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Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Metal Clan and Utopianism

A couple weeks back, I ended my post on Zaheer and Zen Anarchism (that sounds so fun to write) with a promise that the next time I wrote about The Legend of Korra, I'd talk about the Metal Clan. That day has come, and I now plan onc talking about how the Metal Clan relates to the philosophy of Utopianism.

Utopiansim refers to the belief or philosophy surrounding the concept of utopia. Utopia itself is defined by merriam-webster.com as "an imaginary place in which the government, laws, and social conditions are perfect." Christian philosopher and apologist Dr. William Lane Craig defines Utopiansim as "arrival at... a kind of perfect world, a paradise on earth, as it were—the perfect society." Although this precise term wasn't coined until English philosopher Thomas More wrote the book Utopia in 1516, the idea of utopia has been around since Plato's Republic at least, which dates back to around 380 B.C. Utopia has been discussed in various other literature and other media across the centuries, and in the modern era has led to the development of the respected but relatively new genre of dystopia. The Legend of Korra provides in Book 3: Change an example of what is for all practical purposes a utopian society: Zaofu, home of the Metal Clan.

Zaofu is a community made up largely of metal and earth-benders, founded and led by some of the descendants of Toph. According to its leader, Suyin Beifong, it is a place where everyone is encouraged to strive for their maximum potential. She also states that it is "the safest city in the world." Indeed it is, as it contains elaborate security measures, such as retractable metal roofs over the city, metal-bending powered gondolas for entry, and a crack squad of metal-bending police, though Lin Beifong doesn't think much of all this. What's more, it's implied that all or many of the city's earth-bending inhabitants have learned Toph's ability to detect lies in other people through earth-bending, providing a neat incentive for the residents of Zaofu to never fib. Zaofu is evidently a meritocracy, housing some of the world's finest scientific minds, including a certain Howard Hughes-esque businessman who we haven't seen since the Book 2 finale. Thus, for all intents and purposes, Zaofu is a utopia, most likely following the philosophy of classical liberalism (not to be confused with liberal progressivism), perhaps not intentionally established, and not stated outright by the characters, but definitely meeting much of the criteria.

But here's the catch: Utopia, by its very definition, is imaginary, just like Zaofu is imaginary. But unlike many imagined utopias, Zaofu's status as an ideal society is subtly deconstructed by pointing out one of the principle holes in the proposal of utopia: Who's going to make it all happen?

Many utopias, especially those based on the principles of socialism, profess that given the proper conditions, a classless, stateless society will emerge in which everyone works for the common good. Of course, this has never happened in reality, with attempted experiments with such models resulting in oppressive dictatorships such as Soviet Russia, Maoist China, Revolutionary France, and countless other nasty historical episodes. The main problem with this idea is that human nature is, by default, self-serving and uncharitable. The only way to organize a group of such creatures to work for the common good is through coercion, such as in a dictatorship or an oligarchy. But if that happens, then the ideal of a classless, stateless society is lost, and the whole experiment is for nothing. Due to their inherently faulty natures, the economies produced by socialism and its ilk generally descend into kleptocracy, or in a few extreme cases, anarchy. In many cases across the modern developing world, multiple dictatorships have risen and fallen in succession, calling to mind the French proverb, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." As Lois H. Sargent wrote in her essay "Anyone for Utopia?" in 1977, "Utopians seem never to give thought to the mechanics of management and operation of their imagined systems."
Cincinnatus (519-430 B.C.)

Part of the reason societies like the Soviet Union developed into dictatorships was because the dictators in question typically don't want to relinquish their power. (The rest of the reason for these particular events have to do with a discussion of Communism, which is beyond the scope of this post.) Rare in history is the benign ruler who, when given absolute power in a time of crisis, resists the temptation to take hold of it until someone else can take it back by force. The Roman statesman Cincinnatus (519-430 B.C.) comes to mind, as does George Washington, who refused the opportunity to become King George I of America after the American War of Independence. In the Soviet Union, people like Lenin and Stalin, despite their ostensibly sincere belief in the Communist Utopia, were evil tyrants who used their power to bring about many deaths, if for Lenin it was thousands and Stalin millions. Later Soviet dictators weren't much better, using their power to line the pockets of they and their friends while the people lived in squalor. 

It is this element of corruption which all dictatorships and oligarchs have in common that exposes a chief vulnerability of any kind of utopia. In The Legend of Korra, a principle leader of Zaofu is revealed to have been in league with the villains. The reason this is significant is because it shows that Utopia can't be accomplished as long as there are imperfect humans trying to make things perfect. All civilizations have rulers, and if a ruler is corrupt, the whole civilization will be corrupt along with him. As we have seen, corruption is often the case in dictatorships. Imagine if the aforementioned Zaofu leader had used his position to accumulate illicit wealth, curry favors, accept bribes, or pervert justice for his own ends, which nearly does happen? What would we make of this Utopian community then?

The other big problem with Utopianism, an extension of the problem outlined above, has to do with the nature of government. Government is designed to restrain the corrupted nature of man, as the founders of the United States set out to do, with successful results. The American experiment is unique in that it went about this task by restraining the government; that is, by setting in place certain safeguards, such as separation of powers and elected representatives, so that the government would not grow too big or oppressive. The founders had no illusions, however, that they could produce a perfect society. James Madison, widely known as "the Father of the Constitution," wrote in The Federalist #51, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." The long and short of it is that there will always be iniquities in any society made up of imperfect men. Even the nation of Israel, whose law codes (forming the first five books of the Bible) were provided by God Himself, and was supposed to be a model for the rest of the world, was a less than perfect society, frequently veering into apostasy, war, civil unrest, and other blights, to the point of being split into two separate kingdoms after the death of Solomon. (See 1 Kings 12)

Oddly enough, Israel in the days of the judges was little more than a loosely federated coalition of tribes led by a council of elders, and yet things were usually just as chaotic then as they were during the period of the kings, if not more so. (See Judges.) Thus, not even a semi-democratic theocracy such at this could bring about Utopia, not by a long shot! If all of this tells us anything, it's that there is no hope of a truly perfect society, not one made by human hands, until the coming of the Lord in His power, when there will be a new Heaven and a new Earth. Imperfect man can never make anything truly perfect, permanent, or stable. This world is, after all, transient and temporary.

In sum, we see from The Legend of Korra than even a society as wonderful and idyllic as that of the Metal Clan is not invulnerable to fault. For all its veneer of Utopia, it is still shown to be fallible in some key respects. It brings to mind another location from Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra's predecessor. This location, the city of Ba Sing Se, is a dystopia controlled by the villainous Grand Secretariat Long Feng, who through the use of the Dai Li, the sinister secret police, claims to be maintaining "an orderly utopia. The last one on Earth." Unfortunately, poor Long Feng is just as deluded as Marx, Wells, and Lenin. The only Utopia to ever exist will come at a time when all of them have faded away, and this one will never fade away: The kingdom of Christ, the Son of the Living God. And unlike any human made utopia, its coming is inevitable and everlasting.

Follow Levi on Twitter at @levi_sweeney, and submit questions and post ideas with the hashtag #QLevi

Image 1 courtesy tv.com. Image 2 courtesy kids.britannica.com.