The “Real” Tibet

February 15, 2010

It’s fair to say that the goal of articles in Foreign Policy magazine is to clarify, to elucidate, to let the light of rationality shine upon some murky issue in the field of foreign policy. This being the case, I was intrigued by the recent article “Tibet is no Shangri-La,” which has no penetrating vision or fresh policy prescription; instead, it simply asks us to think about Tibet as if it were a real place.

The essay opens by taking Westerners to task for creating hopelessly nostalgic “new Orientalist” representations of Tibet and glorifying the famous Dali Lama. It then points out not only that Tibetans aren’t all orange clad Buddhist monks, but also that some Tibetans seek to profit from the Western image of “Tibetan-ness” by creating old-timey Tibet theme tourist traps. The essay also notes that folks who consider themselves ethnic Tibetans in fact hail from various locales in the vast expanse of western China, and that, while they tend to be practicing Buddhists, they’re not necessarily pulsating with noble religious fervor 24-7. (Nor are they, as the Chinese media would have you believe, separatist terror mongers.) Instead, they have fairly reasonable grievances against the Han settlers and the Chinese government, which quite clearly discriminates against them. To the degree that there’s a point, it is that Tibetans inhabit reality, not some colorful metaphysical realm.

I would like to take add a couple points about how we formed this image of Tibet in the first place: when the Dalai Lama and his followers escaped Tibet in 1959, they got a few inches of print in Western newspapers — but that was it. The US was ambivalent; the CIA secretly provided weapons and funding to Tibetan guerrillas during the 50s and 60s, but the Dalai Lama was consistently refused a US visa and occupied essentially zero space in the American “popular imagination,” if you’ll allow the term. After Chinese rapprochement in ’72, the US was happy with this obscurity. After decades of activism, along with media coverage of demonstrations in Lhasa in 1987 and 89, Tibet still wasn’t the cause celebre that we know today. It was only in the early 90s, when Richard Gere and others (most notably Steven Segal) became interested in Tibetan Buddhism, that Joe Sixpack saw these sad images of Himalayan tranquility. What I mean to say is this: it wasn’t just traditional “Orientalism” that made us suddenly feel sentimental about Tibet — it was a sustained and expensive PR campaign orchestrated by Hollywood insiders who happened to be enthusiastic about Buddhism. In this way, the DL was annointed as as a public figure (in the West) and began to receive his controversial White House invites.

On a related note, I once read a pretty neat article about how Tibet activists try to constantly manage and negotiate the image of the Dalai Lama. In particular, some of them are angry that “culture” and Buddhism are the main elements of Tibet discourse in the West, and hope instead to re-brand the DL as a political leader — which, from their perspective, he obviously is.

In sum, I enjoyed this FP essay, but I think it should have talked about how the prevalent image of Tibet is actually a commodity. The article seeks to challenge false images of Tibet, but it doesn’t talk about how those images were amplified and perpetuated by a massive PR campaign. (Meanwhile the Chinese are waging an equal and opposite PR campaign, but that’s another story.)


Postmodern Basterds

February 7, 2010

I’ve seen appallingly few of the 2009 Oscar nominees, but I did manage to catch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds yesterday. QT has been called a “postmodern” director because he loves parody, he loves to re-imagine the film genres with which he youthfully and nerd-ily fell in love — the samurai movie, the exploitation movie, the heist film — and to amplify their characteristic cheese into slick, Tarantino brand meta-films.

What’s interesting about Inglorious Basterds is that, although it was (sort of) billed as a revisionist historical film, it’s actually QT applying his formula to Hollywood’s WWII genre films of the 40’s and 50’s — which were themselves pure propaganda. So you end up with Brad Pitt doing a John Wayne impression for two hours; one film icon impersonating another.

On a related note, Essayist Lee Sandlin wrote a brilliant piece exploring, among other things, the disconnect between the historical reality of WWII and the American popular perception of it:

Out of idle curiosity, I’ve been asking friends, people my age and younger, what they know about war — war stories they’ve heard from their families, facts they’ve learned in school, stray images that might have stuck with them from old TV documentaries. I wasn’t interested in fine points of strategy, but the key events, the biggest moments, the things people at the time had thought would live on as long as there was anybody around to remember the past. To give everybody a big enough target I asked about World War II.

