The China Desk
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Tinseltown's Sacred Cow
December 17, 1999
Marlon Brando and Richard Gere
The emotionally overwrought quality with which Hollywood's beautiful people have been demonizing China for "human rights abuses" and alleged "territorial ambitions" bewildered me for quite some time. From a Machievellian geo-political perspective I understood it reasonably well. But I have also struggled to understand the irrational antagonism toward China's economic recovery as a global, collective, transpersonal process.
Then while was watching the Discovery Channel's documentary series "How the West was Lost" it struck me. Could what's happening be a collective projection of American guilt over the treatment of American Indians onto the Chinese? Was that too farfetched? After all, the stunt Marlon Brando pulled at the Academy Awards ceremony a number of years ago was echoed by Richard Gere's similar recent performance. Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather to guilt-trip America over the US government's genocidal mistreatment of Native Americans, and years later Gere launches into an impromptu (and embarrassingly self-righteous) sermon about Deng Xiaoping's alleged mistreatment of Tibetans. The two events struck me as having a remarkable resonance.
The Lost Horizon
The conventional wisdom of course, is that aggressively industrializing China is committing "cultural genocide" against "traditional Tibetan society." In this version of events, the Dalai Lama's Lhasa is an idyllic paradise of Love, Light and Harmony -- the Shangri-la of James Hilton's utopian novel "Lost Horizon," and is threatened by Jiang Zemin's quasi-capitalist Beijing, a soul-less, money-grubbing dictatorship unredeemed by Maoist "idealism."
Ironically Hollywood's version of Hilton's tale, made during the Red Decade by depression-era populist Frank Capra was a crypto-Communist propaganda film. But who ever accused movie celebrities of intellectual consistency?
Gone with the Wind
For Americans who know nothing of China's history to presume that they know what life was in pre-1959 Tibet after watching "Seven Years in Tibet" is a little like Chinese who know nothing of America's history presuming they know what life was in the antebellum South after watching "Gone with the Wind." I remember while living in Houston during the 70's my folks and I attended a premiere of a restored version of GWTW. When the scenes of idyllic antebellum life appeared on screen, you know the part I'm talking about -- the graceful mansions, the mint juleps, the gay cotillions -- some schmuck sitting directly behind us sighed to his date "Life must have been wonderful back then!" His date cuddled up to him and sighed in agreement. My brother snickered, loud enough for them to hear, "Yeah, if you were white." The couple had no problem blanking out the awareness that the southern aristocrats' "wonderful life" was squeezed by brute force out of the involuntary servitude of other human beings, for whom life was something less than "wonderful."
Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun
Similarly it has never ceased to flabbergast me how little difficulty the Beautiful People have blanking out the darkside of the Dalai Lama's pre-1959 Tibet. After the premieres of "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Kundun" Jean-Jacques Annaud and Martin Scorsese granted interviews in which they waxed nostalgic about how "spiritual" life was in pre-1959 Tibet. Just think! An entire culture dedicated to nothing but spiritual development! Imagine that! A Shangri-la "gone with the wind," tragically wiped out by grubby materialistic carpetbaggers from Beijing.
If Hollywood New Agers want to evaluate the role of Tibet's serf-owning clergy and aristocrats from a transpersonal, Jungian perspective and absolve them of blame -- fine. But then they are obligated to evaluate the role of the communists from the identical perspective and absolve them too. Instead they want to have it both ways. They want to apply linear ethical criteria to Beijing even as they conveniently edit out the moral outrages of the Dalai Lama's ancien regime.
None of them have any apparent problem blanking out the awareness that this "spiritual" life for a privileged minority of Tibetan elite was squeezed by brute force out of the involuntary servitude of masses of miserable Tibetan serfs for whom life was considerably less than "spiritual." The Beautiful People (now joined by the religious right, of all people) would have us believe that pre-1950s Tibet was one big touchy-feely New Age workshop -- a Findhorn or Esalen in the Himalayas. Maybe it was for the wealthy serf-owning Lamas and aristocrats, but why don't we ask the serfs how it was for them?
When I attend a personal growth workshop and am pampered physically while I work on my psychological and spiritual evolution, I pay for this worthwhile and uplifting experience with money earned by my own honest labor. Similarly, the workshop facilitator supports his material needs by offering his wisdom and talent as a teacher on the open market, for which I pay gladly, voluntarily. Neither he nor I maintain a permanent underclass of abused and mistreated persons whom we rip off at our whim to support our inner journey.
It strikes me as obscene for "Kundun" director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Melissa Mathiessen to hold such an exploitive system up to the world as ethically and spiritually exalted. How is that any different from Margaret Mitchell or D.W. Griffiths holding the Old South up as some sort of "paradise lost?" It is mind-boggling to watch them rationalize the darkside of it all away so breezily, even as they spew venom at the commies for wiping out the entire corrupt mess in sheer disgust. Today's Tibet is run by former serfs, the poor slobs exploited by the Dalai Lama and his faction under the old system, just as South Africa is today run by former political prisoner Nelson Mandela, and South Korea is run by former political prisoner Kim Dae-jung. To me that is justice. Why don't Hollywood filmmakers make a movie about that?
