The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture


Getting Everything Wrong

That’s what I did last year, at least on the predictions front. Boy, I really thought we were all going down the tubes, didn’t I?

This year, I’m not much in the mood to make predictions. Indeed, the larger world seems to have rather receded in the last year for me, in favor of the “little world.”

For myself, on the writing front, my main goal this year is finishing the screenplay I’m currently working on and writing at least one other, and hopefully getting some real interest in one or the other (or both! dream big!). I picked a heck of a time to try to break into the movie business, but heck, it beats Wall Street.

But it’s just conceivable that somebody out there is still looking for me to writing something on this blog. If so, what might that be?

This decade has been awesome, actually

I’ve published a post at The Business Insider that details the reasons why I think, even though most people seem to think otherwise, the past decade has been really good. The two reasons are the rise of Asia and technological disruption. I link to Ross’s latest column (and allude to Jim’s landmark National Affairs piece).

Also, it seems that Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, is a big fan of the Scene, having linked to both of these on Twitter! Soon we will all bathe in rivers of gold.

AVATAR REALLY IS POETIC DECK-STACKING IN SCIENTIFIC DRAG

I’m flattered, but not surprised, that Conor’s carefully considered broadside against we critics of Avatar, below, counts me among the characteristically persuasive but touches none of my specific lines of argument. I feel some chagrin, however, in imagining that readers of the Scene will think I really believe Avatar to be “a simplistic denunciation of capitalism and humankind generally,” especially because I’m ‘secure in my worldview’ — which, in other, far-flung precincts of the internet, can only be translated as “he’s a shallow, self-satisfied ass, incapable of personal or even concept-based reflection.”

My critique had a lot less to do with capitalism than with science and poetry, so let me double down on that angle to secure its legacy in blog meme history. In fact, let me go so far as to suggest that the word ‘capitalism’ did not appear in my analysis of Avatar because it plays no essential role in the mythopoetry of the film. As I suggested, as I see it, the central conflict is between science enslaved to will — incarnate in militarized violence, and science enslaved to whim — incarnate in love. Please, let’s not make the mistake of thinking that any technologically advanced civilization with a rapacious interest in natural resources and a willingness to kill to acquire them is, therefore, capitalist. Conor is right that the corporation in the film isn’t “meant to stand in for all corporations,” especially insofar as it doesn’t even need to be a corporation for the meaning behind the plot to roll out in identical fashion. To chalk Cameron up to a mere anticapitalist is to bark up the same wrong tree as those who imagine conflicts over oil would end with the end of oil companies. No, Messers and Madams Green: capitalism is just a red herring.

Just so, I don’t think it’s even well advised to go chasing after Cameron’s ‘negative’ portrayal of humans. We all already know well enough how bad humans can be, and Avatar is hardly the most selectively negative showcase of human being to hit the big screen. (Casino, a film that actually is a bitter indictment of capitalism, is worse.) Cameron isn’t trying to debunk a particular false idol — money — but show us the one true path to our salvation. And to understand that, we need to change the conversation from what he denigrates to what he holds up for awe and worship.

That would appear to be the Na’vi. Conor writes:

In Avatar, we’re shown a foreign world where creatures and nature are similar enough to our world that we understand them, different enough that they can help us reflect on ourselves and our planet as never before, and rendered so spectacularly that as much as any movie I’ve ever seen, we’re able to conduct this mental exercise by really feeling that the creatures and habitat we’re viewing are authentically there and different.

How tremendously coincidental that the Na’vi are just exotic enough to be erotically and intellectually attractive (though not TOO much, as that sex scene attests), yet just humanoid enough to be — yes, erotically and intellectually attractive, etc. It’s the ultimate diversity training wet dream. Call it xenotopia — the fantasy realm in which the alien Other is, by some divine stroke of luck, discovered to thrive at the perfectly optimized nexus of difference and identity with the Self. Cameron ex machina. The deck is quite deliberately — and, I’d say, ridiculously — stacked to produce the rational-and-emotional response Cameron desires: a profound attraction to the Na’vi, accompanied by profound admiration, which is actually a means to the end of redeeming our attraction to, and admiration of, our human selves! (I owe much of this insight to one Lauren Bans, courtesy of PEG and Tyler Cowen.)

Yes, it’s humanity that Cameron holds up even higher than the Na’vi for our awe and our worship — idealized, yes, but not in any way deeper or more powerful than any poetry can manage. The Na’vi, remember, aren’t real — they’re a poetic creation, like any of the wondrous and captivating beings that Homer devised to sing of Odysseus, his representative man. Cameron goes far beyond Homer, however, by pouring the old wine of poetry into the new bottles of the latest science:

“The audacity of Cameron’s movie is to make believe that the artificial world of computer-generated graphics offers a truer realm of nature than our own.”

