Avatar: To Bend Another’s Spirit

In the era before the Avatar, we bent not the elements, but the energy within ourselves. To bend another’s energy, your own spirit must be unbendable or you will be corrupted and destroyed.

Above is the quote that the Lion Turtle says to Aang, preparing him for the final confrontation with Fire Lord Ozai, and it always makes me feel and think when I watch what is the best ending to a cartoon ever. I feel choked up, like something true and important is being revealed, and I think about civility, and social change, and compromise, and radicalism, and nonviolence, and disarmament.

In order to bend another’s energy, must our spirit remain unbendable? In the context of worldwide anti-racism protests and riots, what does it mean to bend or not? I think about two approaches to activism, one that is more concerned with purity, and says that there should not be any compromise, and another that is more concerned about civility perhaps, or pragmatism, that calls for the path forward being some middle ground of compromise.

I also think about progress, or especially the lack thereof when we look at race relations in the US. We are more segregated than during Jim Crow, and the police aren’t murdering (and harassing and abusing and framing) more African-Americans, we’re just catching them on camera. When I say “we”, I mean white people. A well-known gaming luminary recently commented on a Facebook thread that he supports the police the way the used to be, before they did all the awful things we see now. I responded that the police haven’t changed, we just have cameras in our pockets and the Internet. None of this would surprise us if we had been listening to people of color the whole time, but it takes protests in 50 states and 18 countries to listen to them now.

I realized that I don’t care what his reply is, I’m just so tired of this “The cops were always friendly in my all-white middle class neighborhood so what are you even talking about?” response.

But, again, who is best to bring about positive change? One who is unbending, uncompromising, or one who bends, and compromises?

The reality seems to be, right now, that evil is uncompromising. With corrupt police departments, there is no compromise. There is no compromise with Mitch McConnell as he stymies progress, halting hundreds of bills and working to stack Federal benches with regressives. There was no compromise on Merrick Garland’s nomination. Over and over, the people working to make the world worse every day show us that they will not compromise.

This is likely what has moved the center rightward in the US rightward for my entire life (40 years and counting)…

Coda: De-Fund the Police (or Abolish Them)

After I started writing this draft, protests broke out in 50 states and 18 other countries against police brutality. Again. After an unarmed African-American man was suffocated to death by a cop on camera. Again. So here we are. Again.

Only this time, the protests are more widespread than I remember in the past, and they do not seem to be losing momentum. I’m hearing more about de-funding the police, and even abolishing the police, than I ever have before. (For the record, I want to abolish police, but I’ll gladly accept radically de-funding them as a compromise).

This brings me right back to the ending of AtLA. The Fire Lord has demonstrated that he will never use his power for anything but evil. He has every chance to change his ways, reconsider, and so on. But he simply will not turn aside from evil. And so Aang has to deal with him – the previous incarnations tell him he must be decisive. Everything is pointing toward killing the Fire Lord.

But Aang disarms him. That is decisive, and it ends his capacity for evil (or at least dramatically reduces it). But in order to do that, in order to bend his spirit, his own spirit must be unbendable.

I end there. We must disarm the police, because they have demonstrated that they will never stop using their power for evil. They are using their power for evil this very moment, brutalizing unarmed protestors who are protesting their brutality. Posing for all-white photo-ops and screaming at the press for vilifying them as white supremacists. Shooting and beating and killing children and elders and everyone in between.

We must disarm them, and we must not bend.