Jim heartfield Jim at heartfield.demon.co.uk
Thu Jul 2 18:59:57 PDT 1998

In message <l03130300b1c149853a69@[]>, Doug Henwood <dhenwood at panix.com> writes
>I was at a party the other night populated mainly by amiable meatheads, and
>one of them started in on Clinton's comments that the Chinese and Tibetans
>should talk with each other, negotiations that would be premised on Tibetan
>recognition of Chinese authority over Tibet. "Tibet is not part of China!
>Free Tibet!!," he exhorted, in a departure for a conversation that was
>mainly about sports and bad movies. I was surprised to hear this fellow
>getting so exercised about any political issue, which made me wonder once
>again - what is it about Tibet and the Dalai Lama? Why are it and he such
>obsessions among otherwise nonpolitical types? And is he really the abused
>innocent that Richard Gere and Patti Smith would have us believe? Can
>anyone elighten me?

I see this embrace of Tibetan liberation as less to do with the Tibetans than with the Chinese, as in less *for* Tibet than *anti* Chinese.

There is a particular tradition amongst English imperialists of a tactical sympathy for the underdog's underdog. So for example, TE Lawrence romanticised the bedouin, out of a hostility to the Turks; The mystic Laurens Van Der Post (mentor of Prince Charles) wrote movingly of the Kalahari bushmen - a roundabout way of castigating the African governments whose modernisation programmes were threatening their way of life. The marsh Arabs of Iraq have also been the object of this kind of patronising romanticisation, with the pointed conclusion that the current regime should relinquish political authority over the Shatt al Arab waterways to their Western 'defenders'.

The object of this romanticisation must preferably be a pastoral people, whose way of life is so simple and unadorned, that the western patron can invest it with a mystical authenticity. The romance is developed as a precise counterpoint to the fallen state of the urbanised masses of Africa or the Far East. The fantastic projection of an 'inner truth' into the lives these 'simple folk' arises out of a sublimated distaste for the masses of the third world. The rural idyll is elevated in the imagination, precisely because the urban masses appear hostile and threatening to the Western romatic.

The current Hollywood treatment of the degenerate autocracy in Tibet arises not out of any specific feeling for the Tibetans. Their real culture does not feature in the Cinema version, but rather is substituted by a fantasy version, and a fantasy whose well-springs are to be found in the West rather than the East.

The surprise amongst many Western admirers of the Dalai Lama when he let slip his hostility to homosexuality spoke volumes. To the Lama's admirers in the West it seems odd that a religion that is so unmacho and sensitive should frown of homosexuality. But the interpretation of Buddhism as 'unmacho' or 'sensitive' has nothing to do with Buddhism itself, and everything to do with Western expectations of Eastern mystics.

Surprise, surprise: A religion that is rooted in the most backward social conditions of Tibet, where the surplus product is entirely redirected towards the unproductive consumption of a monastic leisure class, gives rise to backward views about homosexuality, the family and women. What else would happen where there is no tendency towards social development, where prejudice is the bedrock of the social order, and where production is based upon the home?

The tendency to romanticise the most backward and barbaric social conditions in the East arises out of a contemporary mood in the West: the mood that rejects modernisation as a mistake, and celebrates instead the 'uncorrupted' values of primitive societies. The small Tibetan theocracy is a romantic counterpoint to the Far East that the Western racist most profoundly fears: the Far East that is developing into a competitor, and creating a mass working class, that provokes fears of the oriental horde in the minds of western elites.

My good freind Aiden Campbell has written eloquently on the celebration of the Primitive in his book on Modern Primitives and Ethical Ethnicity, which was published by Cassell, inthe UK, last year. -- Jim heartfield

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