Thoughts provoked by the movie Avatar

Like millions of others I succumb to peer pressure when it comes to seeing movies: Not just the media and reviews, but a goodly number of friends exert subtle pressure on me to see the movies I decide to see, and this was no exception. I did not regret the three hours of my life, spent in the darkness of the theater, watching the screen via the goggles that altered my vision of the world. All great works of art do this one way or another, for they do endow us with perceptions on the human conditions that are not normally ours.

I did not expect the 3-D effect to be so compelling: the transformation of scenes and actions from the flat screen at a safe distance to a depth and proximity so apparently close to my physical body was all too realistic, endowing virtual reality with an added dimension that should make us wonder about the nature of the existence of the normal. After all, what are our brains if not evolutionarily grown goggles ensconced under the skull that map a variety of sensory inputs into a world of light and color, smell, taste and touch?

The terrestrial men and women – (mostly white) Americans in uniform on one of their imperialistic missions – were virile and vicious. After all, they were on an assignment to grab a precious element that was apparently found only in that distant planet in a region occupied by the Na’vi’s: a beautiful humanoid species, peaceful, loving, and joyous in a contrastingly un-American way. The viewer cannot but have respect, empathy, and admiration for those gracious beings endowed with the extraordinary faculty of communing with Nature: with the flora and fauna of their world which included magnificent landscapes, beautiful butterflies, gargantuan beasts, majestic winged creatures which carry people on its back such as one reads in Hindu lore. The Na’vi’s also have the capacity to benefit from the spiritual energy that seeps through land and air and water in subtle ways, such as are described in  ancient civilizations, and which have been making a come-back in the Age of Aquarius, largely through books and movies like this one.

The model for the story is the classical White Man-versus-Amerindians, except that the good-guy-bad-guy roles are post-modernistically reversed. Of course, as is customary, some margin is given to the evil bunch: thus there are a  few righteous-minded, soft-hearted individuals among the largely bad guys  as well; actually one and a half women and one ex-Marine in a wheel-chair;  the half woman started as one of the exploiting bunch and changed colors half-way through the movie.

Now, in the advanced technology of the times (the story is supposed to be occurring in 2150 or thereabouts), the wily Americans are able to temporarily transmute a human into a Na’vi (with a tall slim frame, tail, flat nose, piercing eyes, local costume and all). This human-in-Na’vi format is called an Avatar. (This Sanskrit word avatara actually refers to an incarnation of the Divine that descends on earth to establish righteousness when things go morally rotten in world. One could argue we are ready for an avatar right now, in the Hindu concept of the word. But, like mantra, dharma, karma, and guru, it has also been appropriated with altered connotations.) Avatars (as defined in this movie) can be teleported into the Na’vi population, to teach English to a few of them so as to win them over, and then persuade or force the whole lot to evacuate from the region where they are living (à la President Andrew Jackson, one might say), so that the unobtainable element may be grabbed and sent back to the U.S.A. (Parable of the oil in the Iraq war.)

But, as happens in stories like this, a young man who is sent on this heinous project falls in love with a Na’vi native, and the damsel reciprocates his feelings. He becomes one of the Na’vi’s himself, and refuses to be part of the exploitative scheme of the red-blooded Americans. In the old model, it was someone from the exploited group who usually betrayed his people and joined the aggressor. The villains of the piece are headed by a couple of  heartless ruthless brutish  planners who use phrases like pre-emptive strike and shock and awe  to remind the audience of  George Bush and  Ronald Rumsfeld. In the end, the raw military might of technological warfare is decimated by the noble Na’vi’s.

The movie struck me as the most emphatic public expression (allegorical though it is) thus far of the periodic  mea culpa proclamations of Europeans in the context of their historical  encroachments into Non-European lands ever since Christopher Columbus set foot on the New World and usurped Indian lands to found a new nation. History will judge, it is often said, but actually it is historians who judge the past in hindsight or from new perspectives. But in our own times, this task has also been assumed by movie-makers who, as in this case, can influence the minds of more people and make lots more money than scholarly historians can or do.

