Archive for January, 2010

Avatar reprises ‘ugly American’ theme with high-tech twist

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

avatar.jpgDirector James Cameron’s billion-dollar, award-winning blockbuster, Avatar, bears a striking resemblance to Dances with Wolves in its basic plot. White guy from a military background encounters an indigenous population, falls in love, decides their values and way of life are superior to his, and casts his culture aside.

Of course, there are some refinements to Avatar, mostly the over-the-top technical effects that make this film possible and that are woven into the storyline. The white guy, a crippled former Marine named Jake Sully, uses an avatar, a biomechanical fictional being that is genetically engineered to be half human and half Na’vi, the inhabitants of the planet Pandora. With it he is able to walk again, breath air that is poisonous to human beings, and mingle with the natives to learn their ways.

Avatar is paradoxically plentiful and yet insufficient. The bounty consists of the powerful visual punch that this movie packs. There is so much to see in Pandora that the eyes boggle long before even half of the activity registers in the mind. Watching it non-stop on the big screen is downright exhausting. It’s as though the director does not trust his audience to be able to imagine anything for themselves. In that sense, Avatar unintentionally insults viewers even while offering them the most spectacular blend of animation and live action to come out of Hollywood yet.

As to its lack, the film provides frustratingly superficial glimpses of the natives’ beliefs and spiritual practices, squeezed in between all of the action sequences. Even so, that’s a deal too much for certain critics, who slam it as “anti-human” and “anti-American.” The Vatican doesn’t care for the film’s earth-based faith, and still others bash the portrayal of a white man as yet another savior of an indigenous population.

What do they expect? Cameron, who wrote the script as well as directed, is a white male, so he’s stuck with that viewpoint. No doubt those who find fault would be equally censorious had the director tried to make the film from the native viewpoint.

Critics may gnash their teeth all they want over the movie’s politics, but it is wildly popular precisely because of its advocacy, not despite it. As polls continue to show, more and more Americans have abandoned traditional religions to call themselves independent seekers or simply spiritual. There has also been a huge rise in interest in the goddess, or the feminine divine. On top of that, the public is incensed over unpunished Iraq war profiteering, massive corporate fraud that led to the 2008 economic meltdown yet was rewarded with equally gigantic bailouts, and Wall Street’s baleful influence over Congress and the White House.

Avatar reflects and builds on these trends. The Na’vi tribe’s home is on top of a huge deposit of highly valuable ore that a human corporation wants to mine. Sully’s mission is to persuade the tribe to move peacefully, or his corporate masters will have no qualms about using deadly force to clear the members off their land.

Sully soon realizes and tells his superiors that the natives have no interest in anything the human interlopers could offer them. The Na’vi do not live to amass wealth or power. They love the world that sustains them and try to live in harmony with it and with neighboring tribes.

What a tragedy that the preceding is so threatening to so many Americans. If might-makes-right, profits-uber-alles is now the creed of our culture and country, then we are indeed as lost as Sully is when his avatar inadvertently spends its first night alone outside in Pandora.

This film is also a hit worldwide. In the greedy ore-grubbers, who don’t care who they kill or what they destroy in their profits quest, others clearly recognize the proverbial ugly American. If we also see it and don’t like it, then there’s little point in blaming the mirror, which in this case is a movie called Avatar.

Maybe it’s time to address what causes such a revolting reflection in the first place.

Critics of Sarah Palin overlook her real threat

Monday, January 11th, 2010

Going Rouge“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

If Nobel Prize winning author Sinclair Lewis were alive today, he would have to rework his statement. A timely version might read, “When fascism comes to America, it will smile and wink like Sarah Palin and carry a cross.”

The book’s name is similar to the title of Palin’s recently published autobiography. But their monikers and their main topic are the only things the two have in common. Unlike Going Rogue, Going Rouge is a compendium of essays and columns that thoroughly and often wittily skewer the former Republican vice presidential candidate and ex-governor of Alaska. The authors form a roster of well-known leftwing and progressive commentators.

Many of the pieces were written in the heat of the 2008 presidential campaign once John McCain tapped Palin as his running mate. A few were published after the GOP election debacle. Although the editors group the essays under varying themes, it gives readers whiplash to move back and forth between the before-after perspectives. A chronological ordering of the work might have been easier to digest.

