“The March of Folly” is what historian Barbara Tuchman titled her chronicle of the role of willful stupidity in World History. Her working definition of “political folly” is “the pursuit of policy against self-interest”, of which one operative criterion is “self-deception”, or as I prefer to call it, the unwillingness to think about what you’d rather not think about. The ancient Greeks called it “hubris”, but 2,500 years of further data from the laboratory of History have elucidated the phenomenon of political folly beyond the Greeks’s initiatory hypotheses.
Tuchman’s list of exemplars of political folly included the Renaissance Popes’ provocation of the Protestant Reformation, the British Government’s unnecessary provocation of American independence, and how America “betrayed itself” in the Viet Nam War. To that list, now we can add the idiots who were instrumental in China’s decision to include Tibet in the Olympic Torch Route, whose willful stupidity includes the (to use a criminal law term of art) “aggravating circumstance” of actually planning to mount (sarcastic phallic allusion intended) the torch on Mount Everest, one of the most prominent symbols of a land against whose people, and against whose traditional religion, the atheist Chinese Communist Party is mortally hostile.
Now, although history and its subordinate “social sciences” shun monocausal theories – because Human behaviour is unpredictable, interdependent and its causes and effects (as in material Nature) are mutual – still, some events and deeds are more significant than others, most especially those involving symbols. And as the employment of, and susceptibility to, symbols is the peculiar specialty of Man above all species, political acts involving symbols are among the most prominent causes of historical changes for good or ill. Alas, given Tuchman’s law of folly being the rule rather than the exception in history, the results of excessive employment of political symbols – otherwise known as propaganda or, synonymously, “public relations” or “publicity”, usually tend to bugger things up in direct proportion to their overuse, especially when employed by hubristic regimes besotted by their own self-perceived roles as “great, or rising, powers.” Like China’s.
And now, consequent to China’s decision to “mount” Tibet with the Olympic Torch, now the government of Nepal – which has to a considerable degree become a satellite, or at least subordinate state to China – has agreed to block access to Mount Everest until after China completes its publicity stunt, as a prophylactic against possible anti-Chinese protests in that region. But, perhaps unknown to many in the West, the region around Mount Everest has been one of the few avenues of relatively unguarded (even if difficult) permeability between Tibet and the free world. With the closing of the area around Mount Everest, now Tibet is in the process of becoming almost totally isolated from the outside world, somewhat analogously to East Berlin during the Cold War. But there will be nothing analogous to the “Berlin Airlift” for the now even more thoroughly imprisoned people of Tibet. Is it any wonder, then, that the Tibetans have chosen THIS moment to attempt one final outcry to the outside world, before their own “Iron Curtain” descends around them?
Thus, China is experiencing the “law of unintended consequences” in action. This kind of folly is not TOO surprising for a self-enamoured, still essentially closed regime whose intolerance of public dissent or open information, not to mention their nearly total ignorance of History, naturally tends to render them stupid. But then one must wonder, what the hell were China’s WESTERN “public relations” experts thinking when the advised the Chinese on how to manage the “public relations” of the Olympic Torch and its route?
We know who designed the torch; it was designed by Lenovo, as was announced by China’s BOCOG (the bureaucrats responsible for all this) simultaneously with their announcement of the torch’s route. But it is NOT clear who suggested the torch’s route – whether it was one of China’s Western “public relations” consultants for the Olympics, or whether it was suggested by some ignorant CCP crackpot. Still, the question remains, IF China’s Western – and thus, presumably more sophisticated about history, politics and symbols – public relations consultants were at least aware of China’s intention to bring the torch to Tibet and mount it upon Everest, why didn’t they at least warn the Chinese that they were courting a public relations disaster (at the very least), and then dissociate themselves from the ill-fated project?
On the other hand, if in fact the Western consultants were the ones who came up with the idea of “mounting” Tibet with the torch, then they have earned a special kind of “Darwin Award” for themselves as well as for China. There are some things that you just don’t do – like (if it were possible) mounting an Israeli flag on top of the Kaaba in Mecca. Granted, the Torch scandal differs from that hypothetical example, but only in degree of the powers of the symbols involved; otherwise the dynamics are equivalent in the clash of symbols and in the, not just disregard, but CONTEMPT FOR, the religious sentiments of the offended peoples.
Admittedly, the example of planting an Israeli Flag on top of the Kaaba is hyperbolic, while the folly of the Olympic Torch is a more pedestrian (not to mention less personally daring), more ludicrous kind. Actually, although I personally revere the Kaaba and the Koran (although I am not a Muslim, I do revere Islam’s symbols), I would at least have some persona l respect for the courage of any Israeli who dared even to enter Mecca with an Israeli flag, even though I would consider his deed to be dishonourable and deserving of death. So, perhaps a more closely analogous example of things you “just don’t do” – things like “DON’T MOUNT TIBET WITH CHINA’S TORCH” – is this one from Ren and Stimpy: “Don’t Whizz On The Electric Fence”: