Tibet’s Cool, But What About Cuba’s Travails?

Martin Scorsese’s Kundun needs no hype from me; a month after it opened, the lines still stretch around the corner at the neighborhood movie house where it is playing. It is a movie with the rare merit, for a film in a historical or exotic setting, of presenting a world that is authentically strange, not our own in costume.

How strange? Kundun is a pro-religious, anticommunist movie. How common a combination is that in Hollywood? The scenes between Mao Zedong and the young Dalai Lama are played as phantasmagoria, with the scientific socialist, not the god-king, in the role of the monstrous dream-figure.

Kundun defends a medieval society. Mr. Scorsese bravely gives us glimpses of Tibet’s weird antiquity. When the Dalai Lama and his court ponder an important question, they consult a possessed shaman. This Buddhism is not the California Zen variety.

I consulted the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica on Tibetan religion, and found this stern dismissal of the influence that Tantra had upon it: “Some unhappy scholar of a future age may have to trace its loathsome history.” But the article goes on to note that a 14th-century reformer purged his country of Tantra’s grosser elements, so even Tibet once felt the winds of change.

These changes stopped well short of our notions of modernity-a fact the Communist Chinese have tried to exploit in their lumbering counteroffensive to American Tibet-mania. Chinese flacks boast that, under their regime, literacy has gone up (true, it is literacy in Chinese, not in Tibetan), while Jiang Zemin, on his trip here some months ago, casually remarked that the Chinese Communists had abolished slavery in Tibet.

Prof. Leonard Jeffries, hearing this, looks up from his beakers where he is performing melanin research and asks, “Did the Jew take my people even there?” No, Professor Jeffries, slavery has not happened only to the black man, or in the United States. Serfdom has been the historic norm the world over, and while Jiang obviously seeks to put the worst possible gloss on the pre-revolutionary society of Tibet, it is equally true that no American would volunteer to have lived in its lowest orders.

The Dalai Lama in the movie says that his country was about to change itself, on its own. His honesty is not to be questioned. But if we are honest, we must admit that the heroic devotion shown by his subjects-culminating in the bravery of the horsemen who guide him over the Indian border, and whom he foresees bloody and dead by their mounts as a reward for their service-is a premodern, prerational virtue. They did not get it by passing a law. It sprang from their faith, and their way of life. What is good about Tibet is inextricable from what is odd and ancient.

This should give modern men pause-not just the pathological among us, the socialists and the national socialists, but also we, the democratic capitalists. We, too, bustle about the world, upsetting apple carts. Different goods, lesser goods, even evils are delicate things to change or extract. When a society has destroyed itself, then a hero may build anew in the ruins, as Kemal Ataturk did in Turkey after World War I. Patient conquerors can alter particular institutions, as the British abolished suttee in India, without trying to remake Hinduism. But when a country is moving along under its own steam, it is a rash man, if not a wicked one, who sets his hand to the framework of it.

Americans don’t believe this. Got a problem? Call in the United Nations and the A.C.L.U. Where Tibet is concerned, the robes and the chants and the yaks distract us, but anywhere else we revert to our normal frame of mind. Just look at the Pope’s visit to Cuba.

Now John Paul II is a celebrity as well as a pontiff, and he won the glam contest, even against Fidel. But if I read once, I read a dozen times the paeans to Mr. Castro’s intentions. He increased medical care. He increased literacy. He closed the brothels. After I went to Havana in the mid-1980’s, I talked about the trip with an old friend, an incorrigible Communist; when I told him that unmistakable whores cruised up and down the sidewalk outside the Hotel Habana Libre (formerly the Havana Hilton), his face fell. Poverty, isolation, caudillismo-he could swallow it all. But Fidel, he believed, had closed the brothels.

Never mind that the medical care was provided by low-grade nurses. Never mind that the literacy enabled people to read Fidel’s speeches, and nothing else. Never mind that the whores simply shifted from brothels to streetwalking (the pretty ones were no doubt reserved for the Communists and their special guests). Fidel was not Batista. Fidel was not whoever preceded Batista. Fidel was new and clean and progressive. Long live progress, long live Castro.

On my visit, I didn’t just goggle at hookers. I also went to a church service. In the First Methodist Church of Havana, in fact. A more wretched group of compromised believers could not be imagined. They were the precise equivalent of those Tibetans who stayed behind and made their peace with the Chinese Communists, maybe intending to save what they could, maybe intending to get ahead. But no fancy Americans appeared to defend the Cuban faithful. The only fancy American there that day was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whom I was covering, who attended the church service in the retinue of Fidel Castro, the jailer of the congregation he hectored. Religion is no guarantee of virtue. Some clerics are like John Paul II, or the Dalai Lama, speaking truth to power. Some are like Mr. Jackson, picking crumbs from the tables of the powerful.

What will happen in Cuba and Tibet? The world is clamoring for the United States to lift its embargo on Cuba, which became obsolete with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It would be a nice gesture to end it as a present to the Pope. Tibet looks hopeless-but no more hopeless than the cause of the Baltic nations looked, up until 1989. If the Asian economic slowdown hits China, there could be unimaginable upheavals.

Tibet and Cuba-so alike in fact, so different when Oscar time rolls around. If the Dalai Lama wore a white robe, and John Paul II wore a colored one, would Hollywood see them differently?