Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Free Tibet?

Bob has a confession to make about his former dismissiveness towards the Free Tibet campaign, attributing it to youthful secularist zeal and a 'Stalinophilia' that saw the Chinese communist regime as a bulwark against the 'real' enemy of western capitalism.

The history of my own attitude towards Tibet has been somewhat different. As a teenager I had a deep interest in eastern spirituality and a romantic attraction to the countries on the old hippy trail - Tibet, Nepal, Ladakh. More recently, I went through a phase in which I was seriously interested in Buddhist philosophy, and it was the Tibetan variety that appealed to me most strongly.

However, despite the benefits that I gained from Buddhist practice, I eventually decided that the philosophy was not for me. Without going into detail, I suppose I concluded that the individualism and otherworldliness of Buddhism were incompatible with my interest in culture, politics and history. I also began to feel that westerners (including me) tended to see Buddhism refracted through their own religious history and were really looking for a version of Christianity with the difficult bits left out. At the same time, the credulity of western Tibetophiles began to worry me: people who had rejected the 'myths' of their own religious traditions swallowed whole stories of reincarnation, levitation and so on.

During my Buddhist phase I warmly supported the Tibetan protest movement and was angry with western leftists like Clare Short who dismissed it as a fashionable Hollywood cause. Now that I've recovered my sceptical secularist bearings, my feelings are more conflicted.

I realise now that Tibet before the Chinese invasion was hardly the idyllic, spiritual and peace-loving paradise portrayed in films such as Martin Scorsese's emotionally powerful but hagiographic Kundun. Revelations about the sexual antics of supposedly saintly lamas have also taken some of the gloss off the Tibetan myth. And practices that to the devotee suggest a sacred spiritual tradition - such as lamas engaging in tantric rituals with young girls, or boys being taken from their families and raised in monasteries - in another light can be seen as clear examples of abuse.

I'm also aware of a double standard in myself, hostile as I am to the residual political power of religion in the Middle East and supportive of forces that seek to advance secular modernity in the Arab and Muslim world - but at the same time critical of Chinese attempts to modernise Tibet. I'm aware of the contradiction, but I'd defend myself by arguing that modernity can't be imposed by force, and that introducing the obvious benefits of modern communications, medicine and so on shouldn't be at the cost of annhilating a centuries-old culture. 

And the form of modernity that China seeks to impose on Tibet is itself regressive: based on mass industrialisation, cultural homogeneity and political conformity. Western critics of China's policy in Tibet somehow need to find a way of opposing its harsh authoritarianism without idealising Tibetan culture or preventing it from evolving - and without seeing the East through the lens of their own post-industrial disillusionment with modernity and longing for an 'authentic' spiritual culture.

So yes, - 'Free Tibet' - but free it so that it can develop and modernise in its own way, not according to the centralised prescriptions of a discredited Maoist totalitarianism.

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