Intrusions into the territories of others is nothing new in human history. However, global expansionism leading to cultural genocide of indigenous peoples hasn’t occurred that often. Aside from the spread of Christianity into Europe and beyond and the decimation of Amerindian cultures by France, Britain, Spain and Portugal, one can think of medieval Islamic imperialism which spread its wings from Berber-land to Byzantium, from Iberia to Indonesia and beyond. It Islamized every culture on the way, save India, where success was only partial. The looting, slaughter, and temple-destruction of Mahmud of Gazni and Ibrahim Lodi are well recorded, but it is not politically correct to even mention them in today’s world. It may be a very long time, if at all, before some Muslim movie maker depicts the exploits of the heroes of his history  with the sensitivity and honesty of the producers of this culturally self-critical movie. But perhaps movies like this will inspire thinkers in other cultures to examine their own history. Some may have the courage to recognize where their ancestors crossed the line of moral decency and engaged in behaviors that were affronts to human dignity. If this were to happen, Avatar would have served a grander purpose than providing cinematic entertainment in three dimensions.

V. V. Raman

February 27, 2010

Inspired Thoughts and from Famous Poems

Thomas Gray (in Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard)

“Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

My inspiration:

Full many a place unseen by human eyes

Marvelous interstellar space doth bear;

Full many a spot stays silent where no one tries

To make a place one’s prayers there to share.

The poet R. S. Thomas (in Kneeling):

“Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.”

My inspiration:

The Grand Mystery may some time  be unveiled,

But I want it not in this human life!

For given utterance in human tongues,

It becomes doctrine leading to strife.

Wordsworth (in Yarrow Unvisited)

Be Yarrow stream unseen, unknown!

It must, or we shall rue it:

We have a vision of our own,

Ah! why should we undo it?

The treasured dreams of times long past,

We’ll keep them, winsome Marrow!

For when we’re there, although ’tis fair

be another Yarrow!

And when he visited Yarrow a decade later, he wrote (in Yarrow Visited):

AND is this Yarrow?—this the stream

Of which my fancy cherish’d

So faithfully a waking dream,

An image that hath perish’d?

Oh that some minstrel’s harp were near

To utter notes of gladness,

And chase this silence from the air,

That fills my heart with sadness!

My inspiration:

So it may well be with the Grand Mystery.

That’s why I’d rather that it remain a Mystery to me.

There are a hundred other passing trivialities that engage me and entertain me, and toss me with joys and sorrows, with dreams and despair, with love and laughter, with knowledge and groping.

I will be content with these during this my lifetime. The Grand Mystery of the Why and the Wherefore I cherish qua Mystery, rather than try to resolve it with some clumsy answer provoking displeasure, if not fights, with those who have different answers to the Riddle.

February 14, 2010

Comments on Charles Taylor’s Comments

1. < To understand something you have to love it because understanding is never a completely disengaged stance but springs from inspiration.>

I think I understand how light emerges from electronic transitions in atoms and how earthquakes result from tectonic buckling. I don’t know that I love either the electron or earthquakes.

2. <Reason is never disengaged but is always in relation to our embodied engagement with the world because it’s to do with our perceptions of the world.>

Reason is sometimes disengaged when we are in the full enjoyment of music or poetry or art. In fact, such disengagement sometimes enhances the enjoyment.

3. <Feelings aren’t “brute,” as the Enlightenment conception of rationality teaches, but rather are our perceptions of the world.>

I am not sure that this is what the Enlightenment conception of rationality teaches us. I rather think that it encourages to distinguish between feelings-generated truths and reason-generated ones.

4. <Science has dropped its exploration of the teleological, central for Aristotle,>

Physics certainly has done that, because it was fruitless to try to explain planetary orbits, electromagnetic interactions and the chemical bond in terms of teleology.

5. <teleology is undoubtedly a feature of the world, not least in the human sciences.>

In human behavior, for sure. But it has not been established on the basis of science’s methodology that teleology is a feature of the world at large.

6.Some paradigms never gain universal agreement because what scientists commit to is linked to the values they hold.>

Many paradigms do gain universal agreement among practicing scientists. Those who have not practiced and grasped what science says  cannot be expected to agree to scientifically derived results, any more than that a non-initiate into operatic music can appreciate or understand a Verdi.

