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.