the saviours of the world. Through their personal sacrifices, they solved the most intractable problems of mankind. But in their original form, the “messiahs” in the Greek and other religions that evolved in the Mediterranean basin were different from the American model in that they were essentially “communalistic,” even as the American “messiah” is essentially “individualistic”.
So, Jesus Christ, in order to gain the acceptance of those around him for his role as a “messiah” to save the world, had to do it in the context of simple communalistic practices, such as the breaking of bread together with his disciples and asking them to imagine that it was his sacrificed body that they were partaking.
There were elements in Aristotelian logic and the Christian message that were individualistic. The Christians refer to “a personal relationship with God”, but that had to wait 1500 years before the north Europeans, in the form of people like Martin Luther, pinned their objections to the degradations that communalism had come to represent over time.
This “internalisation of personal accountability” has now had a long and eventful 600 year run of its own. It is the basis of democracy, capitalism and all the other Anglo-Saxon tenants that are being touted as inalienable universal truths today. It gave rise to the abolition of slavery, first in the UK influenced by the reformists, and then in the US, because it was inconceivable that God would give one human being rights and another none. It gave rise to the emancipation of colonialism, from the acceptance that their colonial subjects, being enlightened by the same education that they were, had the same rights to self-determination as they did.
In this regard, through a process of self-awareness, the “internalisation of personal accountability” originated by the northern Europeans and perfected by the Anglo Saxons achieved something that even the Greeks, with their enlightened sense of logic, could not extend to others who were different from them. In the same vein, if we stop to think about it, women’s liberation, the gay and lesbian movement, euthanasia and other remote calls for self-determination comes from this same roots of personal accountability.
At its heights, this “internalisation of personal accountability” was also the basis of personal productivity, accountability, and a goals driven career – all important ingredients for the success of capitalism in modern society.
In my view, Americans are what I would call the “current beneficiaries” of this long evolutionary line of cultures, that originated as communalistic from the Greeks and then moved to the rest of the Mediterranean region, and then northward into the Germanic and Scandinavian countries and then westward into the English and Gallic isles, before it became what we now identify as highly individualistic Anglo Saxon values. All part of a process that is now more than 2000 years in the making.
It was the corruption of the “communalistic” form of the Catholic religion in the “Dark Ages”, and the need to adjust Christianity for a northern European following, where the populations were smaller and the climate colder, that set the stage for the influence of people like Martin Luther which emphasized judgment and personal accountability, which the Methodists then popularised to the English speaking world, and the Calvinists (in their various derivatives, including the French Huguenots) brought to American soil.
I see Catholicism and Islam as essentially “communalistic” religions, and in a sense, although they share all of the same origins as Anglo-Saxon protestant culture (or as in the case of Islam, a reaction to it), they do not deify the individual hero as much as Anglo-Saxon culture does. A story like Avatar could not have been conceived by a Catholic or a Muslim for this reason. James Cameron’s own Scottish-American roots would, in a light way, validate this observation. So, in an interesting way, the “messiah” today could not just be white, but it has to be American white.
The Muslim religion did not have this much-needed inflexion point, to formalise the “personalisation of accountability” into its societies, only because it did not move northwards to countries where farmers and artisans already had their sense of personal accountability, living as they did in colder and less populated regions, different from the warmer and more communalistic people in the Mediterranean and other sub-tropical regions.
The Muslim religion moved instead along the trade routes, and found itself attractive to communities that were already highly communalistic, including parts of India, southeast Asia and the tribes in central Asia and North Africa. The people in these regions tended to dilute rather than accentuate the key features of any religion brought to them and mixed them up with their own rituals – whether Christianity or Islam.
What if the highly fertile Mediterranean worlds had not evolved but had not corrupted either. Today we speak highly of the cultures the extol the virtues of “the internalisation of personal accountability.” We aspire to the Anglo Saxon and in an interesting way, Chinese (which I will explain below)– as being desirable and dominant and progressive.
If we lived in a world where we had not moved to this phase, I think we would today be extolling Greek (or Greek inspired, meaning Roman and Spanish derivatives), Muslim and Indian cultures instead of Anglo-Saxon and Chinese cultures instead. The most important cities of the world would probably be somewhere in India, somewhere in the Muslim world and somewhere in the Spanish speaking world (being the modern day global derivative of Greek culture), and the rest of us would be singing their songs and watching their movies – which people in some parts of the world actually do.