One of the most powerful parts of the book is the brief compendium of Palin criticisms from conservative pundits. And there is also a good deal of angst from women who worry that Palin’s stark deficiencies in experience and understanding of complex issues set back the cause of serious female candidates for high office.

“Palin won’t bust through the ceiling that has Hillary [Clinton]’s 18 million cracks in it,” writes Slate columnist Emily Bazelon. “She’ll give men an excuse to replace it with a new one.”

While there are many pithy, cogent observations about Palin, most of the contributors do not seem to understand the deeper significance of what they are analyzing. Typical is New York Times columnist Frank Rich, who writes that Palin “puts a happy, sexy face on ugly emotions.”

What Palin truly represents is a sexy, winking stalking horse for a twisted version of Christianity every bit as radical and destructive as Muslim extremism. Adherents of this militant Christianity, known as the New Apostolic Reformation, scheme to remake the United States as a Christian theocracy, and have enlisted significant swaths of the U.S. military in their cause. They want power and control every bit as much as bin Laden and his followers, who dream of imposing a new Muslim Caliphate over the entire Middle East and do not shy away from violence to achieve their ends. Neither do Christian militants.

Not even Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family, an expose of how right-wing politics and politicians are financed on a global scale, connects the dots. Instead, his column compares Palin to Westbrook Pegler, an ultra conservative commentator masquerading as a populist in the early 20th century.

The omission is perhaps the editors’ doing, not Sharlet’s. If there’s one thing left-wing punditry shy away from, it’s examining core religious beliefs. That’s very uncomfortable territory for them.

It’s a shame. The editors of and contributors to Going Rouge might want to spend time reading the knowledgeable researchers at websites like Talk2Action.  Bruce Wilson, the site’s founder, and his colleagues understand exactly what Palin really represents, possibly because they are also people of faith. They are doing their best to alert the rest of us to the true perils of Palin’s rise to political prominence before it is too late.

Gives this book 3.5 stars out of 5.

We moved our money to community banks–a decade ago

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

The Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington struck a nerve in the American public when she suggested on Dec. 29 that we take our money out of banks that are “too big to fail” and put it into community banks or credit unions.

In other words, vote with our pocketbooks against the venal, corrupt institutions that caused the U.S. economy to crater and were rewarded with billions in taxpayer bailout dollars to save them from the consequences of their short-sighted greed and folly.

Welcome aboard, Ms. Huffington. We walked away more than a decade ago. We have two checking/savings accounts. One is with the Fort Worth City Credit Union, which my partner can use because her grandfather was a Fort Worth city employee for decades. We opened that account back in 1989.

A decade later, we moved our second account from Bank of America to a credit union serving residents of our small Texas town just south of Dallas. It was a minor pain in the keister to move the money. The satisfaction of blowing off BofA was priceless.

The BofA account did not start out at BofA. It began in 1981 at First National Bank, a Texas-based institution that, like most large Texas banks at the time, served consumers as an afterthought but really cherished commercial business. Then the 1986 oil crunch hit, and FNB became First Republic, merging with its statewide rival in a desperate bid by both parties to remain solvent.

The years passed. We watched as a larger regional player stepped in to acquire InterFirst before it swooned into bankruptcy. That regional powerhpouse was, in turn, snapped up by BofA. Along the way, customer service evaporated, fees for everything exploded, and we finally cried, “Enough!” and left in sheer disgust.

That was at the height of the 1990s dotcom boom.

We have never looked back. The service is great at both of our credit unions, and the one in our town, which deals with us on a day-to-day basis, knows our names, and refuses to deliver check refills to our home out of concern about identity theft. (Instead, the CU has the checks delivered there and calls us to come get them.)

Any money we subsequently earn will go into credit unions or small local banks. Once we pay off our credit cards, we will look hard at how to ditch plastic, too, and go all cash.

BofA never noticed or cared about losing our meager dollars. But if thousands and maybe millions of us make the effort to walk away, it will hit the big boys in the only place they can feel–their pocketbooks.