[Prior to the nineteenth century] there was no keen competition for group allegiance. By contrast, peoples today are everywhere much more apt to be cognizant of their membership in a group with its own mythical genesis, its own customs and beliefs, and perhaps its own language, which in toto differentiate the group from all others and permit the typical individual to answer intuitively and unequivocally the question, “What are you?” The spontaneous response, “I am Luo” rather than Kenyan, or “Bengali” rather than Pakistani, does not bode well for the architect of a nation-state.
— Walker Connor, Ethnonationalism (1994)
Two big news stories of the past few days, from places far apart, and as different as two places could possibly be, tell us useful things about the age we live in.
In Lhasa, the capital city of Chinese-occupied Tibet, there were demonstrations on March 10. The Chinese authorities responded clumsily, Tibetans reacted with riots, and the image of their nation that the Chinese communists have been so carefully fostering preparatory to the Summer Olympics took a punch to the gut.
The Lhasa demonstrations are customary at this time of year. Usually they are small events, easily and savagely crushed by the Chinese police. This year, however, the Chinese were handicapped by their desire that nothing unsightly take place in their realms during the run-up to the Summer Olympics. They have been striving mightily, at great expense, to present themselves to the world as the legitimate rulers of a happy and prosperous nation, marching forward in unity and harmony into the radiant future. The sight of Tibetans torching Chinese stores is an unwelcome departure from the script.
Another new feature of this year’s disturbances was the use of China’s railroad into Tibet, completed just last year, to bring in reinforcements for the colonial garrison. Nobody acquainted with the Maoists and their methods ever had much doubt about the motivation for building the railroad, but there is some glum satisfaction in seeing our fears confirmed.
The reason for Tibetan unrest at this time of year is historical. March 10 marks the anniversary of the 1959 uprising, whose timeline can be read here. In very brief: the Chinese military command, who had been garrisoning Lhasa since their 1951 invasion, decided they had had enough of the Dalai Lama, and ordered him to report unescorted to their camp. (In a very Tibetan touch, we are told that the 23-year-old pontiff “was preoccupied with taking his Final Master of Metaphysics examination” at the time. There’s an exam I should like to take!) The plain intention of the Chinese was to either kidnap the Dalai Lama or kill him. When this news got into the streets, tens of thousand of Tibetans formed a protective barrier around the Dalai Lama’s residence.
The Chinese responded by shelling the residence and the crowd with their howitzers. On March 17, under fire, the Dalai Lama managed to escape from the residence in disguise. He made his way over the Himalayas and crossed into India on March 31st. He has been unable to return to Tibet since then
March 17 may be St. Patrick’s Day to you. To a Tibetan, it is the day his nation’s spiritual leader, its very personification, was forced to flee for his life from Tibet’s enemies.
There is now a huge literature on Tibet’s recent history. I reviewed some of it for NRO here. As I pointed out in that piece, the current Chinese position is basically Brezhnevian: “What we have, we hold.” The Chinese communists have a somewhat more refined approach to propaganda than old Leo, however. They have worked up a literature of their own in support of their position, and their spokesmen are very experienced and skillful at fielding complaints about their invasion and occupation of Tibet.
- They rattle off dates and the names of emperors to whom the Tibetan rulers of old paid tribute in varying degrees. “See, they all acknowledged China’s sovereignty!” Since the Chinese emperors claimed sovereignty over the entire universe, and demanded identical tribute from, for example, Britain, this is not very persuasive.
- They say, what is perfectly true (though of course somewhat difficult to square with the line about Tibet always having been a part of China) that old Tibet was a place of great poverty and much injustice, whose ruling classes often dealt cruelly with their own people. “We liberated the Tibetan people from oppression!” they crow, and teach this to their children in China’s schools. A sufficient answer to this point was given by the Ottoman-ruled Greek spokesman in Byron’s poem: “Our masters then / Were still, at least, our countrymen.”
