Don't call it a spade
The Informed Position on Tibet
Years ago I used to read a lot View from the Right, the blog of Lawrence Auster. Auster was a very peculiar guy. A Jew convert to Christianity, chanting the joys of social conservatism when being single (and most likely gay), he spent half his time criticizing progressive ideology, and half his time criticizing fellow critics of progressive ideology. His criticism was vivid, sharp and often accurate. Some of his criticism of rightist pundits was very good (Auster’s law of race relations is brilliant and more relevant than ever), in many ways anticipating what today is called cuckservatism. Much of his material wasn’t that good though, especially his awkward attacks of Steve Sailer for not defending Israel. The best part of his blog was how often he updated it (I was bored at college and appreciated the entertainment), and the comments by Jim Kalb. I wonder what Auster would’ve thought of Trump.
Auster was also quite obviously a man of the right, but he wasn’t part of anything. He wasn’t a paleocon, he wasn’t a white nationalist. He was his own man. Being your own man is underappreciated. See this blog. It started as a neoreaction blog. At times I wrote quite actively about the “movement”. Then the Eternal September happened and hordes of retards fell into neoreaction, driving the level of discussion down to the left half of the bell curve. Is this still a neoreaction blog?
See, I studied linguistics, and this sort of questions always interested me the most (though not my fellow linguists). What’s in a name? What is the definition of “neoreaction”? What’s the definition of anything, really? What’s the definition of “race”? What’s the definition of “rape”? The classical theory is that words have definitions, much like dictionaries do, and people have a “mental lexicon” which harbors dictionary definitions inside every individual brain. But the empirical evidence shows it doesn’t work like that. People don’t have mental dictionaries. People never agree on definitions. The definition of a word is whatever that word evokes in your mind, and that mental effect depends on a whole lot of cognitive and social factors. People say race is a social construct. No, the word “race” is a social construct. As are all other words. That’s how language works.
That’s why “racist” doesn’t mean “person who is prejudiced against people because of their racial affiliation”. The effective meaning of the word “racist” is whatever the word “racist” reminds you of; the Left has taken care that the word “racist” reminds you of evil white men, so the words “racist” effectively means “evil white man”. QED. The word “race” for many reasons reminds most people of humans of different innate skin tones, which is why Bantus and Somalis are both regarded thought as “black”, even though people with a better understanding of human genetic history know that’s not a very useful way to put it. But it works, so the word stays in the language.
Once you understand this, (which you really should, nominalism in various forms is thousands of years old), I can ask, what is neoreaction? In actual fact, not what I’d like it to be. Neoreaction is whatever people are reminded of when they hear the word. 3 years ago, the word “neoreaction” reminded me of Moldbug, Foseti and Jim. That was a pretty cool thing. I was happy to join that boat. Today, however, “neoreaction” reminds one of Twitter and Social Matter. And I’m sorry, but that’s not my thing. I can’t say for sure if it’s just them being boring, or it’s just that my thinking has changed, while they remain faithful to the project. I get slightly embarrassed every time I browse my archives. At any rate it could be both. The point is, as the word “neoreaction” stands today, it has little to do with me. So I feel free to be like Auster and criticize them without restraints.
I mention this because of an article published a while ago at Social Matter, titled “What is the Neoreactionary position on Tibet“? The title itself triggered me so slightly. I happened to know something about the history of Tibet and China, and I was worried that some Eternal September neoreactionary intellectual was going to say something stupid yet again about something he knows nothing about. I was relieved to see that no, the article made a fair point that neoreaction has no position about Tibet because it doesn’t give a shit about Tibet, as it doesn’t give a shit about Trump, nor about politics in general.
Now, quietism is cool, and I would indeed prefer that more people went quietist and stopped blabbing about what they know nothing about. 99.99% of people with a firm opinion on Tibet know absolutely nothing about Tibet. Why do they like to blab about Tibet? Because they’re signaling something, of course, generally some edgy variant of progressive bona-fides. I’m all for people stopping to signal things that make me angry, as people blabbing about some topic in which I am knowledgable does to me. Gell-Mann Amnesia is preceded by Gell-Mann anger.