I figured people had to know the basics — World War II isn’t exactly easy to miss. It was the largest war ever fought, the largest single event in history. Other than the black death of the Middle Ages, it’s the worst thing we know of that has ever happened to the human race. Its aftereffects surround us in countless intertwining ways: all sorts of technological commonplaces, from computers to radar to nuclear power, date back to some secret World War II military project or another; the most efficient military systems became the model for the bureaucratic structures of postwar white-collar corporations; even the current landscape of America owes its existence to the war, since the fantastic profusion of suburban development that began in the late 1940s was essentially underwritten by the federal government as one vast World War II veterans’ benefit. (Before the war there were 3 suburban shopping centers in the U.S.; ten years after it ended there were 3,000.)

Then too, World War II has been a dominant force in the American popular imagination. In the mid-1960s, when my own consumption of pop culture was at its peak, the war was the only thing my friends and I thought about. We devoured World War II comic books like Sgt. Fury and Sgt. Rock; we watched World War II TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes and The Rat Patrol; our rooms overflowed with World War II hobby kits, with half-assembled, glue-encrusted panzers and Spitfires and Zeroes. I think I had the world’s largest collection of torn and mangled World War II decal insignia. We all had toy boxes stuffed with World War II armaments — with toy pistols and molded plastic rifles and alarmingly realistic rubber hand grenades. We refought World War II battles daily and went out on our campaigns so overloaded with gear we looked like ferocious porcupines. Decades after it was over the war was still expanding and dissipating in our minds, like the vapor trails of an immense explosion.

(Read through the Sandlin piece if you have time, or you can listen to an excerpt in episode 195 of This American Life)

Psychology, Biology, Politics of Food — take the course!

February 2, 2010

Not only has Food (with a capital F) become a big draw for punditry and political debate in recent years, but food (with a small f) is also probably the thing I love the most. Having come to this realization, and having run afoul of a glaring lack of watchable TV (at least until new episodes of Glee and Mad Men come out), I’m going to be using some of my free time to “take a course” on food and related topics over at Open Yale courses.

If you too are unemployed, you should take it as well! Hopefully it’ll be fun. And given the recent controversy surrounding China and its poorly enforced food processing sector(s), this course may even generate ideas for a viable term paper…hmmm…

China’s future history not actually set in stone

January 27, 2010

A photograph taken by Chinese media outlet China Daily at the recent Copenhagen summit:

Apparently they picked this pic because it kinda looks like Obama is bowing to Wen Jia Bao.

The author of a recent NYTimes article suggested that the global financial crisis has catapulted China into a new leadership role in the world economy — it has essentially “fast forwarded history.” What’s interesting here is the rhetoric; it’s presumed that China was always already going to continue its “peaceful rise” to super power-dom.

Maybe that was just an unfortunate turn of phrase, but I think it also reflects the dominant point of view these days. I don’t want to write an essay about it, I just want to inject a few notes of skepticism: asset bubble, civil unrest, falling value of the dollar, Xinjiang separatism, demographic crisis, energy security, Taiwan, environmental degradation, coming leadership shift, decaying Leninist political structure…

It is actually a good article, and it even quotes from one of my professors! But China is facing a lot of unknowns, any one of which could/should make the popular narrative on China’s future global dominance somewhat more problematic.

Leaving for China makes Tai Shan a Saaaad Panda

January 8, 2010

(This photo, lifted from a DCist article, was taken by dc.John)

Christ, it’s so sad!

I wondered whether or not this photo should warrant a blog post of its own…but statistics indicate that the VAST majority of visitors to this blog are folks who, for one reason or another, are scouring the internet for a picture of a smiling orangutan, another emotionally evocative exotic animal. One does wish to please one’s reading public, so here we have the star attraction of the National Zoo looking kind of miserable. Aww.

Happy Boxing Day!

December 26, 2009

I like to think that the open ended phrase “Happy Holidays” has a little room in it for Boxing Day. Woefully under-appreciated outside of the Commonwealth, the 26th will always be a perfect day for playing with toys, eating cookies, and languishing in post-xmas warmth. I’ll save you the (Sarah Vowell-esque?) exploration of the holiday’s history and remark instead that the great thing about Boxing Day is that you get all the warm/fuzzy without any of the religious connotations! Delightful.