7. <We’ll never achieve a total consensus on how to solve our problems, though there will be overlaps when people come to the same conclusions, if by different means.>

We don’t need consensus to solve all our problems. It depends on the problems in question. With goodwill and mutual respect many needless conflicts can be resolved.

February 8, 2010

Kim Stanley Robinson Equates Science and Religion

News Item: <“It’s a religion in the sense of religio, it’s what binds us together. It is a form of devotion: the scientific study of the world is simply a kind of worship of it, a very detailed, painstaking, and often tedious daily worship, like Zen,” award-winning science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson…> in a lecture.

In the never-ending battle between science and religion, there are two extremist positions: One views  religion as total nonsense which has no place in a science-informed society, and the other engages in sophistry to show that science and religion are the same.
Some of this latter kind have argued that religion too is a science; others, as in this instance, like to say that science itself is another religion.
Calling religion a science may make some religious people happy, but I am not sure how many practicing scientists will be comfortable when their discipline is described as another religion.
They may take some consolation from the fact that this is done by one who is good at writing fiction.
February 8, 2010

Conversation on Dawkins et al.

<Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott and others are probably right that contemptuous ridicule is not an expedient way to change the minds of those who are deeply religious.>

Dawkins is too intelligent not to understand the thesis of the soft-talkers. So it is not surprising that he concedes, albeit probabilistically, that  they are right.

What he probably does not understand is the goal of a good number of enlightened thinkers is not so much to blast religions, religious beliefs, or religious people, but to persuade them to scientific and enlightened perspectives on natural phenomena, and to make them recognize that one can derive much spiritual and intellectual fulfillment from a scientific worldview when it comes to interpreting the phenomenal world.

<But I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable.>

I imagine by <we>  he is referring to the army of self-appointed crusaders (the New Atheists) who imagine themselves to be the only legitimate spokespeople for Science. While they may have a growing number of faithful flock to their evangelical crusade, I suspect not all of them are scientists, and not all scientists are as yet ready to join their band wagon.  That , I suspect, is why his sales-pitch is getting louder by the day.

But he is, I think, quite right that he himself and even milder versions of him, may not be able to drastically shake and destroy the faith of the deeply and truly religious: i.e. achieve their avowed goal any more than that Al Qaeda, through its tactics, can establish the Sharia in all Muslim lands.

<I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully.  And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.>

This is the blatant language of the proselytizers: Islamic, Christians, Communists, all who are so sure they alone hold the key to the Kingdom and also that  others are wallowing in a mire of ignorance. Friedrich Max Müller is said to have once believed that revealing to Hindus how stupid and superstitious they are, and by showing a naked display of contempt for their religion, they will all become Christians en masse. In retrospect that was such arrogant and shallow thinking.

< I think there is a real asymmetry here. We have so much more to be contemptuous about! And we are so much better at it.>

That’s precisely what folks on the other side are thinking  too.

<We have scathingly witty spokesmen of the calibre of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Who have the faith-heads got, by comparison? Ann Coulter is about as good as it gets.>

Fair comparison. Dawkins and his likes are to fanatical rationality what All Coulter is to the opposite side. Both have their respective adulators.

<We can’t lose!>

Thanks to Dawkins (a brilliant scientist whom most of us admire and respect, and a clear thinker for the most part) the party of enlightened scientific outlook is having difficulty advancing, and is in fact losing in some instances.

As long as there is free speech, there will be  bulldogs on both sides that bark and bite, but the less violence-prone are more likely to eventually win the cause of truth and compassion, of reason and enlightened ethics which are more important goals for culture and civilization than treating one’s opponents with contempt and making them laughable.

October 5, 2009

An Exchange on Haiti

Thanks for that deeply felt and carefully considered analysis, Jerald.

I did read Brooks’ piece in the NYT, and agree with him (and you) on the general points you make.

And here are some of my further thoughts on the matter.

1. <I gather from what Brooks says that compassion, charity and doing the Lord’s work will not get the job done>

I agree fully.

2. < and may actually be counter productive.>

Not always and not necessarily. There is a difference between short-range solutions and long-range solutions. Your statement is valid for long-range solutions, but may not be for short range ones. At this point in Haiti, compassion, charity and doing the Lord’s work are urgent and extremely important.: at least many reasonable people in the world feel that way.