Indian society in its Hindu form, is the most extreme form of a communalistic society, because it reinforces vocations (what people do) to social hierarchy (status in society). It is designed to keep society efficient in terms of job functions, but cruelly rigid. There are many writers who spend time drawing the parallels between Indian and Greek cultures. Some point out that Indian culture is even more developed, for example in the way it describes death and the afterlife.
Maybe one day, all of us will be hindus, because it’s a value system that seeks to absorb all other value systems. As that great Indian epic, the Mahabharata suggests, “What is found here, may be found elsewhere. What is not found here, will not be found elsewhere.” So there, it’s got all bases covered.
But we don’t discuss that today because Hinduism seeks to absorb rather than change anything. Also anyone who looks at the social injustices in India today would readily say that the tremendous injustices to the lowers castes in its society are wholly untenable. But the power of the Hindu faith to resist such change is amazing. The first major attempt at such a change, that of Buddhism, lasted one thousand years, and even that was absorbed back into Hindu philosophy.
The reasons for us to admire Hinduism are two-fold – its ability to absorb all ideas, even contradictory ones and the originality of thought that emanates from it. We see this ability to absorb all ideas in the lives of modern days Hindus – their ability to master the best of Western education and still think nothing wrong about the caste system or to marry their daughters off to an acceptable appointee, as long as they are higher in the hierarchy. There is an immediate reality to which Hinduism does not offer an acceptable answer, in a world where the Anglo-Saxon values dominate.
But equally, the ability to absorb all ideas gives rise to an important ability to be original. The writer Peter Bernstein suggests in his book “Against the Gods” that it was the Indians who invented the number zero. Now, why would anyone do that and give rise to a whole new world of quantifying negative numbers.
Interestingly, the word Avatar is Sanskrit in origin. It means a god who was incarnated into man to live amongst them. But sometime in 1985, the word morphed into a moniker to mean “Advanced Video Attribute Terminal Assembler and Recreator” or the computer representation of a human computer game player, and it was probably this use of the word that Cameron was referring to when he chose it.
Catholic and Muslim societies, from Italy to Spain to Latin America are looser, because they provide social mobility between the classes and vocations are not determined by castes or birth. But all three of them are rigid in terms of hierarchy and social cohesion.
Accountability cascades from the top down or is by submission from the bottom up, depending on how you look at it. The leader takes care of the pack (hence the source of so much of the corruption we have seen in all of them over the years). The idea of a hero would in a perverse way be illegal because the only heroes needed are those who can help them break away from these social clutches – as we see in some Indian, Arabic and Latin American movies today.
But even this “internalisation of personal accountability” comes to a point where it becomes a victim of its own success. Like Catholicism in its communalistic form gave rise to its papal excesses in the late dark ages, a long run has corrupted the “internalisation of personal accountability.” Today, we trace the culture of extreme personal gratification, extreme greed and the disparity that capitalist societies create to the influence of the Protestant, Anglo-Saxon world that originated from this culture.
We watch the heroes in movies like Avatar at the same time as Wall Street and western governments are trying to come to grips with how far the gratification of personal productivity and goals has taken them – perhaps too far. The people who think they are talented or productive believe that they should be compensated at the expense of the rest of society, surely an untenable proposition.
The movie Avatar also alludes to another end-of-the-road corruption of this Anglo-Saxon value system. Seeing its own degradation and pending bankruptcy, it now seeks to be all inclusive, pretending to be able to represent, albeit in a plastic manner, the combined value system of the best of all cultures.
So, if in the 1600s the Spaniards did not know better but to destroy the highly developed agrarian societies of the Incas and the Aztecs, the Anglo-Saxon version lectures to all developing countries on how to keep their natives in their natural state so that we can study them, even if it means at the expense of their own progress.
The Anglo-Saxon model was not designed to be environmentally sensitive, or native friendly. It only pretends to be, and even then only in a patronising sort of way. It’s productive, goals-oriented, personalised nature designed it to rape and pillage. So the idea of a “white messiah” who would be sensitive to learn from the natives and then to live in harmony with their world is technically just wishful thinking. The amount of trash left on the paths leading to Mount Everest by aspiring Western mountaineers would underscore the point.
So the stage is being set for another reformation, whether by a counter-culture, like the Muslims, or by another layer of evolution, where the baton to further modify this “internalisation of personal accountability” is passed on to another culture to improve on. I think that what is being characterised today by the same Anglo-Saxon writers as a “clash of civilisation” is in fact a reaction to the world that they have created over the past 600 years.
I should add as a footnote that it is not that the other cultures do not accept this “internalisation of personal accountability.” As I mentioned above, all religious leaders from around the Mediterranean basin allude to the importance of personal accountability. It was just that 2000 years ago, their adherents were not ready to understand it.
