Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Thinking Alike on Avatar

The below, which just appeared in the must-read TomDispatch, brings Avatar down to earth, so to speak, as my January 7 Notes & Essays entry on the subject did as well. Yes, let the next Avatar take place of earth, the weirdest planet of them all!

Hope James Cameron is listening! (Image from)

Tomgram: Michael Klare, Another Planet for James Cameron

Posted by Michael Klare at 4:00pm, February 23, 2010.

A planet with depleted resources is nothing new at the movies. Few who saw the 1973 film Soylent Green (set in 2022) are likely to forget the brief visit to what looks like a pawnbroker’s shop with grills and bars to get a single tomato or a humanity being fed itself by a rapacious corporation. A Boy and his Dog (1975), Mad Max (1979, and its sequels), Escape from New York (1981), Waterworld (1995), and most recently Children of Men (2006), among others, have all offered glimpses of this planet depleted in some fashion of its basic resources and winding down, a world where the phrase “struggle for survival” has a new, far grimmer meaning.

Michael Klare, TomDispatch regular, professor of peace and world security, and author most recently of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, has no track record whatsoever as a movie scriptwriter or a consultant to Hollywood. Nonetheless, he was among the earliest scholars to grasp that, when it came to energy, key industrial minerals, and water supplies, we were heading into a future that could well be filled with what, back in 2001, he prophetically called “resource wars” in his path-breaking book of the same name. “The inhabitants of planet Earth,” he wrote then, “have been blessed with a vast supply of most basic materials. But we are placing increased pressure on those supplies, and in some cases we face, in our lifetimes, or those of our children, the prospect of severe resource depletion.” How much clearer this possibility looks today as the prospects of a human-changed and possibly ravaged planet only grow stronger.

Like so many of us, Klare recently took a tour of distant Pandora and returned to Earth later that night with a clear sense of what the planet Jake Scully left behind for the Na’vi world must have been like deep into the twenty-second century. As he looks forward to the upcoming Oscars, he has a suggestion for James Cameron about what planet (and whose resources) that film director should next turn his new 3-D techniques on. Tom

Avatar: The Prequel Will Earth’s Last Stand Sweep the 2013 Oscars? By Michael T. Klare

The anticipation may be building, but we’ll all have to wait for the 82nd Academy Awards on March 7th to find out just how many Oscars the global box-office smash Avatar will receive. That 3-D sci-fi spectacle, directed by James Cameron, has garnered nine nominations, including ones for Best Picture and Best Director, and it’s already overtaken Titanic, another Cameron global blockbuster, as the top money-maker in movie history. But there’s an even bigger question absorbing Avatar’s millions of fans: What will Cameron, who has already indicated that he’s planning to write a novel based on Avatar, do for a screen encore? As it happens, I have a suggestion: skip the sequels on faraway Pandora’s sister worlds, and do the prequel.

Admittedly, the movie I have in mind (set in a world that Avatar hints at) would lack the blue-skinned Na’vi people, but it would still feature Jake Scully, this time in his real body, on the most intriguing planet of all: Earth. And given a global audience that can’t get enough of Cameron’s work, how many wouldn’t pay big bucks for a chance to take a Pandora-style, sensory-expanding guided tour of our own planet? It would be part of a harrowing tale of environmental degradation, resource scarcity, and perennial conflict in the twilight years of humanity’s decline. Think of it as Avatar: Earth’s Last Stand.

Cameron offers many indications in Avatar that this is the logical direction for him to take. At a poignant moment before the climactic battle between the Na’vi and the remorseless humans begins, for instance, Scully, the renegade Marine turned native rebel, pleads for help from Eywa, the goddess who rules over Pandora: “See, the world we come from -- there’s no green there -- they killed their Mother.” At another point, Colonel Quaritch, the homicidal Marine commander played with gusto by Stephen Lang, refers to Scully’s previous service with the First Marine Reconnaissance unit on Earth, highlighting his three combat tours in Venezuela. “That was some mean bush,” he says. Then, speaking of his own combat record, Quaritch alludes to fierce fighting in Nigeria. For anyone familiar with the present competition for global energy resources, Venezuela and Nigeria stand out as major oil producers with a history of civil strife.

