walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: March 13, 2010
Literary Saturday: Beautiful Losers

I am leaving the paneled halls of the stately Mead manor today to spend a week giving lectures on American foreign policy in Lithuania.  This is a kind of trip I’ve been making for the State Department since the Clinton administration, and it’s taught me a lot.  During the Bush years I traveled pretty intensively in the Muslim world and especially in the Arab countries.  Dedicated readers of this blog will have read my post on my last visit to Pakistan; that was also a State Department trip.

The State Department doesn’t put any restrictions on what you say when you appear as part of these speaker programs, and as blog readers know, I’m not shy about sharing my personal opinions.  However, over the years I’ve learned that foreign audiences are usually more curious about learning how this crazy American system works and why we do the things we do than they are in listening to personal opinions about what the United States should or should not do next.  What I’ve found to be most useful is to help people see how our history helps shape the debates we are having now — and I do my best to be fair to all sides as I try to put our current debates in a historical context.

I’ll do some blogging from Lithuania if I get the time; the redoubtable Sam has set me up with a digital camera and cable;  I’ll see if I can manage to upload pictures to the blog. I’ve also prepared a couple of posts in advance to prevent any outbreaks of SMWS out there (Sudden Mead Withdrawal Syndrome).

But while James is revving up the Bentley and Jeeves is calling one of the footmen to take the luggage, I’ll just share a few thoughts with you about the western literary canon and how a knowledge of it could have helped James Cameron make Avatar a better movie.

Avatar is about losers; that’s not a bad thing from an art point of view.  Avatar has taken the losers of modern history and put them on another planet, where it replays the encounter of advanced technological cultures with complex but not very technological societies.

Aeneas Flees Troy

So far, so good.  This is mainstream western art.  Our culture revolves around losers.  It starts with the Iliad; the Trojans are much more interesting and sympathetic than the Greeks.  Greek tragedy still moves us today, and even Thucydides’ history of the war between Athens and Sparta is told from the point of view of the losing side.

The Romans, devoted to the cult of mastery and victory as much as anybody ever was, traced their state back to defeated Trojans fleeing from the ruins.  Virgil’s Aeneid is the story of refugees, driven by fate and storms across a hostile world (depicted above).  The Carthaginian queen Aeneas dumps is a much more fascinating character than the lifeless Lavinia he marries in Italy.

This isn’t just true for classical times — though it’s interesting that there aren’t any books on the rise of Roman power that have captured the imagination of the modern world like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

The pattern continues through medieval and modern times.  Malory’s book is about the failure of King Arthur; Roland blows his horn and dies.  Dante’s hell is more interesting than his heaven; Milton’s Satan is more interesting than his God.  The Alamo gets more attention than any of Texas’ military victories in its revolution against Mexico; General Lee is more interesting than General Grant.  Wagner’s Valhalla burns and the gods go down.

A lot of this probably stems from our own awareness of oncoming death.  In the end we all lose, and art offers us a way to process that information while keeping it at a distance.

So when Avatar, itself something of a loser at the Academy Awards if not at the box office, celebrates losers, it is right in the mainstream.  The Na’avi, modeled after the innocent native Americans and others who were mowed down by the aggressive forces of advancing capitalist civilization over the centuries, live at peace with nature and all those wonderful things that we horrible industrial and urban people don’t understand.

Many critics have noted that by now this is hardly a fresh or courageous take — the noble savage is one of the stock figures of our time and we are all in awe of the simple wisdom of unspoiled humanity living as one in the mighty forests.   Others have noted with even less approval that the Na’avi are helpless until one of the earthlings takes their side and gives them leadership.

This is historically defensible if politically incorrect.  For centuries in North American history both men and women from the English speaking settler societies chose to join with the tribes.  Because they understood the settler culture and its strengths and weaknesses better than their new associates, the English speakers and their mixed race children often played an important role in helping organize tribal resistance and strategies.

But my quarrel with Avatar isn’t about its uncritical and hackneyed portrayal of the noble savages on Pandora. This is Hollywood, after all, and Titanic wasn’t exactly noted for the fine grained subtlety of its moral vision.  And, whatever is wrong with it in other dimensions, Avatar was an excellent entertainment that has enriched our world by opening up new ways of making and seeing movies.  So thanks to all involved.

But if a person wanted to make a book or a movie that moved along Avatar‘s general plot lines (and, as someone who reads a lot of science fiction in my spare time, I can tell you that a great many people do write books of exactly this kind) and you wanted to give your creation some real moral life and depth, you would need to think more deeply about your losers.

The cheesy and sentimental way to make a ‘deeper’ Avatar would be to have the Na’avi lose.  Dirge for the rain forest people, Pandora weeps, maybe the young lovers flee to restart life in a new place.

