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What Good It Does: A Response to A. Tom Grunfeld on the Obama - Dalai Lama Meeting

March 2, 2010

The Huffington Post (blog)
February 27, 2010

Like an aging quasi-rock star who can't help
repeatedly playing that one hit that made him
famous all those years ago, A. Tom Grunfeld
always manages to revert to his perceived trump
card on the issue of Tibet -- the fact that he
knows a deep dark secret about Tibetan society
that if revealed to the public at large would
forever change their view of the Himalayan
nation. He knows -- and has gone to absurd and
academically questionable lengths to prove --
that pre-invasion Tibet was not a perfect society
(though he has never revealed to what standard he
is comparing it). And he has inside information
that -- in the height of the cold war -- Tibetan
resistance fighters were for a short time funded by -- gasp -- the CIA.

Unfortunately for Grunfeld, there is nothing at
all revelatory about either of those revelations.
In the decades that have past since Grunfeld
first laid the academic rotten egg known as "The
Making of Modern Tibet," the public perception of
Tibet has grown, evolved and become far more
nuanced than it was thirty years ago. At least
three widely circulated books have been written
on CIA involvement in the Tibetan resistance.
Most of the new generation of American Tibet
supporters are fully aware of this brief
relationship. They neither see Tibet as some kind
of Shangri La nor as a backward feudal theocracy,
but as the complex, multi-faceted society that it is.

In the face of such growing understanding, I
wonder what if any serious insight someone like
Grunfeld -- who has always existed as an outside
critic on the fringes of real academic discourse
on Tibet -- has to offer on the subject.
Certainly his interaction with actual Tibetans
has been limited, either due to a lack of
interest on his part in actually speaking with
his subject matter, or simply because most
Tibetans will have nothing to do with him. For
some reason, after Grunfeld wrote that Tibetan
women eat their own placentas and lick their
newborn babies clean like beasts, Tibetans didn't receive him so warmly.

In his latest interview on Huffington Post, the
SUNY quasi-demic says nothing overtly offensive
to Tibetan culture, but he does exhibit his usual
lack of insight into the actual on the ground
reality in Tibet, and, of course, falls into his
standard tone in which all things Tibetan are
treated with barely disguised colonial disdain.

After clumsily dropping the Tibet/CIA reference a
few times, Grunfeld wonders aloud about the
importance of the Dalai Lama - Obama meeting.

"The real question," Grunfeld asks, "is what good does it do?"

I operate under the possibly erroneous assumption
that most academics are at least reasonably smart
men. And while Grunfeld is correct in his
estimate that Presidential audiences are a
somewhat strange ritual akin to a Kabuki play,
the strength of message sent by that simple act
of theater cannot be underestimated.

Several weeks ago, in a move akin to the free
speech witch hunts that foreshadowed some of the
worst actions by the worst governments during the
worst part of the 20th century, the Chinese
government announced that they were removing the
University of Calgary from their list of
accredited universities. The offense? Hosting the
Dalai Lama as a guest speaker. Surely an academic
like Grunfeld can appreciate the utter gravity of
this type of behavior. When governments not only
control information but begin dictating the
agendas of educational institutions it is a dark
day for free speech, and for the very tenets that
support and allow Grunfeld his livelihood as an academic.

China's new, bold campaign against freedom of
speech and information -- including targeted and
most likely government-led virus attacks on
Google and other western companies for the
singular purpose of spying on and detaining
activists -- and their increasingly egregious
bully tactics toward India, Nepal, Southeast Asia
and Africa, clearly demonstrate the moral
trajectory of this rising superpower. With the
American economy safely in their pocket, the
leaders of Beijing are basically issuing a
challenge to the world. They are going to
pressure, to bully, to exert their influence and
forward their agenda however, wherever, and
whenever they can. In effect they are saying "go ahead and stop us."

In this climate, acceding anything, any political
nugget to the Chinese government is indefensible.
Refusing to meet with a Nobel-laureate, a
champion of free speech and the rights of the
individual would be playing right into their
hands. It would be a major step backward.

What good does a meeting with the Dalai Lama do?
What good it does is simple -- it sends a clear
message to Beijing that they are not the only
ones who set the agenda on the Tibet. It sends a
clear message that there are limits to their
sphere of influence outside their borders. It
sends a clear message that the Tibet issue is a
vitally important one to resolve. And, perhaps
most importantly, it directly represents the
wishes of the American people. Americans
overwhelmingly wanted this meeting, just as
Americans overwhelmingly feel that Tibet should
be an independent nation. This is not just a nice
fact, it is a political reality that the Chinese
government cannot just shrug off or ignore. This,
too, will play a role in determining the future of Tibet.