2144 in 3-D

Imagine them, then, on a future, energy-starved planet. In fact, I can easily picture such a future, so let me take one more step and offer myself to Cameron as a technical consultant on his prequel. Admittedly, I wouldn’t be the person to write the film’s plot or script -- I know my limits -- but when it comes to charting future resource wars, I think I could be useful. Drawing on Cameron’s clues in Avatar and my own books, including Resource Wars, Blood and Oil, and Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, let me just sketch out the prequel scenario I envision:

It’s the torrid summer of 2144, just a decade before Avatar begins. (That movie takes place in summer 2154, after a flight from Earth that, we’re told, involves six continuous years of sleep, which helps us backdate Jake Scully’s Venezuelan combat tours.) As it has been for decades, the world is at war, with competing power blocs fighting bitterly over a diminishing pool of vital resources.

Three great power centers dominate the global resource struggle, all located in the northern latitudes where the climate still remains tolerable and the land still receives sufficient rainfall to support agriculture. The first of these, in whose legions both Scully and Quaritch fight, is the North American Federation, founded after the United States, facing desertification in its southern half, invaded and absorbed Canada. The second, Greater China, incorporating northern China, the Korean peninsula, and eastern Siberia (seized from Russia in a series of wars), dominates what’s left of Asia; the third, the North European Alliance, encompassing Germany, Russia (west of the Urals), and Scandinavia, relies heavily on Arctic resources. As in the world portrayed by George Orwell in 1984, these powers continually jockey for dominance in shifting alliances, while their armies face one another in the torrid, still relatively resource-rich parts of the planet. In this neo-Orwellian world, warfare and the constant pressure of resource competition are the only constants.

Thanks to global warming, the planet’s tropical and subtropical regions, including large parts of Africa, the Mediterranean basin, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia, as well as Mexico and the American Southwest, have become virtually uninhabitable. Many island nations and coastal areas, including much of Florida, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines, lie under water. Critical raw materials like oil, coal, natural gas, uranium, copper, and cobalt are perennially scarce. Starvation is a constant fear for those not affluent enough to pay for increasingly expensive genetically-modified crops and meat produced on corporate farms with multiple chemical inputs.

Large-scale industrial civilization still persists, but many once-industrialized areas have been abandoned, and what factories and transport systems remain are constantly constrained by limited energy supplies and the lack of steady flows of vital resources. Oil is particularly hard to come by, and so, in all three power blocs, its use is largely restricted to the military, security forces, emergency services, the largest of corporations, and the very rich. (If you want to get a sense of such a world, imagine Mel Gibson’s 1979 movie Road Warrior on steroids.) Other sources of energy, including natural gas and uranium, are also in increasingly scant supply. Renewable sources, including wind and solar power, help to make up some, but not enough, of the difference, while a shortage of critical minerals -- copper, cobalt, tin, manganese, titanium -- limits the scale of many industrial undertakings.

For ordinary people -- and only somewhat less so for the elites of the planet’s heavily militarized states -- survival is a constant struggle. Outside of the industrialized power centers, life involves a daily search for food, water, and energy of any sort, as well as whatever precious goods (gems, weapons, bits of technology) might be traded to get those basics. For the big corporations and their government sponsors, as they send the Scullys and Quadritches to the distant corners of the planet to enforce their will, the struggle is no less fierce for control of the world’s few remaining deposits of oil, natural gas, coal, copper, and uranium.

In 2144, only five areas of the world still possess any significant reserves of oil and natural gas: Russia (and contiguous areas of the former Soviet Union), the Persian Gulf, West Africa (including Nigeria), the Orinoco basin of Venezuela, and the now long ice-free Arctic. Even these areas have been substantially depleted, giving the remaining deposits staggering value to whichever country or company controls them. If these are not quite as valuable as “unobtanium,” the rare metal being plundered from Pandora and brought back to Earth, they are close enough to be thought of as “barely-obtanium.”