When poetry reaches the inherent limit of its ability to inspire us, along comes science to convert poetry into something that looks so much like reality that we stand transfixed — slack-jawed, open-eyed, and wide-open receptive to that humble poetic magic. Avatar is the world’s most expensive cheap trick. Cheap, but effective! Yes, as Conor claims, “Avatar is a film whose purpose is allowing humanity to reflect on its circumstances and fallen nature in a novel way.” But it’s precisely the newfangledness of the means that makes possible our subservient complicity in the oldfangled end.

That end isn’t simply enjoying poetry. The stakes are much higher than entertainment. And no, it isn’t simply ‘allowing ourselves to be inspired.’ In an age so casually nihilist as ours, it only makes sense to worship entertainment as the one thing, just maybe, that can turn us back into credulous children with big hearts and soggy hankies. But the only way that can really work on a soul-deep level is for the entertainment to accomplish something more than what we mean so superficially by inspiration. I don’t mean some kind of spiritual conversion or cathartic experience. I mean something that might be just as pedestrian or fleeting as inspiration, but of a different, and higher, order: not poetic at all, but philosophical.

And that’s the real trick of Avatar, I suppose. The poetry itself is a means to an end — and the end is a philosophy, the central claim of which is that our humanity, as shown by the supposed inevitability of open-ended scientific and technological progress, can only be redeemed by freeing our rational minds from our irrational wills and enslaving them to the whims of love. Now, some people far down in the weeds of political theory might have a lot to say about whether this message is actually what poetry is in its nature and philosophy, in its nature, is not, but I don’t think I’m prepared to assent to that, no matter how secure my worldview. Pantheism, no matter how poetic, at long last is not poetry.

More Reactions to Keeping America’s Edge

Ross Douthat very generously devoted the bulk of his New York Times column to the article and its key themes. He adds two items to the agenda that I proposed: entitlement reform and tax reform. I agree with both of these concepts, and expect to go into much more detail on both in the book, likely with some preliminary ideas hashed out here on these blogs. Michael Barone was also very generous, and also proposed adding pro-family tax reform to the agenda.

Chrystia Freeland devoted her New Year’s Day column in the Financial Times to some of they key themes in the article, and emphasized some of its sociological aspects. In the article I said of the old Wasp ascendancy that they “developed a social matrix that offered broadly shared prosperity to generations of Americans.” Ms Freeland’s wording of this idea makes me wish she were there for the rewrites:

The genius of that elite was its ability to bring the American dream within reach of nearly everyone. If it hopes to emulate the longevity of America’s Wasps, and, more importantly, the political system they created, today’s global plutocracy must figure out how to do the same.

Jonathan Chait at TNR wrote that the piece does “have some interesting observations and decent proposals”, which is gratifying, as I saw a lot of the agenda I was proposing as being capable of gathering broad support. He also criticized the presentation of some of the data. Here are the relevant sentences from my article:

From 1980 through today, America’s share of global output has been constant at about 21%. Europe’s share, meanwhile, has been collapsing in the face of global competition — going from a little less than 40% of global production in the 1970s to about 25% today. Opting for social democracy instead of innovative capitalism, Europe has ceded this share to China (predominantly), India, and the rest of the developing world.

Mr. Chait has two basic criticisms of these sentences, as I see it. He asserts that:

1. While technically accurate, the statements present the data in a misleading way because (i) I am comparing a period starting in the 1970s with one starting in 1980, and (ii) I quote a GDP figure for all of Europe, and then proceed to describe Europe “opting for social democracy”, which implies that this should have referred only to Western Europe.

2. I discuss total GDP, rather than GDP per capita, which is a better measure of prosperity.

Let me take these one at a time.

1. I used the word Europe as per its dictionary definition. I apologize for any confusion the wording might have created; as always, such confusion is the fault of the author, not the reader. I don’t think, however, the statement is misleading. The basic conclusion that Europe has ceded enormous global GDP share, while the U.S. has retained close to constant GDP share, holds for any reasonable geographic definition of Europe, for any time periods beginning in the 1970s or 1980, and when using any data source that I investigated for comparing currencies.

