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More on race and racialism in Avatar.

[ 0 ] December 31, 2009 |

While the Na’vi may be blue, the people who played them are not. Consider:

  1. Neytiri
  2. Tsu’tey
  3. Eytukan
  4. Moat
  5. Horse Clan Leader

It could be the case that all the other models for the Na’vi are white, but it seems clear to me that Cameron chose these actors for the central Na’vi characters according to racialized criteria; i.e. while he didn’t necessarily choose them because they weren’t white, his vision of a primitive, native culture didn’t include white people. The representatives of humanity, however, were not only overwhelmingly white, even the exceptions played to stereotype: Dileep Rao played an Indian scientist and Michelle Rodriguez played a Latina tough. My point in my previous Avatar post about the film indulging in the white fantasy of becoming the proverbial other is, then, made literal by Cameron’s casting decisions: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver and Joel Moore play three white characters who inhabit bodies otherwise occupied only by actors of color. I’m not normally one to invest much of anything argumentative based on what happens on a casting couch, but in this case, Cameron tipped his hand with all the subtlety of an overconfident drunk: the purpose of the avatars is to place white brains in blue bodies that would otherwise be inhabited by black ones.

Stop howling already: I know that, within the film, the purpose of the avatars is to allow humans to breathe on Pandora; however, the humans have masks that can and do fulfill that function. I also know that another purpose of the avatars was to allow human anthropologists to interact with the Na’vi, which is why the xenobotanist played by Sigourney Weaver establishes a planet-side school. For now, set aside Cameron’s confused notion of what a botanist does, because while it suggests that his script is, at best, ignorant of departmental niceties or, at worse, internally inconsistent, it could also be the result of the Gaia metaphor, in which the population of the entire planet are semi-conscious functionaries of a fully-conscious tree. (I kid!) Focus instead on 1) the fact that the film is called Avatar, and 2) the likelihood that Cameron spent years developing this technology in order to avoid the throwaway line about terraforming required to account for the astonishing frequency of breathable atmospheres on far-flung planets.

In short, if you believe that the existence of the avatars can be justified on the basis of inhospitable environs, you’ve not simply placed the cart before the horse, you’ve put the invention of the wheel before domestication of animals. Because, as the title indicates, the avatars aren’t incidental to the film: they’re its raison d’être. The whole point of the film is to stuff brains in those bodies, so which brains are stuffed into which bodies is not a minor point, it is the point. Moreover, within the narrative, the bodies they were being stuffed into were utterly infantilized: the Na’vi don’t think for themselves, as even animal husbandry is beyond them. They require a direct neural connection in order to domesticate an animal.

That they teach humans to be similarly dependent upon a necessarily benevolent planet is, I understand, the point—but it is a terrible one if, as many claim, Cameron wanted to press a message of ecological interdependence. The Na’vi possess all the agency of a leukocyte: they may respond individually, but they are not, properly speaking, individuals. As progressive propaganda goes, this rises to the level of what conservatives believe our nefarious motives to be. That the quasi-coherent leftist politics of the film are intended to be inspirational only makes this incoherence and, more importantly, its dubious racial politics all the worse, because “inculcating dubious racial politics in the next generation of environmental and anti-war activists” doesn’t count as a victory for the forces of democratic freedom. (Or only counts as one in that hilariously limited sense.) Even in the film, as my friend Aaron argues, the result of such thinking is also infantilizing:

Jake Sully, in other words, is a Western fantasy of spoiled childhood: pure id, he revels in the toys that the world has provided for him without understanding that someone had to make them, without ever questioning his own right to have them. I think that’s why I don’t feel contempt for him, but visceral, gut-level, and troubling disgust. I recognize his desires, because we not only have to get past them to be adults, but because they stay with us. Perhaps we still are, on some level, the sociopaths we were when we were children (that I type this while home for the holidays, in the bedroom I occupied when I was seven, only seems appropriate). Yet it’s also one of the worst aspects of the American cultural tradition that going back to childhood is somehow the fountainhead of political virtue (see, for example, Jefferson, Thomas and Roosevelt, Theodore) because it’s so rarely the childhood of curiosity, games, and sociality that the tradition extols, but rather its reverse, a very particular fantasy of careless anti-social boyishness that tends into misogyny so easily because, to again refer us to Nina Baym, it feminizes the “encroaching, constricting, destroying society” that we American boys must seek to be free of by lighting out for the territories.