Life (and Death) on a Depleted Planet

For the record, I’m being an optimist here for the sake of Avatar: Earth’s Last Stand. Based on my own assessment of planetary energy resources, I doubt that any oil or natural gas worth drilling for will remain in 2144. But for narrative purposes, if such deposits are to be found anywhere almost a century and a half from now, the likely candidates are: the Persian Gulf area because it still possesses the world’s largest combined reserves of oil and natural gas, and so probably will be the last to run out; Russia, Africa, and the Orinoco basin because they have to date been spared intensive exploitation by the major Western firms, and so still retain substantial recoverable reserves; and the Arctic, which will only become fully accessible to oil producers when global warming has melted the ice cap.

Given the tripartite global power structure of 2144, Russian oil and gas reserves will have been divided between the North European Alliance, controlling western Siberia and the Caucasus, and Greater China, garrisoning eastern Siberia and Central Asia. The Arctic will be a constant source of conflict among all three blocs, with periodic fighting breaking out concerning overlapping territorial claims in the region. That leaves the Persian Gulf, West Africa, and Venezuela -- the sites of constant warfare between the Na’vi of this planet and the various expeditionary forces sent out by the three big power blocs which, often in temporary alliances of convenience, will also be fighting each other.

Already, we can get a sense of what this might look like. Under its ultra-nationalist president Hugo Chávez, Venezuela has sought to distance itself from its traditional client, the United States, and bolstered its ties with Russia and China. As part of this effort, Venezuela has purchased billions of dollars worth of arms from Russia and forged a strategic energy alliance with China. Claiming evidence of a U.S. plan to invade his country, Chávez has also conducted sizeable self-defense maneuvers and strengthened the military’s control over ports and other infrastructure.

Looking into the future, one can imagine a time, some decades distant, when Venezuela is a satellite of Greater China and its deposits of heavy oil -- the largest remaining on the planet -- are reserved for China’s exclusive use. Under these circumstances, it is not hard to imagine a move by the North American Federation to oust the prevailing Venezuelan regime by launching an invasion on a remote stretch of coast and striking out for the capital, Caracas. The Venezuelans, backed up by Chinese expeditionary forces, might manage to halt the invasion, but fail to dislodge the North Americans, holed up in harsh patches of the countryside. Brutal fighting might follow -- the “mean bush” mentioned by Quaritch in Avatar. Jake Scully, sent back into this gruesome contest for his third deployment, is gravely wounded and barely survives the trek back to safety.

If Venezuela is still a peaceful land today, Nigeria is already conflict-ridden and certainly destined to be a major battlefield in the unending resource wars of a future planet. Possessing the largest pool of untapped oil and natural gas in Africa, it is already the site of a fierce competitive economic struggle involving the United States, China, Russia, and the European Union, all of which seek to exploit the nation’s energy riches. Nigeria’s oil and gas reserves were first developed by Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum (now BP) -- a legacy of the country’s past as a British colony – but now American, Chinese, and European firms have acquired drilling rights to valuable hydrocarbon deposits. Russia, too, has entered the scene, promising to help build a natural gas pipeline from the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria across the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast for eventual shipment to Europe.

Nigeria is also a battlefield today. Disgruntled inhabitants of the Niger Delta area, where most of the country’s oil is produced and few benefits are ever seen, have taken up arms in a struggle to receive a bigger share of the nation’s oil revenues. Both the United States and China are competing to provide the Nigerian government with military aid to defeat the insurgents, hoping to strengthen their respective positions in the country’s oil fields in the process.

Again, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine a scenario in which, 134 years from now (or a lot sooner), Nigeria has fallen under the sway of Greater China or the North American Federation and Colonel Quaritch and his cohort are carrying out combat operations in the Delta’s jungle regions, a setting not so unlike Pandora’s, with obvious Cameron-esque possibilities.

Where else might Scully, Quaritch, and their buddies be sent to fight? As a start, don’t assume that the current fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan will simply end or that the United States will ever willingly withdraw its forces from a whole string of bases in the Persian Gulf area. As long as the United States obtains part of its oil from the region -- and the North American Federation might still be fighting to do so in 2144 -- U.S. forces are likely to remain. Given the historic enmities that divide the region and a widespread antipathy to the U.S. presence, don’t be surprised if North American Federation forces are still in battle there deep into the twenty-second century.

