February 2006

What is the most important issue facing the nascent generation? One could argue coherently for environmental, political, religious, or economic issues, though attempting to determine the most urgent of these, all of which are well-known and actively discussed in the current global forum, would be impossible. The truly imperative issues are those which are rarely spoken of, because these are the issues that are allowed to progress to a point where halting and ameliorating the pressures they cause comes too late. The ominous shadow cast by globalization facing humanity – the homogenization of cultural variety – extends throughout the aforementioned, oft-touted categories and emerges relatively unsung as those categories maintain their temporal dominance.
            So why is cultural variety important, the cynic asks? The various answers to this question range from the sophisms of the philosophical, to the subjective meanderings of the romantic, to the tacitly understood truth. This truth involves all of the mainstays of the relevant dialogue, though it connects to these pillars of modern social thought in ways which are rarely discussed. To answer this question objectively, one must consider what would be lost if the variety humanity enjoys were to deteriorate into oblivion.
            Variety of perspective is important because without this variety an objective view of one’s cultural frame of reference is impossible. Without an objective view of one’s cultural frame of reference, evolution and adaptation of perspective based on successions of gradual, unseen changes in one’s social climate are meted out without the necessary safeguard of those perspectives from outside which observe and warn should these changes take a turn down one of the many historically-proven paths towards self-destruction. Isolationist societies which disregarded outside perspectives in the past are proof enough of this, and the value of a plethora of perspectives ranges across the religious, environmental, political, and economic fields of human endeavor. The self-check of humanity, performed on one limb of the organism by another, would be lost should we allow globalization to destroy cultural variety.
            Much of humanity’s amassed archive of thought and observation was made possible through comparing and contrasting relative perspectives on all matters which unify the human experience on earth. Through borrowing from one culture which had evolved in an environment suitable for the articulation of a certain kind of thought, unlikely to sprout elsewhere, another culture is able to initiate its own study of the subject – from which the originator can then borrow in return, and enrich its own discipline. Whole academic disciplines will fade into obsolescence should cultures meld into one, comparative studies of societies, traditions, languages, technologies, histories, literatures, mythologies and philosophies: these tenets of human inquisitiveness cannot survive without the muesli of the multicultural. The inter-cultural trade of ideas, made invaluable by its very variety, would be lost along with that variety if homogenization continues unabated.
            Economically, cultural variety plays a pre-eminent role in the maintenance of the mercantile structure: without the variety of objects traditionally gathered or produced by the many cultures inhabiting earth, there would be far less to trade and what was left would become monotonous, thus losing much of its commercial value.
Politically and religiously, the absence of disparate views concerning the same notions of social and religious experience would lead to the gradual weakening of the few remaining political and religious systems, for lack of those controversial perspectives which led the systems to bolster their philosophical notions and sustain the relevance of their ideals in the past.
Environmentally, the trend globalization is setting is one of industrialization, exploitation of environmental resources, and an apathetic view towards the dwindling reserves of such resources. This view is then acquired by developing cultures who wish to remain afloat in an international arena where ‘progress’ is measured by a nation’s commercial gains. What would be lost if this is allowed to continue is the relevance of those culture’s traditional definitions of progress in things other than the material, such as moral and spiritual progress in perfect symbiosis with nature – both forms of development the ‘developed’ world sorely lacks.
Essentially, globalization has inherent within it the intention of assimilating the variety of human societies on earth – and perhaps the biggest moral dilemma presented by this conglomeration is the fact that only those societies which have developed along their evolutionary path the tendency to force assimilation onto other societies will survive the globalizing trend, leaving those cultures from which they could learn the most concerning passivity and non-violence extinct along the way. But even these changes are only the pent-ultimate detrimental affect of the eradication of cultural variety. The greatest loss would be nothing as spectacular as the truncation of the socio-cultural web and its affects on academic disciplines, nor economic, political, religious, or environmental implications: the greatest loss would be the permanent limitation of all individuals’ possible life-paths.

