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Dune and progressive media illiteracy

Leftist moralism obscures thematic depth in its frantic rush to judge

Leftists have completely lost the plot — literally. Every time a new blockbuster film is released, the discourse predictably devolves into a debate over its problematic themes. This is nothing new; leftists have been highly critical of media depictions of people and cultures for ages, but this is happening with greater frequency even as films spoon-feed the audience a political subtext that is overtly critical of the themes they’re condemning. We see an ironic backlash, moralising about the harmful stereotypes and tropes the film “promotes” even when these depictions are by their very nature, self-critical. 

Dune cannot be accurately characterised as a white saviour story when its explicit thesis is that we should be wary of self-appointed saviours

Dune is no exception to this baffling media illiteracy. There has been no shortage of op-eds released in recent years disparaging Frank Herbert’s novel and Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptations as an orientalist white saviour story that simultaneously culturally appropriates Middle Eastern culture while erasing representations of its people. These criticisms ring hollow if you engage with the story in any thoughtful manner. Dune cannot be accurately characterised as a white saviour story when its explicit thesis is that we should be wary of self-appointed saviours, of charismatic leaders who claim a benevolent desire to liberate people from their oppression, regardless of their race.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Denis Villeneuve said, “When the first novel came out, Frank Herbert was disappointed by the way the book has been perceived. We felt that the readers were thinking that Dune was a celebration of Paul Atreides, but rightly the opposite. His intentions were to make a cautionary tale, a warning towards messianic figures.” This caused Herbert to write a follow-up book called Dune: Messiah, where the dangers of blind allegiance are spelled out more clearly. In Villeneuve’s film adaptation, he transformed Chani’s character into a more prominent, sceptical, and outspoken character. “Through her eyes, we understand what Paul becomes and in which direction he goes, which transformed the movie not into a celebration but as Frank Herbert was wishing, more of a warning,” Villeneuve explains. Chani becomes the moral centre that the audience identifies with, which awakens them to the warning signs of what Paul is about to become.

These themes are teased in the film adaptations, too, even though we’ve only explored the story’s beginning. Paul’s father says in Dune Part One, “A great man does not seek to lead; he is called to it.” Paul is at first reluctant to take up the mantle as the long-prophesied Kwisatz Haderach but eventually succumbs to this path, especially after exposure to spice unlocks his prescient abilities. The Kwisatz Haderach can uniquely access the genetic memories of his ancestors through both the maternal and paternal lines — something the Bene Gesserit have been working on by manipulating bloodlines for thousands of years to produce such a powerful being. The Kwisatz Haderach will fill in this blind spot that prevents the Bene Gesserit from seeing the big picture, as they can only access their maternal ancestor’s memories. 

Gifted with prescience, Paul not only gains wisdom and insight from the past, but can bridge time and space to see various paths into the future and map out a course to deliver this future into reality. While the Bene Gesserit have interests in guiding the evolution of humanity and preserving the human race, the Kwisatz Haderach also serves their interests of obtaining increasing power, intending the Kwisatz Haderach to be entirely under their control. The Bene Gesserit carefully planted the seeds of propaganda among the Fremen, successfully indoctrinating them into believing that a messiah would come to liberate them from oppression. They carefully curate the prophecy of the Lisan al Gaib, which translates to “Voice from the Outer World” — a messiah who will (conveniently) come from outside of the Fremen community to lead them into a jihad to reclaim their land and bring about a new age of prosperity by terraforming their planet into a lush, green planet.

The careful manipulation of the Fremen by the Bene Gesserit makes them susceptible to embracing Paul, the Kwisatz Haderach, because the signs they are told to look for in the messiah are, by design, exactly what they want them to believe. Paul is burdened through this journey by visions of a bleak future, where he leads the Fremen in a holy war that claims the lives of billions. As much as he tries to prevent this path from becoming reality, it proves too formidable to resist. The Fremen’s fanatical belief in him as their messiah eventually takes hold of Paul, and his prescient abilities, gained after drinking the water of life, to “do what must be done”, as well as seek vengeance for the murder of his father, lead him to exploit the Fremen’s willingness to sacrifice themselves in the name of his holy war. Once Paul has become their “messiah,” even his death would merely make him a martyr, and the jihad would continue in his name. While Paul ends up becoming what he feared the most, there were also forces beyond him that led to all of this bloodshed — Bene Gesserit manipulation to advance their own ends. This quest to access greater power results in the loss of billions of lives through a holy war that sweeps across the universe.

Leftist interpretations of the story, however, miss its cynical take on Paul Atreides and fixates on arbitrary non-issues to stoke racial divisions. This article from The Swaddle claims it depicts Middle Easterners as lacking any agency, with their religious views painted as irrational and humorous, blinding them to accept Paul as their leader. This author argues that even though Chani is openly critical (in the film Dune: Part Two) of this tendency and sees through the machinations of imperialist powers leveraging their religious beliefs against them, “it doesn’t ultimately prevent the bleak conclusion: the Fremen turning into a willing army about to carry out a genocidal ‘holy war’ at the behest of a White saviour who wants to plunder the planet without any opposition, like any other imperialist conqueror. Almost without a will – or agenda – of their own.” 

