(Here there be spoilers for all of The Legend of Korra. You have been warned, you giant babies.)
First, let’s take our conversation out of its context. I’m a sworn enemy of decontextualization, but we’ll fix it, I promise. Imagine that you haven’t seen the spoiler warning above, or read the title of my piece. Now, imagine that you live in a different country. Things have been strange lately; there was significant political upheaval a generation or two ago. However, it seems that affairs have re-normalized somewhat. People are going about their lives; industry has resumed what seems like normal function. Now, I’d like you to imagine that people are disappearing. Imagine that they are being taken from their homes in the middle of night, never to be heard from again. Imagine finding out that this is largely orchestrated by the powerful and secretive force tasked with protecting your country’s head of state and executing their will.
Some of you will note that this is very much like the situation that led up to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically-elected Prime Minister of Iran, was overthrown in a coup d’etat orchestrated by the CIA and MI6 (yes, Americans, we did this). This allowed for the Shah of Iran and his military puppet government to rule in an absolute monarchy. Under his rule, with the help of SAVAK, a secret police agency tasked with domestic and external law enforcement, Iran held thousands of political prisoners. Many of these were intellectuals, dissidents, and revolutionaries. You’d agree that something must be done about a situation like this, wouldn’t you?
Now, imagine for a second that instead you lived in neighboring Iraq, where child soldiers fought in the armed forces as recently as a decade ago, facing punishment for any refusal. Certainly you’d agree that forcing children as young as twelve into armed service is among the most heinous of crimes. It’s the sort of thing that warlords in the developing world do. It’s the sort of thing that Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and UNICEF have whole campaigns to stop. Its association with Timothy McVeigh aside, the quotation goes: “the tree of liberty must, from time to time, be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Thomas Jefferson said that.
So, now that I’ve buried the lede about six fathoms deep, let’s recontextualize. What I’ve described is not dissimilar from what we discover the Earth Queen is doing in Book 3 of The Legend of Korra. She’s kidnapping the new airbenders, people as young as Kai, and forcing them into her airbender regiment, where they are beaten as a matter of course. Put another way, Hou-Ting is kidnapping children, torturing them, and forcing them to become soldiers. She does so with the entire force of the Earth Kingdom at her command, to say nothing of the rather impressive Dai Li. There’s no legal recourse to stop her. But, certainly you’d agree that this is unacceptable and that something must be done.
That’s pretty deep stuff for a children’s show. I raise these points because in Book 3, Legend of Korra essentially asks the same questions that it did in Book 1 with the Amon and the Equalists: If a system is or leader is fundamentally corrupt, unequal, or oppressive, to what lengths can or should one go to abolish it?
In Book 1, the question is essentially one of a racist society, and explores the same kinds of ideas that, say, the X-Men comics do, but from a different angle. With the X-Men, those with inborn additional power are treated as freaks. They are the ostracized, the oppressed. The world of the Avatar is very different. Bending is an ancient institution, and with the advent of Republic City, the structures that maintain bender supremacy are codified and organized like never before. Our heroes, aware of their privilege or not, are part of a privileged overclass. It takes serious events for them to even begin to acknowledge that the world is oppressive to non-benders. It’s important to remember that:
One of the most sinister things about normalized racism is you don’t have to have bad intentions to be racist, you just have to remain ignorant.
The show never really deals with this in a meaningful way. In “When Extremes Meet” (transcript), during the “You’re our Avatar, too” bit, Korra is shown to care for all persons, bending or non, and endeavors to stop Tarrlok from arresting the non-benders he accuses of being Equalists. She fights Amon, a charismatic but violent revolutionary who may ultimately have oppressive intentions, to defend all of Republic City, not just its benders. But she is simultaneously defending what has already been revealed to be an oppressive status quo.
The ending of Book 1 simply adds insult to injury on this point. I’m not talking about the poorly executed deus ex machina which very simply restored the pre-Book 1 status quo (and left me kind of wondering if all this was necessary if all we were going to achieve was locking up some criminals and Korra learning airbending). Rather, I feel that the show failed to actually examine or challenge the central issue driving the plot. There’s a post over at The Cake Was A Lie that sums up some issues nicely:
If someone wants to tell a story about a violent revolution being quashed, if they want to paint the existing government as the good guys and say that the protagonist and friends are heroes for maintaining the status quo, they have to explain to me why the current government is worth saving.
