Monday, February 22, 2010

The Messiah Complex

January 8, 2010
Op-Ed Columnist

The Messiah Complex

Readers intending to watch the movie “Avatar” should know that major events in the plot are revealed.

Every age produces its own sort of fables, and our age seems to have produced The White Messiah fable.

This is the oft-repeated story about a manly young adventurer who goes into the wilderness in search of thrills and profit. But, once there, he meets the native people and finds that they are noble and spiritual and pure. And so he emerges as their Messiah, leading them on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization.

Avid moviegoers will remember “A Man Called Horse,” which began to establish the pattern, and “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.” More people will have seen “Dances With Wolves” or “The Last Samurai.”

Kids have been given their own pure versions of the fable, like “Pocahontas” and “FernGully.”

It’s a pretty serviceable formula. Once a director selects the White Messiah fable, he or she doesn’t have to waste time explaining the plot because everybody knows roughly what’s going to happen.

The formula also gives movies a little socially conscious allure. Audiences like it because it is so environmentally sensitive. Academy Award voters like it because it is so multiculturally aware. Critics like it because the formula inevitably involves the loincloth-clad good guys sticking it to the military-industrial complex.

Yet of all the directors who have used versions of the White Messiah formula over the years, no one has done so with as much exuberance as James Cameron in “Avatar.”

“Avatar” is a racial fantasy par excellence. The hero is a white former Marine who is adrift in his civilization. He ends up working with a giant corporation and flies through space to help plunder the environment of a pristine planet and displace its peace-loving natives.

The peace-loving natives — compiled from a mélange of Native American, African, Vietnamese, Iraqi and other cultural fragments — are like the peace-loving natives you’ve seen in a hundred other movies. They’re tall, muscular and admirably slender. They walk around nearly naked. They are phenomenal athletes and pretty good singers and dancers.

The white guy notices that the peace-loving natives are much cooler than the greedy corporate tools and the bloodthirsty U.S. military types he came over with. He goes to live with the natives, and, in short order, he’s the most awesome member of their tribe. He has sex with their hottest babe. He learns to jump through the jungle and ride horses. It turns out that he’s even got more guts and athletic prowess than they do. He flies the big red bird that no one in generations has been able to master.

Along the way, he has his consciousness raised. The peace-loving natives are at one with nature, and even have a fiber-optic cable sticking out of their bodies that they can plug into horses and trees, which is like Horse Whispering without the wireless technology. Because they are not corrupted by things like literacy, cellphones and blockbuster movies, they have deep and tranquil souls.

The natives help the white guy discover that he, too, has a deep and tranquil soul.

The natives have hot bodies and perfect ecological sensibilities, but they are natural creatures, not history-making ones. When the military-industrial complex comes in to strip mine their homes, they need a White Messiah to lead and inspire the defense.

Our hero leaps in, with the help of a pack of dinosaurs summoned by Mother Earth. As he and his fellow freedom fighters kill wave after wave of Marines or former Marines or whatever they are, he achieves the ultimate prize: He is accepted by the natives and can spend the rest of his life in their excellent culture.

Cameron’s handling of the White Messiah fable is not the reason “Avatar” is such a huge global hit. As John Podhoretz wrote in The Weekly Standard, “Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance.” The plotline gives global audiences a chance to see American troops get killed. It offers useful hooks on which McDonald’s and other corporations can hang their tie-in campaigns.

Still, would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

It’s just escapism, obviously, but benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind — even when you surround it with pop-up ferns and floating mountains.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The tragedy of dying languages

The tragedy of dying languages

Kallawaya tribe of Bolivia
The Kallawaya tribe of Bolivia are experts in the use of medicinal plants

The death of the last speaker of an ancient language in India's Andaman Islands highlights the fact that half of the world's 7,000 languages are in danger of disappearing. Linguist K David Harrison argues that we still have much to learn from vanishing languages.

My journey as a scientist exploring the world's vanishing languages has taken me from the Siberian forests to the Bolivian Altiplano, from a McDonald's in Michigan to a trailer park in Utah. In all these places I've listened to last speakers - dignified elders - who hold in their minds a significant portion of humanity's intellectual wealth.

Boa Sr
Boa Sr, who died this week, was the last speaker of the 70, 000-year-old Bo

Though it belongs solely to them and has inestimable value to their people, they do not hoard it. In fact they are often eager to share it. What can we learn from these languages before they go extinct? And why should we lift a finger to help rescue them?