- They point to incidents like the British Younghusband expedition of 1904. They have to magnify the significance of these events grotesquely to make any kind of argument, though. Probably 99 percent of Tibetans never knew the 1904 expedition had taken place. It had no lasting consequences, and was in fact an initiative of the Indian Viceroy‘s, disapproved of by the British government and press.
- If all else fails, your ChiCom spokesman loses his temper and tells you you are “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” — you callous wretch! — by allying yourself with “splittists,” and can no longer be considered a “friend of China.” That last is no idle threat for professional scholars, whose work may suffer severely if they can’t get Chinese visas.
The response of an actual Tibetan to all this bluster is simple and straightforward. He will just say, with some passion: “But we are not Chinese!”
He is quite right. Tibetans have their own language, their own religion, their own calendar, their own cuisine, their own folkways, and their own history. Their culture has almost nothing in common with China’s, not even an alphabet.
(Though no Tibetologist, I do own a copy of Losang Thonden’s Modern Tibetan Language in the 1984 edition, with accompanying audio tapes. The book shows thirty consonant symbols and four diacritical marks representing vowels. For reasons I have forgotten, “a” is counted as a consonant in Tibetan. The first practice sentence in the book is on page 20: Idam guru rat-na mandala-kam nir-ya-ta-ya-mi — “I send forth this jeweled Mandala to you precious Gurus.”)
Tibetans also, of course, have their own territory, which they have inhabited since the beginning of time. It is by no means restricted to the “Tibet Autonomous Region” shown in atlases. That is a Maoist invention. The birthplace of the current Dalai Lama, for example, lies 500 miles outside the “Tibet Autonomous Region.” Ethnic Tibet can be seen here. It occupies nearly a quarter of the territory of the so-called “People’s Republic of China.”
However much the Chinese communists bluster, however many arguments they make, however many hired scholars they wheel out to give support to their case, the fact remains, adamantine and eternal: Tibetans are not Chinese. They don’t feel themselves to be Chinese. Walker Connor again:
Any nation, of course, has tangible characteristics and, once recognized, can therefore be described in tangible terms. The German nation can be described in terms of its numbers, its religious composition, its language, its location, and a number of other concrete factors. But none of these elements is, of necessity, essential to the German nation. The essence of the nation … is a matter of self-awareness or self-consciousness. [Connor’s italics.]
That brings us to the second news story of the week, the one about Chicago minister Jeremiah Wright and his congregation at the Trinity United Church of Christ.
I guess we have all now seen the video clips of Rev. Wright cursing the United States as his congregation whoops and hollers its approval. If you take that link to the church’s website, very nearly the first thing you will see is a logo in the shape of the African continent. If you then proceed to the church’s mission statement, you will see that the third sentence reads as follows: “We are an African people, and remain ‘true to our native land,’ the mother continent, the cradle of civilization.” Clear enough? This is a church for people who feel themselves to be American in roughly the same degree a Tibetan feels himself to be Chinese. Which is to say, not at all.
It has also, of course, been Barack Obama’s church for most of his adult life. That last clause is highly relevant. Obama was not born and raised in this church: he chose it prior to entering Harvard Law School in 1988. And yes, Jeremiah Wright was already in the pulpit.
These plain facts, with the nature of that church, will kill Barack Obama’s prospects of becoming our 44th President stone dead. They have probably already done so.
How will these two ethnic problems play out at last? The Tibetan one is easier to prophecy. At some date in the future, the Chinese will withdraw their armies of occupation from Tibet, retreating into metropolitan China. Once again, as before, and as is right and just, Chinese people will rule over Chinese people while Tibetan people rule over Tibetan people.
This may result from the coming of liberal, consensual government to China. We should all hope for that. Or China may fall into a spell of disintegration and disorder, as she so often has in the past. This may happen spontanteously, or as a consequence of China’s having lost a war. Either way, it will leave the Chinese too preoccupied with their own affairs to bother about their “near abroad,” at least for a few decades.
The other problem is harder to call. Jeremiah Wright’s congregation has no homeland to recover. Their attachment to Africa is sentimental and fictitious. None of them wishes to go live in Africa. Some black Americans tried that in the 1960s, only to find themselves strangers in a strange land. That is the tragedy of black Americans: they are an ethny with no homeland.
