06 April 2008

Lost Horizon by James Hilton

At lunch today we caught coverage of the torch being carried through London. One of the Save Tibet protesters had attempted to grab the torch from a woman who used to present on Blue Peter--one of the best known kids' shows in Britain. Later someone from the protest group tried to put out the torch with a fire extinguisher. Both plots failed, protest went on peacefully, and torch progressed through the streets of Llundain without too much more ado. We watched as Gordon Brown greeted the torch (but importantly did not touch or hold it) in front of 10 Downing Street as it was transferred from to a man in a wheelchair; we watched as protesters were arrested in proximity of the torch in Trafalgar Square.

And the discussion in the house here on hollywood road was about Tibet. and the protests. and symbolism and politics, and what, exactly, the Free Tibet phenomenon was about.

This morning I finished reading Lost Horizon, published in 1933 and made into a film in 1937. It made popular and ubiquitous the term 'Shangri-la', which it (naturally) stole from Chinese narrative history. [interesting side note: Camp David was initially named Shangri-la by Roosevelt in 1942, such was the influence of this book and film. Eisenhower renamed the place after his son. Shangri-la is so much better, yes?] It is also the source of a lot of our ideas about Tibet.

One of the things we discussed over lunch was the incongruity between the 'Free Tibet' argument—which seems to be rooted in an argument for the sovereignty of Tibet as a nation grounded in some sort of adherence to an ethnic/linguistic/cultural essence—and a 'China should clean up its human rights' argument—which seems to start from an assumption that Tibet is part of China, and therefore the Chinese should clean up their human rights record there. And everywhere. I think that the alliance/elision between these two arguments is part of the fluidity of protest movements that often need to ally with groups not always in agreement with the motivating issue for others. But the unproblematic acceptance of the idea that one can put Free Tibet and human rights abuses in the same basket of protest, go down to Bloomsbury Square, and protest the torch being paraded through London (itself several steps removed from the Chinese government: London--relay--torch--Olympics--Beijing--China) seems a bit incongruous. Or at least ripe for unpacking. Toss in the guy who commandeered the BBC camera for 5 seconds to say something (he was cut off) about Cyprus, and you're off to the races.

And then we discussed the 'why Tibet' argument: why Tibet and not the Uyghurs in Xinxiang or the Naxi in Yunnan/Sichuan? Why Tibet and not the Chechens or the Basques? And this brings me back to Lost Horizon. Because the book is indeed the answer to 'why Tibet' in some ways. While Tibet romanticisations preceeded this text (it is built on them), it popularised an equation between not just hidden paradises and Tibet, but spiritual retreats of wisdom where westerners can find their humanity and Tibet.

In 1959 the Dalai Lama ran from Tibet into exile in India with many of his followers. The timing could not have been better--the Beat movement had peaked and was still active, the 'free love' sixties were on the horizon, and Asia rose as a place of spiritual haven, ganja, and finding oneself. Add in a downtrodden Buddhist leader (actually a Buddha) and you've got a cause behind which well-meaning Westerners can throw their support. They are exiled, but they're peaceful (Buddhists) and intellectual (monks) and they're from paradise (Lost Horizon)! We must save them. And suddenly we're back, not in Orientalism (which we are in of course) but in colonialism: the drive to save the east from itself.

I find the cultural genocide happening in Tibet (and other places listed above) to be horrifying and in need of some solution. I'm not sure divvying up territory along constructed ethnic/linguistic/cultural/religious lines is the answer, as history has on several occasions shown that path to be not so great in terms of lives lost and torn apart. And I know that activists rarely are able to articulate their causes (even to themselves) in coherent ways that take on board critical analyses of the international system as it stands now. So I agree that something needs to be done to deal with China's imperialism and imposition of a uniform culture on various parts (all?) of its sovereignty. And China is not alone in this. But perhaps figuring out how to live productively and politically in a multiethnic, multicultural world would be a better path? I know. crazy pie in the sky leftie thinking.

Oh, and you should read Lost Horizon. Because like all good Orientalist books, it provides an excellent picture of British and American culture and worries in the 1930s. It's quite funny ('Americans, Conway reflected, had the knack of being able to say patronising things without being offensive'. 27). Its core philosophy involves slowing down, embracing your inner lazy, and resignifying 'slacker' as a positive descriptor. And guess what. Shangri-la is multicultural. They've got folks from all over living there, in harmony, under the leadership of a lama who is not Tibetan. The world, after WWI, is going to pieces, just like Conway, the protagonist. Will he find his Shangri-la in the valley of the Blue Moon?

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