We’ve seen plenty of evidence that the system is unequal and that the Council is an easily manipulated oligarchy vulnerable to corruption.The solution to this is apparently to replace the Council with a jerk of a President, who wins his election by riding the money of crazed and eccentric war-profiteer. Clearly a huge improvement. That, though irritating, is not my largest objection. Rather, it is that instead of being an honest non-bender with a legitimate protest against an oppressive society whose methods have gone too far, Amon is revealed to be a scheming and deceitful waterbender who inherited his beef with the Avatar from his criminal father. The election of an ineffectual, wholly bought, president and the discrediting of the Equalist movement seems to skirt the actual issue of inequality. The issue is never meaningfully raised again.
Coming back to Book 3, it frankly does not seem unreasonable that one should wish for the violent overthrow of the Earth Queen, or see it as a valid (read: only) option for stopping her oppressive practice. In fact, someone living in the world of the Avatar who had studied their history might find it very easy to come to the same conclusions as Zaheer. Look at Tarrloq, Unalaq, Chin the Conqueror, Fire Lord Ozai, Fire Lord Azulon, Fire Lord Sozin, even the Dai Li, which Avatar Kyoshi created with the best of intentions.
The people of this world have suffered oppression at the hands of numerous leaders, because of their ineptitude, misguided goodwill, and in some cases actual sinister intent. Why shouldn’t someone rid the world of leaders who kidnap and torture children as a part of government policy, and how else can they do it but violently when those leaders have nigh-absolute power in their own polities? In “The Stakeout” (transcript) we’re treated to a little philosophical parley between Zaheer and Korra, as follows:
Zaheer: The idea of having nations and governments is as foolish as keeping the human and spirit realms separate. You’ve had to deal with a moronic president and a tyrannical queen. Don’t you think the world would be better off if leaders like them were eliminated?
Korra: No. I mean, I don’t really agree with what they’ve done, but taking out world leaders isn’t the answer.
Zaheer: It wasn’t too long ago that the airbenders were nearly all wiped out, thanks to the Fire Lord’s desire for world dominance. True freedom can only be achieved when oppressive governments are torn down.
Korra: But that won’t bring balance. It will throw the world into chaos.
Zaheer: Exactly. The natural order is disorder. Do you know who once said, “New growth cannot exist without first the destruction of the old”?
Zaheer: The wise Guru Laghima. An airbender.
Again, we’re presented with an argument for taking apart what appears to be an oppressive structure, and no real counter-argument from the good guys. All we get is that Zaheer’s way isn’t the answer, which isn’t terribly constructive, and the presumption that order is preferable to chaos. I don’t necessarily expect answers from Korra. She’s bright, but deep philosophical engagements aren’t her strong suit; she’s a teenager (or fresh from it) and she hasn’t really had time to think about this, and so I’m not surprised that she doesn’t have a strong counterpoint. However, the show gives us an object lesson to answer that question. Look what happens after Zaheer’s elimination of the Earth Queen. The Earth Kingdom, especially Ba Sing Se, is thrown into chaos by looting, vandalism, and division. There are riots and destruction. I, personally, would argue that these are not the result of a lack of order, but a reaction to centuries of income and class inequality in a city where the poor and the rich are physically separated.
But even the first episode of Book 4 shows Kuvira, “the Great Uniter”, in a troubling light. Her method of re-unification is not gentle persuasion. While she’s not Ozai, she still cows, cajoles, and threatens leaders into re-unification with the Earth Kingdom. As an aside, she has a very Qin Shi Huangdi vibe to her, aiming to unite all of the Earth Kingdom by force if necessary, just as the Qin Emperor did with the Warring States of China. So, as soon as we’re told that Zaheer’s method and ideology are incorrect, and that government can really be a force for good, we’re shown something that casts some doubt on whether that’s true. I like that, though. It gives me hope that this inquiry is really going to be tackled, unlike the one introduced in Book 1 and just sort of left there.
Now, I’m not an anarchist. I do believe that government can be a force for good, and that social contracts arise naturally among human beings. But it’s decidedly unsatisfying that the argument for such a thing should be presented as “Because I said so, and I’m the Avatar”, followed by some crazy feat of bending. Or, more likely, given the show’s history, followed by some startling inaction or Korra falling into a trap. But those are discussions for another day. This whole series we’ve been waiting for Korra to come into her own, not just in terms of bending ability, and not just in terms of her personal identity. A fully realized Avatar must also come to terms with their political responsibility. It’s fairly likely that she won’t be right, or won’t get the perfect answer, but she has to make some choices and articulate why she believes (and acts) as she does. To do otherwise is like being handed the bat and dropping it on home plate instead of swinging.