Finally, let me clarify a few minor concerns about my previous Avatar post:

  1. Just because I didn’t remember every last detail drummed into my head over the course of three dull hours doesn’t mean I didn’t see the film.
  2. Just because you do remember every last detail doesn’t mean that your take on the film is more correct than mine.
  3. I chose “JaMarcus Manning” as the figure of the white-brained, black-bodied quarterback because I’m from Louisiana and graduated from Louisiana State University.
  4. I know the name “JaMarcus Manning” is racist, not because you told me it was, but because that was my point: the “black quarterback problem” is the result of racist expectations that were only ever operative because they were self-fulfilling.
  5. If you take issue with a point I make, fine. If you accuse me of treating you like a student when I defend a point I make, you have issues. Leave me out of them, please, and just argue with me as you would any other stranger on the internet.

NW 253 Redux

[ 0 ] December 30, 2009 |

Rob covers most of the points on 253 that I would have touched upon (as well as some I hadn’t considered), but there are a few I want to add. First, as a preface, I’ve flown AMS-DTW six or eight times, and been on that very flight, and I’m happy to report that this experience doesn’t affect my observation or the validity of my opinion (which is always questionable at any rate).

My instinct when hearing about it was “it’s about time”. As Jeff Fecke comments to Rob’s post, “you’re 99% safe everywhere, but you’re not 100% safe anywhere.” Probability suggest that this will happen, and it will happen again, and if this is the best that they can do, we’re in pretty good shape overall. When one considers the sheer number of passenger / flights that occur daily, let alone annually, and by my (possibly unreliable) count there have only been three incidents of note on US or US-bound carriers post 9/11 (the shoe bomber, the British liquid bombers, and Detroit guy) I am not terribly concerned. Two amateur attempts, and one that MI-5 were all over.
Additionally, as commenter Hanspeter points out, this was not a TSA fault:

“Lagos airport technically passes some standard level of security competency, which is why planes leaving there are allowed to land here. Amsterdam airport also screwed the pooch, though, since that airport is supposed to be very good at security.”

Schiphol Amsterdam indeed has excellent security; even pre-9/11, flying an American carrier from AMS to wherever in the US (typically NW) involved an additional “interview” at the gate for every passenger (they ask for all manner of ID, including frequent flyer membership cards, thumb through your passport and inquire about certain trips, etc.); post 9/11, they added an additional security checkpoint at every gate for American-bound US carriers. (Oddly enough, these measures didn’t apply to KLM flights to the US). However, I’m not sure how Schiphol screwed the pooch; if the technology to stop this guy wasn’t installed, it wasn’t installed.

Furthermore, to my knowledge there are no direct flights from Nigeria to the US, because security is not up to standard. (UPDATE: a commenter points out that Delta fly a couple direct flights between Lagos and the US).
Lagos to Amsterdam was a KLM flight. Indeed, to my knowledge passengers connecting through AMS from Lagos have to go through an additional layer of security because Nigeria security is not considered adequate by the EU. If a pooch was screwed here, it wasn’t that security at Schiphol allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board the DTW flight, rather it was a simple old fashioned intelligence failure.
My rather sanguine attitude expressed above does not place me in the ‘don’t violate my privacy dammit’ camp, however. I have no problem that Schiphol is installing the very machines that may have prevented the Detroit thing; I’m comfortable with some random stranger noting that I’m probably carrying around ten post-holiday extra pounds than I should be. As AMS is one of my primary transit hubs (indeed, my flights back to England in early January take me through Schiphol) I’m certain to experience this new technology in any event.
But I’m not going to freak out about the Detroit thing. It may have been professionally conceived, but it was rank amateur in execution. If this is the best that they can do given our widely assailed security vulnerabilities, I’m fairly relaxed about it.

It’s like that time I hung out with Derrida and we only talked about our cats.*

[ 0 ] December 30, 2009 |

I’m easing back on the Internets by trying to find the most optimistic spin on the Jason Bay signing—Dewan ranking him at -1 runs defensively wins so far—but three of the most respected baseball minds out there are silent on the issue because they’re arguing about the greatest movie musicals of all time. I’m not kidding: Keith Law, Joe Posnanski and Tangotiger are currently debating the relative merits of Mamma Mia instead of telling me how I should feel about my beloved Mets signing a 31-year-old outfielder with old-player skills to a four-year deal with an easy vesting option for his age 36 season.

*True story.

