Column on Avatar’s (and Sandel’s) Misanthropy

Avatar’s (and Sandel’s) Misanthropy

Tibor R. Machan

Perhaps it isn’t all people but only Americans that Avatar presents in an unfavorable light but the movie clearly suggests that human beings are largely no good, except for just a few of them and they only barely. In contrast, the natives are all the sweetest, nicest, most loving type one can imagine. Kind of like those who inhabited Paradise before the Fall. Evil is unknown to these creatures, so that even their silliest superstitions are depicted as worthy, benign. It is an ancient myth, of course, that the ideal human being would be one who melds in seamlessly with the rest and humanity is really just this beehive type of huge community, with some benevolent dictators in the leadership driving it toward some glorious end. Every dictator, tsar, king, and the like has tried to sell us on this vision.

Even as Avatar is seducing the critics–if one can call a bunch of swooning admirers in the media "critics"–PBS, the government funded television service, is showing a program on justice that broadcasts the Harvard University lectures of Professor Michael Sandel, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor there, who unhesitatingly takes advantage of his captive audience of adolescents by preaching to them the virtues of his version of communitarianism and never misses the opportunity to put down the idea of free consent. (Yes, here we are, taxpayers, funding what is quite a clever bit of indoctrination since no one else but Sandel is featured and he is unabashedly partisan, insisting over and over again that what he considers justice is the real McCoy. And why, when he doesn’t believe in free consent, should he be concerned that other people are coerced into funding his PBS lectures? That would be granting some credence to the idea that the consent of the citizenry is important, a notion that would undermine Professor Sandel’s political philosophy of coercive communitarianism.)

The central message Sandel is preaching is that we all have obligations to society–or government or the state–that we have never chosen, that can be enforced on us without asking for our consent. This is the beehive or the anthill notion of community, wherein you belong wether you want to or not, and those who are the leaders can make us do what they deem is in the public interest, pursue the common good, never mind pursuing our own happiness.

And the ideal community, as depicted in Avatar by how the natives live (whose land is being raped and pillaged by the terrible American looking humans) is just like that. Everyone submits, everyone is a part, everyone belongs, no one stands for his or her own agenda, no one is unique, no one has an individual, personal vision for that would distract from the common purpose everyone must pursue. The idea doesn’t even come up.

Both the most prominent Hollywood fiction and the most prominent public philosophy today are messages about how the American notion of individualism–whereby you and I and everyone has a right to his or her life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness–is misguided and in need of being purged from our midst. Yes, that is the message of both. Your consent, which is such a highly valued ingredient of justice according the Declaration of Independence, the American founding, is an obstacle to justice!

It isn’t even considered that perhaps real justice is not really like what Professor Sandel is promoting, that real justice involves everyone’s liberty to strive to realize his or her individual human good, some of which unites us all but a good deal of it includes a very large dosage of one’s purely personal agenda.

While not endorsing it outright, Professor Sandel gleefully quotes the political philosopher Montesquieu who observed that in an ideal world no one would have any friends since friendship involves a prejudice in favor of some people and in justice we owe loyalty to everyone, intimate or stranger alike. He didn’t mention how exhausting life would be with everyone on intimate terms, how we would no sooner celebrate someone’s good fortune then we would have to rush off to lament another’s loss.

Human beings aren’t fit to be close associates of everyone! It is quite right that they would have but few close friends and render to others respect for their rights or liberties, period. Neither Sandel nor Avatar gave a nod to this quintessentially American notion, the most liberating idea of human political history. Not a good omen, I’d say.

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