This is the oft-repeated story about a manly young adventurer who goes into the wilderness in search of thrills and profit. But, once there, he meets the native people and finds that they are noble and spiritual and pure. And so he emerges as their Messiah, leading them on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization. ~David Brooks
This is how I described Avatar a few weeks ago, and Brooks is right about this much. Brooks calls the story an offensive one, and I suppose it is, but what is more interesting is why the fable he describes keeps being re-told and why fairly large audiences seem to respond to it. The Western experience of at least the last sixty years has been shaped by a series of wars, some of which have been chosen and started by Westerners, in which our official, professed desire to help, assist and liberate other nations has usually sharply clashed with the effects our interventions have had on other nations’ lands and their perceptions of us. The fable appeals to the same meddlesome desire to “help” other nations that is used to justify military interventions, but it accepts that interventions typically prove to be disasters for the “beneficiaries,” at least when they are directed by the wrong sorts of people. Avatar and other stories like it tell the disenchanted would-be do-gooders that there is a way to save the world or help save another group of people without engaging in the same sort of overt domination. It permits meddling with a good conscience.
Brooks is right when he says the story teaches that, “Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.” What he fails to do is connect this to the urges of our own liberal imperialists and humanitarian interventionists, who are constantly warning against leaving other nations to their own devices and who are frequently complaining about our boundless benevolence that is repaid with contempt or indifference. He might consult his colleague Thomas Friedman on this point, since Friedman seems to think that most Muslims worldwide are “holding our coats” while we do all the heavy lifting on their behalf and that Afghanistan can be likened to a “special needs baby” that we as a country have just adopted. Muslims do tend to be reduced to supporting actors in Friedman’s own journey of self-importance. This is not just Friedman’s problem. It is the condescension and disdain for other nations shared by developmentalists, neo-imperialists, humanitarian interventionists and garden-variety hawks. It is the idea that other nations cannot possibly solve their own internal problems and probably shouldn’t be allowed to try. This troubles these different groups for different reasons, but all of them eventually come to the same conclusion that whatever problem they identify with other nations merits some measure of direct intervention by major powers. Whether the issue is poor governance, slow economic development, human rights abuses, weak state institutions or an inability to combat non-state actors in their territories, other states are not really permitted the same degree of sovereignty industrialized and Westernized states take for granted. This is built into the assumptions of a large part of U.S. policy overseas, as well as informing the activities of the IMF and World Bank.
After all, it has been one of the frequent complaints of mainstream pundits that Muslims worldwide are insufficiently grateful for all that we have done for them. Friedman was one of the most recent to make this claim again, but he is far from being alone. At the start of the decade, these pundits made a great deal out of Western aid for Balkan Muslims against the Serbs, as if to stress how ready we were to go against a nation historically and culturally tied to us. Even though Serbia had been on the Allied side in both world wars, and therefore had been as much on “our” side as any nation in Europe, it became the enemy in the eyes of most right-thinking Westerners, and it was the Serbs’ status as European Christians that made them ideal as a target of intervention. In other words, a version of the fable Brooks described became official policy. The truly offensive thing about all this is that Brooks will safely deride the fable and its assumptions when it appears in a meaningless blockbuster film, but he isn’t going to challenge or reject those assumptions when they inform real and destructive policies around the world.