On the Movie “Avatar”

(Warning: This post contains spoilers.)

After some conservatives, now the Vatican has come out against the movie “Avatar”. They are criticizing the movie because they say it suggests that the worship of nature is a replacement for religion. They also described the movie as simplistic and sappy, despite its “awe-inspiring special effects.”

Yes, the movie is simplistic, and yes, I suppose it can be described as “sappy”, but both of these shortcomings are lost in the grandeur of its presentation. On the basic concept level, the movie is little more than a screen rendition of a comic book story. What attracts in a comic book is the graphical presentation, and here “Avatar” has outdone the imaginable. The movie is more than two and a half hours long, but you are so drawn into the visual experience that you do not notice the passage of time. I have sat through ninety-minute movies that have seemed twice as long as this one.

The Vatican says that “Avatar…gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature,” and “nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship” (L’Osservatore and Vatican Radio). I would dispute the “bogged down” part, but certainly the Na’vi  (the blue deer people) are very closely attuned to and part of the nature of their world. But when we watch the movie, we know that these are the Na’vi, not human beings; we can’t even breathe their air; they are blue and ten feet tall; their world Pandora is an alien world, not earth (though in a metaphorical ecological argument, you might want to make that comparison); this is science fiction, a fantasy, not a sermon. Nor is it “Dances with Wolves”, despite the similar response to a pure native culture by a battered or in this case crippled military man. If these fictional native people “worship” Ewya, this is clearly their “religion”, not ours. Besides, Ewya is less a deity than the essence of Pandora, and “worship” and “religion” are not appropriate words for the Na’vi behavior. In our religions, we worship; in the Na’vi way, they commune.

The Vatican, therefore, has nothing to fear from “Avatar”, just as the conservatives, who are worried about possible “liberal” views, have nothing to fear. Even if you support the exploitation of nature, few conservatives are as ruthless as the Colonel Quaritch or even the company man Selfridge. The presentation of Quaritch is so comic book two-dimensional that he represents a concept rather than a real character. Selfridge, who is less of an extreme, towards the end seems to show some doubt over where everything is heading.

Some will see this movie as an allegory of American exploitation, but it is jingoistic to make it “American”. “Human” would be more accurate. There are elements that have allegorical overtones, say, in the names. Pandora reminds one of Pandora’s box (almost but not opened in this movie). The mineral sought by the humans is Unobtainium. Na’vi is a corruption of “native”, Selfridge of “selfish”; Quaritch seems to be derived from “quarrel” and “son-of-a-bitch”, while the sympathetic research scientist is called “Grace Augustine”. The plot can also be reduced to a formula: The bad guys want to strip mine the planet; the good guys beat them off. This is not a new theme. It is also not what draws a viewer into this movie, or what holds the viewer’s interest. The final battle is pure comic book style entertainment, leading to resolution rather than making a point. Besides, the strength of the movie lies in its presentation, not in its story.

The Na’vi are depicted as ten feet tall. One might rationalize this as being due to the “pure” way they live, but that is a minor point. What is  visually striking is that humans appear small and insignificant next to them, and, in the final scene, they seem almost like vermin, a reflection of their failed mission of destruction. Size is significant, as Jonathan Swift realized in “Gulliver’s Travels”, where in the first two books, the ones who are satirized are the little guys. In this movie also, we come to look down on the smaller figures. But our hero, the last good guy, has grown spiritually. He becomes his avatar and we have our closure.

Ignorance Triumphs Again

As we approach the end of 2009, the print media is giving us “The Decade in Review” features. No doubt as the year’s end approaches, so will radio and TV. These features all assume that the decade started in the year 2000. But the decade (and the century, and the millennium) actually started in 2001. We already had this confusion at the end of the 20th Century over Y2K, and it was clarified at that time. You would think a magazine like Time would get it right, but no! They are just as ignorant as the rest.

Once again, the reason why the decade, century, and millennium begin with the year ending in the number 1 is simply because our calendar started in Year 1. There was no Year 0. We went from Year 1 BC (or BCE) to Year 1 AD (or CE).

