Have you folks heard about the “Is Avatar Racist?” debate? Apparently, there are some people out there who felt that the film reinforced racial stereotypes by depicting a white man saving a ‘native’ non-white alien culture that is obviously incapable of saving itself. An insensitivity compounded by the fact that the aliens are coloured blue, are shown to be primitive, mystical and, while not quite Luddites, reasonably pro-nature – enough to make them anti-technology. Oh, and did I forget to mention that these aliens are clothed in loincloths and the like, and communicate with their equivalent of the earth-mother through some swaying and ritualistic chanting under a magical tree?

The whites, on the other hand, have space-travel, robot technology, cryonics and the ability to artificially create the bodies of the aliens. And a white man saves the alien race.

This was enough to set 0ff the sensitive, politically-correct mobs out there. Cameron has been accused of racial stereotyping.

But that’s just crap, isn’t it? Yeah, yeah, I know, words are sensitive, depictions like this are part of the cultural arrogance of the white race that seeks to impose its view of history on all of us yada yada yada. But is the accusation of racism in this specific instance really justified?

Because if the accusers had thought this ridiculous campaign through, they would have realised that James Cameron actually had no choice when it came to depicting the warring races on Pandora. Given the fact that his choices were limited because Avatar is so clearly a re-packaged and re-contextualised amalgamation of Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai, what else could he do? Any other combination or depiction he could have shown would still have been met with shrill howls of protest from the same politically correct people out there.

Let us look at the possible options Cameron had in the depiction of the two races in Avatar:

White Colonisers & White Aliens: Did anyone seriously think Cameron would get away with this? We would have been inundated with comments like “…coloured people (black, brown etc) do not exist for Hollywood…”, “Yet another example of Hollywood’s white-centric attitude”, and “…in the year of America’s first black president, it is a shame that Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster continued the tradition of exclusion of non-whites”. The best, of course, would be a headline somewhere that screams: “White Hollywood cannot find Non-White life even in Outer Space”. (Fuck, but I’m good at this bad-writing shit, aren’t I? 🙂 )

Non-White Colonisers & White Aliens: This option would really have Cameron hauled over the coals. Because this is “malicious tampering with history.” Or, as some more jargon-prone columnists would have it, “Cameron tries to reverse-engineer history…” Perhaps even something like “In sheer defiance of centuries of recorded history and the rape of indigenous peoples worldwide by the white race, Cameron chooses to deny the Holocaust, as it were, by showing the non-whites as the big bad wolves, making mincemeat of the terrified white lambs”. (Wah Wah! even if I say so myself) Oprah would have done an outraged episode on this one that would have seriously dented Avatar’s business.

Non-White Colonisers and Non-White Aliens: This would again be seen as partially re-writing history to show whites in a favourable light. If I could coin a term for this (my contribution to movie-inspired socio-anthropological revisionist history?), Cameron would be accused of The Apocalypto Fallacy. Basically, this theory states that it wasn’t the whites that screwed native populations. It was the non-white natives themselves. They battled each other throughout history and allegedly have a far bloodier – and brutal – record than the whites. But, as some outraged blogger might write, “..such a visualisation seems to absolve whites of the colonisation, oppression and extermination of native races…” (Yup, still so bad I’m actually good!)

In short, whatever depiction Cameron chose, he would still have been skewered. The PC brigade would have been out to get him no matter what. So, unless he had made Avatar with robots as characters, or as an animated film with tigers and lambs, these people would have found it racist, no matter what.

For the record, I thought Avatar sucked. It had no story, and after the first 30 minutes, I was bored of the technical wizardry and the “new world”. Yes, Cameron is guilty – but he’s guilty of making a bad film. Not of racism.

You may also want to read my other post on the ridiculous extremes Political Correctness is heading towards.

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In 1947, there were approximately 568 princely families controlling our destinies. They, along with a few thousand zamindars and other members of the minor royalty, formed an elite corp, completely insulated from the rest of India. Going by their incomes and lifestyles, they may as well have been from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse as far as the rest of India was concerned. By and large, these families had no abiding interest in the progress, development or betterment of their fiefdoms and peoples and sought only to perpetuate their power, which was the source of their incomes and therefore lifestyles. The faceless masses, with their aspirations, dreams and nightmares, may as well have been from some other planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse as far as this bunch was concerned.

In 2009, there are approximately 543 princely families controlling our destinies. They, along with a few thousand MLAs, MLCs, Corporators and other members of the minor royalty, form an elite corp, completely insulated from the rest of India. Going by their incomes and lifestyles, they may as well be from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse as far as the rest of India is concerned. By and large, these families have no abiding interest in the progress, development or betterment of their fiefdoms and peoples and seek only to perpetuate their power, which is the source of their incomes and therefore lifestyles. The faceless masses, with their aspirations, dreams and nightmares, may as well be from some other small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse as far as this bunch is concerned.

We sure have come a long way!

On 26 November 1949, the Constituent Assembly unanimously adopted the Constitution of India. In the debate leading up to that event, Dr. B.R Ambedkar, as Chairman of the Drafting Committee, spoke at length about the way the committee went about preparing the draft for the document that was to be the Constitution of India. But he also, in the latter part of his remarkable speech, made a few incredible observations that ring truer today than at any time in the past. Dr. Ambedkar, quite apart from being an extremely erudite man, also had great foresight.