Tibet is a key issue for citizens of the world
not, as Grunfeld would have us imagine, because
of how it has been publicized. Its a key issue
because it is an egregious example of colonialism
and oppression which is still continuing
unchecked today. Grunfeld and his cohorts can
resort to any argument they can dig up or
fabricate about 'old Tibet.' The current reality
is that people in Tibet disappear for speaking
their mind, monasteries are constantly under
surveillance, prisoners are tortured, filmmakers
are thrown in jail, protests are crushed, and an
enduring colonial and racist mentality permeates
all aspects of Sino-Tibetan relations.

Within this context, Grunfeld, like all good
apologist/colonialist scholars, puts the blame
and the burden on the oppressed people
themselves. In this interview, Grunfeld seems to
be saying to Tibetans and to the Dalai Lama: "If
only you would acquiesce more, if only you
wouldn't publicize your issue so much, if only
you would be more reasonable... then the
hardliners wouldn't have an excuse to be so nasty to you."

This exact line of reasoning was used in
negotiations between the British government and
Gandhi over the independence of India. The
British were terrified of how much media
attention Gandhi received -- and for good reason.
Under the objective light of the camera, it is
hard to make an oppressor look like anything
other than an oppressor, and a humble opponent in
a loincloth (or in monk's robes) usually ends up
winning the public's hearts and minds. The
British appealed to Gandhi to tone his constant
campaigning down a notch so that they could come
to some reasonable agreement. But in the end, it
was Gandhi's stubbornness, his absolute
unwillingness to tone it down that won the day.

The problem with Grunfeld's assertion that the
visibility of the Tibet movement strengthens
China's hardliners is that the Beijing government
has never once shown any indication that a more
'reasoned' stance on the Tibet issue by Tibetans
will cause any change in their already hard line
policies. The Tibetan side has acquiesced --
repeatedly -- with absolutely no result. More
subtly, this type of reasoning assumes that it is
the responsibility of the occupied to acquiesce
to the occupier. As Nelson Mandela said, in the
case of enduring conflicts between occupier and
occupied, the occupier has the prime moral
responsibility. It is the Chinese government that
has to accept the reality of the Tibetan
resistance and the global support of it. It is
the Chinese government who will eventually have
to acquiesce. Freedom and independence are not
won through capitulation, but rather by constant,
determined action and resistance.

This is where Grunfeld's analysis generally
fails. He has never exhibited a firm grasp on the
reality of the Tibetan resistance within Tibet --
how widespread it is, how independence-centric it
is, how much it is growing, or of the broad
spectrum of voices and tactics that are employed
within it daily. Though he attempts to surmise
the effects of an Obama- Dalai Lama meeting on
Tibetans inside Tibet, he simply has no authority
to speak on the matter because he does not know.
He is simply not part of the discussion. Tibetans
inside Tibet are perfectly smart enough to know
that this meeting does not represent some huge
shift in U.S. policy, nor does it mean that the
U.S. would support the Tibetan resistance
militarily if it ever came to it. They are also
smart enough to recognize what a huge slap in the
face it is to Beijing's leadership.

But as usual, Grunfeld treats Tibetans as
non-entities -- not only is their resistance
movement a PR campaign, not only do they not have
a stake in determining their own future, but,
like most primitives, they are so gullible and
naive that they will be lured into false hope by
this meeting, whose political ramifications they
clearly can't fully comprehend or analyze.

Grunfeld's short interview, on first glance,
appears harmless enough, but there are subtle and
not-so-subtle threads that run throughout that
deserve to be challenged -- the labeling of a
legitimate people's movement as a "publicity
campaign"; the inference that in this case the
oppressed are the ones who need to acquiesce and
capitulate; questioning the value of two Nobel
laureates meeting; inferring that the oppressed
people can't fully comprehend the ramifications
of such a meeting and need a western scholar to
explain it to them. All of this points to
Grunfeld's true feelings about Tibet, which are
frankly colonialist, apologist, borderline
racist, and -- after all these years -- have apparently not changed much.

I close with a direct challenge to Professor
Grunfeld: Tom. For once, once, why don't you take
the absurd and ridiculously negative lens you
apply to all things Tibetan and turn it on the Chinese government.

Then see how long until they revoke your visa
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