Finally, the warming Arctic, not currently on the global conflict map, could also experience warfare as it attracts major oil and gas drilling operations. The region also houses some of the world’s last remaining indigenous communities that still practice a traditional way of life, and which will undoubtedly face the sort of habitat-destroying invasions pictured in Avatar.

Still, as Cameron imagined, despite constant warfare, the North American Federation (like the other major power centers) will, by 2144, still find itself in desperate need of vital materials, no longer easily available on this planet. Economic conditions, even for privileged elites, will by then be deteriorating rapidly. It is in this context that the giant mining corporations might join in a fabulously expensive bid to use space travel to replenish the planet’s resources, voyaging to distant Pandora to extract its precious supply of unobtanium, a miraculous new source of energy.

It’s not that hard to imagine just such a future world if we continue on our present course toward ever greater resource consumption, increased carbon emissions, and the militarization of resource dependency. Can you doubt that the movie Cameron and I would make, Avatar: Earth’s Last Stand, would be both gripping and spectacular? It would be an amazing, if tension-producing place to visit in 3-D. Here’s the only catch: you wouldn’t want to live there.

Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet. A documentary movie version of his previous book, Blood and Oil, is available from the Media Education Foundation.
Copyright 2010 Michael T. Klare

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Message from Steve Redisch, VOA Executive Director, re article "Is the Voice of America Pro-Iran?"

The Newsmax.com article of February 11th, headlined "Is the Voice of America Pro-Iran?" is misleading and flat-out wrong. VOA is not pro-Iranian government. Any examination will show that VOA's Persian News Network programs deliver accurate, reliable and balanced news and information to audiences in Iran so they, like audiences in the US, can make decisions about their leaders and their lives. For reasons unknown, factual errors and distortions abound in the Newsmax.com article. Please indulge me in examining those errors and distortions. They include:
· Newsmax.com writes “…a refusal to air video footage of Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year old bystander whose murder during a post-election demonstration on June 20 catalyzed the protests…VOA relented several days later, once Neda’s murder became an international cause célèbre. (PNN Director Alex) Belida defended that decision, saying that there “was discussion on how much to show out of deference to the girl… and initially, we only played a portion but later we played it all ” Two issues here: 1) VOA was in fact the first to air the video of the young girl gunned down in the street. VOA worked to verify the authenticity of the video and once that was established, aired it before other broadcast outlets. 2) Newsmax.com distorts the facts when it takes an untruth, “VOA relented several days later…” and follows it with the words ”Belida defended that decision…” There was no decision to defend. Belida’s quote describes the decision-making process of whether to show the entire video, including blood spurting from her mouth and her eyes rolling back. Television journalism guidelines demand that organizations not be gratuitous in showing the moment of death. VOA takes its responsibilities seriously. After much discussion and after airing the video up to the moment of death, a decision was made at the highest levels of the organization to air the entire video because of its journalistic value.
· There are several references to the Inspector General’s March 2009 report about PNN, including the assertion by Newsmax.com that “The VOA management’s failure to rectify the problems prompted the broadcasters to seek the Jan. 21 audience with (VOA Director Dan) Austin.” Director Austin does not recall the IG report as the reason for during the two hour meeting with PNN personnel. The IG made 16 recommendations. Nine have been closed. Seven remain open as of today (2/15/10.) They include:
o Request for a PNN organization chart
o An assessment of how many people are needed to produce television programs
o Creation of a centralized news and production desk
o Integration of web operation with the centralized news and production desk
o An assessment of administrative workload
o An assessment of equipment tracking
o Training for management and staff to address “unacceptable professional behavior.”
VOA and the BBG have submitted responses for these recommendations and await the IG’s assessment of whether VOA’s actions are acceptable.
· Newsmax.com states “Belida also announced that he was promoting a 27-year-old novice producer with rudimentary Persian-language skills to be executive editor of the entire Persian language TV operation.” Factual errors: The person being referred to is 31, not 27. She has 10 years of professional journalism experience, including seven years as a producer at CNN, in which she covered international affairs. She is an American citizen and fluent in Farsi. She was interviewed for the position by a panel of three high-level VOA journalists and managers and was their recommended best choice.
· Newsmax.com asserts “Belida demoted VOA’s top Persian on-air personality, Ali Bijan Farhoodi, one of the self-avowed “ringleaders” of the meeting with Austin, and another top broadcaster, Setareh Derakhshesh.” There were no demotions. Setareh Derakhshesh was reassigned from anchoring a newscast (“News and Views”) to being Executive Producer and host of a talk show (“NewsTalk.”) Ms. Derakhshesh had voiced a desire for more management opportunity and editorial responsibility. As Executive Producer of NewsTalk, she will be able to exercise that responsibility and use her contacts, interviewing abilities and ability to connect with audiences to make that program better. For three of his five working days, Ali Farhoodi served as a Managing Editor. The other two days, he hosted a talk show program. His editorial acumen and talents as a Managing Editor are needed five days a week to make NewsTalk well run program.
· Newsmax.com states “Belida relies on the language expertise and cultural background of executive editor Ali Sajadi, whose views have been criticized by many Persian-language broadcasters and VOA guests as being too soft on the Iranian regime.” The PNN Director does not rely on just one person to make editorial and production decisions. He has a team of people, including a Farsi-speaking Executive Editor, a Farsi-speaking Senior Adviser, seven Farsi-speaking Managing Editors (including Ali Sajjadi) and four English-speaking Executive Producers among others. Ms. Derakhshesh’s appointment as Executive Producer for NewsTalk is a step toward putting Farsi-speaking journalists with television skills in positions of production authority. Recent job postings for Executive Producers and a Supervising Managing Editor all include a Farsi-language requirement.

