Dear Mr. President,
I started watching the Academy Awards tonight, but had made other plans in the evening, and decided not to watch the second half. I hear that Hurt Locker beat out Avatar for best picture. I doubt you've seen either movie, but if you have, I hope you'd agree that this was a good call. One movie suggests the audience contemplate, even question their emotional response to the story, the other manipulates and demands certain emotions from its views.
I think what upset me most about Avatar was the false sense of sympathy it would generate in many fans. Of course, the way the story is told, the Innocent Blue Natives must be the sympathetic characters. The audience would see them, like them, and cheer for them in the Epic Battle scene at the end. But then, as the credits rolled and the lights came on, the audience files out, goes about their daily lives, living, as too many of us do, without concern for the consumptive, greedy, materialistic existences we unconsciously lead, or how they affect the rest of the world. I'll admit the ignorant American stereotype is not a fair one, but every year there seems to be one blockbuster extolling the damages of our lifestyles to the rest of the world and to ourselves, and every year we seem happy to pay $8 to ignore the message being spelled out for us.
I do think Americans live in a way that is damaging to the developing world. We ignore the struggles of our own dwindling native population, minimize the crimes committed against them in the early days of our nation, and continue to ignore, condone or even support the oppression and extermination of other native populations by imperial projects around the world. And then we watch multi-million dollar movies about how wrong this is. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
What frustrates me more is that I don't know the answer. I don't know how we could make up for our past crimes, or how we can live better now, or how we can avoid them in the future. It isn't enough to be angry about it, it isn't enough to feel guilty about it, it isn't even enough to write a letter to the President about it. We've got to have a plan.
Tonight I had drinks with a friend, who told me that all white Americans suffer from the same combination of power and privilege. She contends that it makes all of us, to varying degrees, racist, and that the only thing we can do is make a conscious effort to work against the programming. I agree with this, but how responsible are we as individuals to convince others to fight this programming, as well? I suppose this struggle is the same one that religious people go through all the time. I think I know the right way to live, and I can try to do that every day, try to make the right choices and think the right thoughts and work to ensure that my life doesn't come at the expense of others. But I'm only one person. Should I then be attempting to convert others to my way of thinking? I think this is why I'm so bad at religion. I have beliefs, and I'm pretty confident in them, but I'll never be sure enough that I'd want to proselytize others.
This is why cultural phenomena like Avatar are so frustrating; even if this particular film's anti-imperialist message is close to my own political views, its simplification of things, its forcing this nuanced and complex idea into a palatable and didactic doctrine, does not ask its audience to think. We're losing our critical thinking skills, and accepting what we are told, what is forced upon us, because it is simpler and easier and more convenient. I'd like to think, at the end of the day, that is is more important to engage with an issue, to try and understand it from as many perspectives as possible, than to come up with an answer or a conclusion about it.
Anyway, I'm not entirely comfortable pontificating quite this much about an award show. What role, if any, does pop culture play in your own life? You have a healthy appreciation for Harry Potter and Jay-Z, so you can't be completely insulated from these trends, but I'd imagine your job prevents you from being exposed to much of it these days. Do you think that we place too much value on the entertainments that distract us from issues? Or do you think that some degree of escapism is necessary, even healthy?