I would go so far as to say that some of the violent terrorism of Muslim extremists are driven not by their rejection of Western values, but precisely because through their own self-awareness, whether it is through formal western education (and some Muslim terrorists were top students in Western universities), through the availability of global television, and literature, they too have become aware of the prospects of self-actualisation through the “internalisation of personal accountability.”
But when they set out to express the desire to benefit from this personal accountability, they find a world that is dominated by Anglo-Saxon values driven by Anglo-Saxon propaganda. If they did not have this sense of self-actualisation, they would have no clue that there was this discrimination against them. When a suicide bomber pulls the trigger on himself or herself, he or she has more than “internalised” their own sense of personal accountability – the notion that they can personally make a difference. Even if that difference is by an act of frustration towards a world that is not designed for them.
This is important because it helps us project what the future might look like
It is my belief that the fact that all of us talk about a post-American world being Chinese is not driven just by economic realities. In a strange and frightening way, the Chinese are indeed the true beneficiaries of the Anglo Saxon tradition for more than just economic reasons. They are indeed the true beneficiaries of the “internalisation of personal accountability,” albeit from a very different angle. That is why they understand and take to capitalists principles like duck to water.
The reason for this is that I do believe that through a very different route, the Chinese have also been building their own themes around the “internalisation of personal accountability,” maybe for a much longer period than the Anglo Saxon model, but with two important variations that has made us miss the point of their own evolution.
Firstly, while the “internalisation of personal accountability” evolved in Northern Europe around the state and religion, in Chinese culture it evolved around the family and clan, the king being so far away. Chinese people are just as hard working, goals-driven and seek personal gratification as the Northern Europeans do.
But in the west, From Machiavelli to Francis Fukuyama, the expression of personal freedom and accountability has been set against the state or religion. But all of Chinese literature and social mores point towards the family and the ancestors as the raison d’être. The western writers did not understand this, and therefore did not see the parallels between the Chinese and themselves.
Secondly, the Chinese variation of “the internalisation of personal accountability” stopped short of an end-game, because in it there are no messiahs and judgment days, just a series of tussles with maintaining “harmony” in family and society as the central theme. Chinese civilisation is unique in that its story telling capabilities are essentially borrowed from other cultures and meshed into its own value system. The Confucianists and other ancient literature in their original form were a series of analects, historical recitations and poems devoid of stories of heroes and villains, until the monk Xuanzang (玄奘)painstakingly translated from Hindu and Buddhist scriptures.
The four great classical novels, Water Margin, Journey to the West, Dream of the Red Chamber and Romance of the three kingdoms were all later extractions when the Chinese had mastered the art of incorporating their value system into story form.
One of the reasons I believe that China remained a poor country for so long was because it does not have the same plot of a “judgment day”, an end-game like Western Europe does, and which motivated the later to venture out, conquer and proselyte others, while the former degenerated into a people given to court intrigues and a defensive mindset.
For the longest time, for most of the past 1000 years, although the Chinese have been a very organised and hard working people, without an end-game, just meant an entire population susceptible to exploitation and opportunistic corruption internally, from within the society. In some ways, similar to the corruption that Catholic and Muslim societies succumbed to, but for very different reasons and expressed in very different ways.
The concept of centralised planning in China, for example, as it evolved from the time of the emperor’s mandate over all his people for useless industries such as the construction of the Great Wall, to that of Mao Tse Tong’s disastrous emphasis on collective farming and even to the modern day version promoting capitalistic industries for personal aggrandizement have the same unmistakable defensive streak in them – a cause without an end-game in mind.
It can be very frightening if you are a senior government official today, seeing the country’s annualised GDP growth running off at double digits, but without a plot on where it will take the country, or the communist party, or both to know what to expect or how to react.
Halloween and Christmas are senselessly celebrated today as popular culture in major Chinese cities even if they have nothing to do with their own history and even if turkey is probably the most tasteless of birds on any Chinese dinner table.
Chinese “wuxia” genre movies like “Hero” (Zhangyimou 2002) and “The Promise” (Chen Kaiqe 2006), have similar themes as Avatar has, but they are pre-occupied with the story lines of the self-preservation of the Chinese “kingdom”, and fall short of being in charge of their own destiny and conquest.
Curiously, even as I was thinking this, I read in a local Chinese newspaper that a Chinese director Lu Chuan, said in his blog, “Avatar made me realise that what we lack is not technology – we can learn the technology…. I suddenly realise how far away our films are from simple beauty, crystal-clear purity and passionate dreams. We Chinese filmmakers should be ashamed of being far from sincerity and being embroiled in a carnival of twisted, dim and absurd vulgarity.”