But the more interesting way to do this, and something that Avatar could have done without ripping up its script, would have been to make the bad guys more interesting, more complex, more nuanced.  They are, after all, the losers here.  Why not let them be a bit beautiful?  Maybe the Earth is really suffering, and the loss of the unobtanium deposits means wretchedness and starvation for millions.  Maybe the tragedy is more personal; the head of the corporate program needs the money because he has some terrible and expensive wasting disease — or his wife and child do.  Or maybe what’s really driving him is the quest for the cure for some terrible earthside disease that his young and photogenic daughter is dying of back home.  Give them real motives — and then give them the dignity of a tragic flaw.

These corny and inept plot suggestions should make it obvious to everyone why I’m not a a zillionaire Hollywood movie producer.  But even if these specific ideas are pretty lame, the point is real.   If you want your drama to work, your losers need to shine.  They need to be rich, complicated characters and in some ways they need to be more human than your winners.

The idea that history’s losers had their dignity and their point of view is important.  It helps us stay human.  A view of the world that has nothing but contempt for the Trojans in their doomed city, for Dido weeping for her lost love, for native peoples scattered before the uncaring might of advancing civilization is not a world view from which much good can come.  Even in more difficult cases, there is much to be said for a compassionate view of history — for example one can and perhaps even should pity and admire Confederates fighting for a way of life that had to die if justice were to prevail.  Moral arrogance and historical triumphalism makes for bad art and also makes for a shallow and brutal social life.

Enough for now.  Jeeves is coughing discreetly in the doorway; I am off to the Baltic.

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  • fw

    Speaking of Wagner and the Trojans, Berlioz was arguably a loser with respect to his beautiful opera, Les Troyens, some chords of which Wagner definitely ripped off in his Ring Cycle.

    Haven’t recent researches into Native-American history introduced some shading into our understanding of their relationships with other tribes, and the environment? It doesn’t quite comport with the idealization of pre-modern humanity that has been a trope in Western art and thought for centuries.

    Not that that would in any way diminish the campaign of eradication that was waged against them. I frankly don’t see a huge difference between reservations and concentration camps.

  • Joe

    Don’t forget Tacitus’ Germania, Xenophon’s Anabasis or Caesar’s Gallic Wars for more examples of ‘loveable losers’ in the early Western canon. Strange though you left out the New Testament which is really a bunch of local good kids being kept down by the “man” who could not jibe with the vibe of the new message and their turning peoples’ heads on; channeling Maynard G. Krebs seemed appropriate for some reason.

  • Pingback: “Avatar”: Blue Ewoks Save the Amazon from Blackwater Inc. « Asian Security & US Politics Blog()

  • LuizdoPorto

    Let’s hope one of those posts in the backburner is “The Mead Sci-Fi Reading List”.

  • Jack

    Mead says:

    “Avatar has taken the losers of modern history and put them on another planet, where it replays the encounter of advanced technological cultures with complex but not very technological societies.” And we all know how that works out.

    Of course our own modern history is filled with examples of ‘complex but not very technological cultures’ defeating ‘advanced technological cultures’. (Hmmmm, do I see a missing, though implicit “simple” in juxtaposition? This is I think a habit of Mead)

    So lets talk about that “replay”
    The complex Australian Aborigines kicked British and convict ass. The complex Mayans slaughtered the Spanish Conquistadors, the complex Native Americans successfully threw out the French, Dutch and British. And the complex Zulus had a good day at Roark’s Drift. To be fair, the really, and actually complex Chinese Dynasties of several thousand years kicked British and American traders back to the West. And lets never forget those ‘complex’ Muslim Sheiks of Tripoli who destroyed the US navy after the United States had had enough of them taking our ships and enslaving the passengers and crew. That may have happened on Pandora as well, but it didn’t happen here.

    Why does Mead describe these ‘winning’ cultures as “complex, but not technological”? Political correctness and an American tendency to hark back to an older, simpler time. Not even Mead is immune to this tendency of cultural longing and historical revisionism, even though describing these cultures as primitive, patriarchal, superstitious, and barbaric would be closer to the mark. As for being the winners? I’m laughing so hard I can’t type.

    In Avatar, the Na’vi have telepathic communication with animals, magical healing powers, strength and endurance far beyond any evolutionary demands, and a biological interface with a living, and sentient biosphere. (If that isn’t a thesis for intelligent design, I don’t know what is.) How can Mead dispose of the arguments regarding “The Elders of Zion” so easily, yet buy into this fantasy of communal, natural utopianism?

    As opposed to what the Native American’s actually had: a life that most people would consider nasty, brutish and short. Which was only made possible by their beliefs about medicine, religion, sanitation, personal hygiene, housing, rights of passage for men, the roll of women in society and dealing with the elderly. And, semi-permanent, low level skirmishing with neighboring tribes. Boy, what fun!

