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Meeting the Dalai Lama | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Meeting the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama recently ended a twenty-day trip to the United States that at times resembled a rock tour more than the series of scientific, spiritual and political meetings which took up much of the Tibetan leader's time in this country.

And whether he was talking to scientists at M.I.T. studying the impact of meditation on human happiness, delivering a sermon on nonviolence and compassion to tens of thousands in New York City's Central Park or conducting an all-day series of discussions about the "ethical revolution and the world crisis," with politicians, activists and media figures at Manhattan's Town Hall, the Dalai Lama drew tremendous (and mostly reverential) attention wherever he went.

The Town Hall event, held on a torrential Tuesday, was organized by Tibet House and its founder Robert Thurman and featured a four-part series of conversations on environmentalism, the media, the politics of war and the ethics of business. The invitees might be best be described as eclectic: Presidential candidates Al Sharpton, and Dennis Kucinich, Co-founder of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream Ben Cohen, environmentalists Randall Hayes, David Crow and Paul Hawken, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Helen Caldicott, hip hop mogul and entrepreneur Russell Simmons and socially responsible investor Amy Domini. I joined Democracy Now's Amy Goodman and actress Susan Sarandon on the media panel.

Sarandon kept the leader of Tibetan Buddism laughing loudly with jokes about the Compassion Diet and what a bundle the Dalai Lama could make if he played his cards right. More seriously, she addressed the fear instilled in people by this Administration and the failure of the press--though she kindly noted a few exceptions, touching my knee and looking at Amy--to investigate and expose the deceit we confront everyday.

Goodman spoke in compelling terms about different September 11 anniversaries around the world--from Chile to Guatemala--and vividly stressed the contrast between what was happening in Town Hall that morning and what was going on across town.(Bush was addressing the UN.) She also made an impassioned case for the importance of independent media through the story of the Pacifica Radio Network and the role it has played these last decades, in allowing voices of dissent to speak against the grain--for example, the great Paul Robeson, who was given a voice on Pacifica when he was shut out of the mass media of his time. (Through his interpreter, the Dalai Lama asked, what years were those?)

Through this, the Dalai Lama sat cross-legged on a striped silk armchair, wrapped cocoon-like in a saffron monk's robe listening carefully. The Dalai Lama is a very good listener. He also seemed very human, yet spiritual; political, yet apolitical; humorous, yet full of a sadness that comes from being the leader of an occupied country; but also joyful, with a mischievous laugh. And, after each set of remarks, he'd respond, sometimes briefly and directly to the point; other times at length in digressive, yet pointed messages.

He confessed that he was a fan of BBC World News ("I trust it more than CNN."); that while he is a resolute opponent of violence he felt the use of force by an elected government is preferable to its use by stateless organizations, and that he has aspirations of drawing together a Nonviolence Swat Team comprised of Nobel laureates who could be mobilized quickly to be dispatched to the world's hot spots.

He responded to Goodman's comments about the US government's brutal interventions abroad by noting how good it is that we Americans have the freedom to criticize our own government. (And he joked that even if anyone was to be arrested for this meeting, at least he'd be on a plane the next morning!)

In the short time I had to offer remarks to the Tibetan spiritual leader, I tried to make sense of the theme of media and ethics while also addressing the Dalai Lama's call for compassion and nonviolence.

Following is an abbreviated version of my remarks:

I want to be honest. I edit a weekly political magazine and these are times when our politics fill me with what you call afflictive emotion--anger, outrage about injustice and deceit. I confess that I believe intelligent anger, focused on serious problems, anger which provokes indignation and action by people, has a role to play in our world. Please forgive me. I also believe that while we live in this world, another world is possible--a more compassionate one--a world in which it would be easier for people to behave decently-and that the media has a role to play in building that world.

This morning, I come here with more questions than answers. And I hope with a humility that our government has abandoned in its engagement with the world, with its own citizens and with the media.

My central question: How do those of us in the media revitalize the civic powers that are so important to an ethical society? How does a citizen, a journalist living at a time when his or her government lies and deceives its own people search out the truth? How does a journalist feel anger at the daily outrages we witness--and still act as an effective, humane watchdog? To not only expose but also propose our vision of a society that is both plausible and visionary? To be critical-minded but not relentlessly oppositional? To say something about the democracy we are for, not just why today it is gravely imperiled? To create a media that does not make citizens passive, fearful spectators but rather informed and compassionate ones?

At The Nation, we refuse to concede that idealism is irrelevant, and like the abolitionists who founded the magazine in 1865, we believe there is no force so potent in politics as a moral issue. We take seriously the power of ideas, of conviction, of conscience, of fighting for causes lost and found. And we're not alone.

We also value our independence. And as the line between news and entertainment has forever been blurred, at a time when conformism and conglomeratization have led to the marginalization, even the suppression of rebellious, questioning, honest voices, that independence seems ever more important. And while it may not be revolution, we believe that it's a small, beginning step to come forth, as we do, with independent perspectives, constructive ideas and radical rethinking of the assumptions underlying conventional thinking and our media.

Sadly, most of our media-especially in these last few years-has lacked the courage to question authority, to raise tough questions, to perform the basic duties required of a free press in a democracy. It has been too easily intimidated by an Administration that has used fear to make its case for war, to label its critics traitors, to silence dissent, to pervert the meaning of patriotism and compassion, and to push for legislation that would invade our privacy and destroy our dignity.