But wait a minute. This blog has been writing for years already about how politics is precisely about signaling. There’s little else. Social life itself is about signaling. Social Matter saying they refuse to signal things about Tibet means they are refusing to do basic human sociality. Why do you have a blog if it’s not about signaling? To have an opinion about something which doesn’t affect your livelihood is signaling, by definition. To have an opinion about the benefits of not having an opinion is… yes, signaling. That’s how human cooperation work. You say something, people agree or disagree, you make friends by signaling the same things, and next thing you know you got a big fat army to conquer your opponents. So saying that neoreaction doesn’t have an opinion on Tibet because neoreaction isn’t about having opinions doesn’t make sense at all. If you don’t have opinions, if you are a good quietist, you don’t run a blog. Much less a group blog.
The real reason that neoreaction has no opinion on Tibet is that it knows nothing about Tibet. And the reason neoreaction knows nothing about Tibet is because Tibet is not a very compelling story for a reactionary. One of the most entertaining periods of Larry Auster’s blog was when he blasted Moldbug for arguing that Britain had “chronic kinglessness”, and that we needed a strong king like Henry VII. That never made much sense. Yes, if progressive ideology disgusts you, going back to the Birchers is a gush of fresh air. I just posted about how Disraeli could speak like an intelligent person in the British Parliament 150 years ago, while today you get thrown in jail for half that. And yes, the kings of yore obviously understood the realities of power because they had skin, limb and neck in the game, and they could afford to speak their mind to a much higher degree than the vapid potheads we have at Davos every year.
So yes, if you want to minimize the brain insults of stupid propaganda, absolute monarchy is not a bad idea. I write a lot about Chinese history, and the Chinese invented absolute monarchy a whole 2300 years ago. And their political philosophy is, in general, more realistic and down-to-earth than the Christian-descended sweet talk we peddle here in the West. It’s a joy to read, and I enjoy writing about it. That said, ancient China wasn’t pretty. It was a nasty and brutish place, where the court had absolute power to use and abuse its people without any legal recurse. The aristocracy had explicitly no say in government. The European feudal notion of gentleman’s rights and limited power of the king didn’t exist in China; and you could and often did get killed alongside your whole family just because it was convenient for some factional dispute.
And if China was bad, you know nothing about Tibet. I wrote once that the history of Japan is funny because it is short. Well Tibetan history isn’t much longer. In fact Tibet appears in history just a bit later than Japan, in the 7th century AD. Both the first Tibetan and Japanese states were clients of the huge, prosperous Tang empire. As Peter Turchin or Christopher Beckwith wrote about, it often happens that the unification of great agrarian empires results in the unification of pastoralist empires on their frontier; for the obvious reasons. The rich Tang China had lots of stuff moving around, which means that pastoralists needed to gang up to raid or to extract good trade concessions.
Tibet is the unlikeliest place to build a strong state; it’s an arid, cold, sky-high plateau, with a thin population of livestock herders, and some little farming in the river valleys. But for some reason the first Tibetan Empire (618-842) was a very strong state, eventually invading the Chinese capital Chang An once, taking over the whole Tarim Basin, Yunnan, invading India every now and then, and having a strong presence in Central Asia. After the Tang declined, the Tibetan empire declined with it, eventually disappearing a few decades before China.
The early Tibetan Empire was not Buddhist; that came later, during the last half of the empire. And the power of the Buddhist establishment only grew into dominance after the empire fell; in a somewhat similar development to what happened in Western Europe after the fall of Rome. What happened after that is that Buddhist Monasteries ended up owning most of the good land in the realm, and basically ate up the whole society. Monasteries owned the land, which was worked by serfs. Monks were recruited semi-forcibly from the peasantry, but who didn’t want to be a monk before a serf? Monasteries merged and split, forming different schools (factions), who were constantly fighting each other. That means actual war. The whole thing sucked very badly; but it’s hard for Tibet not to suck. It’s just very bad real estate.
Eventually the Mongol Empire conquered Tibet, and from there onwards Tibet was the Mongols’ bitch. Mongols of course being also pastoralists, and living close by, all they had to do is ride south and they had plenty of pasture to take over. That they didn’t actually exterminate the Tibetans and replace them is perhaps a function of the genetic adaptation that Tibetans seem to have to living in 4,000m+ altitude, which the Mongols lack. Tibetans lived under the Mongol yoke until the Yuan Dynasty itself fell in 1368. After that the Mongols were divided and in no position to dominate Tibet, which achieved independence and returned to their rule by monastery. China, by then the Ming Dynasty, tried to conquer all the territories that the Mongols had controlled, even if they hadn’t been Chinese before then. They conquered Yunnan, sent expeditions to Jurchen territory, and claimed suzerainty over Tibetans too. The Ming never actually sent an army and conquer the place, nor had any actual administrative control over Tibet back then, but they did “appoint” (i.e. sent a fancy seal every couple of decades) their leaders as being good subjects of the Chinese Lord of Heaven, which the Tibetans were happy to accept. They were cool looking seals.