When the calendar was invented, there was no concept of zero in the western world; we counted from 1 and the digital count on our fingers ended in 10. In this way, the first decade (our time) ended in 10 AD, the first millennium in 1000 AD, the second in 2000 AD. The new time spans began in 11 AD, 1001 AD and 2001 AD.

So, Time Magazine and others, take note: the first decade ends at the end of 2010 AD, and the next begins January 1st, 2011. Get it right!

A Right Christmas?

The shortened word Xmas for Christmas used to upset my mother because she saw the “X” as negating the real reason for Christmas. But the “X” is not a negative. It is the Greek letter Chi, which stands for Christ, so the meaning of Christmas is actually preserved in Xmas.

Today as we go into the Christmas season, we are moving into a time when the holiday is being increasingly turned into something that is religion-neutral. Public displays avoid religious references, students at school concerts have to sing about Santa Claus and reindeer with red noses, and stores play neutered jingles that one might call holiday music—all to avoid the real reason for the holiday. The Post Office sells both “winter holidays” and Madonna and child stamps, the former as usual outselling the latter, and a survey shows that at least one third of us say “Happy Holidays” now, instead of “Merry Christmas.”

It is no surprise then that this is also the time when the right wing media front men rail against the movement away from Christ in Christmas. It is true that many people are concerned about the secularization of the holiday, but those shrill complaints are not really based on true religious concern. Their motives are political. They want to take possession of the holy-day part of Christmas, just as they wrapped themselves in the flag and seized on patriotism after 9/11, trying to make them theirs.

These small-minded reactions are presented as countering the perceived all-pervasive “liberalism” that is supposedly neutralizing Christmas, but even if the intent is genuine rather than calculated (as I suspect it really is), the result can only be divisiveness—us versus them; our version of Christmas is right—or Right; they are the heathens.

Letting narrow-minded bigots make Christmas theirs rather than keeping it ours will be a loss to all of us. We need to keep the religious side of Christmas intact.

Historically, it is very likely that Luke and Matthew (or their sources) made up their versions of the Christmas story, but this does not matter. Over the last two thousand years, the story of a couple traveling a long way with the woman pregnant, giving birth to the Savior of mankind in a stable, angels telling shepherds of the wonderful event, and they and wise men from the East coming to worship the new born infant—this simple story has become enshrined in our culture. It is part of who we are. And it is a very beautiful story, especially one that, together with its evocative songs, engenders the innocence and nostalgia of childhood and of a simpler time.

If we remove that part of Christmas, what are we left with? Santa Claus, elves and reindeer? Is this our substitute for the Christmas story? A story of deception until the child finds out that there is actually no Santa Claus?

I find the “worship” of Santa Claus of the North Pole highly ironic. Santa Claus is a corruption of Saint Nicholas, a religious figure, supposedly a bishop of note. But Saint Nicholas is himself a representation of something else. Missionaries commonly substitute acceptable figures or practices for pagan ones that are unacceptable. So Christmas is a substitution for pagan celebrations of the passage of the winter solstice, and Saint Nicholas is a substitution for Old Nick, the man from the north, and the one we still recognize in the name Nick, the devil himself. (Even more ironical, the word Santa is an acronym for Satan.)

A key aspect with public placement of religious symbols is whether there is proselytizing or not. On the hills of San Juan Bautista, California, there is a large cross, which overlooks the little town. This cross is clearly a Christian symbol, but its location has to do with the historical origin of the town, a Spanish mission founded in 1797. The original location of the cross on the hill not only was a substitution for an Indian meeting site, it also enabled the location of the mission to be identified from afar. The cross here is part of our heritage. Similarly, children in California schools routinely build model missions when they study early California history.

The same distinction should apply to seasonal displays. Permanently posting the Ten Commandments in an official location is different from displaying a Christmas crèche. The commandments are a religious prescription to be followed and so violate the distinction between church and state, but the crèche merely represents a story, albeit fundamental to Christianity. Similarly, the public display of a menorah, while strongly associated with Judaism, is again a representation of a story, not a general prescription for action or religious behavior.

We know what Christmas stands for, even if we pretend otherwise, and while we may still phrase our holiday greetings to accommodate others, we should not get away from what the day really represents in our culture. We should not abandon our heritage, and substitute something that’s plastic, shallow and deceptive. We are able to do precisely that with Thanksgiving. Let us also do the same with Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all!