‘Violated Specialness’: Western Political Representations of Tibet
By: Robert Barnett
An interpretation and a guide to the article and the Tibetan Question
            It is interesting how an individual, having experienced the falsity of the stereotypical view of a culture, often continues to act as if the stereotype itself is beyond reproach and it is their own personal experience which is an exception, rather than a proof against, the rule. After reading Robert Barnett’s article of the above name in which he analyzes the political views of Tibet held by many individuals who have never been to Tibet, I formulated a set of questions which I thought would be interesting to pose, should the reader feel the need to question his or her own views on the place, its people, and the perspective the reader currently holds on these subjects.            Barnett is a shrewd interpreter of the skewed perspectives most of us as westerners tend to hold as part of our mystification of the Tibetan land and people, perspectives which are ingrained within our minds due to the misrepresentations and romanticizing of the people which is only partly based on fact and largely based on a number of political, social, and economic reasons, misrepresentations which come from sources as varied as movies – both new and old; books – from the first paper back to recent Chinese publications intent on proclaiming the righteousness of the ‘liberation’ of Tibetans from their culture; individuals – from the mouths of individuals of every possible background who have been to or are from Tibet and thus believe themselves resources on the subject; to the words of the Dalai Lama, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, United States senators, and other celebrities who we believe, due to their fame and cultural background, are either credible or culpable concerning the issue of Tibet.            After commenting on the quality of Barnett’s article and taking note of the questions it lead me to pose to myself, I must also mention the fact that despite the sincerity with which Barnett claims that there is nothing special about the Tibetan people and their land, that by calling them special we take away their right to prove this of themselves and thus objectify them, I would argue against this generalization, while taking the opportunity of making one of my own: the Tibetan people I encountered while living in the village of Wutun, in Tongren county, Qinghai province, were the most generous, compassionate, devoted, and generally happy people I have ever met – with the possible exception of Moroccan youth –  in all my travels across much of the breadth of the world. I never wanted for anything, I was asked into the homes of the people I met, offered everything they had, asked to exchange songs and dance their way then mine and told about the stories and histories of the individuals and the community which I was in, all without any kind of expectation on their part for something from me in return. No other place I have been in or people I have met will invite complete strangers to spend the night at their homes. As an American with an isolationist, xenophobic, puritanical background ingrained deep within some part of my persona’s foundation, these things made me truly rejoice in the knowledge that, somewhere in this world, at least, there are people who still know how to welcome life with open arms, even in the face of absolute deprivation. Are the Tibetans special? I hope my opinion is clear enough on that.

            That being said, Barnett’s article does much to alleviate the sorely lacking realm of realistic thought about Tibet as more than either an intangible Shangri-la full of enlightened spirituality, or a backwards frontier in desperate need of no-holds-barred modernization – the two dominate views of the land currently holding sway over the world’s interpretation of the place. This leads me to the questions I was led to ask concerning the Barnett’s article.

1) By encouraging the mystical views the west holds of Tibet, Do Tibetans perpetuate their roles as trapped within the confines of these constructed figments of our imagination and thus limit our understanding and thus the survival of their culture?

2) What are the functions and effects of such misrepresentations and how much do they have to do with the economic, cultural, and political missions the exiled theocracy hold as their most important goals?

3) If the reader has ever been to Tibet, how skewed has your view proven to be? If very different, what aspects of your experience there changed your mind?

4) What are the social, economic, and political repercussions of such views? Do you believe these views were fostered with these intended repercussions in mind?

5) As collective imaginings which are culture-specific, is it possible to believe in the triumph of one view of the Tibet question over the other – since the Chinese perspective leads to the virtual extinction of the Tibetan way of life and the Western view can never be the way life will be in the future, being a representation of a romanticized past? How could one entire culture be convinced to drop their view of the issue and accept the other invented perspective?

6) What affect will the passage of time have on the different segments of the Tibetan population, including those in India, and their own collective representations of what occurred in the past?

7) Has the practically non-violent approach of the Tibetans towards the invasion of their land and the slow disintegration of their culture led to the propagation of their role as supporting actors in their own story? Have the Tibetans become objectified because the stories written of them base the main role on the aggressive and the defensive, i.e. where the action is, rather than what the Tibetans base their own stories on, i.e. spiritual rather than temporal power?

8) Is the sense of helplessness fostered in the west concerning the Tibetan people in the face of an aggressor analogous to the rape of women – calling them a helpless victim and thus disempowering and perpetuating the process?

9) When calling the Tibetans special, do we begin to see them as an endangered species in a threatened habitat, something that needs protection and thus something which cannot protect itself?

10) Why is the specialness associated with Tibetans always seen within the framework of helplessness? Why does it take violence to prove a people’s strength, when it is far more difficult, takes far more courage, to react against violence with non-violence? Did Gandhi’s lesson penetrate so shallowly?

11) Since it is the people of the West who are responding to the Tibetan movement, rather than the politicians of the West, is their any credibility to the claims that the movement is part of a neo-imperialist plot of the West to seize or control political power in the region?