On an unrelated note, isn’t it odd how some words aren’t ever used outside of a set phrase? Some examples:


Really, try to think of anything else that is “vested” other than “interests”…etc.
Happy Boxing Day!

Why did the DPJ win? What can we expect from them?

December 9, 2009

In the most recent cycle of Japanese national elections, The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which has only been in existence since 1996, utterly dominated (as in totally trounced) the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had been in power more or less continuously since the 1950’s. How could this happen? There are certainly larger questions in life, but more mystifying ones? I wouldn’t go so far as to make that suggestion.

Unfortunately I find myself needing to come up with a satisfactory essay-length answer to these two related questions as soon as possible. Before I get mired in the nitty gritty of the writing process, what with its necessity for “consulting reputable sources,” and, “thinking things through,” I feel like using this forum to brainstorm for a while.

First question’s first. There are several possible reasons for DPJ victory: Electoral reform — which was passed in 1993, during the brief moment when a coalition of LDP defectors gained power — helped give more voice to urban voters by re-portioning the number of seats per district to reflect Japan’s demography more accurately. This may have put the LDP at a disadvantage since it finds a big chunk of its constituency in rural districts. The electoral reforms also increased the number of single member (first past the post) voting districts vs. multi-member (proportional representation) districts, which may have helped take the steam out of the LDP political machine, accustomed as it was to flooding each district with candidates so as to dilute the spread of the proportional votes and keep as many as possible within the party.

Conversely, it *could* be that voters, despite the fact that they appear to be even more disengaged with politics than US voters, just got fed up. After all, the incumbents had been making next to no headway on trade liberalization, welfare reform, or the borderline absurd level of government subsidy to failing firms. It is no exaggeration to suggest that reading about the waste endemic to this system is exactly like reading some of the more ridiculous passages from Catch-22. It also bears mentioning that the LDP had been riled with scandal since the 80’s and (oh yeah!) placed in a fairly vulnerable position when it comes to apportioning blame for more than a decade of economic stagnation! In this light, it may be even more difficult to understand how they lasted as long as they did.

There is also a broader debate that I am expected to talk about: the question of how people make decisions. In this class we read a lot of commentary that traced political happenings inevitably back to particular actors playing out their own best strategies. Politicians act to maximize their interests, in this school of thought, and voters naturally do the same. But there’s also folks that privilege institutional shift or adaptation, whereby the rules change over time reflecting a kind of cumulative wave of choices — people are still rational, but they make choices in terms of what they perceive social rules to be. To understand their choices you have to look at the pattern of exchanges going on around them. (My take on this and other fun social science debates is that the truth lies in an impenetrable fog between the two lemmas, an insight which is not really very insightful albeit maybe pithy enough to qualify as good fodder for an opening paragraph.)

In any case, it was certainly rational for voters to seek change and for DPJ leaders to organize an effective campaign to promote it — but why now? and how did they do it? and in what areas did the LDP lapse sufficiently to allow them to do it? These are all legitimate questions to elaborate on in the essay, and all require aforementioned nitty gritty work.

Moving on to the second question, which may be the harder of the two since it’s concerned with predicting the future, what can we expect? Well, the biggest DPJ plank is to revamp social welfare programs and make them more broad and equitable (which will hopefully have the ancillary effect of encouraging cash strapped consumers to spend more of their money and to increase the dwindling labor force by having more babies). They’ve also been going through the budget with one of those jeweler’s eyepiece thingies to cut wasteful spending. Plus they’ve engaged in “comprehensive” administrative reform so that, for example, bureaucrats can no longer sit in the Diet or hold press conferences. (In the first weeks of the Hatoyama administration, this apparently led to the Foreign Minister not being allowed to call press conferences, which was very silly from a diplomatic perspective.) Anyway, the DPJ also placed a big emphasis on decentralization, the giving of more decision making power to local governments. Apparently they want to gain people’s trust, to bring folks into the fold of actually participating in politics. While there’s plenty of cause for cynicism, it’s also the case that a more active local government would help ameliorate the pork barrel problem, which is way worse in Japan than it is in the US.

