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John Brown: "Avatar" and Public Diplomacy

December 26th, 2009, 10:12 pm admin Leave a comment Go to comments

Well, by now we all know the plot of Hollywood blockbuster director James Cameron’s Avatar, his latest film, but here’s a good summary:

When his brother is killed in battle, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully decides to take his place in a mission on the distant world of Pandora. There he learns of greedy corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge’s intentions of driving off the native humanoid “Na’vi” in order to mine for the precious material scattered throughout their rich woodland. In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix
his legs, Jake gathers intel for the cooperating military unit spearheaded by gung-ho Colonel Quaritch, while simultaneously attempting to infiltrate the Na’vi people with the use of an “avatar” identity. While Jake begins to bond with the native tribe and quickly falls in love with the beautiful alien Neytiri, the restless Colonel moves forward with his ruthless extermination tactics, forcing the soldier to take a stand – and fight back in an epic battle for the fate of Pandora. Written by The Massie
Twins

The simplistic plot of Avatar is straight out of in-fashion politically correct cowboys vs. Indians movies — and the dialogue, if it can be called that, is pedestrian. But its images of Pandora — as so many critics have pointed out — are striking, almost artistic. Visually, Cameron is fascinated by the tension between machines and nature, ironically using ground-breaking computer technology to design an imaginary Garden of Eden.

Yes, like most movies, Avatar is images, not narrative or speech. But let’s not dismiss some of the “lessons” of this movie, condemned by some as leftist, pantheistic, anti-American propaganda. True, subtlety (except in a visual sense) is not one of the strong points of Avatar.

But watching it last Saturday morning at the Uptown Theater (thank God I had a senior citizen discount, given the price of movie tickets these days) near where I live in Washington (the imperial capital was then immobilized by snow, and I had nothing better to do), I reflected — as a former Foreign Service officer (FSO) involved in public diplomacy (PD) for over twenty years, mostly in Eastern Europe during and immediately after the Cold War — about paraplegic Marine Jake Sully’s ventures into Pandora.

To follow Cameron’s comic-book plot, Sully, is, one could say, a Public Diplomacy Foreign Service officer (some in the military would say psy-ops officer). To provide Intel, Sully’s avatar — his public presence in another society — is meant to spy, ever so “invisibly,” on an Enemy. Problem is, he falls in love with the Enemy; he goes native. He becomes, therefore, useless as Intel. He rebels against the Intel world — Colonel Quaritch — and Quaritch can’t wait to eliminate him.

Sure, during the Cold War there supposedly was a “firewall” between covert CIA/military intelligence and the USIA (United States Information Agency) “overt” activities like academic exchanges and artistic presentations (much research, however, needs to be done about this sensitive topic of a so-called “firewall”).

In my own career (1981-2003) as a USIA “press and cultural officer” overseas I was never asked to provide “Intel” to the embassy or headquarters (I was, however, expected — but not forced, unless I wanted not to be promoted — to write reports about whom I met: was that, in fact, “providing ‘Intel’” that the USG food-chain handed over to “other agencies”? No doubt, in a sense, it was: I’m not that naive).

I always could not help wondering if what I was doing — meeting people in other societies who made a difference, talking with them about the United States, and trying to understand them and they understand us — was not (bottom line) a way of secretive powers-that-be in Washington to use a PD officer (in today’s lingo, an “Avatar”) and — far more important — his/her “local contacts” in the hopes of obtaining “Intel.”

Such a conscience-troubling suspicion on my part never reached the point of my becoming a Sully (”going native”), because (ironically) the best and the brightest in East European societies where I had the privilege to serve were looking to the U.S. for information — if not inspiration — about what a free society was, or aspired to be. I would go so far as to say that they didn’t mind being “Intel” material, as they wanted to be heard by what they thought were “heavyweights” in Washington.

In the communist-dominated heart of Europe during the Cold War, the Quaritches were Soviets and Soviet collaborators (up to a point); we American diplomats in the field, or so we told ourselves, were the “good guys” allied with the “natives” and thus had no need to change our identity — but I always doubted about how “good” we in fact were.

I still do, even more than ever, after the US atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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