12) In what ways did the economic revolution of China in the past few decades affect the Western government’s official proclamations on the Tibetan issue? In what way is loss of trade a greater threat than a nuclear bomb?

13) Robert Thurman described Tibetans as ‘The baby seals of the human rights movement.’ Do you believe there is a reason why societies have responded to the Tibetan issue more than to the numerous other human rights issues all over the world? Why is it that the people have responded, yet the governments have remained inactive? Is this an implication, in some sense, of the specialness Barnett denies the existence of?

14) Is there a point when representations have to be judged not by their ethical implications, but rather by the realistic benefits they bring to their constituents?

15) The Tibetan issue can be seen as either a political debate, or a social debate carrying inherent within it the hope of political change; which is it?

16) The Marxist doctrines which inspired the forced liberation of the Tibetans also carried with them the facets of Communism that would, by their very nature, destroy the religious state within which the Tibetans lived; was it, then, an liberation from something tangible in exchange for an imprisonment from something spiritual? Which is more important to Tibetans?

17) How does the definition of ‘progress’ differ between Tibetans and Chinese? Is one spiritual and one material? Can Buddhism be combined with a hatred of religion forcefully and be called good intention?

18) In the early nineties, the ‘misrepresentation representation’ became the popular perspective offered up by journalists writing about Tibet, claiming that there was nothing, in fact, special about Tibet; forty years after the invasion, can this be seen with any kind of credibility?

19) How does capitalism displace, encourage, superficialize religion in regard to Tibet?

20) The differences in literary and political perspectives regarding Tibet share a common aspect in that they are all facets of a collective misrepresentation of the culture based on a variety of misunderstandings that have stemmed from and been perpetuated by outside socio-political forces and which must be at least partially discarded if the true story is to be understood; is this a possibility for anyone, Tibetans included?

            The Barnett article led me to ask myself a number of important questions concerning the way I myself, with my cultural frame of reference as a foundation and my set of sub-cultural specifics as a limiting window, viewed the situation in Tibet as it began up to how it exists today. The above questions are valuable tools for anyone wishing to understand the necessarily ingrained limitations in understanding the Tibetan reality and perhaps, with enough research and experience, helpful tools in finding some personal understanding of the issue which is beyond viable contradiction.


The dim light cast long-fingered shadows along the splintered walls of the village tavern, dappling the faded images of Tibetan celebrities half-shredded by time with shades of yellow and grey, covering the scene in which I sat with a golden glow, from the half-seen visages of grinning individuals who had never before met a westerner, to the man standing serenading us with his mandel and his voice, in traditional Tibetan style, to the small stove burning coal late into the night, emanating heat from the middle of the room. The village’s name has faded into the rivers of bijou that poured from the hard bottle that seemed to be clenching a cigarette in its mouth that night, a village just outside of Tongren city in Qinghai province, in a valley surrounded by a lunar landscape of craters and yaks: It was the end of the third day of the Lunar New Year, a day which, in this village, at least, saw various rituals performed throughout the firework-spangled night

Tongren has long been a roaming ground for the nomadic peoples of the western grasslands; a battleground from the Han up until the Tang Dynasty, and a frontier region until the beginning of the twentieth century – in many ways it is still a frontier. It was only recently, after its traditionally isolated ethnic minorities of Tibetans, Mongolians, Salar, Tu, Hui and roughly fifty others were incorporated into the newly created Qinghai province of the P.R.C., that the tensions between these groups turned into a hybridization which has created exceptionally unique cultural traditions specific to small niches of the population. One of the broader traditions which sprouted about 700 years ago is that of Rebgong art, a style of Thangka, Barbola, and sculpture which is unique in China for its bright colors and fine lines, and the primary reason why Tongren is known to any but a few individuals outside of China.

       I had come to the village at the invitation of a friend I had met in Tongren one night at a bar while dancing to techno music with a hundred awestruck Tibetans clapping and pointing, a man who boasted the ‘English’ name Enrico. The first to go to college in his village, Enrico had made himself known by slapping down a pack of cigarettes and four beers in front of me before sitting and singing a folk song for all he was worth, right in my ear. We had become fast friends, and motorcycle rides, Cham dances, fire-festivals, weddings, monks setting off fireworks and getting in candy fights, and hours of revelry followed, but that is all a different story. On this night we were in his hometown, and I was being shown just how hospitable Tibetans could be.

