Always Read The Label

This is a response received to an interview given on Tibet, by Robert Barnett,  See HERE

Like a stage conjurer  this respected Columbia University lecturer is indulging in a sleight-of-hand, by deflecting attention away from the factual core of Tibet,  through what an unkind interpretation may see as sophistry and pseudo- intellectual jargon. Assessing the replies on offer in this interview  a reader could be forgiven for imagining,  that far from talking about a people and culture, facing the most horrendous oppression under China’s tyranny, the subject was some anthropological exhibit. Indeed there is an unnerving reptilian detachment to the observations presented which on first appearance, though invested of a certain academic allure, give way to the troubling realization, that what is presented is an essay on illusion and extenuating terminology. A willingness to accommodate China’s perspective on Tibet, and its occupation of that nation, beyond the Golden Mean of academic impartiality, or noble aspirations of critical thinking.

The interview  begins with the roll of a decidedly loaded dice on the notion of stereotypes relating to the issue of Tibet, the remarks which follow offer  a number of examples, all of which seemingly are implied as inherently false, in terms of understanding the ‘real Tibet’. Yet examine the comments more closely and it would not be misplaced to wonder if such views are more about establishing the mirage that there exists some refined clear truth, unsullied by perception. This quintessence on Tibet is, it would seem, only possible through the medium of Tibetan intellectuals, a curious proposal and hardly free from the bias that is being criticized, given that such people are often the very ones who have been thoroughly indoctrinated in terms of China’s thinking on Tibet. This is hinted at by the claim that

“These images tend to evaporate if you read serious writing produced by Tibetans within Tibet, or if you are able to talk in depth with people from there.”. (Emphasis Added)

Well many people,  do converse with Tibetans of all social and educational backgrounds from that sorely oppressed country and a remarkably consistent picture emerges. One  reflected by a wealth of documentation, witnessed testimony and media reportage, that a common aspiration and political objective, that characterizes protests across Tibet, is a demand for Tibetan independence. A reality no doubt that would be dismissed by the interviewee as yet another stereotypical distortion, along with the cold fact of the nature and extent of suffering China’s occupation of Tibet has inflicted. Which the interview happily circumscribes as:

“..the political perception of Tibetans as victims who have suffered great abuses heroically and non-violently..”

No doubt the Tibetan political prisoners of Drapchi Prison outside Lhasa will be greatly encouraged by such words, as they endure another torture session for failing to grasp the essentials of Patriotic Education! Not content with the sly suggestion that the harrowing experiences of Tibetans under China’s tyranny may be nothing more than a biased viewpoint. the interview goes on to misrepresent, through a partial and selective analysis, the objectives and causal factors of protest in Tibet. This is achieved by a careful emphasis upon China’s highly repressive policies on religion in Tibet and its increasingly shrill denouncements of the Dalai Lama for purposes of propaganda.

Now there’s no dispute that the interference, restrictions and intimidation enforced upon Tibetan monasteries by China’s regime has generated understandable resentment for Tibetans religious and practice. However, what has been carefully avoided in that selective examination is the reality that demonstrations and uprisings in Tibet from the late 1980s onwards, including recent self-immolations and protests in Eastern Tibet during the past few weeks, have shared a very common aspiration and demand, namely Tibet’s independence. The shelves of a library could be easily filled with innumerable highly detailed reports which document that while Tibetans of course hold the most profound devotion towards the Dalai Lama, and are indeed incensed by the brutal erosion of religious freedoms, it is the independence of Tibet which lies at the heart of opposition to China’s occupation.

On the subject of a ‘Free Tibet’ again a message of ‘realism’ is offered, although there’s something not quite convincing, despite the superficial reasoning on display

“The more desperate the situation becomes, the more many Tibetans see the key issue as policies that erode their culture and identity, and for those, the idea of freedom probably is reduced to simply any kind of relaxation by the current regime – anything that diminishes the dominating role of Chinese in their everyday lives”. (Emphasis Added)

This breathtaking and baseless assertion, that presumes to represent the inner hopes and demands of Tibetans, degrades Tibetans and their ongoing conviction to the cause for an independent Tibet, which stereotypes notwithstanding, is clearly evident by ongoing protests in the face of China’s vicious oppression. Such words, though seemingly measured and nuanced, in truth peddle a thoroughly distorted impression, infused with despair and a defeatism. They may as well scream ‘surrender now’.