In order to set the record straight from VOA’s perspective, I am providing you with PNN Director Alex Belida’s verbatim responses to Newsmax.com’s questions, emailed on February 5th:

Q:How do you respond to the accusation that PNN has been “soft” on the Iranian regime, and has shied away from reporting stories that would “rattle” the ruling clerics and Ahmadinejad? A: PNN does not shy away from any stories. It provides accurate, reliable and comprehensive news and information to the Iranian people in order for them to make educated and informed decisions about their lives. Q: The death of Neda Agha-soltan, a 26-year old bystander whose murder during a post election demonstration on June 20 woman was captured on cellphone cameras and went viral in just minutes over the Internet. My sources say that Ali Sajadi vetoed numerous urgent requests from reporters to air this footage, only acquiescing several days later after it had appeared on BBC, CNN and elsewhere. A: Not true. We aired it first. There was discussion on how much to show out of deference to the girl. And her family (like when her eyes rolled up into her head and she visibly expired) and initially, we only played a portion but later we played it all. Q: More generally, several VOA reporters say their requests to interview protesters in Tehran by telephone after the June 12 elections were repeatedly turned down by Ali Sajadi and Alex Belida. Why? Wasn’t this newsworthy, especially when Iranian state-run media was trying to portray the protesters as common criminals? A: Not true. One of the main reasons we pulled the History Channel and Today’s Woman show and ran a two-hour special for days following the election was to (A) show the latest citizen journalist video from inside Iran, and (B) to interview Iranians about what they saw and witnessed in the protests and to allow Iranians to express themselves on TV through call-ins and emails. Q: Britain’s Channel 4 aired an extensive interview with a defector from the Bassiji force, who made an emotional on-camera “confession” that he regretted following orders to murder peaceful demonstrators. PNN reporters proposed interviewing the Bassiji, but were turned down by PNN editors. Why? A: PNN editors had legitimate questions about the authenticity of an alleged defector who refused to identify himself or be shown on camera. Our suspicions grew after we asked him a simple question that someone in his purported position should have known the answer to and he said he didn’t know. (At the same time we were following a lead on getting an interview with a Basifi defector who was willing to be named and shown on camera.) Q. A former top aid to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Mohammad Reza Madhi-Takezand, gave several interviews to reporters in Bangkok, Thailand, where he had sought refuge. PNN reporters proposed interviewing Madhi – either by satellite, or live – but had their request turned down. Why? A: We’re aware of one interview only. No responsible news organization touched this guy. Once again PNN editors had legitimate concerns about the authenticity of this individual. See Laura Rozen’s article at: http://www.politico.com/blogs/laurarozen/0110/Beware_propaganda.html# Q: During the run-up to the June 12 presidential elections last year, Sajadi and Belida ordered VOA reporters and producers not to invite any guests who were calling for a boycott of the elections, as Newsmax reported at the time. Why was this? A: Not accurate. As I told the staff in my Newnotes on April 9th, 2009: “While there are those who consider the elections undemocratic, we also know there are Iranians who take their participation in the vote quite seriously. We must respect their beliefs. We cannot simply dismiss the balloting or focus only on explaining flaws in Iran’s electoral system. If a guest or contributor, for example, should encourage a boycott of the polls, a host must never signal his or her personal approval of such a suggestion and must in fact challenge the guest or contributor.” Q: Even after post-election protests erupted, PNN was notably “soft” in its reporting. Do you dispute this? Can you cite examples where PNN broke news during this period? (I’ve looked through your press releases and haven’t found any). A: Not true. Our coverage was exemplary. The notion that PNN was “soft” is laughable in light of the complaints voiced by Iranian authorities over PNN broadcasts. Q: Specifically, one reporter sought to interview the mother of a girl who had just been released from three months solitary confinement, but was turned down by Sajadi. Why? A: We never turn down interview opportunities of this nature. Never. Q: When Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri died in Qom in December, VOA reporters were told not to submit story ideas relating to Montazeri’s death, but instead to produce a magazine piece on tattoos. Why did VOA run a piece on tattoos at such a critical moment? What coverage did you offer on the Montazeri funeral and the protests than ensued? A: Nonsense. PNN devoted extensive coverage to Montazeri’s death and its impact. The fact that there may have been a feature on tattoos is irrelevant. On any given day, PNN may produce and broadcast features in addition to top news stories from Iran and the U.S. or elsewhere – just as most news organizations do.