This is precisely the point. Paul isn’t a white saviour; he’s a false prophet. Paul doesn’t save anyone. He and the Bene Gesserit merely use the Fremen to advance a broader agenda. In the process, this causes an interplanetary jihad and the deaths of billions of people, with Paul declaring himself worse than Hitler and Genghis Khan. The religious worship of Paul has more to do with blindly following righteous leaders and how they weaponize every tool at their disposal to achieve their ends, whether through religion, politics, or other resources. 

The Fremen are not depicted as mere useful idiots. We’re reminded repeatedly that the Fremen do not have these superstitions for no reason. They have been deliberately indoctrinated over centuries by the Bene Gesserit. It is, by the way, not so far-fetched that a remote indigenous tribe that lives underground on a planet largely considered inhospitable to life, so far removed from other humans, would devolve into hyper-religiosity. Studies have demonstrated that populations in war-torn countries who experience natural disasters become increasingly religious. The hypothesis is that religious rituals can help reduce anxiety in unstable or hostile environments. In part one of Villeneuve’s Dune, the religious fundamentalists live in the south, where conditions are the harshest. In contrast, Chani, who hails from the north, is more secular, seeing through the prophecies that keep them complacent in their oppression.

The Harkonnens view the Fremen as “rats”. Duncan Idaho, however, after spending time living amongst them, comes back to share his insights about the Fremen with House Atreides. As he explains their ways, Paul observes, “You admire them.” Duncan affirms he does, revealing the Fremen to be resourceful and savvy people who’ve developed ingenious ways to live harmoniously alongside sandworms and how to brace the planet’s harsh conditions. Stilgar’s religious fervour may act as incidental comic relief, but you would expect any isolated society facing oppression and such a harsh environment to cling to religion as a source of meaning and motivation. This is not unlike the Middle Eastern world we know in real life, which is certainly more devoutly religious than the western world.

Stilgar’s religious fervour, demonstrating his beliefs to be unfalsifiable, is integral to the message regarding the dangers of messianic figures. It represents more than just religious delusion but all fanaticism—the desperation for all of their problems to be alleviated by a singular saviour. Even in an interplanetary existence so far into the future, humans have not outgrown their innate religiosity. Religion, as portrayed in Dune, is used as a way to mobilise and inspire people.

Dune is not preoccupied with race, given that the only description provided in the book of race revolves around characters having “olive skin”. The closest description of whiteness is in Chani, who has “fair olive skin”, though a biracial Zendaya plays her in the film adaptation. The Fremen, by contrast, are only described physically as having “weathered skin and blue eyes” (due to exposure to spice). This fixation on race in essays and viral videos critical of Dune is curious, given this detail and the circumstances of the Dune universe. It takes place 20,000 years in the future after bloodlines have been mixing like mad for thousands of years. It’s unclear what we should expect the Fremen to look like. Humanity, having waged war against the machines before Dune takes place and co-existing with monstrous creatures like giant sandworms, hybrids of humans and worms, fish people, shapeshifters, and human clones, have more pressing divisions than race. 

You cannot at once accuse a film of culturally appropriating Middle Eastern culture and, in the next breath, criticise it for not being Muslim or Arabic enough. The Middle East heavily inspired Dune’s setting, characters, and central conflict, but race is not a focus of the film’s central warning about being charmed by and following charismatic leaders. The universe and the characters who populate it are, after all, fictional, and given that the story is wholly uninterested in making a racial commentary, there is no reason the Fremen “must” be any particular race. 

Herbert drew inspiration from a wide range of sources, including Islam, Buddhism, ecology, native american tribes, magic mushrooms, and historical conflicts. Dune was written during the Cold War, amidst the Cuban Missile Crisis, when oil was the most important natural resource of the mid-20th century. House Atreides is largely believed to represent Western civilization, while House Harkonnen represents the Soviet Union and the Fremen, of course, the Arabic world. 

What region of the world was rich in this highly coveted resource? The Middle East. Herbert’s son Brian, who continued the book series after his death, has said, “Dune is a modern-day conglomeration of familiar myths, a tale in which great sandworms guard a precious treasure of melange, the geriatric spice that represents, among other things, the finite source of oil.” One of the opening lines in the first Dune film is, “He who controls Arrakis controls the spice, and he who controls the spice controls the universe.” Spice, an allusion to oil in the novel, makes interstellar travel possible, and it’s why the Imperium mines the planet Arrakis for spice. These allusions to the occupation of the Middle East for means of oil are not-so-subtle.

At the beginning of Villeneuve’s Dune Part One, Chani describes the Harkonnen as outsiders who ravage their lands in front of the Fremen’s eyes, mining the planet for spice production and becoming obscenely rich. After explaining that the Fremen’s attempt to free Arrakis from the Harkonnens failed, the emperor suddenly decreed that the Harkonnens flee Arrakis, ceasing control of the planet’s spice production. Chani says in a voice-over, “Why did the emperor choose this path? And who will our next oppressors be?” This exposition, which makes the viewer sympathetic to Chani and the Fremen, could hardly be used to aid the argument that Dune is a pro-imperialist story.