As the last speakers converse, they spin individual strands in a vast web of knowledge, a noosphere of possibilities. They tell how their ancestors calculated accurately the passing of seasons without clocks or calendars. How humans adapted to hostile environments, from the Arctic to Amazonia.

We imagine eureka moments taking place in modern laboratories or classical civilizations. But key insights of biology, pharmacology, genetics, and navigation arose and persisted solely by word of mouth, in small, unwritten tongues. Finally, this web of knowledge contains feats of human ingenuity -epics, myths, rituals - that celebrate and interpret our existence.

Pundits argue that linguistic differences are little more than random drift, minor variations in meaning and pronunciation that emerge over time (the British say 'lorry', Americans 'truck'; Tuesday is CHEWS-day, for Brits, TOOZ-day for Americans).

Professor K David Harrison
The Linguists, a film featuring the work of Professor K David Harrison and colleague Gregory Anderson as they travel the world documenting the world's vanishing tongues, was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008. Dr Harrison is a linguist at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, and director of research for the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.
Photo: Kris Krug

These reveal nothing interestingly different about our souls or minds, some claim. But that's like saying that the Pyramid of Cheops differs from Notre Dame Cathedral only by stone-cutting techniques that evolved randomly in different times and places; revealing nothing unique in the ancient Egyptian or Medieval French imagination.

All cultures encode their genius in verbal monuments, while considerably fewer do so in stone edifices. We might as well proclaim human history banal, and human genius of no value to our survival.

The fate of languages is interlinked with that of species, as they undergo parallel extinctions. Scientific knowledge is comparable for both domains, with an estimated 80% of plant and animal species unknown to science, and 80% of languages yet to be documented.

But species and ecosystems unknown to science are well-known to local people, whose languages encode not only names for things, but also complex interrelations among them.

Packaged in ways that resist direct translation, this knowledge dissipates when people shift to speaking global tongues. What the Kallawaya of Bolivia know about medicinal plants, how the Yupik of Alaska name 99 distinct sea ice formations, how the Tofa of Siberia classify reindeer. Entire domains of ancient knowledge, only scantily documented, are rapidly eroding.

I have to talk to myself. There's nobody left to talk to, all the elders have passed on
Johnny Hill, Jr, Chemehuevi tribe, Arizona

Linguistic survivors hold the fates of languages in their minds and mouths.

Johnny Hill, Jr of the Chemehuevi tribe of Arizona is a big, imposing man, but he instantly wins people over with his gentle humility. Designated "last speaker" of Chemehuevi, Johnny achieved celebrity in the 2008 documentary film The Linguists.

Although he had never previously travelled far from his reservation or flown on an aeroplane, Johnny mesmerized film festival-goers with his life story. Raised by his grandmother who spoke only Chemehuevi, Johnny learned English at school seeking a path out of isolation.

At the other end of his lifespan, Johnny finds himself linguistically isolated once again. "I have to talk to myself," he explains resignedly. "There's nobody left to talk to, all the elders have passed on, so I talk to myself... that's just how it is."

Johnny has tried to teach his children and others in the tribe. "Trouble is," he sighs, "they say they want to learn it, but when it comes time to do the work, nobody comes around."

Speakers react differently to loss - from indifference to despair - and adopt diverse strategies. Some blame governments or globalization, others blame themselves. Around the world, a growing wave of language activists works to revitalize their threatened tongues. Positive attitudes are the single most powerful force keeping languages alive, while negative ones can doom them.

Archive picture of  Chief George Blanco of the Baizam clan in the Torres Islands
An archive picture of a clan leader welcoming a dignitary to one of the Torres Islands

Two dozen language hotspots have now been identified globally, and new technologies are being mobilised to the cause.

A Torres Straits' Islander in Australia told me: "Our language is standing still, we need to make it relevant to today's society. We need to create new words, because right now we can't say 'computer'."

The lowly text message may lift obscure tongues to new levels of prestige, translated software may help them cross the digital divide. Hip-hop performed in threatened tongues, as I've heard among young Aka speakers in India, infuses new vitality.

Language revitalisation will prove to be one of the most consequential social trends of coming decades. This push-back against globalization will profoundly influence human intellectual life, deciding the fate of ancient knowledge.

What hubris allows us, cocooned comfortably in our cyber-world, to think that we have nothing to learn from people who a generation ago were hunter-gatherers? What they know - which we've forgotten or never knew - may some day save us.

We hear their voices, now muted, sharing knowledge in 7,000 different ways of speaking. Let's listen while we still can.

K David Harrison is the author of the forthcoming book The Last Speakers: The Quest to Uncover the World's Most Endangered Languages.