Blair Justifies Iraq Invasion

The former British prime minister, Tony Blair, still maintains that the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein were justified, even if it had been known that he had no weapons of mass destruction. Blair’s argument is that Saddam Hussein and his two sons were a major threat to the region. Originally, Blair had claimed that Hussein was capable of launching a missile attack on any of his neighbors within 45 minutes.

Is this latest statement, made in a BBC interview, really a valid reason, or is it simply an attempt to justify a major blunder in judgment that that has led to costly wars and which, above all, threatens his legacy?

I have always thought higher of Blair than of the man he followed like a lackey into Iraq, seemingly blindly, yapping excitedly at his heels, but no more! The man he followed in the spirit of some weird bromance, ex-President George W. Bush, has also attempted to justify the Iraq debacle by stating that it was a good thing to do, even without the WMDs. Remember that it was Bush who was determined to attack Iraq, regardless, to “finish Daddy’s war.” It was Bush who jumped to the conclusion that Iraq was the culprit behind the World Trade Center attacks and ordered his people to find evidence to support his assumption.

If it was justified to go into Iraq regardless, as Blair claims, because the country’s loathsome leaders were a threat to the region, why haven’t we invaded North Korea? Why not invade Venezuela? Cuba? Iran? “We” think of them as threats to their regions and have said so publicly. By Blair’s justification, we are entitled to invade these countries, even if they have no WMDs. Why not Israel? And it does have WMDs.

Following September 2001, only the invasion of Afghanistan can be justified. The invasion of Iraq was never the right thing to do, despite the grim, unsavory nature of its leader. The WMD “intelligence” was always suspect and not supported by the UN inspectors. It was ego that that drove the decision, and no number of after-the-act excuses can justify that blunder, Tony.

Christian Implants and Other Wonders

Carrie Prejean, as a conservative Christian Miss California, got her first nationwide publicity when, in answer to a Miss USA pageant question, she said that she was opposed to gay marriage. She was criticized for her answer, but what did the interviewer expect? Should she have lied? It was a stupid question by an idiot who had his own agenda. She was entitled to express her belief and she should be admired for daring to say it. Her later preparedness to switch off Larry King, during an unacceptable line of questioning, shows that she still has spunk.

The publicity from the gay marriage answer, however, led to other revelations, and she lost her the Miss California title. The subsequent happenings made her look like an airhead, especially when she proclaimed that Sarah Palin, the primo political airhead, was her idol. Some commentators suggested a joke Palin/Prejean presidential ticket for 2012!

First, it turns out that she had breast implants. Prejean defended these by saying that there was nothing un-Christian in getting them. “I don’t see anywhere in the Bible where it says you shouldn’t get breast implants.” Then she had posed for half nude photographs, which she blamed on the wind blowing her top open. She did not say it, but there’s nothing in the Bible that says you shouldn’t pose for nude photographs. Then a solo sex video surfaced. Then many more. There’s nothing in the Bible that says you shouldn’t make masturbation videos. Now she has had a firm offer for a porn movie. Carrie, there’s nothing in the Bible that says …

I shouldn’t make fun of her conservative Christian rationalizations, since the fabric of her world may be crashing around her, or perhaps those fifteen minutes of fame are being effectively extended. Maybe her Christianity will allow her to venture into the seedier world into which she seems to be heading. If so, I feel kind of sorry for her.

Conservative Christians are very good at rationalizing. In Prejean’s case, what may be embarrassing to her, is no more than harmless amusement to the rest of us. Where it is not harmless, is when it appears in the people to whom we may someday entrust society and government. The ultra-right wing of the Republican Party is trying to purge the moderates of the party, and, together with the “screamers” on radio and Fox News, it defines itself solidly as Christian.

But what kind of Christianity is this?

It is certainly not the caring, charitable kind of Christianity we associate with Jesus, when its main characteristic is denial, when it takes rather than gives, when it says no to need and care. It is a selfish Christianity without moral depth and without charity. Christianity with implants!