Edward Said’s influential book Orientalism argues that in Western art, the East is depicted as exotic, mysterious, and inferior; they’re otherized. Dune has been unfairly slated as orientalist, with critics insisting the Fremen are used as a vehicle to depict MENA people as “others”. These criticisms are paradoxical. I keep encountering arguments that the Middle Eastern influences are “tropes”, but no one has been able to point out how they’re inaccurate, harmful or how they seek to fetishize or demonise Middle Eastern culture. The objection, ironically, seems to be in any inclusion of Islamic or Arabic motifs, but in the next breath, they complain of a lack of MENA representation.

Tiktoks went viral, such as this one by user fantasticfrankey, who says Paul is one of the biggest examples of the white saviour trope she’s seen in a while. Dune’s cautionary tale about charismatic leaders becomes muddled, she argues, because “this white leader magically becomes an expert at all of the native customs that he’s introduced to, while quite literally performing miracles and gaining powers that make him omnipotent.” Paul certainly does not “magically” become an expert at the Fremen customs. He studies them for years and lives among them, understanding their customs and way of life directly, where they teach him how to sand walk and summon sand worms to ride them through the desert like an invertebrate Uber. 

Paul is also genetically gifted, born of royal blood and a Bene Gesserit mother, having been trained as a mentat and in “the way” of the Bene Gesserit. All of this, combined with the careful conditioning of the Fremen by the Bene Gesserit, which causes them to see Paul as the Lisan al Gaib, poises Paul as the perfect man for the job. Paul is also not depicted as their liberator, as many claim, in the grand scheme of things. Some factions of the Fremen become disillusioned by the changes Paul brings to their culture by terraforming their planet. In God Emperor of Dune, Arrakis is no longer recognizable, and their culture has lost most of its meaning and value in its traditions. In Heretics of Dune, the vast majority of Fremen have been killed off.

The cultural appropriation question is this: does Dune, drawing from Middle Eastern inspiration, call for the representation of Muslim people? Critical arguments are somewhat confused, as the critics lamenting the lack of MENA representation also point to an inadequacy in the depiction of the Fremen as people being insufficiently Muslim (such as changing certain Arabic words) despite the fact we have no idea what these people would look like after 20,000 years of mixing bloodlines. The Fremen, mind you, are not a 1:1 comparison to any specific tribe of people.

The inspiration for the lifestyle of the Fremen is drawn from the Bedouin nomads. There are plenty of references to Middle Eastern culture in the Fremen’s style of dress, with Arabic-reminiscent words and spice being the metaphorical oil. However, there are also African influences, such as the San people of the Kalahari desert and indigenous tribes like the native americans. This is where we get themes of spirituality, resistance to colonisation, and a strong connection to their land. Consequently, it makes pinning down the exact people the Fremen represent a little counterintuitive and beside the point. The Fremen are the descendants of the zensunni wanderers, a group of people who fled persecution and enslavement by the imperial raiders. They followed a Zensunni religion, which was largely influenced by Sunni Islam and Buddhism, yet another trend of competing influences, making the task of pinning down the exact metaphor counterintuitive. 

Why have so many lost the ability to grapple with the rich inner worlds of stories, instead becoming preoccupied with surface-level details

Amid my frustrations, I was relieved to see this astute commentary from a user on X. He tweets, “Dunking on Lady Jessica for appropriating Muslim culture in Dune 2 is like dunking on Kirk Lazarus for Blackface in TROPIC THUNDER. As I was watching, I was like, well, he’s made this so broad & simplistic no one could misunderstand & I’m the idiot for continuing to be surprised.” Dune is an example of cultural appreciation. The examples incited to condemn its appropriation of Middle Eastern culture involve a subtext of condemnation.

Why have so many lost the ability to grapple with the rich inner worlds of stories, instead becoming preoccupied with surface-level details as if they’re the be-all and end-all of a film’s message? Frank Herbert once said, “As a member of the collegium of the World Without War Council, I have bowed out of active participation, although not out of belief in that kind of work. I think that we can’t address this problem of war unless we address our own bureaucratic tendencies. Our tendencies to create a structure, such as the World Without War Council, which then becomes much more interested in maintaining its own form, its own identity, the ongoing need for its services, rather than to create an organisation of form which puts itself out of business.”

He unwittingly yet perfectly encapsulated the problem of downstream critical race theory wreaking havoc on art criticism, which hinges on the very same principle. The fixation on the perpetual existence of race-based oppression incentivises the identification of white supremacy even where it does not exist. Critics must, after all, find white supremacy in order to deconstruct it. It’s merely interested in maintaining its own form, its own identity, the ongoing need for its services. If they had actually paid attention to Herbert’s story, they’d know Herbert would be extremely wary of their desire to be saviours for people of colour.

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