The Iranian government has taken extraordinary steps to block VOA’s satellite transmissions in an attempt to keep reliable, accurate and balanced news and information from reaching the Iranian people. It’s a privilege to serve as VOA’s Executive Editor and a responsibility I take seriously. If you have any questions about PNN’s coverage or any other VOA programming, please don’t hesitate to ask. When VOA makes mistakes, I’ll be the first to admit we were wrong and do everything I can to correct the situation. But I won’t allow others to take unfair and unfounded shots at what we do. VOA has just one agenda: upholding the VOA Charter by providing accurate, reliable and balanced news and information to audiences that are starved for it.

Thanks for your attention.

Steve Redisch
VOA Executive Editor

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Rabbi Benjamin Blech: Avatar and the Jews

Avatar and the Jews: The connections with Torah and Hebrew words are just too frequent and striking to be accidental.
by Rabbi Benjamin Blech, aish.com (via LB)

Is Avatar good for the Jews?

There's no doubt that it's very good for James Cameron who is making box office history. His latest sci-fi spectacle has amassed the biggest worldwide gross for any film, beating Titanic, the previous feature film also produced by James Cameron.

With so many people seeing it, discussing it, and analyzing every last nuance in it, it's relevant to ask the question that serves as the punchline for the old Jewish joke when the little boy ecstatically tells his immigrant father, “The Yankees won,” and the old man with bewildered expression responds, “But tell me, is it good for the Jews?”

For religious viewers there are many subtle messages in the film that beg for a theological response, be it pro or con. Not surprisingly, the spiritual overtones of Avatar were of interest in Vatican City, where the film was reviewed by Gaetano Vallini, a cultural critic for L’Osservatore Romano, the daily newspaper of the Holy See.

In his quite negative review, considered so important that it was reprinted in Catholic journals and newspapers round the world, Mr. Vallini wrote that for all of the “stupefying, enchanting technology” in the film, it “gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature.” Its implied heresy overrides any other reasons to warrant approval for viewing.

Of course I can't speak for everyone (two Jews, three opinions), but this rabbi thinks it's a film you won't want to miss, precisely because of its myriad positive Jewish references and insights.

If Cameron never went to Hebrew school he surely had to discuss his work with a rabbi.