I’ll start with the change in U.S and European shares of global GDP, using Mr. Chait’s preferred (and entirely reasonable) definitions: a common start date of 1980, and the EU15 as a proxy for Western Europe. According to the US Economic Research Service Macroeconomic Dataset; GDP Shares by Country and Region Data Table; 11/4/09 update, the U.S. share of global GDP was 26.2% in 1980, and grew very slightly to 26.7% in 2009. This is a net share change of +2% (1 – 26.7/26.2) for the U.S. over this period. Germany, as another example, had a global share of 8.2% in 1980, which declined to 5.85% in 2009. This is a net share change of -29% for Germany over this period.

According to this data source, the net share changes from 1980 to 2009 are:

U.S. +2%

EU15 -22%
Of which,
Germany -29%
France -20%
Italy -32%

Now I’ll show almost the same analysis with a different data source – the OECD Publication The World Economy: Historical Statistics – that only has data through 2006. (In general, these calculations show slightly worse performance for both the U.S. and Europe as compared to the rest of the world, but almost identical U.S. vs. Europe performance). This table will show the change in share of global GDP between 1980 and 2006 for a core group of 12 European economies identified by the publication, plus each of the “big three” continental social democracies individually, plus the U.S.

Net share changes from 1980 to 2006 are:

U.S. -7%

Euro 12 -29%
Of which,
Germany -37%
France -28%
Italy -34%

However you slice it, the same observation holds true: European countries as a whole, and especially the major “social market” economies of Germany, France and Italy, have lost 20% – 30% of their share of global GDP versus the U.S.

2. Exactly as Mr. Chait indicates, GDP per capita would be a far better measure of prosperity – which is why I used that metric when discussing relative prosperity earlier in the piece. I used total GDP in the paragraph in question for the reasons I stated in the article. This was a description of the loss of European economic power to Asia. Ultimately, absolute size of an economy matters, because economic clout represents the latent capacity for military and cultural power. Not all large, successful economies become military powers, but many do. And per capita wealth will not protect a society from a large, aggressive military power. As an extreme illustration, annual GDP per capita is more than $40,000 in Hong Kong and more than $30,000 in Taiwan, but this did not allow Hong Kong to remain independent of PRC China, which has annual GDP per capita of about $6,000, and would not allow Taiwan to do so without the presence of the U.S Navy.

This is why the sentence that immediately follows the ones quoted by Mr. Chait is this:

The economic rise of the Asian heartland is the central geopolitical fact of our era, and it is safe to assume that economic and strategic competition will only increase further over the next several decades.

And it is why this is almost immediately followed by the following paragraph:

Yet the strategy of giving up and opting out of this international economic competition in order to focus on quality of life is simply not feasible for the United States. Europeans can get away with it only because they benefit from the external military protection America provides; we, however, have no similar guardian to turn to. We do not live in a Kantian world of perpetual commercial peace. Were America to retreat from global competition, sooner or later those who oppose our values would become strong enough to take away our wealth and freedom.

If we do consider per capita GDP, as noted in the piece, “economic output per person is now 20 to 25% higher in the U.S. than in Japan and the major European economies”. As Reihan Salam notes in his blog post on this, as of 1980 the consensus was that the U.S. and Europe should be converging on a reasonably common level of economic output per person. The roughly comparable growth rates in output per person over the past quarter century represent the unexpected maintenance of a U.S. lead.

Avatar Offers Us a Unique World Where We Can Reflect on the Inescapable Conflicts Man Always Has And Always Will Face

After seeing Avatar on an IMAX screen, I am prepared to join Matt Feeney in defending the film against its critics, even if they include Peter Suderman, James Poulos, and Reihan Salam, three people I seldom find unpersuasive.

With regard to this film, I think their varying takes share a mistaken premise: Avatar strikes them as a simplistic denunciation of capitalism and humankind generally, whereas I see it as a thought-provoking if imperfect exploration of an imagined world that is, more than anything else, different from our own. Critics secure in their worldviews, like Messieurs Suderman, Poulos and Salam, react by defending earthbound, capitalist humanity as better than what the film supposedly portrays. Less confident critics seem to protest against the film too much, and ultimately wind up claiming that the alien civilization is unrealistic, that being the easiest way out since they can neither bear to concede nor quite refute the possibility of a society better in some ways than ours.