It is okay to lie and deceive, both openly and through manipulation. We can divorce our wives, even as they are confined to bed with cancer. Adultery is fine, because our colleagues will forgive us (which is just about as good as God’s forgiveness.) We can send prurient emails to boy pages we lust for. Being “unclean” (Matthew 16:10) is now perfectly fine and Christian.

Additionally, we can now place money above morality. We can bow to special interest groups that line our back pockets with green and then we go and do their bidding, even if it flies against national and humane interests. We operate as back pocket gophers and persuade ourselves that this is in everyone’s best interests. Yes, our Christian implants say; yes, yes, we can worship both God and money (Matthew 6:24).

The two references I gave are to actual words of Jesus. The rest of the Bible, both old and new, has many prohibitions that are either ignored or simply flouted by these professed Christians. In fairness, I should point out, though, that when it comes to health care, the biggest back pocket gopher seems to be Joe Lieberman, the senator from Connecticut, who is neither Republican nor Christian, but the political conservative Christians are not far behind.

Prejean defended her implants by saying that there was nothing in the Bible against them. But the actions of the super-conservative Christian Republicans fly directly in the face of what is proscribed in the Bible. Clearly, they must have implants that allow them to put on this front.

The wind is blowing.

Your implants are showing

And you don’t care.

God is all knowing

And you will be going

To you know where.

Tea Parties

Republicans around the country have organized “Tea Party Rallies” to protest health care reform, among other things. They draw their inspiration from the Boston Tea Party, which helped spark the American Revolution. Protestors turn up in support wearing teabags; that is to say, they go “tea bagging.” Little do they realize that tea bagging is also a fraternity ritual, drawn from the similarity of a tea bag to a scrotum.  So the sweet conservative ladies turn up at the rallies with their tea testicles hanging from their hats.

At these rallies the tea baggers listen to rants against the government. At a recent rally, they witnessed the Minority Leader of the House, John Boehner (Republican, Ohio), commit a big boner to go with the teabags. Waving his pocket copy of the Constitution in his right hand, he declared he would quote from it, and went on to orate, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!” Oopsie! Your ignorance is showing, sir! These words are not from the Constitution, but from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.

Boehner’s ignorance is a gaffe that a congressman should not make, let alone a potential leader of the house, but it was not much more than a gaffe. There are, however, errors around the Boston Tea Party, which are not gaffes, but which are consciously perpetuated. In a fifth grade classroom last week, I had to listen to ignorance among the patriotic hogwash that was being inculcated into their young minds. Not all of it was hogwash, of course, but not one item was free of it.

There is no doubt that the Boston Tea Party was a very important spark leading to the American Revolution, and that generally it was about taxation without representation. One reading told the fifth graders that King George removed all the taxes, except the one on tea as a lesson to the colonists who then had to pay high taxes on tea. This is bullshit. The Tea Act of 1773, passed by the British Parliament, removed the tax on tea, requiring only American duty to be paid on tea coming into the colonies. The effect was that the price of tea, legally entering the colonies, now cost half the original price. In fact, tea in the colonies was cheaper than tea in Britain, since the British still had to pay the tax.

The main importer of tea was the East India Company, and the Tea Act was seen as favoring the company, enabling them to undercut American importers and (above all) tea smugglers. And there is truth in that, and there was understandable resentment by leaders in the colonies. But it was NOT about high taxes. Significantly, among the leaders of the Sons of Liberty, the group who engineered the Tea Party, was the wealthy John Hancock, who made his pile from … smuggling tea.

Halloween Costumes and Illegal Aliens

This year’s Halloween costumes for sale include one adult jumpsuit with a space alien mask and the words “ILLEGAL ALIEN” printed across the chest. This has upset a Los Angeles immigrant rights group, who feels it is “racist”, that it hurts the sensitivities of people from south of the border who are illegally in the USA. Target took it off its website (it was not available in stores), but other sites were selling out of the costume, no doubt helped by the publicity of the group who objected.

The costume, of course, was a play on words intended as a bit of fun. The same kind of pun is made at the beginning of the movie Men in Black, here at the border between the USA and Mexico. Unlike the movie, there was nothing on the Halloween costume that specifically targeted Hispanic illegal aliens, though the sales spiel did make that reference in a humorous way. (“He didn’t just cross a border, he crossed a galaxy! He’s got his green card, but it’s from another planet!”)

