Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Weakness of Power

The Chinese government has accused the Dalai Lama of trying to undermine the Olympics. The Dalai Lama replied that he has always supported the right of Beijing to host the Olympics.

The Chinese government also says that the Dalai Lama is “masterminding” Tibetan unrest, and is in league with terrorists.

Let’s take a look at the antagonists here. On one side you have China, a nuclear superpower with the fastest-growing economy in the world and a population of about 1.3 billion people.

On the other side you have the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist wearing a robe. He has no weapons, no party apparatus, no secret police, and no territory. He lives in exile in northern India.

Yet the Chinese government, through its various interchangeable spokesmen, throws regular spoiled brat-style tantrums about the Dalai Lama and how much of a threat he is. And these people are not even aware of how ridiculous they sound.

Authoritarian states are founded on the principle of brute force. The people are considered mere raw material to be ordered about, indoctrinated, supervised, transported, or killed, at the whim of the state. But in almost every case, the elite authorities attempt to formulate the power principle in terms of some version of the “good.” The Chinese dress up their cruelty, arrogance, and venality in communist jargon, at this stage so far removed from its origins that the rhetoric can hardly be distinguished from standard old-style fascism—the “glory” and “wisdom” of the party and so forth. The American rightists, on the other hand, prattle about “freedom” and “democracy” while draining the terms of all meaning and doing everything they can to suppress the realities they correspond to. And so it goes.

But it’s a curious thing, this lip service that needs to be paid to some idea of goodness. I suppose it’s not merely meant to fool others, but a way to fool ourselves. When Bush goes on about how Saddam Hussein was such an evil despot, I’m sure he believes in his own goodness and the rightness of his cause. Any rational person (still a minority in this country, however) can see that Iraq was invaded because of oil and geopolitics, not morality—but Bush can’t come out and say that. There needs to be some good, righteous selfless reason for invading, and the invader probably even believes his own bullshit. On the other hand, the fact that the Chinese government oppresses, enslaves, and tortures its own people—the fact that there are no civil rights in China, doesn’t merit a mention from the President. China is a big market for corporations—therefore we don’t care about what its government does. We forget about goodness in this case, because it doesn’t coincide with self-interest. (I’ve remarked before that I suspect a secret envy of China in the minds of Richard Cheney and company—no protesters there, no sir, and torture is legal!)

All this is fairly self-evident. But when we see a public figure who actually practices some form of sincere good action, however imperfect, it’s amusing and instructive to see how it drives authoritarians crazy. The Dalai Lama teaches on such subjects as compassion, peace of mind, freedom from anger, service to all beings, and so forth. Everything he says is directed to the existing human being as such. Whatever political statements he might make are always in that context. In contrast, the voice of the Chinese government recognizes nothing except the human mass in abstract—the individual is worse than useless; there are only the ideas of “China,” “the party,” “the people,” etc. If the authorities were to respond to the Dalai Lama with a realistic assessment of relative strength, in worldly terms, they would act calm and courageous and unruffled—but they never do.

If I had to characterize the official voice of the Chinese state—not only in regards to Tibet, but on each and every issue on which official doctrine is challenged—it would be as a heedless, petulant pre-teen, an ignorant and insensitive bully, incapable of self-examination and reflection, who still regularly wets his bed and consequently lashes out in shame at anyone who dares to criticize him. There’s also an element of mental illness, of paranoia: all this talk about plots and masterminds and insidious enemies. These petty, small-minded elitists are infuriated by anyone who acts on principle, and they feel a loss of prestige and influence just from the existence of the Dalai Lama. Someone who takes a spiritual stance, who actually and sincerely attempts a public life of integrity, is a threat because he or she appeals to the remnants of conscience that underlie our deepest desire for the good. Thus, the Chinese government’s rage at the protesting Tibetans, and at the Dalai Lama, is founded in fear of its reputation and prestige being damaged. These people don’t even see that they have no reputation or prestige, that their power is based on nothing but brute force, in other words, nothing at all that can be rationalized as “good.” Therefore anyone who comes from a different place than this power principle is automatically a threat, whether he means to be or not. For instance, the Dalai Lama really does support the idea of the Beijing Olympics. Don’t you think that’s funny? And aren’t the statements of the Chinese authorities pathetic in their weakness and helplessness before this one bald guy in a robe?

George Orwell once remarked that Gandhi’s strategy would never have worked against the Nazis, because nonviolence presupposes a fundamental decency or conscience on the part of the oppressor. He was probably right, but what’s remarkable is how much influence decency and conscience still has in this ravaged world. After two obscene world wars and numerous smaller ones, after countless crimes and ethnic cleansings, there is still an expectation, or assumption, even on the part of the greatest liars and hypocrites in the world, that there is some standard of goodness in the hearts of men and women. We talk about the system, about the overwhelming apparatus of military power, police power, capitalist power. Still, there are only existing individuals. The power principle is a principle of weakness because it sees human beings as objects, as instruments towards some inhuman end. It is also fearful and insecure—it may bluster, but its confidence is hollow. In the end it will always betray itself and fail. The absurd ravings of authoritarians, like the pipsqueak Chinese spokesmen who point at the Dalai Lama and whine, “It’s all his fault!” reveal the fundamental impotence of power in the face of even an approximate attempt at truth.

1 comment:

Liberality said...

Thank you for this excellent post about the Dalia Lama and what he stands for. I too wondered how China, the government, can be so belligerent about someone so peaceful and compassionate. Listening to their propaganda I am left wondering who in the world are they talking about because it sure isn't his Holiness.