Labeling 'Avatar' anti-(fill in the blank)

Posted: Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Success breeds contempt. No surprise, then, that when James Cameron's "Avatar" broke through the $1.8 billion box-office record set by his earlier "Titanic," public and critical adoration would be countered by naysayers.

Most such comments hail from the political-cultural right, including claims that "Avatar" conveys "anti-military" and "pro-environmentalist" themes. Not that the far left remains quiet. Anti-smoking activists complain about Sigourney Weaver's otherwise enlightened character continually "lighting up."

Like most artists, Cameron deals honestly rather than idealistically with characters. As with every person in real life, each of his has a flaw. This is hers, making Weaver's heroine less a perfect role model but more an empathetic human.

The film is hardly anti-military, though it does come out against exploitive use of independent mercenaries (rather than official forces) for purposes of imperialist exploitation rather than necessary national defense.

The "pro-environmentalist" theme is present. But what's wrong with that? Why do so many contemporary "conservatives" recoil in horror from principles of "conservation" when those two terms derive from the same word? This wasn't always the case: former President George H.W. Bush proudly stated, "I'm a conservationist. Always have been. Always will be." Another Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, initiated our environmental policies.

So! If Disney's "Pocahontas" (1995) were released today, would it likewise come under scrutiny for projecting the same supposedly "liberal" themes?

Speaking of Disney, in its Florida resort area sits a 500-acre site called Animal Kingdom, a theme park dedicated to "nature and conservation." On its opening day, sign-wielding demonstrators from the left massed to complain that animals were exploited there. Yet this modern zoo and rehabilitation center for harmed beasts has no bars. Should those protesters now be replaced by rightists, angry about efforts made there to protect the natural world?

The epicenter of Animal Kingdom is The Tree of Life, 14 stories high, 50 feet wide. Visitors resemble the indigenous blue creatures in "Avatar" who gather around their own, similar tree. This brings up the most heated attack on "Avatar" - i.e., that Cameron's film is "anti-religious." Is there any truth to that? Actually, answering "yes" or "no" depends on how an individual defines the term "anti-religious."

Positive symbolic use of the tree does run directly against the grain of the JudeoChristian Bible. Those anonymous figures who set down the moral fables of Genesis set out to reverse the meanings of pagan icons, which celebrated nature in general, the tree in particular. With roots burrowing down into the earth and leaves that reach toward Heaven above, the tree was worshipped as a natural bridge between here and there.

But in the Garden of Eden, that vicious snake makes his home in the tree, slithering down to corrupt mankind through naive Eve.

Just as that first woman was depicted as the weaker of the sexes by early Hebrews and modern religions derived from their teachings, so did pagan peoples - from the Druids to African nations to American Indians - perceive the female of the species as superior. In time, their beloved Mother Nature gave way to male sky gods such as Zeus and Yahweh.

The Vatican newspaper L'osservatore Romano attacked "Avatar" owing to its "spirituality linked to the worship of nature," while Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi warned of the danger inherent in "turning nature into a new divinity."

But nothing could be older than such thinking! Does, "Avatar" then challenge biblical values? Absolutely. Does that mean AVATAR is "anti-religious"? Only if one takes a tunnel-vision approach - a bunker mentality which holds that an appealing portrait of anyone else's religion constitutes an attack on one's own.

This is not unlike Fox newsman Britt Hume insisting that disgraced sports idol Tiger Woods should reject Buddhism and find Jesus. Likely, Hume knows a great deal about his own Christian religion and its ability to help. Clearly, he knows nothing about Buddhism, a legitimate alternative faith that can and has achieved precisely such positive ends for its true believers.

Hume's position is identical to that of critics complaining about "Avatar;" "If you don't believe in my religion, then you aren't religious." This represents an intolerance that's oppositional to the American attitude toward freedom of choice in religion that's been the hallmark of our country's greatness since its inception.

According to one point of view, "Avatar" and Animal Kingdom dangerous examples of popular culture. Yet if that's so, then why do so many millions of Americans, the vast majority of them of Judeo-Christian heritage, dearly love Disney's theme park and Cameron's film - yet still diligently return to their synagogues and churches after visiting with no apparent harm done?

• Douglas Brode teaches courses in American popular culture at Syracuse University and is the author of 30-plus books on the subject. Readers may send him e-mail at

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