In Paris, the customer is not always right

Page last updated at 12:03 GMT, Saturday, 6 February 2010

In Paris, the customer is not always right

The idea of service is taken very seriously in France where any feeling of subservience is strongly resisted, as Emma Jane Kirby discovered.

French grocery store in 1935
Parisian workers traditionally regard themselves as the customer's equal

Paris is in a bad mood.

The sullen, steel-grey sky seems to be permanently snivelling sleet.

The Seine, swollen against its banks, pushes and squeezes its way through the city like an irascible woman in too-tight shoes.

And the January depression has even sucked some of the glitzy dazzle out of the Eiffel Tower, leaving it looking - at least from a distance - like a rather cheap, left-over Christmas decoration.

It may be the city of romance and a mecca for tourists, but right now Paris feels and looks like it just cannot be bothered any more to turn on the charm.

Not that this city is exactly known for its sense of service.

The customer is allegedly always right in London but, in Paris, he or she is little more than an irritant.

Cab 'service'

A couple of months back, I broke my leg in a skiing accident and became completely reliant on Paris's taxi service.

Taxi in Paris street

Under the circumstances, even though I was paying for this ride, I felt unable to ask this clearly sensitive man to turn down his deafening rap music

Wobbling precariously on my crutches after a family dinner in a local restaurant, I hailed the first cab in the rank.

He drove up, glanced at my plastered leg and drove straight off again shouting: "I don't take cripples. Your crutches might damage my paintwork!"

Somewhat stupefied, I hailed the next cab in line and politely asked the driver if I could sit up front as it was easier for my leg.

"I'm not arranging my whole damn cab to accommodate you," he snapped. "I've got all my personal things piled on the front seat!"

As he drove off at an angry speed, I got a glance of the front passenger seat and saw it was adorned with one folded newspaper.

The taxi driver who finally chauffeured me home was pleasant enough, although a stark notice on the back of the seat reminded me that it would not be wise to push my luck.

"Do not use your mobile phone in this cab," warned the hand-written sticker, "it annoys your driver."

Under the circumstances, even though I was paying for this ride, I felt unable to ask this clearly sensitive man to turn down his deafening rap music.

'I'm not your slave'

The fact is Parisians employed in any service industry simply do not buy into the Anglo Saxon maxim, "He who pays the piper calls the tune."

Waiter in French restaurant
In France your waiter expects to be addressed formally as Monsieur, in exactly the same way he will address you

The revolution of 1789 has burned the notion of equality deep into the French psyche and a proud Parisian finds it abhorrently degrading to act subserviently.

This Sunday, a Parisian friend of mine waited in line at the fruit and vegetable stall of his local market.

When it was his turn to be served, he asked the seller for a kilo of leeks.

"They're at the other end of the stall," snapped the vendor waspishly. "Take a bit of exercise and get them yourself."

There is no mistaking the undertone, "I'm not your slave."

At my doctor's, the two dour receptionists are quite delightful when we meet on the street, sharing jokes and asking kindly after my broken leg.

Back behind their desk, however, they brood and scowl. There is not even a gesture of recognition, let alone a friendly smile.

On the street it is acknowledged that we are equals but, once back in the surgery - in that uncomfortable position of service provider and client - the receptionists become wary of a potential shift of power and are quick to squash any assumptions of superiority.

Blunt honesty

In America, your waiter comes to your restaurant table to tell you his name is Joe. Here, your waiter expects to be addressed formally as Monsieur, in exactly the same way he will address you.

It is made clear from the start that no-one has the upper hand. The strict code of manners in Paris is a deliberate class-leveller.

'Don't even think about it,' said the shop assistant bluntly, 'not with that big fat leg'

Perhaps Parisians are just being honest.

Our American waiter Joe, after all, only promises to give us "good folks a great time" because he wants a terrific tip but, in Paris, providing quality is a matter of personal pride.

In the boulangerie next to our office, the baker spends a good 90 seconds skilfully wrapping up my plain brioche into an artistic cornet, even though she must know I will rip it open the second I leave her shop.

When I ask the local greengrocer for an avocado, he asks when I plan to eat it before dutifully feeling every avocado in the box to find the one which will be perfectly ripe on that day.

Last week, as I waited in the damp gloom for a taxi to take me home after yet another hospital appointment, I decided to shelter in the expensive dress shop next door.

I held up a woollen dress against me and admired myself in the mirror.

The shop assistant, nonchalantly blowing bubble-gum bubbles, looked narrowly at me and shook her head.

"Don't even think about it," she said bluntly, "not with that big fat leg."