His statement was revealing, in that he probably completely did not get it. What he meant by being “far from sincerity” was that Chinese writers could not produce a plot that pursued altruistic values – and that is because they are always defensive. The carnival of “twisted, dim and absurd vulgarity” is indeed how the plots in kingdom movies in China end – in court intrigue, perversion and the preservation of the kingdom instead of a messianic victory and the breaking out of a victorious new order of some kind. There is none of these in the Chinese plot.
Because of this missing plot, young Chinese people have for more than 100 years found it so very easy to mimic Western movies, songs, lifestyles, dressing and even religions more than young people from any other culture. I do believe that this susceptibility existed even in the age of the Boxer Rebellion in the late 1890s-1900 towards the end of the Qing dynasty. The reason there was a Boxer Rebellion in the first place was because the traditionalists were surprised at how quickly and easily large wades of Chinese young people were taking to Christianity and Western dressing.
The main difference between the Boxer Rebellion period and today’s imbibing of Western values is that today the dissemination of Western values is more universal in China, through greater access to western entertainment, the Internet and so on. Even the more traditional parts of its society are accustomed to these new values instead of being shut out in the past, because not everyone met a missionary or had access to the wonders of western medicine then. So, you have fewer frustrated men roaming the streets with batons in their hands because they don’t understand what is happening to their country.
So what does all these mean in terms of the continued evolution of “the internalisation of personal accountability” as it moves from its American Anglo Saxon tradition into Chinese hands. Firstly, for as long as it stays in the hands of the Anglo Saxon tradition, personal accountability is only going to get more corrupted. They are trying to put in much legislation and state control to tame the beast.
The Americans have prepared the Messiah for this transfer to another culture by taking the God out of the “messiah”. By de-deifying the messiah, the Americans have made Man his own messiah. This in some respects is an even worst fate than the messiah being white. He is a godless, American white accountable to no one but himself. All the Abrahamic religions warn against this – hell begins when man thinks he can re-create heaven in his own image. (My all time favourite line in the movie was the way in which the colonel, doing a security briefing, says, “if there is a hell, I suggest you go there … for R&R.”)
In the hands of the Chinese, the “messiah” would be answerable to family or clan leader, the king always being represented as being weak and in need of salvation himself. It will be such a different world, one where the form is something that we would recognise from history. But the substance will be fundamentally different.
In Chinese hands, the journey of the “internalisation of personal accountability” value system that started 3000 years in the Mediterranean basin and was transformed by the Northern Europeans, and disseminated around the world by the Anglo Saxons, will be perfected as a godless but functional system that brings the best out in everyone but motivated in a different way. How long will such a phase last, or will it even be sustainable, given the damage that American culture would have exacted on it by then, or will there be another alternative model arising from a culture we are not paying attention to today, will be very interesting questions to answer.
That process has already started and it is now at least 20 years old. The “internalisation of personal accountability” has one more positive effect, when seen through the eyes of the benefit it had brought a country like China. It makes a population of 1.4 billion people so much more manageable, because more of them are more accountable and therefore more productive.
Chinese employers talk about productivity and cutting jobs to maintain profitability, with no fear of employees being able to be trained for new jobs. This is not communism, this is capitalism. The value that the “internalisation of personal accountability” makes 1.4 billion people not feel like 1.4 billion people, and stands Malthusian fears on its head.
Just compare the noise at street levels in a typical city in China with a typical city in India or anywhere in Africa. Chinese cities are quieter, more efficient. with fewer poor people roaming the streets, because more people are educated, literate and working. Imagine a world where 1.4 billion people were not manageable, or trapped in feudal strictures and what a different impact this country would have on the rest of the world.
For the moment, the Chinese audience are in a sense, happy that someone else is good at the messianic plot, because a number of strictures in the way they think do not prepare them for how the Chinese can be messianic in the first place. It is a defensive culture still.
But given the fact that Avatar did leave a deep impression in the minds of several Chinese directors, we can be sure that several of them will try to create an imitation of sorts in the near future – as Chinese directors have always been wanton to do. This is the one culture – more than that of the Indians, Europeans or Muslims – who are so prone to mimicry of American culture.
But they will most definitely apply the Messianic theme on their own minorities first, the Tibetans, the Uirgurs and others. Another Chinese director, Han Han, said that Avatar reminded him of the suffering of Chinese people when the unscrupulous real estate developers demolished their houses for the drive for profit. So the thinking has already started.