But as in life and history, I believe there are always alternatives. So I'd like to propose an alterative framework. Media can also mean the "surrounding environment in which something functions and thrives." Scientists, for example, use the term to refer to substances they use to nurture a particular organism. Media in a petri dish might be used to grow penicillin. Or anthrax. I choose those two germs because our media is in some ways just as neutral a transmission belt: it can carry news that enlightens as easily as it carries news that poisons minds. If we understand our media of mass communication as helping to create the environment in which mass society functions, then the question for our time, as it has been ever since the invention of mass communication, is what kind of information is to be disseminated, by whom, and for what purpose?

In the forward to Bruce Shapiro's new book about investigative journalism Shaking the Foundations, New York columnist Pete Hamill describes the reporter as a member of a tribe who is sent to the back of a cave to find out what's there. "The report must be accurate," Hamill writes. "If there's a rabbit hiding in the darkness, it cannot be transformed into a dragon. Bad reporting, after all, could deprive people of warmth and shelter aned survival on an arctic night. But if there is, in fact, a dragon lurking in the dark, it can't be described as a rabbit. The survival of the tribe could depend on that person with the torch."

We Americans are very lucky to have a rich tradition of torch-bearers poking around the dark corners of the caves of the powerful. Men and women who are determined to speak documented truth to power, and who have a fierce belief in the ability of readers, of citizens, to effect change. I'm thinking of Jacob Riis, who told us how the other half lives in his meticulous documenting of the poverty of New York City slums in the 1890s. Of muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair, who rooted out political corruption, corporate greed, and dangerous working conditions, sparking vital movements for reform. Of Ralph Nader, who was first published in The Nation, and who in 1959 wrote an expose for us called The Safe Car You Can't Buy that helped set off the modern consumer movement. Of Michael Harrington's book The Other America, which galvanized a federal commitment to end poverty.

There are many more torchbearers I should mention: Rachel Carson for her pioneering work on the environment; I.F. Stone for revealing that the Tonkin Gulf incident was a lie; Seymour Hersh and Ron Ridenour for unearthing the massacre at My Lai; Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for uncovering Watergate. Allan Nairn for showing the connections between the CIA and Latin American death squads. And the list goes on.

I am glad to see your holiness that in your book you endorse investigative journalism, saying it is appropriate to have journalists, "their noses as long as an elephants trunk, snooping around and exposing wrongdoing where they find it."

Citizens cannot make wise choices--in their lives, at work, in politics--without full information about their leaders, their policies, and the truth or falsehood of their statements. Wrongs cannot be corrected without first being exposed. The powerful will naturally be tempted to exploit their power to its fullest if they do not fear that someone is watching them.

And In order to perform these functions, our media must be free--independent not only of government interference, but also of the more subtle pressures imposed on the one hand by would-be moralists who think they know what is best for the public to read and see, and on the other hand by base considerations of private profit which are causing many news outlets to turn away from hard news and towards what we call infotainment.

As we have been documenting in The Nation's pages for some time, while the quantity of media outlets and formats has grown, the number of owners keeps shrinking. Today, a handful of multinationals rule the media cosmos. A media system that enlightens us, that tells us what we need to know, would be a system dedicated to the public interest. Such a system would not be controlled by a cartel of giant corporations which places unlimited power in the hands of limited minds.

But, as I said before, there are always alternatives. And I refuse to believe this is the media world we are stuck with--not only because I try to be a realistic idealist, but also because I see extraordinary changes which breed hope. The tradition of independent investigative reporting is not dead, and you can find vibrant examples of it in both the alternative media--on Amy Goodman's Democracy Now!--as well as in some corporate outlets. For example, it was careful investigative reporting by two journalists at the Chicago Tribune in 1999 that revealed the systemic problems with the state's capital punishment procedures and ultimately led to the commutation of the sentences of all death-row inmates in Illinois.

At the same time, the new technologies of the Internet and digital video have fostered a new generation of independent journalism that is being created directly by the participants in political movements and campaigns. Instead of being subjects of the mass media, millions of people are talking back to the official journalists in ways that are slowly changing and broadening the definition of news.

And something remarkable is taking place. Perhaps the most promising sign of positive change is the emergence of a real media democracy movement, a democratic revolution against media concentration. After years where government agencies basically were able to do whatever the private media giants wanted them to do, this year the sleeping giant--millions of people---awoke to reclaim the airwaves---telling Congress loud and clear that it did not want to live in informational company towns where one company might own all the media. The backlash hit the FCC like a tidal wave, and so far, for once it seems that the forces of democracy and diversity are winning.

Can the Internet, with its culture of free-wheeling grassroots debate, and the media democracy movement, with its goal of breaking up the giant media monopolies, somehow supplant the top-down, profit-oriented, power-following media conglomerates? I don't know, but I believe it is our best hope. Media that is made by people who are responsive to the real interests of their audience, as opposed to the interests of their owners or their advertisers, is far more likely to be media that brings about a peaceful world, nurtures civic society, looks for solutions to problems, doesn't see the world in black and white but more in terms of its complex interdependence, and holds the powerful to account for their actions.

If there is to be an ethical revival in the media, it won't be because we've somehow changed the human nature of the people who work in the media, it will be because we've changed the structures that they have to work in, so they can be their own better selves.

In the end, as Pete Hamill writes, "the full story will come out--it always does--because someone is heading into the cave with a torch."

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