The very pinnacle of bending arguably ended with Avatar Aang’s defeat of Firelord Ozai. Katara, Toph, and Zuko were all master benders in their own right – including Sokka as a master swordsman and strategist. In The Legend of Korra, bending seems to be weaker along with a lost sense of spirituality. Why is that? And does it have anything to do with Avatar Aang and Firelord Zuko’s creation of Republic City?
The Manhattan Island Analogy
I remember hearing long ago, that the Indian Nations who once ruled Manhattan before it was sold never lived there – everybody commuted for the day, and then went home back to their lands after the ‘work day’.
Why? Because it was a ‘place of sale’ of sorts – a place meant to engage in commerce with other nations, tribes, and peoples – but not a place to permanently live surrounded by that chaos.
Politics and Society in Avatar the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra
Thinking back to that quote as I rewatched portions of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra – that made complete sense to me. If you’ve seen the show, you probably remember Ba Sing Se, right? It was messed up. But why was it messed up so badly? Because at its core, it has weak leadership.
It has been a 100-year war and the Earth King was fairly young, so obviously he wasn’t the first one who was ‘manipulated’ by the Dai Li lies and oppression. If anything, since they were secret police, maybe the original Earth King or Queen during the war created them – or they were something that always existed. Ba Sing Se had three walls separated by class creating a harsh social hierarchy, after all.
Including the political refugees and those fleeing the war due to Fire Nation aggression, there were a lot of security threats that could sneak in to disrupt the delicate and overly-policed regime – manely the Fire Nation royal family in Uncle Iroh, Zuko, and Azula by robbing the Kyoshi Warriors of their costumes.
Despite this (arguably) making the security worse and the society more divided, the heavily enforced policies of there being “no war in Ba Sing Se” except a silent and social one completely eradicated any trust the lower classes could have in one another – disrupting any formation of ‘community’ we saw during the resistance in Earth Kingdom and even Water Tribe nations during the series throughout the Gaang’s adventures.
The people of Ba Sing Se don’t trust one another, the people in the lower classes are all dirt-poor refugees and thugs who rob one another for food despite not really wanting to (i.e. the ‘thief’ Uncle Iroh teaches a better stance to, Zuko and Jet on the boat, Zuko’s Blue Spirit persona in general).
Because there is a lack of resources available, a lack of freedom of speech to speak about their shared experiences in the war, and an ever present surveillance state that tracks their every move – even in the upper ring (like the scholar from the university that the Gaang try to question that is silenced by Joo Dee, or the Gaang being kidnapped right in the middle of the Earth King’s party by Dai Li forces) – prevents the formation of a trusted community and complete integration for refugees in the Earth Kingdom nation of Ba Sing Se.
The Legend of Korra and the New Bending Community
In times past, during Avatar Aang’s life bending was still viewed as something sacred. The Legend of Korra even has an episode about Avatar Wan and how he became the first Avatar due to pursuing balance between the human and spirit world. Before that, the spirits freely gave their power to humans of the nations to complete tasks, and it was taken back at the end of the day.
Interestingly enough, Korra is the Avatar who “loses the connection” with the past Avatars spanning 10,000 years, and in Book 4 she ushers in a NEW AGE of humans freely living with the spirits and co-existing. There was so much emphasis in Aang’s time that the human and spirit world needed to be separated (and originally the four nations), and unforeseen circumstances lead to the spirit world’s renewed existence in the people of Republic City’s daily lives and the bestowing of bending (especially air) to a new generation who had lost that connection.
I feel like that’s what’s happening right now in our world – the spirituality is finally coming back to our dead world. The natural vibrations of the earth and the aether that surrounds it is being drowned out by 5G and other unnatural frequencies that kill any magic we still had left in this realm. People finally realize this – and are fighting back, returning to nature. It’s such a wonderful (yet scary) thing to see.
But back to my original point – bending was special in Avatar Aang’s time.
In Republic City, we see the three nations living together on a limited amount of resources and taking advantage of each other in order to control the city. I say three, because the 4th element – air – was set on an island under a gigantic statue set away from the rest of the nations. Because Aang so desperately wanted to control the repopulation of his nation, he refused to let his lone airbending son Tenzin mingle with the other nations.
Aside from being a bit hypocritical on Aang’s part, he did have a point.