At the time of writing, Avatar had surpassed all box office hits in China for movies of any kind ever – in a year when the winter was particularly cold, snowed-in and hard. The only other top box office hit so far has been the movie “2012”, which was clearly made with the Chinese audience in mind, officially grossing 460 million reminbi.
On this point, I thought that Francis Fukuyama’s assertion that liberal western democratic values as the end-all in human history as a very narrow definition of how non-Western societies are organised. They are not organised around political banners identifiable in modern western politics.
If we limited ourselves that way, we will not begin to be able to understand the Taoist (the spiritual) and Confusionist (the moral) underpinnings that have held Chinese civilisation together for 4000 years, or what is it that the Mayans and the Aztecs knew about superior agricultural techniques that we are still trying to discover today.
Fukuyama spent a lot of time comparing liberal western values against communism, which technically is another Western ideology, promoting the concept of a didactic rather than a linear end to history. Both are intellectual extracts from the same mould that need to be defined further by seeking out how they really interact with and affect other traditions. Otherwise, he is just as jaundiced and too prejudiced to be an accurate observer of the evolution of global themes.
Neither do I think that American liberal democracy as the end-all – the best form of social order is still evolving today and we need to keep our eyes wide open to ways in which they can morph into, even with liberal Anglo-Saxon writers shouting and screaming what’s fair and what’s not fair in their eyes.
A pathetic racial fantasy by any measure
I thought it was interesting that even as thinking people all around the world did not appreciate the racial stereotyping of us Americans versus them natives in the movie, there was also a reaction in the US mid-west deriding the movie for belittling the American ability to awe and inspire others. By being self-reflecting on American culture, the movie “gave too much away” in terms of American pride, or so it seemed. So looks like the director could not win either way.
We laugh at Bollywood movies because the departure from reality is incomprehensively obvious. Actually, Avatar has the same level of incredulity. Sorry, but apocryphal evidence suggests that the number of times that the white male foreigner gets to date, let alone marry the chieftain’s daughter is not as common as my white friends would like to imagine.
In Japan, Korea, China, Malaysia, Singapore and India, I have heard more than once, eligible young women bemoan the fact that the handsome, blue-eyed white male foreigner always ends up with the not-so-pretty women, lower in the pecking order. “What’s wrong with these guys?” these girls ask, sometimes even referring to themselves as eligible mates.
There is a self-preservation instinct at play here. In almost every country, the chieftain’s oldest daughter, whether he is the president, king or prime minister of the country, mostly end up marrying that ambitious “A type” local personality who for better or for worse, will help her safeguard the father’s legacy. The only ones whom I know personally married to white male foreigners are those who studied abroad and stayed there with no interest in being part of the local fraternity.
Also, the male white who wanders off from his home country and tries to find a niche for himself in another more benign culture is most likely not the “Alpha male” who is going to be taming the wildest bird in the sky or suddenly take over as chief army officer of his adopted state. He probably wants to keep a lower profile than he would in his birthplace. The only ones who do come and plunder and steal the virginity of the chieftain’s daughter are, well the marines, who are here today and gone tomorrow.
The sad reality that the Western world faces today is that notwithstanding the high tech drones manned by remote operators almost from the other side of the world, the superior fire power of immense proportions, and highly equipped soldiers with a strong sense of “internalisation of personal accountability,” they are still at the mercy of the little suicide bombers exacting immense damage on them and their civilisation. Like the Vietnam War before them, the current warfare against resurgent Islam once again demonstrates that war was never about hardware. It was always about software, the winning of the hearts and minds of people they don’t even begin to understand. All civilisations will have their own conclusions and that Westerners, most of all, have to start learning to respect that.
As a conclusion, I should add, that I mentioned to my American buddy, Jean-Jacque Chevron, from Chicago, who also watched the movie in Beijing, that the main character in the movie reminded me a lot about him. He immediately became defensive thinking that I was referring to the negative aspects of the protagonists such as that he was paraplegic, which Jean isn’t.
I was referring to the best things about American culture, which Jean is a living example of. He moved to China only some six months ago, learnt Chinese must faster than I have in nearly 10 years of travelling to the country, adapted quickly and unapologetically. He is not a marine, but has the tenacity of one. The desire to make it good in a new country, starting from scratch. He represents the best of American society. Someone like Jean is not fiction. He is real and he is my friend.
In making this connection between where Hollywood can take us and what it represents, I am not holding it responsible for Western civilisation. The fools are only us, the audience of all nations, if we can’t distinguish between entertaining fiction and our pressing destiny.