Tuesday, June 17, 2003
Rupert Murdoch vs. Himalayan Buddhism
Very good feature in the Guardian Weekend magazine on Saturday, written by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy. In it they talk about the effects of TV on Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist nation located in the Himalayas, to the East of Nepal. Bhutan was the last society on earth to acquire TV in 1999 after the football world cup of the previous year, when popular demand forced their monarch, the Dragon King Jigme Singye, to erect a giant screen in the stadium of the Kingdom's capitol Thimphu. This instigated a technological revolution that gathered a rather hot head of steam with rumors that the Dragon King was happy to watch 46 cable channels in his palace and enjoy the fruits of Western culture (action movies, pornography and wrestling?) while denying his subjects the same pleasure for reasons of Spiritual Well-Being and The Social Good. A double standard typical of authoritarianism: we know what's good for you, because we do what's bad for you. Which is a bit like our favorite dictator-for-life, Kim Jong-il (remember him? 'Freddie'?). Freddie is internationally renowned for his extravagance, for his love of fast cars, blonde models, soap starlets, Western movies, surfing the net, wild parties. He is known to demand outlandish luxury requirements that would make J-Lo flush with shame and likes to dine on steak and cognac with his entourage, who call themselves - seriously - 'The Pleasure Squad' (East London, are you listening?). All of this while his subjects just about subsist on crap food rations, and spend their lives gawping at boring Social Realist paintings of fictional NK military victories, practicing air raid drills, and baffling over the alien enigma of Elvis, their one glimpse at Western pop culture. As Shining Path put it with typical brute clarity: Everything except power for The Party is illusion. (North Korea is bizarre. Actually, it's not, it's more like the most cynical, shrewd and internally effective dictatorship in recent history; an inspired and indomitable combination of communism and monarchism. Likewise, certain American officials have been heard to opine "how do you negotiate with a madman?", when they know better: Jong-Il is a fairly shrewd political strategist and stake-player, undermined by a tendency to over-play his hand. Extravagance and a flair for brinkmanship and apocalyptic rhetoric doesn't constitute 'insanity' (although Reagan did end up with alzheimers...) W., Dick, Donny and Wal could crush NK like an ant, but the people wouldn't know what to do, no Iraqi-style slipper-slapping, just a numbed adrift ness, a weird emptiness. They've been wound down into a dazed submission, a glassy dependence. This despite famine, which is denied with a sad and assertive assurance. The Party Line is a lifeline: don't underestimate the enchanting and terrifying powers of Absolute Authority. You can never assume a response either way.)
Back to Bhutan:
(which is nothing like NK in actual fact, these two forms of paternal dominance serve totally different ends and ideals. Do you believe in Shangri-la, or would you at least like too? Perhaps this is equally open to Abuse of Power, a paradoxical underpinning, the Tyrrany of Peace...)
since the introduction of TV in 1999, Bhutan has recorded its first serious and sustained crime wave, a social rupture in a society previously devoid of vice, violence and venality (although this is surely relative). In the last four years this small kingdom has witnessed political corruption, high-level fraud, a farmer driving his in-laws off a cliff, and a heroin addict bludgeoning his wife to death. More importantly a distinct and disturbing generation gap has emerged between Bhutanese youth and their elders, the kids ditching traditional Bhutanese values for Oprah, WWF, and MTV (or put more simply: the USA). The elders - and the authorities - blame this solely on new TV imports (the national Bhutanese TV network was a dismal failure, mainly due to technical incompetence, pop cultural naivety, and woefully inadequate funding; the people stayed tuned to Rupert Murdoch's Star network, happy to make the critical distinction, unsurprisingly).
This rapid introduction of global media aesthetics, a fast track cultural induction, corresponds almost totally with the emergence of social schisms and eruptions; like a virus these aesthetics infect the delicate social constitution, and corrupt traditional structures of organisation, behaviour, thought. They split asunder and polarise a previous equilibrium. Social desire intensifies with extreme speed, almost in one huge, volatile, destructive surge, urges spill and spew across the cultural landscape; reconfigure time, space, identity, love, the imagination. We've had generations to adapt and acclimatise; most of us have never even had to, climbing out of the amniotic sac straight into a cocoon of images, signals, signs, brands, artificial dreams and ideals. Bhutan has had four years, and is suffering from chronic fast-forward.
It's not just cause and effect, obviously: in Bhutan TV has channeled generations of frustration and desire, an invisible and unimaginable event that is too fast, too fundamental, and too ferocious to be called a 'process'. This is an unleashing of desire, the sudden apparition of demand, expectation, possession, and the mania fermented by proscription of behaviour, enforced isolation of those who don't want to grow up isolated from the Global Village (or bazaar, or battlefield, or whatever). TV has brought into being a new molten society of Bhutan, still in the crucible, forming, hot and seething, new behavioural patterns and codes, new identities, mores, orbits, and aspirations (a Bhutanese survey showed that 1/3 of girls wanted to look more American, with whiter skin and blonde hair). It would be stupid to deny the net impact of global popular culture, which is inescapably violent, sexualised, explicit, often nihilistic, often mystical, often virulently materialistic and culturally imperialist. Stupid because mostly these are its very strengths, what makes it aesthetically domineering and effective: a destructive sublime and an impersonal seduction, the pleasure principle and the death drive.
Some of the best bits of the article are quotes from the Bhutanese themselves, which I quote without any kind permission, and hope for the best:
Scott-Clark and Levy asked a class what they liked about TV and they replied:
Posh and Becks, Eminem, Linkin Park. We love Rock. Aliens. Homer Simpson.
Domination of the mind: the Nuevo-riche and trailer trash finally colonise the Himalayas (while Manuel de Landa looks the other way, watching Everest grow another millimetre).
Then Sangay Ngedup chips in with this beautiful eulogy to a lost society:
We used to think nothing of walking three days to see our in-laws. Now we can't even be bothered to walk to the end of Norzin Lam High Street.
And then Doriji Penjore, a researcher, goes one further and really breaks my heart:
When I was growing, WWF meant World Wild Fund for Nature.
(Me too actually, and I'm only 25.)
But then Sangay comes back in for the killer jab, knocks me, laughing, to the floor:
Until recently we shied away from killing insects and yet now we Bhutanese are asked to watch people on TV blowing heads off with shotguns. Will we now be blowing each other's heads off?
An incredibly thought-provoking piece of reportage.