For example, he wondered if India would lose its independence again, and said: “What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only has India once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of her own people”. He cited quite a few instances in our glorious history to underline this point.

And then he went on to say: “….in addition to our old enemies in the form of castes and creeds we are going to have many political parties with diverse and opposing political creeds. Will Indians place their country above creed or will they place creed above country? I do not know, but this much is certain that if the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost for ever.

He listed three things that he felt were essential for the preservation of our constitutional democracy:

The first thing in my judgment we must do is hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives…..it means we must abandon the methods of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha……these methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy….

The second thing we must do is observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions…..This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.

The third point he made in this connection was how critical it was to integrate and incorporate the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity in our democracy. And not just by mouthing platitudes.

Dr. Rajendra Prasad, as President of the Constituent Assembly, said in his speech that followed Dr. Ambedkar’s: “…..I would have liked to have some qualifications for members of the legislatures. It is anomalous that we should insist upon high qualifications for those who administer or help in administering the law but none for those who make it except that they are elected. A law giver requires intellectual equipment but even more than that capacity to take a balanced view of things, to act independently and above all to be true to those fundamental things of life – in one word – to have character. It is not possible to devise any yardstick for measuring the moral qualities of a man, and so long as that is not possible, our Constitution will remain defective”.

The rising trend of politicians and parties to relegate the larger interest to the garbage bin and focus on self-aggrandisement instead, the increasing prevalence and acceptance of unconstitutional and usually violent means of protest and of making your voice heard,  the growing cult of nepotism, dynastic succession & absolute power as well as our apathetic surrender of the reins of the country to those whose place is actually in prison –  all in the name of the will of the people – this was foreseen, more than sixty years ago, by those who gave us our freedom and our constitution.

Eerily prophetic, both of them. Our country truly misses leaders of this calibre.

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If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, we sure as hell haven’t paid for ours.

The British Sociological Association urges its members to be careful while using terms that may be offensive to some people. It has, in a stellar act of well-meaning guidance, come up with lists of words it feels are not politically correct, and has suggested politically correct alternatives. Now, while I still maintain that Political Correctness has, in my view, come close to being preposterous (as when a local council in the UK banned the term ‘brainstorming’), it must be said that the BSA lists, in part, made sense. However, there was still a lot that was, to my (by implication, ignorant, insensitive and ‘incorrect’) mind, ridiculous. Bizarre, even.

For instance, when it comes to art, they recommend not using the term ‘Old Masters’ – instead they suggest using ‘classic art/artists’. OK, I get it. This term is masculine, exclusivist and exclusionist. But surely it is the most appropriate and acceptable, as well as accurate, term when I talk about Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Rubens or Rembrandt. Weren’t they, from today’s standpoint, ‘old masters’? Of course, when I want to include Anguissola, Oosterwyck, Charriera or Fontana (the ‘vintage queens of art’???) in that list, I will use the collective term ‘classic artists’ – but that does not mean that the term ‘old masters’ does not have a place.

Then there are ‘disseminate’ and ‘seminal’. Frowned upon, for obvious reasons. I suppose they forgot to include ‘seed’, which also has similar connotations – perhaps we should use ‘botanic-life-enabling organic-source-matter’ instead!

They also feel the words ‘civilised’ and ‘civilisation’ have racist overtones derived from colonial perceptions. Well, not always. Perhaps implicit in their understanding of the word civilisation is a very urban-centric, renaissance/industrial revolution derived association – but surely the most prevalent usage of this word is in the broader sense, as in ‘Indian civilisation’, ‘Mayan civilisation’, ‘Egyptian civilisation’ or ‘Chinese civilisation’? All of which predate the renaissance and are far removed from any colonial – as we know it – overtones.

What about ‘Developing nations/Less developed countries’? Well, yes, this again implies a hierarchy, with these countries at the bottom – but frankly, will any alternative really do away with the hierarchy inherent in any meaningful comparison? In economic studies, ‘development’ is an index that is actively tracked, with many parameters – among them literacy, mortality, nutrition – going into the making of this index. There will be countries that will score low on the development index. What do we call them? If we accept the BSA’s logic, then, by extension, terms like ‘champions’ (in any sporting tournament) or ‘winners’ should also be banned – because they, by definition, imply the existence of teams/people that did not win (losers!). And let’s not even get into the concept of ranking in sport. Or, even worse, something that will make them cringe in horror – seeding in ball game tournaments. How politically incorrect is that?

Other questionable inclusions: diaspora, overseas, third world, special needs (recommended: additional needs), patient (WTF? Recommended: person. I repeat, WTF? Is there no need for a term for a person who needs medical care and who is in a health-care facility? Whose body – gender-neutral, without any sexual overtones! – might be host (nah, host is a xenophobic term! Let’s use ‘dwelling place’ instead) to some life-forms inimical to universally accepted non-sexist, non-racist standards of human health?) Oh, and the good sociologists also discourage usage of (medical/health related) terms like ‘victim of’, ‘suffering from’ and ‘afflicted by’. Remember to also replace ‘mentally ill’ with ‘mental health service user’. And I suppose the term ‘ill’ can be moved in favour of ‘health service user’.

Where does this end?

I agree – words are powerful. I agree, many terms have unpleasant historical connotations and some sensitivity is needed. But we should also be careful of reducing political correctness to a farce. Regrettably, the exponents of political correctness do not seem to realise how their enthusiasm is doing their cause more harm than good.