3. <What is needed are recognizing hard truths and tough, measurable demands.>

Very true for long range solutions of global poverty and suffering.

I agree that “these are not the traits of compassion.”

4. <Another thought, Mother Nature did not kill most of the people with an earthquake as some now say, but collapsing buildings did. Some years ago a neighbor of mine went regularly to Haiti (I think it was more to ‘save’ them for God than to feed them). All the aid in all this time has not changed much. Saving them for a merciful God didn’t either.>

What has this to do with the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are suffering today? Should we say, “Tough luck, you wretched people! Deal with it!”

5. <A few of you may have been taken back by my comments the other day.>

I was one of the few.

6. < IMHO I think I am a reasonably kind and generous person>

IMO also, from whatever I know of you.

7. < but not a particular compassionate one.>

This is not terrible. Not many are.

8. <I don’t see that compassion does other people much good whereas kindness and generosity sometime does.>

Maybe true. But sometimes compassion does prompt kindness and generosity.

9. <Neither am I empathic. I do not wish to feel their pain and why should I. Nor would I wish that they feel mine, why should they. In fact if they were to feel my pain, that would make my pain only worse. Why multiply pain.>

Very wise stance to take. I too feel that way.

10. <This attitude of mine does not mean I am unaware of the needs of others or of their hurts.>

I can see that.

11. < I do care about people but recognize that if I really dwell on all the wars, poverty, illness and suffering in the world, I would weep away. I would experience great rage as I believe we now have the means to eliminate such things. These events sadden me because we have not.>

I often feel the same way.

12. < We need to craft a new paradigm that does.>

I agree with you fully on this.

13.  <This was predicted several years ago – “a 7.2 magnitude quake in a city like Port-au-Prince, with lax building codes and shoddy construction, could be catastrophic.” – At 200,000 possibly dead and still counting, yes catastrophic, unnecessary and down right stupid.>

Yes it would appear that the people of Haiti did  not take adequate precautions, like the people of New Orleans and Bangladesh and Indonesia before, or of San Francisco in 1906. There are at least two reasons for this: The people did not have the wherewithal to protect themselves fully. Sometime Nature’s fury can outdo human precautions.

14. <I apologize if I ruffled a few feathers here with my comments the other day, but these happenings make me angry.>

My feathers weren’t ruffled.  I just don’t feel like condemning a victim of an accident when the person is writhing with pain, even if the victim had been partly responsible for the mishap. This is just my reaction to events like this. This is not to deny the good sense and wisdom in rationally trying to figure out how the impact of natural disaster can be minimized, and how the poor of the world can be helped on a long range basis. I’d leave that to a later time.

January 17, 2010

On the Armstrong-Harris Debate

As often happens when two intelligent people debate both are right from their respective understandings/convictions/definitions of the issue they are debating, each impervious to the other’s perspective.

To Sam Harris the word religion evokes witchcraft, cannibalism, superstition and such. It cannot be denied that these have been aspects of religion in the past, and still are so in many contexts.

To Armstrong, “religion is also about the quest for transcendence, the discipline of compassion, and the endless search for meaning; … to help us to live creatively, serenely, and kindly with the suffering that is an inescapable part of the human condition.”

She wisely rejects explicitly those aspects of religion which Harris emphasizes, and (I trust) the latter will be sympathetic to those features and goals of religion which Armstrong mentions.

Then why the difference and why the debate?

This, I contend,  is because the ugly sides of religion have dominated humanity for much too long, and its finer and ennobling dimensions can be incorporated into human life and culture without the heavy doses of deadweight that still deface many religions.

Perhaps the New Atheists and the New Religionists  should be spending more of their time and energy in salvaging whatever is good and noble in our religious traditions and reject all that is anachronistic, unconscionable, and muddled in religious frameworks

They should join hands to formulate a new pan-human religious framework which will be meaningful to the masses, which will foster caring and compassion, and which will make us aware of dimensions beyond  consuming, purging, and propagating. But this will not be possible as long as those who are ardently affiliated to traditional religions refuse to acknowledge the negative and hurtful dimensions of their religions (or are unable to do so), and the awakened folks are incapable of seeing anything good in humanity’s religious heritage and sensitivity.

January 6, 2009