Ultimately all these critics miss out on a rare chance to reflect on the tragic flaws of earth and humanity in a novel way. Think back to those basic kinds of narrative conflict we learn about in elementary school. Man versus nature stories show us how the hard realities of the human condition impact our lives. Man versus man stories render the fallen nature of our species: since at the Greeks we’ve understood that we’re condemned to be forever hubristic, greedy, violent, jealous, etc. In Avatar, we’re shown a foreign world where creatures and nature are similar enough to our world that we understand them, different enough that they can help us reflect on ourselves and our planet as never before, and rendered so spectacularly that as much as any movie I’ve ever seen, we’re able to conduct this mental exercise by really feeling that the creatures and habitat we’re viewing are authentically there and different. “The audacity of Cameron’s movie is to make believe that the artificial world of computer-generated graphics offers a truer realm of nature than our own.” (link)

Sure, I wish the villains would’ve been a bit less one dimensional — Avatar isn’t an inquiry into the characters of individual humans or the nature of evil doers, nor is it a masters class in intricate, delightful plotting — but the characters and the plot serviceably accomplish their main objective: putting us inside an alien society and landscape, awing us with its contours, and threatening its destruction so that we feel how thoroughly we’ve grown to like its best attributes.

Let’s summarize the plot for those who haven’t seen the film, and delve into the arguments of particular critics. Basically there is a faraway planet populated by intelligent natives. Their complex but unindustrialized society is characterized by tribal organization, deep respect for all living creatures, a symbiotic relationship with nature, and through it an ability to communicate — with all living things, their dead ancestors, and their deity.

Unfortunately for these folks, they live atop a mineral that is very valuable to humans. So valuable that a corporation establishes an outpost staffed by mercenaries on their planet, attempts to negotiate for the mineral, and when that doesn’t work decides to disperse the population by force.

Critics on the right object that the corporation is unrealistically evil, and that the aliens are cartoonishly noble.

Unlike Peter Suderman, I don’t think that the corporation in the film is meant to stand in for all corporations. It is one evil actor. And seen this way, it doesn’t strike me as a particularly unrealistic portrayal. Guess what happens when exceptionally valuable natural resources are discovered underneath a people with inferior weapons who can be easily characterized as others? You’d think that the history of gold, diamonds and oil would persuade everyone that humanity is prone to exploitative violence when those circumstances converge. What I took from the film wasn’t simplistic moralizing so much as an implicit assumption on the part of the filmmaker that everyone finds rapacious imperialism and genocide in pursuit of other people’s minerals to be bad things. Plot vehicle, check. There is a moral premise embedded there, to be sure, but don’t we all agree with it? Or is it now “left-liberal” to acknowledge that these kinds of things happen, and that it’s bad when they do?

On to the alien people. Critics on the right would have us believe that this is a classic case of Hollywood liberals simplistically giving us noble savages, despite the reality that tribal people are no less fallen than the rest of humanity. Historic Hollywood portrayals of Native Americans encompass caricatures of savagery and nobleness, to be sure. But these critics are too quick to assume that James Cameron is making the same mistake. The problem with the noble savage cliche is that it is demonstrably untrue. The people who inhabited North America before the arrival of Europeans warred, died for lack of medicine, sometimes killed animal herds so unsustainably that they faced starvation — so despite the manifold wrongs done by the Europeans to indigenous peoples, it is inaccurate and simplistic to screen stories where savage Europeans war with noble natives living in utter harmony with nature.

But James Cameron isn’t portraying native people of our world. His alien protagonists aren’t intended as stand-ins for the Navajos or the Aztecs or the Cherokee. In his different world, the native people really are in communion with nature. Were his purpose to comment on European history, this would be a terrible choice, but in fact Avatar is a film whose purpose is allowing humanity to reflect on its circumstances and fallen nature in a novel way. That is why I approve of the decision to portray the kinds of natives that were shown.

Alongside liberal fantasies about the noble savage, there are plenty of people who tell themselves that European genocide against Native Americans wasn’t really so bad. This tradition takes its cues from films like The Searchers, and it is alive and well. “I don’t understand the weird need of our artist class to figuratively beg forgiveness for the alleged sins of their ancestors,” Kurt Schlicter writes at Big Hollywood. “Cameron, give the damn aliens some casinos and call it a day.” The exaggerated savagery and backwardness of the natives is used in a way that is supposed to absolve the white man for all his trails of tears, as if to say, Yeah, maybe we wronged you in some ways, at least allegedly, but we’re more advanced and civilized, so ultimately it’s good that we won.

By giving us an alien species of natives who don’t fit into that conventional narrative, Mr. Cameron takes away that out, forcing us to grapple with how we’d react if our society found itself lusting after the land or resources of a people even we believe to be more advanced than us in some ways — people whose communion with nature does enable them to survive better than we can in their environment rather than the opposite. This is a feat that can only be accomplished in a story about aliens, insofar as it is human nature for the victors in our armed conflicts to presume that their very civilization is objectively superior. Apparently it makes a lot of people very uncomfortable.