Perhaps “tragedy” is too strong a word. The United States is a pretty nice place to live, even if your ideology of choice insists otherwise. I’d guess that most of the congregants whooping and hollering with delight at Jeremiah Wright’s anti-American tirades live normal American lives the other 160-something hours of the week, their measures of hope and despair, success and failure, very little different from yours or mine. They work, they study, they shop, they invest, they raise kids. If you were to tackle one of them in mid-week, far from Wright’s sermon and its afterglow, he would likely declare himself an American patriot, as Barack Obama has. Wright himself served in the U.S. Navy, according to his Wikipedia entry.
People do what they must do to get through life, Tibetans in China or Africans in America — or any of the rest of us, with our own griefs and handicaps. We stitch together identities as best we can, often from conflicting and contradictory elements, and try to cope. Mostly, we do cope.
In the modern age, though, as Walker Connor correctly says, that inner psychic core of ethnicity is always there. If we are among those unfortunate enough to live, or to perceive ourselves as living, as downtrodden subjects of some ethny not our own, then a sufficient provocation will trigger the rage reflex. Then rocks will be thrown, tear gas will be fired, cars and stores will burn, people will die, in Crown Heights, in Los Angeles, in Cincinnati, in Lhasa.
The Tibetans at least have a clear goal, which I am sure they will attain one day: the repossession of their ancestral homeland. For black Americans there is no such hope. No hope, either, for us nonblack Americans, that the hatred felt by the likes of Jeremiah Wright and his congregants towards us and towards the country we love — by most of them only some of the time, but by some of them most of the time — can ever be extinguished. It cannot even be completely contained, only part-contained. There will always be those occasional explosions. Our nation was born with this. It is our birthright. We have no choice but to struggle on as best we can under this great burden of “diversity” and mutual dislike.
We should, at least, though, in the interests of clear thinking and intellectual integrity, acknowledge this burden as a burden, and stop the absurd and dishonest pretense that this “diversity” our nation was born with is a blessing. It is no blessing. How on earth is it a blessing? It is a congenital and incurable defect, which can be arrested and contained, but never healed. I suppose some very religious people might argue that it is all a test, and that when we have been thoroughly tested, we shall be as gold. Possibly: but the more terrestrially-inclined among us will respond to this line of argument as Woody Allen did in some movie or other: “If God wants to test us, why can’t he give us a written?”
Our own cult of “diversity” has its Chinese equivalent, which the aforementioned spokes-commie will be glad to tell you all about, along the following lines: “The Chinese people are a single nation, united in patriotism, so long as foreign spies and troublemakers do not lead our citizens astray. Our nation has 55 national minorities, of which Tibetans are only one! Would you have us give independence to all 55? Ha ha ha ha! Absurd, don’t you agree? …”
Believe me, I am a veteran of these conversations. The ideology of happy, patriotic “national minorities” dancing round maypoles in blissful harmony when not disturbed by “outside elements” is a key component of Communist China’s political culture, just as the cult of “diversity” is a key component of ours. Millions of citizens in both nations believe in these notions. Millions more — including, just about now, those Chinese shopkeepers in Lhasa, sifting through the ash and rubble of their property — know that the notions are all lies, but will go on pretending to believe in them anyway, for the sake of a quiet life, or because the psychic consequences of ceasing to believe are too melancholy to be borne by members of a naturally optimistic species such as ours.
Say what you like about Jeremiah Wright’s congregation, for a few hours on a Sunday they are not complicit in the lies. For those few hours they discard the infantile elite-fostered illusions about “celebrating diversity.” It is possible to respect them for that, at least, and I do. What they are celebrating in those video clips is their own ethnic pride, and their rage at those of a different ethny who, in their perception, dominate them.
For American patriots it is not pretty, but it is true and real none the less, in Chicago as it is in Lhasa. It is true and real because it belongs to us, to humanity, to our actual human nature, not to the vapid manufactured idiocies of political ideology, Chinese or American.