Various Flight 253 Thoughts

[ 0 ] December 30, 2009 |

Briefly, regarding the Detroit-Failure-to-Explode-Thing:

  • The successful destruction of Flight 253 might not have threatened American power, or the material foundation of American life, but it certainly would have sucked; any plausible conception of national security would expect that the government take reasonable measures to prevent such attacks.
  • It is nevertheless pretty lame that this is apparently the best that Al Qaeda could manage at this late date; any self-respecting terrorist organization should have been embarrassed to claim responsibility for this pathetic failure.
  • It’s not clear to me that “the system worked”; it seems, in fact, that the system failed at some key point, if only in its inability to recognize someone who (to the admittedly untrained eye) really seemed like a serious threat.
  • That said, there is no way to reform the system to eliminate all such threats; reforms may result in additional false positives, or may results in holes in different areas. Such are the trade-offs of intelligence and law enforcement work.
  • That said, not all intelligence failures are the result of trade-offs. Sometimes people screw up to the extent that they should be fired, and some procedures produce distinctly suboptimal outcomes. Unfortunately, determining whether the problem is in the trade-off or the bad procedure is hard;it’s often bloody difficult to tell the difference between a .400 hitter having a bad day and a .200 hitter having a normal day. My guess in this case is that there’s a bit of both; there seems to have been sufficient evidence to have kept this guy off of a flight to the US.
  • However, difficulties associated with the coordination of information across agencies or division are probably the most common kind of problem associated with intelligence and law enforcement work. There really is no over-arching solution; bureaucratic divisions are necessary for a variety of reasons, yet invariably cause difficulties of communication, jurisdictional overlap or underlap, and so forth.
  • Finally, Law Prof pointed out to me that the one major positive (other than the failed bomb) is that dude’s dad felt strongly enough about the threat dude posed to go to the US embassy and inform on his own son. I have no idea what his thinking was, but just maybe there’s a tiny upside to treating the rest of the world as if it exists and has feelings.

A collision of hacks

[ 0 ] December 29, 2009 |

What the hell?

It wouldn’t have been difficult to predict this, but the stupidity of Deborah Solomon interviewing John Yoo does indeed approach the density of a degenerate dwarf star. After describing Yoo’s new book as “an eloquent, fact-laden history of audacious power grabs by American presidents,” Solomon offers him the chance to set forth, without challenge, his usual fact-free assertions about how the Constitutional framers really wanted to recreate the British monarchy.

The idea is that the president’s power grows and changes based on circumstances, and that’s what the framers of the Constitution wanted. They wanted it to exist so the president could react to crises immediately.

I continue to marvel at the willingness of self-described journalists to describe views like this as “history,” given that supporting historical evidence for them is in fact nowhere to be found. For Yoo’s interpretation to be even remotely plausible, we’d have to find something in the Constitutional debates proving that the framers imagined circumstances in which the middle third of Article 1, Section 8 would somehow be switched off. That would require as well that we discover some proof that the framers — operating on republican principles that far exceeded those existing in the British constitutional monarchy — suddenly decided that the president should enjoy greater war prerogatives than the dreaded king of England had at his disposal. And we’d have to overlook the fact that the convention of 1787 was primarily animated by concerns about the weak legislative authority of the federal government and not by some brew of anxieties about the absence of vague, emergency powers vested in its executive.

But hey, I’m sure Yoo’s book has a raft of eloquent, fact-laden ripostes to these small historical problems. Though I’d also imagine the book contains fewer dick jokes bout Bill Clinton, nor would it reveal the awkward fact that Yoo has no idea or interest in what his parents do for a living. Leave it to Deborah Solomon to produce something that actually makes reading John Yoo seem more appealing.

Waaaaaaaambulance Caller of the Week

[ 0 ] December 29, 2009 |

Roman Polanski.

Ridiculous Republican Puke Funnel of the Day

[ 0 ] December 29, 2009 |

Andrew Malcolm. (See also known Man of Ethics Mark Foley.)

You Don’t Say

[ 0 ] December 29, 2009 |

Apparently, spending hundreds of billions of dollars to construct a facility used 8 time a year with contracts that ensure that virtually all of the profits go to the subsidized plutocrats isn’t a good deal for municipalities.

