I have discussed charisma so often on this blog that I feel like I need to talk a little bit more about what it actually is. 

I have previously wondered whether charisma is something that is learned or innate. Personally, I am inclined to suspect it is some sort of genetic trait, though I base this idea chiefly off of the example of the Kennedy family. Likewise, as I have said, wouldn’t people like Hillary Clinton, Martha Coakley and Richard Nixon, who were all anti-charismatic, have taken the trouble to learn charisma if they could?

I should point out that “Charisma” is derived from a Greek word meaning “favored by the Gods”. So, I suppose a religious person or person of faith would say that this is, indeed, what charisma is. I don’t just mean the branch of Christianity called  “the Charismatic movement“, but it seems to me that any religious person could argue for the validity of the argument that charismatic people are, if you will, touched by God. I suppose that such an argument might go like this: “God endows certain people with special gifts–quite apart from any of their other skills or traits–to make an impact on humanity.”

This is actually a pretty compelling argument, given the mysterious and rather mystical effect charisma can have on people. It does seem divine when you watch a charismatic person speak to a crowd.

So, do you believe this is a divine phenomenon, or do you incline to another explanation?  

Fascinating interview with James Cameron about Avatar‘s message. He says: “The movie is designed to work as a straightforward adventure and a romance, and if that’s all you want from a movie, that’s fine, but the message isn’t going over people’s heads.”

I doubt this highly. The message is, as so many people have pointed out, not in the least bit original, nor can anyone claim it is even the best execution of this story. I knew how the whole thing would play out the minute I saw the ads. The only reason I saw the thing was to see what the special effects were like. I strongly suspect the same was true of most people.  Furthermore, because of how radical the message is (at times, anyway) I strongly doubt most people fully get it.

Cameron, of course, can’t admit this, even to himself. If he did, it would mean he was simply a shallow magician, not an artist. He is merely making people ooh and ahh over pretty effects. He is in no way advancing any new ideas. 

As for the idea that the movie is about something other than the Iraq war; this is partially true, but partially misleading. It is obvious that the “shock and awe” reference is supposed to evoke Iraq, but it is likewise obvious that I doubt his point about harming the environment relates to the Iraq war. Even if you think the Iraq war was entirely about oil, it’s hard to claim it ruined the pristine beauty of the country, since someone would drill for the stuff anyway. I assume the jungle setting for the story–which Cameron is said to have been thinking about since he was a teenager–is based on the Vietnam war; although no resources were involved in that war as far as I know. 

Actually, for all the talk about environmentalism, the movie’s “message”, such as it is, has little to do with environmentalism. One of the central points about being environmentally friendly is that if you change one part of the ecosystem, it affects the whole planet. But this is not true once you are talking about affecting ecosystems on other planets.

The message of Avatar is not pro-environmentalism, but rather anti-colonialism. (This is, of course, an even older theme.)

As for the is-Avatar-pro-or-anti-military issue, I don’t think Cameron himself knows. I suspect his worldview is such that he can’t decide which is worse: the army or a private corporation. So he makes it a private mercenary army, so as to have it both ways. This, apart from any other considerations, doesn’t work dramatically because he never decides if he’s satirizing gung-ho militarism or private greed. 

He also says that part of the message is “‘Listen to what your leaders are saying. Open your eyes. And understand what the run-up to war is like, so the next time it happens, you can question it.’ “

Alright, nice message. Except that the hero, Jake Sully, doesn’t actually ever question anything. I don’t believe he ever makes any attempt to discuss anything with the villainous Colonel. It would not be productive, of course, because the Colonel is a one-dimensional character; but that is no excuse. If Cameron can’t even write a scenario in which his own message can be put across properly, it means he needs to brush up on his writing.

What Avatar represents is a mish-mash of vague leftist ideas masquerading as a satire. It’s a satire of Iraq when it wants to be, then lurches into being a morality play about the treatment of Native Americans, and from there into something about environmentalism. These issues are different, of course, but what does Cameron care? When Cameron was told the movie “seemed like the story of the Taliban told from the movement’s point of view,”  the article says that Cameron “finds that kind of literalism ‘egregious’ and ‘willfully ignorant of the power of allegorical storytelling.'” 

Actually, it is very cognizant of the power of allegorical storytelling. But because Cameron’s script is wide and its targets constantly changing, he can always say “Well, that bit wasn’t about the Taliban.”

To be continued…

Thanks to Big Hollywood for discussing this interview.

Says GOP Senate candidate Curtis Coleman:

“Embryonic stem cell research is taking the concept of taking a life and using it to conduct experiments so we can temporarily extend somebody else’s life. Let me tell you what I just described. I just described what the Nazis did to the Jews in the death camps of WWII.”

And yet again, we find that a government program is being compared to Nazi Germany. As Godwin’s law implies, every person and thing in politics gets compared to Nazis in general and/or Hitler in particular eventually. Here is an interesting examination of this phenomenon. As the author of that piece notes: “Everyone calls everyone a Nazi when they want to win a debate.”

I suppose it’s good that everyone is still so horrified by the atrocities of the Nazis that they keep worrying about it. Still, I can’t help but wonder if, as Godwin warned, this trivializes the magnitude of their crimes.

I will close with a quote that is often attributed to Senator Huey Long:

“When Fascism comes to America, it will be under the name of anti-Fascism.”

So argues Joan Williams:

“Here’s my take on why(Palin made notes on her hand): she knew that they would be visible when she gave the speech. And she knew that she would be made fun of — as so stupid that she needs to write notes on her hand. And that’s one of her most effective tactics — to be made fun of. It’s an integral part of her strategy of standing in for hardworking, Middle Americans, derided by the condescending, know-it-all liberal elites.”

It’s possible, but I doubt it. I think she just wanted to remember the correct order for the Q&A session. And frankly, nobody needs to be convinced of Palin’s folksy charm anymore–it’s her policy credentials that are perceived as her weakness. This is a needless move if indeed it is a calculated strategy.

The Wall Street Journal notes:

“The President’s changes in antiterror policy have never been as dramatic as he or his critics have advertised. His supporters on the left have repeatedly howled when the Justice Department quietly went to court and offered the same legal arguments the Bush Administration made, among them that the President has the power to detain enemy combatants indefinitely without charge. He has also ramped up drone strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Pakistan.

However, the Administration has tried to break from its predecessors on several big antiterror issues…”

(Italics mine.)

Maybe I’m crazy, but the italicized portion seems to be implying that this is in keeping with Bush’s policies, when, in fact it is a break from them. “Ramping up” means changing the policy. It’s not as drastic, I admit, but nevertheless Obama and Bush are not the same when it comes to the drone policy. Obama is more aggressive. This probably part of the reason Obama’s track record vs. Jihadism compares favorably with G.W. Bush’s and Clinton’s over their first terms.

Michael Wolff says:

“But capturing it all—the clichés, vapidness, illogic, inversions of reality, Cheneyisms, and her (Sarah Palin’s) constant whacking at Obama’s legitimacy—he (Andrew Sullivan) yet misses something.

He misses how really compelling she is. Unaccountably amazing. It could be the meaninglessness itself, and her confidence in it, that is so riveting. But I think it’s something else.”

In the immortal words of Paul Graham: “It’s charisma, stupid.Charisma is just that powerful. It is a hard to define thing, and yet when someone has it, they have it, and it makes them seem inexplicably compelling.  

P.S. The title of this post is a reference to the musical Fiddler on the Roof. It occurred to me when I read the above quote. FYI, it’s actually not true in the lager context of the song, though; because charisma is a destabilizing element in politics. This guy named Max Weber will explain it to you.