For the commentator the subject of Tibetan independence is kicked slyly into the realm of dream and the safest of zones, the past, while making sure to reinforce the fallacious impression upon the reader that some Rubicon moment has fallen upon the political consciousness of Tibetan thinking.

“So for many of Tibetans the dream of independence and the memory of past independence is certainly strong, but may now take second place to more pragmatic aspirations. We can’t be sure of this, and it could change at any time, but it looks like a lot of Tibetans, perhaps most of them, would accept a compromise solution if the Dalai Lama could get one from China. Some would still like independence – it seems is that a rapidly increasing number view Tibet as having been independent in the past – but in the minds of many people almost anything is better than the policies in Tibet now.” (Emphasis Added)

Such artful misrepresentation has often characterized the views of Robert Barnett on Tibet, some would argue he is merely being the nuanced and objective academic, others may counter that he displays a bias towards China. What is clear is that there exists in his writings on the subject, a strange and worrying alchemy, in which just enough is offered to suggest the appearance of balance and impartiality. Yet never sufficient to dissolve the impression that  he is operating according to a preconceived ideology which is not only intolerant of the concept of Tibetan independence, but conforms to a mindset which would consign the people of Tibet to a merciless destiny under Communist China.

In 2008 we saw massive protests that were initiated by men. They were all mass street protests, so they’re about numbers of people, and they could happen very fast as a spontaneous reaction to a political event. So they’re not about symbolism, they’re about immediate expression of some emotion or political anxiety” (Source: Radio Free Asia March 5, 2012)

Once again this individual chooses to make clear what the Uprising of 2008 was actually demanding, portraying it as an emotional reaction, with the sly implication that it lacked purpose, singularity or coordination, and most significantly avoids the fact such protests were asserting Tibet’s independence. Such commentators strive to present themselves a some form of ‘honest broker’ in which they can air their views as a moderate assessment between alternative perspectives, yet that is illusory, albeit subscribed to by many within intellectual circles who have long offered libation to the shibboleth that an academic is by definition detached, neutral and devoid of emotional bias towards a particular aspect of a subject. That may well have credibility in terms of hard science, but when talking about Tibet there is in fact no middle ground, or equally valid contesting positions. Given the historical facts of Tibet’s independence, the recorded and bloody truth of its military annexation by China, and the decades of cultural genocide waged against Tibetans anyone claiming academic ‘objectivity’ are reliant upon using  a false dichotomy.  This  is what is essentially presented in the interview, which apart from investing a veneer of supposed impartiality, also enables such commentators to avoid confronting, in any profound sense, the appalling injustice of Tibet’s occupation and the resultant violations arising from this. But also means they can make a very convenient detour around the thorny issue of independence.  This is a significant identifier and reveals a lack of commitment and conviction, an unwillingness to make a stand on the side of Tibet, and its legitimate struggle for independence.  In its place we have essentially a manifesto of appeasement, which in insisting upon a ‘realistic’ accommodation of  Chinese rule, legitimizes Communist China’s invasion and resultant colonization of Tibet, a previously independent nation.

2 thoughts on “Always Read The Label

  1. Better to use such aggressive and pointed analysis with Chinese government representatives than with someone who has been (albeit imperfect) a defender of Tibet to the best of his abilities in a milieu where if researchers spoke in a utopian fashion (which might appeal to you) they would no longer be allowed to do research in Tibet. Obviously they’re walking on a tightwire. The best would be for Tibetans to defend themselves politically on the world stage, but this has been slow in coming. In the meantime, such argumentation would be best used on the true oppressor who is not Professor Barnett.

    1. Thanks for your comments, no doubt your measured defense will be appreciated. Meanwhile please be reassured that any and all who distort Tibet’s true cause are exposed and challenged.

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