Podcast #70: Avatar's Messiah Complex & Haiti's Tragedy

Ben didn’t see Avatar. Rich did. Neither are really big fans, but Ben thinks it could be dangerous. Could it be? Also, in the wake of the tragedy in Haiti, Rich and Ben discuss the event itself, our response, the response of those in the media, and what our response should look like. Note: Pardon the ridiculousness at the 33 minute mark. We’re going to get to the bottom of this eventually. We promise.

Every week, Richard Clark and Ben Bartlett acknowledge and respond to the big issues in popular culture. We love feedback! If you’d like to respond you can comment on the website, send an email to christandpopculture@gmail.com, or go to our contact page. We would love to respond to feedback on the show, so do it now! Subscribe to us in iTunes by clicking here. While you’re at it, review us in iTunes! We’ll love you forever!

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I’m nowhere even close to done, but I just had to stop and say: “Let’s go back to Germany. They had this thing called The Holocaust.” I may smile for the rest of the day.

  • Hahaha, yeah, I felt weird about that little turn of phrase after I said it.

  • David Dunham

    what happened to the rating of comments…I want to give a thumbs up to Seth’s previous one

  • @Ben
    It’s fine that you’re bothered that you feel the culture is moving to far away from moral certitude/dogmatism/etc. But you should realize that the people who are “open” to other ideologies are being equally dogmatic and are just as certain in their moral stance. So it’s not that dogmatism is going away—instead, the target you’re upset with is that you don’t like the object of their certainty. Their desire to find the truth hasn’t been diminished for they believe their inability to judge one ideology conclusively against another is truth. I don’t think, therefore, that you need to worry about this in the way that you are worried about it. You just need to couch it in more rigourous terms and approach it for what it is: people rejecting your dogmatism for another.

    Then you’ll have a solid position to evaluate against instead of some wishy-washy morass—which is how the position sounds when described as an abandonment of our interest in pursuing What Is True. (Which is a position that cannot be taken by the conscious soul.)

    “I’ve come across Christians that need that lesson jammed into their head repeatedly: that what they are so incredibly sure of could be the opposite of right.” Huh. That plays in almost exactly with my guest article this last week.

    Wait. How can a movie promoting moral certitude undermine moral certitude? Avatar, so far as has been explained, is all about a leader taking a stand, saying that something is wrong and that injustice is being carried out by the morally corrupt, and then taking action to put a stop to that injustice. That sounds like it should be right up the alley of what you’re wanting, but then you say it undermines it.

    It sounds like your issue is not with moral certitude or even the undermining of such a thing, but with the political message that sounds like it undergirds the film: that Americans should never have been involved in Iraq and that our purposes there were centered on oil. I think you’re needlessly confusing the issue by calling into play an idea that doesn’t sound like its plausibly connected to the film.

    Of course I, like you, haven’t seen the movie.

  • Chase

    That quote could be the new Pants on the Ground…

  • Well, it sounds like I stank on this one.

    Here’s the theme that was in my mind at the time-

    These movies often suggest that white, dominating males think they’re better than everyone else and so don’t care about destroying or oppressing other, different, more beautiful cultures.

    The hero is someone who represents what these white males SHOULD be… open, unwilling to take a stance of certainty, and appreciative of all cultures and ways of life. When he does this, he’ll see how wrong the oppressive, self-certain people are.

    Ok, so far so good.

    My problem is that it feels like these paradigms and metaphors are applied to ANYONE who is in the role of the majority, or who doesn’t grant unrestricted freedom to all groups who want it. President Bush was simply an excellent example- apparently he fits the “inherent evil” stereotype because he had a bigger army and did something an opposing government disagreed with. We apply it to lots of other things too… “big banks,” “special interests,” “big business,” or, “TV executives.” We then use the metaphor as shorthand for people whom we truly don’t understand very well.

    However, the stories don’t do a good job at encouraging us to see the distinction between strength used for good and strength used for bad… instead they (as the Dane correctly puts it) dogmatically suggest that ANYONE making use of their strength over the protest of a minority is inherently fitting the role of evil oppressor.

    That’s why I think there is a danger to the endless repetition of this story… I feel like it gives us an unpleasant reaction or framework for anyone making use of their power.

    A good counter example might be The Once and Future King, which brilliantly struggles with questions of power and rightness, while making it clear that both good and evil can flow from someone very good at heart intending to serve well.

    However, I do concede… I wasn’t much good in this episode. Sorry.

  • You’re right that these stories don’t generally do a good job of showing strength used for good. I think this is because that, typically, the average person hasn’t wanted to hear that message and so it isn’t super salable. This goes back even to Robin Hood, by which the masses are appeased through the picture of “righteous” insurrection against a usurious power. Of course the blow is softened by the fact that the power thwarted exists in opposition to the rightful power to the absent (and therefore: just) king.

    The appeal is pretty obvious. The widest majority of those taking in these parables of justice standing against corrupt and established powers are likely to feel themselves to be unlike the unjust powers. Every citizen enjoys the feeling that the government is a monstrous entity that doesn’t care for his needs. Hence the pictures of established power structures from Brazil to Network to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Ikiru—each of which pits the average person almost hopelessly against a monolithic power structure.

    You lament the absence of stories depicting the powerful using their strength to bring their vision of Good to societies. And I think it’s a fair critique. Power and power establishments can be used for good (though I suspect that in reality, the good that these endeavors bring often bring in bad as well) and we should have stories that reflect this.

    Such stories were far more common in the ’40s and ’50s during the prevailing war efforts. These, of course, were generally lacking in any nuance and played largely as propaganda film. They catered to dormant feelings of manifest destiny and American ethnocentrism. Cold War documentary reels were built on this feeling of bringing democracy to the world at all costs—and before to icy grip of the communist sickle carved its boarders ever wider. Bush II and more specifically the neo-cons pushed this ideology to diminishing returns in the post 2001 world.

    With the story’s continual misuse at the hands of expansionist agenda, the pluralist is ever less interested in seeing this particular kind of story act out. Largely because its done without nuance and generally from a so deeply eurocentric position that it will fail to resonate with American viewers (who are increasingly not eurocentric in their family tree).

    Some notable exceptions to this do exist though. In fact, some of the most popular films and shows of the day offer the kind of story that you are looking for Ben. The superhero movie is almost exclusively the tale of a person with great power who takes on the responsibility of forcing his values system upon those around him (granted, they’re generally pretty obviously bad guys) often in opposition to other established civic cultures. Superman is a Mid-Westerner who uses his vastly superior strength to coerce others to share in his bread-basket morality. Batman is a member of the cultural elite who polices the cultural elite and forces his brand of justice on a population that is only occasionally accepting and does so in contradiction to the population’s wishes (save for the wishes of the police commissioner). Spider-Man is the same story.

    And then you have the other Avatar (the airbending variety). This is a kid’s show so you might expect the same kind of moral as other kids entries (Pocahontas and fern Gully notably), but Aang, the Avatar is set up as The power. He’s the one who is meant to keep peace and bring harmony to the land and throughout the series he is seen as using his power and strength to bring his vision of right-living to the world about him. He even stands in contradiction to his prior lives and wisdom to exercise his power in a way that will fix the world in his eyes (though not in the eyes of many, if any, of his allies). An interesting message in contrast to what seems the most common.