Remember Lauren Caitlin Upton of the 2007 Miss Teen USA fame? Ms. Upton was asked why she thought so many “Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map.” This is what she said, in those detestable staccato tart tones:
I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some, people out there in our nation don’t have maps and, uh, I believe that our, uh, education like such as, uh, South Africa and, uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and, I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, or, uh, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future, for our [children].
The brains behind the pageant ought to have spared America’s prototypical dumb ditz, and asked an easier question: “Who is your most favorite person in the whole wide world?” Even Ms. Upton, who happens to also be a typical American honors student, would have nailed it. Baring the mandatory overbite, Upton would have undoubtedly squeaked: “Like, the Dalai Lama.”
Regular mention of the Dalai Lama is essential in the celebrity airhead’s “intellectual” arsenal. “Dalai Lama” and “that’s hot” (Paris Hilton’s coinage) are interchangeable. The cherished idol has only to say well-worn stuff like “peace good; war bad,” and his adulators are enraptured. Western liberals have always been ecstatic about warmed-over wisdom when uttered by exotic strangers.
The Beatles flocked to India to fork over millions for His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s popular Transcendental Meditation program. It was not uncommon to hear, back then, of the rich and famous (and of lesser beings) making the pilgrimage, only to be herded into iffy ashrams, where oodles of cash were exchanged for Lama-like, fortune-cookie profundities.
I’m not here saying the Dalai Lama falls into that category, unless there’s something wrong with being funded by George Soros and the CIA, a dubious distinction the Tibetan exile community and the lazy Lama share. What I will venture is that, while the Dalai Lama seems a sweet enough fellow down to his conventional, simplistic, unoriginal quips, he is, nevertheless, a caricature, the creation of pseudo-spiritual, faux-intellectual liberal elites.
As 60,000 besotted Seattleites flooded Qwest Field stadium to bask in the Tibetan leader’s beatific aura and imbibe his trite truisms, it was worth remembering that the man is a Hollywood cause célèbre. Tibetan Buddhism and its leader were popularized in the West by the likes of actor Richard Gere.
Members of the fashionable left lining up for the Lama should also know that it was “during the half century of living in the western world” that “he had embraced concepts such as human rights and religious freedom, ideas largely unknown in old Tibet.” Much of the Dalai Lama’s wisdom is Western. What may also surprise a generation as uneducated as our Lauren Caitlin is that the history of the region is far more nuanced than pro-Tibet protesters allow.
Tibet was a slave, serf-based, old feudal theocracy under the Lama, and before the Chinese. “In reality,” writes Michael Parenti in “Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth,” “old Tibet was not a Paradise Lost. It was a retrograde repressive theocracy of extreme privilege and poverty, a long way from Shangri-La. To denounce the Chinese occupation does not mean we have to romanticize the former feudal régime.”
Or deify the Dalai Lama.
In his latest volume, “A History of Modern Tibet, The Calm Before the Storm: 1951-1955,” reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, anthropologist Melvyn C. Goldstein offers “a compelling, if controversial, picture of the traditional Tibetan polity of the Dalai Lamas as an incorrigibly conservative and corrupt medieval theocracy presiding over a feudal society, in the narrow self-interest of a landed aristocracy.”
I’ll take life under the indigenous, Tibetan, aristocratic religious elites any time over being forcibly integrated into Mao’s communist China. A cast-based community organized around homegrown patron networks is superior to a society centrally planned by invaders. But back in 1954, the Dalai Lama himself was not completely convinced.
During “what Goldstein describes as the high-water mark of Tibeto-Chinese relations,” “the 19-year-old Dalai Lama, encouraged by what he saw on a six-month visit to China, even asked to be admitted as a member of the Communist Party.” Equally complex were the dynastic dynamics at the time, with “the Dalai and Panchen Lamas both eager in their support of socialist modernization.”
The story of Tibet is a story with more twists than a serpent’s tail. Unfortunately, most Americans are as unequipped as Ms. Upton to locate Tibet on a map, much less preach about its politics.
More poignantly: Why are Americans spoiling for a fight with China? Are we not wallowing in our own bloody mess in Mesopotamia? Cheered initially and overwhelmingly by most Americans, that mess has created upwards of four million refugees and killed Iraqis in the thousands. The war’s material destruction is horrifying; its moral damage lasting.
What’s Chinese for pot, kettle, black?