The picture you see to the left here is Tenzin. He is a minor character in a very popular cartoon series that airs on Nickelodeon. The show is into its fourth season, and the last season has seen a lurch forward in time, a new cast, as well as a new primary location.
The picture you see to the right here is Monk Gyatso. He was the mentor of the main character of the first three seasons, the Avatar Aang. Avatars are very particular figures in the universe that this cartoon show builds. There is always one Avatar, and only one. When one avatar dies, he or she is reborn.
One of the reasons that Avatar is a very special series, apart from being very well written and with good and complex story lines and characters, is that unlike most fantasy series it doesn’t draw on some clichéd Middle-Earth analogy that harks back to Tolkien.
It is firmly rooted in eastern traditions, and draws its inspiration from Indian, Chinese and Japanese culture and philosophy. That brings me to introduce the point of this essay, by presenting you with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Llama. You may recognise him. The “Avatar” series is full of references like this one – which is what makes it so good and so refreshing.
You have a cartoon series, produced by Americans, that is viewed and loved by millions upon millions of children and teens all over the world, and whose main world-building thread is the birth-rebirth cycle of the “avatar”, a Sanskrit derived word which means “the incarnation of a Hindu deity, especially Vishnu, in human or animal form”, and what does the Religious Right in America complain about?
This essay is not to build a case against Avatar as a “satanic influence on impressionable minds”, or to play into the kind of mind-set that allow grown men and women to get their knickers so in a twitch that they work to boycott coffee-makers, but to illustrate the warped mental landscape of these people. They happily put their children in front of Avatar while at the same time marshalling the forces against Starbucks.
There is a vacuum of cultural knowledge at the heart of the Religious Right in America, it seems, that make them go after overt expressions of support for say gay rights, at the same time as they do not understand the nuanced expressions of culture and formation. I’d be very happy if the message of tolerance inherent in say Buddhism was implanted into the children of the Religious Right.
Maybe that is why they are losing influence so much that they feel they need to scream out their obscenities into the public spheres, because they chose only to fight the Pyrrhic battles while their kids play happily with their Trojan cultural horses.