I don’t remember who, but someone in the original series (Avatar Roku?) mentioned that the four nations are meant to be just that – four. Separate, despite being able to learn from one another and being connected in more ways than one.
Loss of Spirituality and Weaker Bending in The Legend of Korra
In The Legend of Korra, there is no sort of connection to the elements aside from what power it can bestow upon the bender to get the upper hand on their enemies. (or in Mako’s case, lightening bending – used mainly by fire nation royalty in Aang’s time – was now used to power factories in Korra’s life.)
Where Toph bended metal to escape a prison meant to bring her back home, Republic City police officers bend metal to apprehend criminals. Which is fine in that context. Until we get to Kuvira.
We have gangs of rouge firebenders serving as stand ins for modern-day triads, sleezy watertribe members serving in political councils for power, and earth nation citizens like the cabbage guy building mega corporations and ruthlessly stomping out the competition.
Where benders like Toph, Aang, and Katara could simply ride the elements by gliding on earth, surfing the water, and literally gliding on air – everybody (even benders) now drive satomobiles to get around. Unless their poor, in which case they just walk.
Where Aang, Toph, Sokka and Katara (and Zuko/Uncle Iroh) could just stop in a town and live on the outskirts in the woods – fishing, foraging and hunting for food as needed – Korra gets yelled at and apprehended by police for trying to fish a city pond in order to eat breakfast in Republic City.
Toph’s daughter, Suyin, even decided to fall in with the wrong crowd in Republic City by being a getaway driver for heists and larceny committed by gang members due to her elevated status. When Toph exiles her to live with her rich grandparents back in the Earth Nation, Suyin eventually uses available land to build her own community called the Metal Clan and turns her life around by having a family and using her metalbending powers to protect her people.
This is a stark juxtaposition to her older sister Lin, who stayed in the city and remained a cop of Republic City.
Since Lin never had time away to heal from her breakup with Tenzin (Aang’s son) or the betrayal of Suyin’s crimes being covered up by her mother Toph, Lin turned into a bitter and uncaring woman. When it is suggested she go get acupressure to deal with some of her internal trauma, it makes her even sicker (a la Zuko just before the Book 2 finale) but eventually allows her to make up with her sister and mother.
I would like to argue that if Lin had time to just decompress, she could have dealt with her emotional trauma and maybe even found somebody new to love in her life. Because she never had that time due to Republic City’s nature of “go, go, go” and the philosophy that ‘crime never sleeps’ she could never fix herself despite trying to fix a broken city.
Back to Manhattan Island and the City for Commerce Analogy
So, circling back to my original point mentioned in the opening – the Indian Nations who did commerce on Manhattan Island never lived there. Why, you may ask? Because a society built around commerce and power is not a long-lived one.
Present day New York City is for all intents and purposes – a complete and utter disaster. It’s slowly turning into Gotham more and more each day, and its ilk is spreading to the tri-state area and surrounding communities – especially ones like mine that are only an hour away.
Land, community, food, and shelter are the fundamentals of any good society and its formation and sustainment.
There is no (affordable) land in present day New York City (or New York for that matter) and land and buildings that could be put to good use are laying dormant and rotting away due to either:
A. neglectful landlords who have no incentive to renovate due to existing NYC laws or
B. the land is owned by the city (a fictitious corporate entity) and is being held to completely bring down the value of an area, encourage crime, and
C. rented out to ‘no-bid’ contracts whose companies remain anonymous and hidden behind LLC which quite frankly, appear to be a racketeering scheme.
While The Legend of Korra never got that crazy, we did see characters like Councilman Tarrlok bend the law (and even kidnap the Avatar – the one set to bring balance and peace to the world by the spirits) outside of wartime to achieve his own selfish ends. Or characters like Mako and Bolin, orphans who occasionally worked for the Triads in order to make enough money to survive on the streets…only to become pro-bending athletes and have their money illegally taken from them each match due to “maintenance fees” like food and shelter by their manager.
Which…started the whole process over of Bolin turning back to the Triads (and getting kidnapped in an Equalist raid on the gang) for money to enter the pro-bending finals and Mako getting a job using his lightening bending in a factory before finding a rich girlfriend to swindle – I mean “love”.
But, what do you think animated media like Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra can tell us about society? Spirituality? Or where we are heading as a collective?
Leave your thoughts in the comment section below, and until next time ~
❂ Stories From the New World