       Hours after we had first entered the tavern, bottles overpopulated the table and a bilious cloud of smoke hung low in the small room, and the place had welcomed what seemed to be every young man in the village, all having come out to see the foreigner. Drinking games were exchanged, as were songs, and laughter – equipped with the purest smiles on earth. Then, late into the night, Enrico leaned close to my ear. ‘It is time for the haircutting ritual.’ He said, and everyone stood and stumbled out, into the night grinning with the thousand lights of the constellated stars.

Some wandered home, some sprawled on their backs and out-smiled the heavens; Enrico and I made our way through the potted streets to a door like many others, and after passing into the compound we were led by a covey of squealing children to a door which emitted light from the cracks around its edges. Inside, a large extended family was circled around a little girl with long, tattered hair. I was told that her hair hadn’t been cut in the three years of her life, and that it was on this night that ritual would finally denude her scalp. Alcohol and cigarettes were passed – a must in any Tibetan gathering – and the children learned to fear me when I clawed my hands and snarled; until the youngest boy began to return the act, at which point I accepted my defeat.

After much crying, nursing and petting, the child stood with a small sliver of hair coming down the back of her head, dancing just above her shoulders, and other than that the peach-fuzz looked electrified, rigidly pointing out in all directions. At this point Enrico and I were invited to the seats of honor in a small alcove set above the floor, with the elders of the family, who we proceeded to drink under the table, as was only polite. The men began to sing, the children starting attacking me, Enrico laughed as hard as I had ever heard him laugh, and it was suddenly four in the morning, and we were being ushered out by yawning grandpa’s who knew the next day would be much the same as that day had been.

We managed to make it to his house that night, and I curled up on the floor under a blanket and slept a deep, dreamless sleep. I was woken early in the morning by a painfully hung-over Enrico who told me in attempted enthusiasm to come outside. Once I’d emerged, feeling like a vampire in a silent movie, I was told to hold the goat in the courtyard while Enrico’s father prepared it to be released to wander the streets of the village. A yellow Khatta was tied to its neck, yak’s milk was poured over its back, and a small prayer was murmured as I gripped the horns of the goat, who I knew to be at least as confused as I.

Once these preparatory rituals had been performed, the goat was unceremoniously shooed out of the dirt square of their courtyard. Enrico and I followed, heading out of town for another day of unforgettable beauty. We followed the goat as it ambled towards the river which separated the village from the main road. Enrico leaned close again, ‘You’re lucky, man. There‘s wedding at bridge.’

I looked up, stopping my perusal of the gravel on the road and my reverie of the changes I was going through in response to the inimitable generosity I was experiencing, and saw that he was right. The bridge held a gaggle of people, the groom’s family, and they were waiting as the bride’s family led her up the road leading out of the village, preparing to give her away to the groom’s village and thus her new life as his wife. It was a relatively somber affair, compared with a simple night’s drinking, yet beautiful for the recognition of the symbolism involved, for the small moment I witnessed it and thus became part of their story, for the westerner watching as they began a life that would parallel mine for decades in such different yet similar ways that my hung-over mind could only sigh, and my dehydrated mouth could only try to chuckle.

The amazing thing about the trip to tibet other then the many friends i obtained and the coetaneous experiences the other students and i shared and the landscape that seems to breath out in one constant long exhalation of understanding and the bijou which pours freely from the mouth of the bottle that seems to be clutching a cigarette in clenched teeth and the festivals with masked dancers waving from behind demonic masks to the sounds of cymbals and long horns and smiles and long stares and eyes and children and the rhythm of life in the village which is so slow one almost wants to give it something but you know it wouldnt take it if you asked three times…Drinking with tibetans is like dancing with tibetans or discussing politics with tibetans, they either know how to do it way better than you, or they do it with a kind of natural rawness which makes the visceral seem quaint and either one leaves you speechless on the back of a bike going up a mountain towards a vilage where a child lama wait with a khatta which he will momentariuly be placing around your neck as the light dapples between the branches of the trees in patterns of shadow and light and the wind picks up with dust that makes your throat sandpaper and the monk next to you says something you cant understand and in the end you just have to laugh as he laughs not at you but with you and all things…welcomed into homes it is good manners to drink the paterfamilias under the table while letting the sloivers of yakmeat stuck in your teeth stay put since they would never show you their teeth perhaps its a custom harking back to our neolithic past and speaking of ground stone tools let me tell you there are plenty of those on the roads and in the ripped-open valleys of Tongren county…more later