Saturday, January 9, 2010

The noble savage

Last night my wife and I saw the James Cameron film Avatar and thought it was alright. I rate it 3.5 stars of 5. The way Cameron pushed the limits of film making was spectacular; the story was a hodgepodge of many other stories. And it's the fact that this story has been told a million times in American fiction that I want to comment on.

Conservatives are bemoaning Avatar as some anti-American troupe, or anti-white, or whatever. Why? Because it hints at parallels between things done in the Avatar story and things America has done. If America hadn't done these things, there would be no metaphor, and you would certainly not make any connection. The thing is, it seems these conservatives think what America did was right, and any criticism of America is anti-American, wrong, and bigoted.

I am talking of course about the outright genocide of Native American tribes, the theft of their land, and the exodus of the people to reservations. (If this happened to us we wouldn't think it was OK, yet still we celebrate men like George Armstrong Custer.)

This story has been told so many times in so many ways. Sometimes its explicit like The Last of the Mohicans, and Dances With Wolves. Sometimes it's veiled, like in Avatar.

But sometimes the story is told without trying to tell it at all. In fact, one of the most popular movies amongst conservatives is Red Dawn. This tells the same story, except the "noble savage" is a band of white, teenage Americans.

There is the popular Braveheart, which is based on a true story in Scotland, but also parallels Avatar, and the Native American experience. This story has happened so many times in the world's history that criticizing imperialism is hardly more anti-American than it is anti-Roman, anti-Mongul, anti-Britain, et al!

And then there is the "underdog" tale Americans love so much. Dodgeball, The Goonies, and the list goes on. A ragtag bunch has their way of life threatened by a corporation or other strong entity (sometimes the government), and they fight back and defeat the enemy. This underdog story is told so many times, it's practically a Mad Lib in Hollywood. Replace "home" with "neighborhood" or even "store."

And we love these stories because the right to one's self-determination is one of the deepest held beliefs in America. And conservatives especially love the right to property, which these tales all tell.

We even become sensationalized when the news media tells the story of a neighborhood who is uprooted because an interstate is being built on their land. Or eminent domain threatens homes and businesses so a Walmart can be built. Regionally we even have the story of a local community fighting Los Angeles to prevent power lines from being ran through their hills.

Americans love these stories until they see themselves in the "bad guy" spot, because it doesn't matter if its a true story or not, we can't be seen as bad. We've done no wrong. To say we err is to be anti-American (that is until we elect someone we don't like, and then America makes the biggest mistake of all).

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