    The idea of living in harmony with nature gains in credence the further one is removed from it. Yet, paradoxically, that simpler time in Mead’s mind is also now “complex”. As opposed to the simple sailing ships built by the British, the simple sewage systems in Paris and London not to mention Rome, the simplicity of Pasteur’s discovery of how to make milk safe, not to mention the germ theory of disease (Robert Koch 1890), and the gobsmackingly obviousness of the smallpox vaccination discovered by Edward Jenner in 1796. And lets not forget The Magna Carta, and British common law. There are no complexities in these cultures, which are simplicity itself. History’s losers, alright.

    What is even more stunning is that in other contexts, these ‘complex’, yet non-technologically advanced cultures, are heralded as the inventors of mathematics (the Arabs, concept of zero), had tolerant societies (the Caliphate), the pyramids (built by Africans, not Egyptians), the Chinese (invented paper, gun powder and toilette paper), the Mayans (their calendar, astronomy, optics).

    The Na’vi should thank God that the invaders weren’t the Japanese (Rape of Nanking, Bataan Death March) or the Germans of WWII (Systematic Slaughter of the nearly entire Jewish population of Europe). Or the Turks of WWI fame (for historical idiots:Armenian Genocide). Or the Muslims of the 12th to 17th centuries and present day (anyone they could get their hands on). Or, goodness me, the Hutu’s of Rwanda. Or the USSR (Slaughter of the Kulaks, anyone? The Gulag Achipelago? Buelller? Bueller? ). Or the Red Chinese Army (Gee, Tibet, anyone?) And lets not forget what happens when the Khmer Rouge get their hands on you. On the other hand, just about any one can defeat the US army.

    I think the problem that Mead’s foreign audiences have is that the State Department keeps sending out people like Mead to explain “how this crazy American system works and why we do the things we do”.

    As to Mead’s assertion that the State Department imposes no restrictions on what he says, I don’t doubt it. On the other hand, I have no doubt at all that the State Department knows exactly what Mead will say. Funny that, and some thing for Mr. Mead to consider. My guess is that the State Department considers Mead to be ‘on message.’

    Does Mr. Mead seriously expect us to believe that every single word he has in print, every speech broadcast, hasn’t been reviewed and vetted by the State Department? Well, it is consistent with his views about technologically advanced cultures in general, and the US in particular.

    We’re simple.

    PS: You might mention to your foreign audience that most Americans, like most people, just want to have a nice life and get on with it. We are in fact quite lazy when it comes to foreign policy. Tell your audience that if they want to kill each other, we honestly don’t care, though we may tut tut a bit. We aren’t going to invade Iran because they want to slaughter gays, or women who fight-off their rapists. We aren’t going to invade a country because apostasy is punishable, let alone by death. Or that Christianity(not to mention Judaism) is effectively illegal in Muslim countries. Of course, when you talk about nuking some one, we do take notice.

    If they don’t want to trade with us, they don’t have to. Though, if they do want to trade with us, we do have some rules, which both of us must follow and adhere to. Don’t agree? Don’t trade.

    We don’t care that these complex non-technologically advanced countries are more interested in weapons than sanitation and clean water, more interested in religious oppression than religious freedom, more interested in pursuing the failed ideologies of communism, Marxism or Sharia law. We don’t care if they are more interested in raking in graft in order to privilege their family, clan, or tribe, no matter how much it costs their country and their fellow citizens. If they don’t want to be vaccinated against smallpox, rubella, measles, well so be it, but we won’t let you come to our country to spread preventable disease. If they want to treat their women like domestic animals, remove labia and clitoris, well, it’s their daughter, mother, sister, wife. Knock your self out, is our view.

    WE DONT CARE. Let them. Our political class will write a non-judgmental letter, asking for, well, nothing much, or else, they’ll do, another letter or nothing much.

    But if they come here and do that, please tell them that we will fuck them up and put them away wet. Because while we don’t really care what they do to each other, we do care about what they do to us, and those like us. We won’t respond immediately. They may have to hit us several times. Perhaps even more. (Tolerant and lazy, us.) But once a country, or an ideological movement, comes to the negative attention of the American people, well, then it will be time to not be nice. (There, see? Nuance.)

    It has been said, in military circles, that quantity(number of troops) has a quality (no matter how untrained those troops are) all its own.

    I would like to think that in diplomatic circles simplicity has a nuance all its own as well. But I seriously doubt it. Nevertheless, you might express to your foreign audience why at least some people in America hold them in (justifiably)complete and utter contempt.

    Why? A Palestinian has more rights in Israel than in Egypt or Jordan or Saudi Arabia. There are fifty-four countries in Africa, yet not one, nor any group of African countries tried to stop the slaughter in Darfur. Or lets talk about China’s male/female ratio problem. Tell them that we don’t like the govt telling us what to do, and that we really do believe that we, not our politicians are really in charge.

    Actually, we insist on it. And we have enough guns in private possession to back it up.

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