This is not the only illegal alien costume. There is another costume that those groups have not objected to. This is the  “sexy illegal alien” costume, and this one clearly refers to Mexican illegal aliens through its pointed use of a sombrero and handcuffs.

My objection is not to the costume or to the outcry by some groups against it. These kinds of objections are symptomatic of our hypersensitive P.C. society, something we have to put up with as part of wanting to respect all people. However, do we have to sacrifice our sense of humor?

The irony is that “sexy illegal alien” costume, which was not objected to, is actually more objectionable than the “adult illegal alien” one, because it is sexist, it pointedly refers to Mexicans, it suggests they should be handcuffed, and it is almost totally without humor. (You do get shades with it, shaped like “alien” eyes.)

I do object to groups fudging the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants. They say they are concerned about the rights of “all” immigrants, but they do more damage to the acceptance of legal immigration than good, as they continue to advocate and encourage acceptance of illegal activity.

The Nobel Peace Prize

So Obama got the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. The Peace Prize is supposed to be given to whomever has done the most “during the preceding year” to promote fraternity between nations, to abolish or reduce standing armies and for holding or promoting “peace congresses.”

Although the peace prize committee tried to justify it, I don’t think Obama has done enough to warrant the award, especially if by “preceding year” is meant the year 2008.

One joke (by Jay Leno) is that he got the prize for inviting a black Harvard professor and a white policeman to the White House to make peace over a few beers.

I have respect for the other Nobel awards, but the Peace Prize awards are often laughable, and I tend to view these with a degree of cynicism. With other Nobel awards, there is the passage of years that allows the honored achievement to be evaluated with the hindsight of time. This perspective is not given to the peace committee or it is not taken. So there is a danger of getting sucked into what appears now, rather than what is effective over a period of time.

In this way the 1973 peace prize was awarded to Henry Kissinger and Le Doc Tho for the “Paris Peace Accords”. The latter refused it, pointing out that there was no peace in his country, something that the Peace prize committee should have taken into account. But the war-mongering hawk Kissinger was only too happy to accept his for what turned out to be little more than a cynical exercise, for the United States continued bombing North Vietnam. In this category we could include the peace prizes that were awarded to leaders in the Middle East conflicts.

In the past, nominees for the peace prize have included Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini and (for a short time) Adolf Hitler.

Some awards make you wonder what the honoree has done with regard to fraternity between nations, army reduction or peace congresses. Most notable here is the 1979 award to Mother Teresa. She was deserving of some award, but what she did had nothing within the parameters of the Nobel Peace Prize, and, as her acceptance speech showed, she had no concept of what was needed for world peace.

The Nobel Peace Prize is deserving of the least respect among the Nobel Prize awards.

US Adopts the “Australian Ballot”

US voting has always been flawed. Initially, voting was done by a show of hands. You had to turn up at a certain time to vote. Except for the inconvenience, that worked OK. Then they introduced the paper ballot. You had to supply the paper, write the name of your candidate on it, make it past the crowds, often hostile (unless you are voting for their candidate), and hand your ballot in through a window to the election official. You also had to be able to spell your candidate’s name correctly or your vote was null.

Then parties began to print the ballots. They’d give you a ballot (and a buck), but you still had to make it through the intimidating crowds who were often fighting amongst themselves. Woe to you if, on your way there with your ballot in hand, you meet the thugs of the party you are voting against. Sometimes people were shot. In the middle years of the 19th century, 89 people were killed, not counting those who died later.

What changed this situation was imported from Australia, of all places, and that was two-fold: the government supplied the ballots and voting was secret (Victoria’s Electoral Act of 1856). It was adopted in Britain, long before the US, where its merits were debated for a couple of decades. Even then, there were shenanigans. One state printed its ballots in gothic letters, so the poor and the blacks could not read them. Others required you to pass a literacy test. The Southern Democrats, who were a racist bunch in those days, particularly welcomed the “Australian ballot”. Quite apart from the literacy hurdle, a voter had to come into City Hall to vote, and this act itself was very intimidating to blacks.