August 30, 1999

The Global Melting Pot

The Los Angeles Times (Saturday, August 28, 1999) reports good news for the global melting pot in two separate front page articles. In Tibet, despite the curious belief shared by young and old alike that only the return of the Dalai Lama "will make everything right in Tibet," there is hope because, according the Times, accusations of four decades of Chinese "'cultural genocide' against the Tibetans" are false. "The truth is that Beijing appears willing to let the indigenous culture live on."

Meanwhile, in our own backyard, the Southwest Voter Leadership Academy is training the next generation of aspiring Latino-American leaders to take a "wider view" than their civil-rights era predecessors in a new "corporate style," "political boot camp." Showing its trainees the path to enlightenment, "Southwest Voter now boasts a research institute and a host of corporate sponsors such as Disney, Arco and AT & T." With this kind of tolerance and accommodation of diversity breaking out globally, we can look forward to the day sometime soon when East LA gangbangers will be peddling Lhasa gas franchises, long distance, in high squeaky, accentless voices.

Both Times articles are huge by newspaper standards--more than enough space for each writer to put a happy face on an old ethnic conflict. But enough is never enough. Somehow neither writer seems to have had space to place his story in any meaningful contemporary context, not even in the context of other running stories in the Los Angeles Times.

"In Tibet, Dalai Lama Remains People's Choice" occupies 54 column inches, including two photographs. But after weeks of news about the Chinese crackdown on the Falun Gong movement, a crackdown just days ago extended to miniscule Protestant church groups, the reporter's matter of fact reassurance of the government's commitment to tolerance seems disoriented and confused: "The basic rule is that cultural expression--in manners, dress, customs and other practices--is generally permitted among China's many ethnic minorities and religious groups as long as it does not challenge the state." In what world does this reporter live that the terms "basic," "generally" and "as long as" have any binding meaning for governments of any kind?

Perhaps we are to understand, without being told, that Falun Gong, which objectively can only be described as "dippy," actually poses a fundamental threat to bureaucratic state communism in China. Perhaps we are to understand, also without being told, that the Times reporter is simply parroting official Chinese government pronouncements as the price of operating in China. But neither explains the Los Angeles Times' editorial decision to print the portions of this story relating the Chinese policy of using internal economic development, without western aid, to "buy Tibetan submission."

"'Economic development can solve most every problem,' said Tang Wei, deputy director of Tibet's foreign trade office. 'And the problems are easier solved without foreign meddling,' he added in a jab at the U.S. and other Western countries where the Dalai Lama is widely admired." Surely Deputy Director Wei is jabbing at the West. But, as he and presumably the report well know, China is receiving Western aid for Tibetan internal development, and Deputy Director Wei's profession of faith in economic development and its ability to solve most every problem has a very different meaning than the one the Times lets stand in this article.

It is elsewhere in the Times that Deputy Direct Wei's meaning becomes clear, but the reader has to hunt and to remember. For the last week, the Times has been running China stories about the misadventures of a professional linguist and a pro-Tibetan American activist named Dagamizu Meston: his activities, his various detentions, his injury escaping police, and finally his medical and diplomatic evacuation by the U.S. Embassy. Meston, now officially banned from China for five years, has been in Qinghai as part of a team investigating of all things a World Bank-backed project to resettle Chinese farmers on lands inhabited by Tibetans. It seems that with $160 million in World Bank financing the Chinese government is indeed willing "to let the indigenous culture live on" in Tibet, on smaller and smaller pieces of land, crowded closer and closer by ethnic Chinese. One would never suspect this from a reading of "Dalai Lama Remains People's Choice." Of course, it's important that one not suspect this, because ethnic Chinese resettlement in Tibet is very much what the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans mean when they accuse China of "'cultural genocide' against the Tibetans," a charge the Times and its reporter completely dismiss in this article.

With such decontectualized reporting, it's hard not to respond in kind and read out of context. In which case, the Los Angeles Times story drives one to conclude that the real problem in Tibet for those that matter--China and the World Bank--is the Dalai Lama. Or rather the problem is the Tibetans' continued belief in him, which "transcends reason and economics," the fact of Chinese occupation and the inducements of the World Bank deal. Or perhaps, since the reporter repeatedly reminds us that the Chinese simply may be biding their time, the real problem is that the Dalai Lama has now joined Fidel Castro on the world stage and the problem is that we really can't do business yet because, as the last words of Times article put it, "He's not dead yet."

The Saturday Times other feature story, "A New Latino School for Politics Takes a Wider View," includes two photographs and spreads across three pages to total 89 column inches. It is similarly indifferent to relevant contemporary events reported in the Los Angeles Times, but without even the excuse of having been written under a regime of censorship. The views of "New Latino" candidates working "on winning mainstream votes while honoring activist roots" must be wide indeed to overlook the on-going Times reporting of the local El Monte police saga.