Good Cop, Bad Cop
During high profile interviews on Larry King Live the Dalai Lama smiles benevolently, flatly denies being an agent provocateur for Tibetan independence, and "magnanimously forgives" Beijing for all the bad things they did to "his people" (serf-owing aristocrats who exploited the Tibet region's 90 plus % majority of serfs.)
Meanwhile his "Office of Tibet" website and willing proxies (Robert Thurman, Richard Gere, Jean-Jacques Annaud and Jon Avnet) promote a relentlessly Manichean "Good versus Evil" (and decidedly un-Buddhist) demonization of Beijing, with his official blessing.
This Good Cop/Bad Cop division of labor permits the Dalai Lama to have his cake and eat it too. He preserves his public image of Ghandi-esque forbearance even as "Seven Years in Tibet" (which received script approval and a glowing review from him) and "Red Corner" (which Richard Gere deliberately moved up to coincide with Jiang Zemin's state visit) villify Beijing while sparing the Dalai Lama from the charge of vindictiveness.
Robert Thurman, Father of Uma
I find it hard to believe that Dalai shill Robert Thurman is a nationally recognized scholar in Buddhist studies. He seems utterly oblivious to the central premise of Buddhism, which is non-attachment to positionality.
His Hollywood metaphors pitting "good against evil" are embarassingly simplistic, and suggest that he has never broken out of a rigidly moralistic Zoroastrian/Manichean world view. His unapologetic yearning for a religious and ecological "Shangri-la" (that never was) suggest that he has never confronted the energy of infantile regression underlying utopianism. Add to that a heavy handed and utterly unconvincing attempt to draw inspirational parallels between the libertarian values of the American Revolution and repressive serf-owning pre-1950's Tibet, and I can't help wondering why he isn't laughed off the public stage. But then I'm surprised that his idol the Dalai Lama isn't laughed off the public stage as well.
The Dalai Lama currently insists he merely wants "autonomy," implying that he never attemped or even advocated independence. This is disingenuous, to say the least. He "merely wants autonomy" today only because having failed miserably to achieve complete independence in 1959, he knows autonomy is the most he can hope for.
Actually the only reason Tibet's serfdom lasted into the 20th century in the first place is that the Yuan, Ming, and Ching imperial courts did in fact grant Tibet the very autonomy the Dalai Lama is currently demanding. It is far more than they should have granted from a humanitarian perspective. Otherwise Lhasa's inhumane serfdom, which did not exist in any other region of China, would have been abolished centuries ago. Chalk it up to previous emperors' ho-hum attitude. Out of sight, out of mind.
Ironically, despite their brutality, the commies showed more concern. In retrospect they probably wish they hadn't, with all the flak they've taken. If only they had let sleeping dogs lie, Tibet's serf-owning aristocracy would have felt far less pressure to secede from China. Chalk that up to the communists' obssessive egalitarianism. The exploitive inequality of serfdom really stuck in their craw.
The Dalai Lama himself recently admitted that he only began advocating democracy for Tibet belatedly, in 1964, five years into exile. He could hardly deny it; the facts are on the record. By then Tibetan serfdom was already a way of life "gone with the wind," abolished by Beijing. By then he had nothing to lose, and plenty to gain propaganda-wise by playing the "democracy" card. It never ceases to amaze me how his acolytes glide right past this embarassingly inconvenient fact.
The Dalai Lama's Realpolitik
The Dalai Lama has been a realpolitik opportunist all along, albeit a failed one. The Dalai Lama imagined he could achieve independence in the wake of the chaos following Mao's accession to power, and decided to go for it. A debacle followed.
Later, he decided to go for the brass ring again following the cataclysmic global upheavals of 1989 and 1990. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the tragedy at Tiananmen he flatly refused to deal with Beijing, imagining that what happened to the Soviet Union would also happen to China. Alas, he misread global events a second time.
More recently he has been increasingly worried that his prolonged absence from the Tibetan region has diminished whatever residual prestige and influence he might still command. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. Politicians know they must remain in the public eye to remain viable. The Dalai Lama knows his constituents are in the Tibetan region of China, not Hollywood. In the wake of recent developments he has concluded (correctly) that his game is up, and is making conciliatory gestures toward Bejing. He's even jettisoned his erstwhile ally, Lee Teng-hui, the covertly pro-Taiwan independence president of the ROC.
The Last Dalai
Personally, I don't object to his realpolitik opportunism, at least not at this point in time. It would be better for all if a compromise could be negotiated, and this entire futile, ersatz "Struggle between Good and Evil" nonsense over and done with. The Dalai Lama himself negotiating a settlement with Jiang Zemin is perhaps the only development which might shut the sanctimonious Tibetan independence busibodies up once and for all. Won't that be a relief.
Hollywood's New Agers understand perfectly why China's "Last Emperor" Pu Yi (Bertolluci's "The Last Emperor") was doomed to irrelevance, but harbor a blind spot where Tibet's "God-King" Tenzin Gyatso is concerned (Scorsese's "Kundun," Annaud's "Seven Years in Tibet"). Pu Yi attempted to revive the decadent Manchu dynasty to no avail. The Dalai Lama, like the hapless Pu Yi, is "on the wrong side of history." He might turn out to be Tibet's "Last Dalai."