WAPO: Robert Nozick is the Only Acceptable Definer of Human Rights

[ 0 ] December 28, 2009 |

Shorter Fred Hiatt: FDR was a total commie; King and his so-called “civil rights” maybe even worse. They probably didn’t even understand that “human rights” should be defined exclusively in the terms that will maximize the imperialist power of the United States. Let’s also completely ignore the fact that, in practice, the protection of even “negative” rights requires the substantial expenditure of state resources, making them no more “natural” by our logic by any other.

Matt has more about the editorial that “really breaks new ground in terms of red baiting and absurdity.”

Juan Gonzalez Stole My Lunch Money!

[ 0 ] December 27, 2009 |

In the process of dubbing Juan Gonzalez the Least Valuable Player of the aughts, Jayson Stark deems Long Gone Juan an embezzler:

The ability to steal money is a quality I always look for in an LVP. And clearly, that became one of Juan Gone’s specialties. He had one season in the ’00s (2001) in which he hit 30 homers and drove in more than 75 runs. Yet he managed to parlay that season, and past reputation, to a total of $46.925 million worth of paydays in the ’00s.

Yep, $46.925 million. That’s more than Chase Utley, more than Miguel Cabrera, more than Hanley Ramirez, more than John Lackey. More than David Wright, Joe Mauer and Prince Fielder combined, for that matter. Yikes.

It’s also more than the salaries of the five AL MVPs from 2000 through 2004 put together. And it’s more than the opening-day payroll of 56 different teams in the ’00s. So how impressive is that?

Indeed. It’s clear that Stark understands this failure in moral terms; the term “steal” and the tone both indicate that Juan Gonzalez managed this theft because of a string of serious moral failings. While some might suggest that 34 year old outfielders often suffer from a series of nagging injuries that sharply curtail both playing time and effectiveness, Stark will have none of it; Gonzalez figuratively robbed, virtually at gunpoint, the Kansas City Royals of $4.5 million in 2004. Neifi Perez, oddly enough, isn’t considered a thief for the $4.1 million that the Royals paid in 2002 because “it can’t be just about the ability to string together production-free numbers,” and Derek Bell isn’t eligible for LVP even though he claimed explicitly that he was reducing his productivity because of unhappiness with the team.

No; the villain is Long Gone, who had the temerity to accept the contract offers that teams made, then went on to perform, repeatedly, the outright dastardly act of actually cashing the checks that team offices handed to him. What a monster! And then, just because he wanted to steal MORE money from the fans of Major League Baseball, he played half a season in the Atlantic League, and three years in the Puerto Rican League.

This would all be just plain stupid were it not for the fact that Stark is part of a sports journalistic machine that habitually blames players for the idiotic mistakes made by team owners. Somebody gave Juan Gonzalez $4.5 million? Blame Gonzalez! There’s a strike? Those greedy players are at it again! Ticket prices going up? Stupid greedy players! And of course, it would be nice if this pattern weren’t duplicated in coverage of labor-management disputes in the rest of the economy.

There’s certainly a way in which someone might determine the decade’s Least Valuable Player, and it would involve comparing salary and productivity. It might, moreover, be the case that Juan Gonzalez actually was the LVP, although I rather doubt it, and it would almost certainly be because of the $24 million he made in 2002-3 from the Rangers, rather than from the $4 million that the Royals wasted on him. But that rather gives away the show. Accepting a $4 million contract offer from the Royals on the heels of several unproductive seasons doesn’t make you a thief; it just means that you have a pulse.

…I think that one LVP candidate has to be my beloved Ken Griffey, who was paid $97 million for 17 wins above replacement over the course of the decade. Other possibilities?

But Bob Kaplan Said that Europeans Have Lost Their Will to Live!

[ 0 ] December 27, 2009 |

Quick question: Did the news that a Dutchman was the first to tackle Shoebomber #2 remind anyone of how, in United 93, the appeasement-minded coward was clearly European?

Me neither.

"Just take a left after the big black Mammy."

[ 0 ] December 26, 2009 |

Those would be directions given to me the first time I tried to visit my in-laws without the wife there to navigate. I hadn’t a clue what he meant. Then, as I crested a hill south of Natchez, I suddenly did:

Texas advertises itself as a “Whole ‘Nother Country,” but that’s only true if you live off a farm-to-market road. Houston’s sprawl is as uniformly bland as the city that extends from Los Angeles to San Diego; but in the actual South, even the metropolitan areas surprise you.

This is my way of saying: as I’m writing from a location where the power—much less the internet—is intermittent, I’m not going to be able to address the arguments in Avatar thread for a couple of days. I will do so soon, though, as I value your new low opinion of me.