The DPJ are no doubt up against “vested interests,” like powerful bureaucrats and bloated domestic industries that stand to loose their access government credit. But they also appear to be working in tandem with vested interests, since they declared Japanese farming, fishing and forestry to be globally competitive and thus worthy of government help. from their reform programs. Also the reform of the postal system (see a couple posts below) has mysteriously disappeared from the agenda. So are they in danger of being co-opted by said interests? There’s also the fiscal challenge in that they can’t take the risk of raising taxes and hence they will have to sell a huge number of government bonds to pay for all this reform. Can you just keep going in to debt forever?

So that’s a quick and dirty outline of some of the issues at hand, and I think my brain is sufficiently stormed for now.

Fresh Propaganda from the Washington Post

November 29, 2009

The front page of the Post today featured a cloying human interest piece on Marine training at Quantico. Here’s my response, a short passage from the classic novel of meaningless warfare All Quiet on The Western Front:

“We were trained in the army for ten weeks and in this time more profoundly influenced than by ten years at school…At first astonished, then embittered, and finally indifferent, we recognized that what matters is not the mind but the boot, not intelligence but the system, not freedom but drill…With our young, awakened eyes we saw that the classical conception of the Fatherland held by our teachers resolved itself here into a renunciation of personality such as one would not ask for of the meanest servant…We had fancied our task would be different only to find we were being trained for heroism as though we were circus ponies. But we soon accustomed ourselves to it.”

So, in sum, I’ll thank the editors of the Post not to bombard me with nonsense, or at least to kindly relegate such nonsense to the Sports section.

Sheet Music, DRM, Musicianship

November 25, 2009

On my way into campus today there was a dude with a keyboard serenading us Metro patrons with the Peanuts theme! Amazing.

I’ve been playing piano (to some degree) for almost 20(!) years now and I’ve never gotten around to figuring that song out. So I gave the guy some change, struck up a conversation with him, and he showed me the basic fingerings. “Yeah this is one of those magic tunes,” he said, “people love it!” But then he encouraged me to buy the sheet music…

Like, he was quite emphatic about it. “Don’t just go online and get it! Don’t even buy the PDF for a dollar! Go to the real website and buy it for full price!”

Now even though I have experienced a strong desire to learn this song in the past, I never once considered actually buying the music. Clearly one reason for this is that I’m cheap, but another is that it’s just patently unreasonable to pay full price — even more so given this dude’s situation: here’s an unkempt guy who may or may not be homeless, carrying around an old keyboard and a scruffy backpack of random other stuff, and he is apparently willing to pay more than necessary to some music publisher?

Perhaps he was a sheet music salesman in a clever disguise. Homeless or not, it just seems crazy that anyone would buy the music, let alone buy it for full price, online, with all of the intrusive DRM stuff built in.

But talking to this dude made me realize that I was also opposed to buying the sheet music on a personal level even. When I was a kid I would pore over sheet music and then memorize what I was playing, which was boring…and not a good way to learn to read music. Now that I am an adult (an assertion which calls for another parenthetical !) I take a certain amount of pride in being able to play jazz rather than classical, and to play by ear or with a lead sheet (a sheet that provides you with just the chords and basic melody of a song, allowing you to improvise and play the song however you like). For a jazzy song like this, sheet music just feels like sacrilege to me.

That said, I think I’m going to swallow my pride on this one. It is a tricky song. I’m going to take this guy’s suggestion and actually get the sheet music — since I’m sure I’ll forget how to play it by the time I get back home to the piano.

On the other hand, if anyone out there happens to be looking for gift ideas…

Supermodels were annoying enough *before* I saw this video

November 20, 2009

Once again I’m baffled by a youtube video and I don’t know what to do except post it here; this time it’s a promo for featuring models disrobing in support of climate change legislation (??)

What the hell? It’s asinine and annoying. And you could argue that it reinforces the patriarchy’s preoccupation with gazing at female flesh, and that the women involved could pass for young girls and should probably eat something — but those are baseline critiques for the fashion industry in general.

In this case I’m more annoyed because this is actually a serious issue re-cast in the trivial language of sexy advertising. Why do you see this for climate change but not for health care reform or, like, foreign policy objectives?

But I’m MOST annoyed at myself because I actually clicked on it and watched the thing! (Dejected sigh)