Watching it I had the feeling that if Cameron never went to Hebrew school he surely had to discuss his work with a rabbi. The connections with Torah, Midrash, and Hebrew words are just too frequent and striking to be accidental. And if anyone thinks I and the many others who have spotted the biblical allusions and the Jewish associations are reading too much into the story, seeing more than what’s there, it shouldn’t escape us that as one of those rare films meant to be watched ideally in 3-D, it literally begs to be viewed in every dimension, with keener vision and deeper understanding.

In the theater we have to put on glasses to better grasp the producer’s message. That is a perfect metaphor for our need to come prepared to “see” with what is often called “our third eye” – not just with the sight of our eyes but the insight of our minds.

It is a thrilling intellectual experience to note the little clues to Cameron’s intentions scattered throughout the movie.

The Na'vi

The name of the heroic people who live in the Garden-of-Eden-like planet of Pandora is Na'vi. I’ve had people tell me this couldn’t have anything to do with the Hebrew word navi that means prophet. After all there is no suggestion that these primitives were able to predict the future. But the truth is -- and it seems Cameron knew this -- the root word navi really means seer, someone with the capacity to see more than others. And that is exactly the point of the story.

With all of the technological prowess of the earthly invaders, the humans who came to despoil this new-found planet simply could not see what the far simpler and “less civilized” inhabitants recognized so clearly. The Na'vis worshipped not themselves or their achievements but a higher supreme power. And could it be mere coincidence that the name of the God they revered, eywa, is but the re-arranged letters of the Tetragrammaton, the holy four-letter name for the Almighty that Jews do not even dare to pronounce as written?

Man vs. God

The hubris of man who confuses technocracy with wisdom is a theme that continues to haunt Cameron, just as it was the pivotal premise for Titanic. “This is the largest ship ever built. It is a testament to modern man's genius. It is indestructible. We have finally and fully conquered nature. We are the masters of the universe.” That's what the builders of the Titanic repeatedly boasted before the luxury liner’s maiden voyage. But the iceberg was stronger. God's creation bested man's. Human arrogance was tragically humbled.

It was man the technocrat, in the age of the first industrial revolution of history, who proclaimed God as no longer relevant.
Titanic was a contemporary retelling of a powerful biblical story. Its theme goes back to the book of Genesis and the rebellion against God by the builders of the ancient Tower of Babel. Mankind had just learned how to build bricks, how to erect structures strong enough to withstand forces of nature. With the arrogance of man's first demonstration of his ability not to be totally subservient to the whims of his environment, he fooled himself into believing that he was nothing less than godlike. That was the generation that sought to build a skyscraper so tall that they would reach up and “pull God from his throne.” It was man the technocrat, in the age of the first industrial revolution of history, who proclaimed God as no longer relevant; the genius of human creators was deemed sufficient for ruling the world.

One of the biblical commentators of the 17th century even suggests that the builders of the Tower of Babel were smart enough to build a spaceship that could soar into the heavens, and in that way literally pull God off the seat of his power. That is almost precisely paralleled by what happened when the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, returned from his orbit of the earth and mockingly said, “There is no God. I was in the heavens and I did not see him.” Human arrogance rooted in scientific achievement led to the mistaken assumption that the power of man exceeds that of the Almighty.

Earth's Caretakers

With Avatar, Cameron takes this selfsame message one step further. Man's ego, man's greed, man's indifference to the purity of nature and its creator is a threat not only to earth but to all of the planets that surround us.

In an interview with Agence France-Presse, Cameron explained that he saw his movie as a metaphor. “We’re here, we’re big, we’ve got the guns, we’ve got the technology, we’ve got the brains, we therefore are entitled to every thing on this planet and beyond. That’s not how it works and we’re going to find out the hard way if we don’t wise up and start seeking a life that’s in balance with the natural cycles of life on earth.”

That's a message so crucial to our survival that the Torah repeats it in countless ways. Every seventh year the land is to remain fallow to remind us that we are merely its guests, not its owners. Every 50th year is the Jubilee when every Jew is to spend his time not in work but in study, to reflect upon our spiritual responsibility to ourselves, to our families, and to the world. If we are forced into waging war against our enemies, we are commanded not to cut down the trees of a city. (Deuteronomy 20:19)

The utter rapacity of the human alien invaders in Avatar is forcefully illustrated by the cruel disregard of the magnificent natural setting of Pandora. And yes, they even destroy “the holy tree” worshiped by the Na'vi. A planet like the Garden of Eden with a holy tree -- what a remarkable reminder of the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis which is off-limits to man to teach that God's knowledge is superior to ours.