In Reihan Salam’s review, which I very much enjoyed reading, there is a rather eloquent defense of capitalism that I subscribe to as it applies to our society, and perhaps even our earth, though I can certainly conceive of an alien people for whom that isn’t true. He goes on to write, “Throughout the film, the Na’vi are portrayed as superior to the humans. The irony of Avatar is that Cameron has made a dazzling, gorgeous indictment of the kind of society that produces James Camerons.”

Is that accurate? As I watched Avatar, I saw conflicts that have always haunted life on earth — scarcity of natural resources, environmental degradation, greed, unjustified recourse to physical violence. But is rendering age old, obvious, inescapable features of the human condition tantamount to indicting American society after the industrial revolution?

On watching Avatar one couldn’t help but be reminded of the advanced state of human weaponry, so perhaps we did see an indictment of militarization and its potentially ruinous impact on nature. Aptly enough, I might add. But Mr. Salam seems to think that Mr. Cameron was saying that an unindustrialized society in communion with nature is better for flourishing than a place where entrepreneurship is valued and helps lend meaning to life. I’d say Mr. Cameron is showing us a different version of flourishing, and forcing us to really ask ourselves if we’d prefer it. I suspect that some people — former marine adrenaline junkies, for example — would certainly choose an Avatar-like world if they could, whereas entrepreneurial Brooklyn born writers might prefer the differently imperfect version of flourishing we’ve got here on earth. I certainly would.

In the New Yorker, David Denby writes:

Science is good, but technology is bad. Community is great, but corporations are evil. “Avatar” gives off more than a whiff of nineteen-sixties counterculture, by way of environmentalism and current antiwar sentiment. “What have we got to offer them—lite beer and bluejeans?” Jake asks. Well, actually, life among the Na’vi, for all its physical glories, looks a little dull. True, there’s no reality TV or fast food, but there’s no tennis or Raymond Chandler or Ella Fitzgerald, either. But let’s not dwell on the sentimentality of Cameron’s notion of aboriginal life—the movie is striking enough to make it irrelevant.

Again, this misses the mark. Avatar is only anti-war in the sense that it condemns one of the most nakedly unjust military ventures ever portrayed on film. That the aliens are themselves part of a warrior culture, and that they fight back with machine guns when given the opportunity, strike me as significant. And the “boring factor” is actually an important choice, not something to be ignored. If the aliens were prancing about in the forest, communing with nature, and enjoying the fruits of their singular society, and they were able to crash on a leather sofa, turn Ella Fitzgerald on the stereo, and nibble on a three cheese pizza with prosciutto, the audience would hardly be forced to confront the trade-offs involved in our society versus theirs. To repeat myself, most crucial is that this alien world is different. James Cameron rendered this difference in ways that are sometimes undeveloped or cliched, but that pretty effectively illuminate certain contrasts, so that we can experience the differences as though we’re avatars, grappling with whether we prefer this virtual reality to our own.

  • * *

I’d like to conclude by addressing a few reviews that I really disliked. John Podhoretz wins the prize for worst of the worst. His intellectually lazy piece presumes that because some liberal Hollywood directors sometimes make anti-American military movies, every movie with military villains should be automatically presumed an anti-American screed.

I find that I’m also able to answer the questions that Kurt Schlicter posed to James Cameron:

Why is capitalism – you know, the economic system that allowed you to make Avatar – so bad?

The film isn’t an indictment of capitalism, a system based on mutually consensual trade, though it is implicitly against the imperialistic exploitation of faraway people who happen to live atop precious mineral resources. That you equate the two doesn’t say much for your opinion of capitalism!

Why are primitive societies – you know, the kind you manifestly do not live in – so morally righteous?

Primitive societies aren’t all alike. The particular primitive society painstakingly portrayed in the movie is on the whole moral and good because its people are healthy, they live at peace with their neighbors, they have an abiding respect for life, and they treat vanquished opponents mercifully. It does not follow that the film implies the primitive societies of earth are all morally righteous, let alone more morally righteous than we are. And is “primitive” even an accurate description of the society in Avatar? In many ways it is exceptionally advanced.

And why are the deaths of American fighting men – you know, the folks who are keeping at bay the bastards who would saw your open-minded, tolerant, liberal head off with a butter knife given half a chance — something you think ought to bring cheers from the audience?

It is misleading to say that the soldiers in the film are “American fighting men.” In fact, they are a mercenary army run by the head of security at an unnamed corporation. Unlike members of the United States Armed Forces, mercenary soldiers employed by mining corporations do not “keep the bastards at bay.” And the audience is meant to cheer against the mercenaries in the film because they’re engaged in a bloodthirsty genocide that means to destroy a beautiful society merely to enrich their corporate masters.