It seems that on August 9, 1999, an El Monte SWAT team of 20 officers raided the Compton home of one Mario Paz, "shot the front and back doors open as the family slept," and "shot in the back" and killed Mr. Paz, 65 years old. "The El Monte Police Department has no evidence that anyone in the family of Mario Paz...was involved in drug trafficking, nor did officers when they shot their way into the house in the nighttime raid," reports the latest Los Angeles Times follow-up story, on the same August 28 front page as its happy-face "New Latino School" story.

There can be little doubt that in publishing "A New Latino School for Politics Takes a Wider View" the Los Angeles Times felt a kind of civic obligation to keep a lid on things, encouraging its Latino readers also to "take a wider view" of the El Monte affair. The kind of "wider view" required may be indicated by one of the article's two photographs. It depicts three young Latinos on their knees, groping about in the grass and air, engaged in a supposed "leadership exercise." The caption reads, "Blindfolded, they try to form a perfect triangle." Stranger than fiction, the photo recalls Ralph Ellision's jab at the training of aspiring black leaders at white-financed "Negro Colleges":

It's so long ago and far away that here in my invisibility I wonder if it happened at all. Then in my mind's eye I see the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold Father figure, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave; and I am puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly into place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding. (Invisible Man, Random House: New York, 1952)

In the El Monte affair, the Times good-citizen effort to blindfold its Latino readers was probably not necessary. In this age of "visual readers," the lack of camcorder footage effectively blindfolds nearly everyone, making it highly unlikely that Mario Paz's unjustifiable death could ever provoke the near-universal outrage that Rodney King's mere beating did.

Things get curiouser and curiouser when one considers the front-page publication of both the Tibet and New Latino stories. One's forced to wonder for how many different kinds of things, and how often, the LA Times feels obliged to keep a lid on, globally speaking. And who are the global citizens on whose behalf the Times is so good? There's no doubt about its method. The Los Angeles Times does not fail to report the news. It does not fail to report it, in a sense, objectively. But it reports the news in such decontextualized, disorienting, fragmentary fashion that the general impression upon readers is one of hopeless confusion in the state of the nation and the world. This seems good. This seems bad. This makes me happy. This makes me sad. Which one of these things doesn't go with the others? But why bother figuring out what's really what and why? It's too complicated, too much work. I'd rather read the Los Angeles Times "Saturday Journal." The Los Angeles Times "Saturday Journal" for August 28, 1999, was entitled "For Good or Ill, Spitting Happens."

Of course, the Los Angeles TImes is not alone in this practice. If once upon a time, media critics could accuse, with some justification, the national media of functioning to shape public thought in line with U.S. government policy, such is no longer the case or no longer simply the case. The major national media, in this following the lead of local television, primetime "news journals," and infotainment shows, now seem to function largely only to addle and confuse. Bottomline: that's what best holds viewers and readers. Perhaps it's only incidental that it also keeps a lid on things: it's what best renders viewers and readers passive and ineffective.

In any event, addle and confuse is also what the Southwest Voter Leadership Academy seems to be about. "Anyone who wants to get beyond that glass ceiling has to become a more assimilated candidate... You can't speak with an accent and must constantly reassure people you have common, mainstream, middle-class values." "Always stay on your message... The biggest mistake you can make is to stray from your message. You write the headline. You control the agenda." "Skin color and language should mean nothing... A good leader is committed to serving anyone who is honest and hard working." "If you want to get the mayor to do something, talk to his circle of influence, to people he'll listen to." "Networking is extremely important. I meet 10 to 20 new people each time. That means 10 to 20 new business cards." "'Remember, there are no permanent enemies and no permanent allies' in politics."

These and other mantras the participants in the Southwest Voter Leadership Academy repeat to each other day after day, isolated at the Glorietta christian-bush.html">christian-bush.html">Christian Mediation Center in the desert of New Mexico, "sharing dimly lighted double rooms furnished with just two beds, a shower stall and a toilet," cut off "with no transportation outside the compound," "no television, limited phone access and little time to eat their cafeteria meals, usually dry fish dinners or soggy burgers seemingly out of a public school free lunch program."

It's too bad the Chinese government isn't here to crackdown on this whitewash public relations cult, but no wonder that it's being funded through Southwest Voter by Disney, Arco and AT & T, and reported glowingly by the Times Mirror Company. Certainly, none of these corporate giants need much reminding that Latinos will not be a numerical minority in California much longer, however much the Southwest Voter Leadership Academy seems devoted to training young Latino activists to forget it.

No permanent enemies and no permanent allies?

That's a glorious and perhaps true proposition in the plenitude of time and eternity contemplated by religious believers. But in the here and now of real world politics, it's the credo of a brand of machiavellianism of which even Machiavelli was not guilty. For this political world, on behalf of Latinos, Tibetans and all others, ourselves included, who are similarly situated in relation to the powerful, faceless likes of Disney, Arco, AT & T, the World Bank, the Chinese government, the Times Mirror Company, we'd be better advised to start a permanent enemies list, before all our beautiful and wicked individual and cultural differences are melted away....

Posted by Raoul

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