More Connections

The Na'vi in Pandora have a mountain that “hangs over their heads.” The only parallel I can think of is the famous midrash that tells us when the Jews stood at Sinai and made their commitment to abide by God's laws, the mountain was lifted over their heads to tell them that the consequence of disobedience would be their destruction.

The Na'vi in Pandora even have a mountain that “hangs over their heads.”

The human aliens in Avatar are mighty, with awesome weapons of warfare. The Na'vi defend themselves with primitive bows and arrows. And yet they succeed. And that too is a biblical message: “Not with might and not with strength, but with my spirit says the Lord” (Zechariah, 4:6).

The savior of the Na'vi and the film's hero is, remarkably enough, a man with a physical disability. In the Bible it was Moses, “heavy of speech and heavy of tongue,” who was sent as deliverer. In spite of his impairment, he got across the message. In the movie it is a Marine who cannot walk but who nonetheless leads the Na'vi to successfully defend their way of life and to walk in the way of their ancestors.

Yes, the Na'vi religion with its worship of nature is a little too close to the pantheism of Spinoza to make Jews feel comfortable. Yes, the Na'vis are still pagans, and like the church I freely acknowledge there are ideas in Avatar that are not in accord with our own belief system. But at long last I am grateful for a movie that can serve as a powerful springboard for valuable discussion, for a deeper clarification of Torah ideas and for an analysis of issues that go to the core of our search for spiritual perfection.

This article can also be read at: http://www.aish.com/j/as/83524437.html

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Hate or Love Private Enterprise -- the Supermarket is open in Washington, D.C.

Hate or love capitalism or "private enterprise," even in its "monopolistic" nature, I cannot help but contrast -- favorably -- my neighborhood supermarket to the pathetic performance of the Federal/District of Columbia Government at this time of paralyzing snow storms in Washington, D.C., where I live.

Granted, consumers often wonder what they actually eat when they purchase "food" at supermarkets.

But the performance of a local DC supermarket -- and its day-to-day staff -- during the current weather crisis is, indeed, more than commendable, at least from the perspective of this average Washingtonian living near the UDC/Van Ness "public transportation" metro station, where escalators fail to function on a regular basis (thank God I can walk to the supermarket).

For the past week, most of DC has been at a standstill, with street unploughed and public transportation unreliable if not dangerous. And yet, for the most basic of necessities -- food and water (OK, I meant wine) -- the supermarket has been open, preventing panic buying. Its workers in my neighborhood were housed, an employee I spoke with informed me, in a nearby motel, for days on end.

I just called the supermarket now, in this vicious blizzard and yes, an employee politely said her store was open.

Try calling the Federal or DC government to get the same, prompt answer, for a pressing need.

At the supermarket store near where I live, for the past challenging week, its employees have been calm, patient, and understanding. And I don't think it was simply because they were getting overtime.

They were better organized and energized. Try that with your typical GS-9.

I think of Katrina -- a complete breakdown of Federal/local government support in times of crisis -- and also think of my days, too many years ago, involved in the so-called "Cold War" as a student/diplomat in Eastern Europe and the USSR, when the Soviet bureaucracy was incapable of handling -- yes, food supplies during snow storms -- in its state-owned stores.

And, anarchist-leaning that I am, I can't help but say: Thank God we've got people outside of government (why can't they be in government) who know how to run an organization critical to the needs of ordinary people in difficult times!

Just think -- Washingtonians and maybe others reading this note -- how many of us would want the District government to handle food supplies at a time of emergency? (Kudos to the Pentagon in Haiti, by the way, at least judging from media reports; how the military's performance actually was like on the ground may be another matter).

P.S. I'm reminded of my favorite anecdote as a Foreign Service officer abroad (I was in the "public diplomacy" career path for over twenty years, mostly in Eastern Europe), regarding an oversize, bureaucracy-overwhelmed US Embassy supposedly run by the State Department:

JOURNALIST: Madam Ambassador, how many people work here?

ANSWER: About half of them.