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On Avatar

03/18/2010 05:12 am 05:12:02 | Updated May 25, 2011

Dear Patrick Goldstein,

I was very interested in your political analysis of the movie Avatar in the LA Times. My left-wing background tells me that culture doesn't change material conditions, but it sure changes consciousness and that's the cradle of new activism. Conservatives are right to be profoundly disturbed about James Cameron's movie. And the media sometimes has difficulty discerning when public attitudes move beyond narrow electoral noise.

Like other people I know, I was profoundly moved by two revelations in my life: the first came when reading Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee about 1970 in Berkeley, a time when the Vietnam war was raging and my conventional assumptions had been shaken to the root. I intuited in a flash that Vietnam was a continuation of the counter-insurgency wars on our Great Plains of the century before, and would be repeated over and over again.

Even the US instruments of war were named after the native tribes [Tomahawk missiles for example], the term "Vietcong" was a perjorative like "Sioux" and "Apache", which meant enemy]. The photos from My Lai were identical in an eerie way with those from Wounded Knee. Gold [and later, uranium] in the Black Hills was the equivalent of oil in Iraq. And of course the treaties all were unkept as Manifest Destiny expanded.

This sensibility underlies James Cameron's spectacle of the Nav'I facing extinction. The triumphant fighting back is therapeutic on many levels, and reveals the emergence of a new American national narrative that recognizes the shame of what happened to the native Americans at the very historical moment we celebrate as the birth of democracy. That both liberal and conservative narratives of the nation are in denial about this original sin is deeply troubling to many Americans who want to save democracy from the perpetuation of its past.

My second revelation came when I first read Thomas Berry's The Dream of the Earth in the 1980s, a theological work that strived to reveal the sacred nature of all creation, not simply the sacredness of human beings. A scholar, scientist and Catholic priest, Father Berry influenced the thought and lives of many people disillusioned with the arrogant utilitarianism that said the universe was created only for human use, a kind of storehouse of resources for exploitation and consumption. Thomas Berry called on his followers to explore the divine mode of the universe as long understood and practiced by many native people. He added that modern scientific inquiry itself pointed toward an unfathomable mystery at the origin of the universe, a mystery that he sometimes called God, though he believed that the mystery was beyond language.

I do not believe that these revelatory experiences were isolated or marginal, though they were rebuffed by the institutions they threatened. Millions of Americans, without leaving their mainstream roles and religions, became aware of a kinship with the natural world, and the debt we have to native traditions.

For example, according to a 1995 MIT survey, 78 percent believed that "because God created the natural world, it is wrong to abuse it," and "before Columbus came to this continent, the Indians were completely in balance with their environment."

I believe James Cameron simply has brought this pre-existing consciousness to the mainstream of orthodox life through a brilliant exercise of film-making.