Time passed, and the divided Mongol tribes started to get strong again, raiding into China, capturing their emperor once, and flexing their muscles around as much as they could. Eventually the Mongols again started getting involved in Tibet. You know the Dalai Lama, that guy who is supposed to be the epitome of all holiness? Well that’s not a Tibetan title. That’s the title that Altan Khan, khan of the mongols, gave to Sonam Gyatso, the leader of some Tibetan monastery. Altan Khan was the strongest tribal leader of the Mongols back then, but he wasn’t directly descended from Genghis, so he was never accepted as the great leader he wanted to be. Altan then saw that these Tibetan guys had this weird religion thing going on, and they had mastered how to made their people more obedient to authority. So he got this monk, called him the Ocean Lama, and made him convert his people to Tibetan Buddhism. It worked, and the Mongols became pious Lamaists until the Soviets invaded.Then they became pious Communists.
In 1642, the Tibetans started fighting again, got the Mongols involved, and Gushi Khan conquered the whole thing, founding the Khoshut Khanate. All in the name of the holy lamas, of course, but the Mongols owned the place. Eventually the Qing Dynasty (1636-1911) conquered the Mongols, piece by piece, and by 1720 they invaded Tibet to take it over. Tibet kept being what it was; a miserable wasteland administered by feudal monasteries lording over serf masses, while a Chinese overlord took care that the monasteries didn’t fight each other, and especially that they didn’t bring any foreign powers in. Which for the most part they did. In 1788 the Nepalese invaded, which the Chinese repelled. In 1848 the Sikhs invaded, and again the Chinese took care of that. Then for some stupid reason the British invade in 1904.
Well, it was more some bored British elite boys deciding to do something fun for the kicks of it. It was a good time to be a white man in 1904, and Francis Younghusband knew how to have fun. Under some lame excuse (contain Russian ambitions! The Great Game!) they went over with machine guns and occupied Lhasa for a couple of weeks, then went back to India with a lot of pictures and stories to tell to their pals in London. They also extorted trade concessions and a big pile of money.
The stories did get through, and the invasion was a hit in London, i.e. the Cathedral of the day. Everybody was fascinated with this remote land of buddhist monks who lived in (forced) peace and (theocratic) harmony. Soon afterwards the Qing Empire collapsed in 1911, and the Tibetans know found themselves without a reliable overlord. China fell into civil war. And Chinese warlords are notoriously fickle and brutal. The Tibetan elite remembered that the Brits were close, so they tried to make friends, running a PR operation to gain favor of the British elites. It didn’t quite work out; Britain never committed to Tibetan independence, and once the Chinese civil war was over, with the Communist victory in 1949, Mao soon invaded Tibet and took it over in 1951.
The eternal question is what right had Mao to invade Tibet. The answer to that question is your “position on Tibet”. The opposition to the Chinese invasion of Tibet comes mostly from the British invasion by Younghusband, which made Tibet a fancy topic of conversation by London housewives, followed by the Tibetan leadership PR campaign in the West, followed by the Dalai Lama becoming a CIA-funded celebrity used to have leverage to fuck with China. All that worked because, well, the English, and then American Empire’s media apparatus (what we call the Cathedral) is very good. But the best salesman can’t sell what doesn’t sell. And Tibet sells. Tibet has fairly striking art, awesome architecture, and a very interesting culture. Tibet is a very good narrative, and the Cathedral know how to use a good narrative.
Now, the narrative they sell is that Tibet was a peaceful land of Buddhist monks, which spend their time in meditation and contemplation of the Buddha. Then comes Mao and kills them all. That sounds evil, and it’s not exactly false. Tibet was, indeed, run by its monasteries for at least one thousand years. But what does it mean for a country to be run by monks?
Monks are, by definition, celibate. Monks don’t have children. Where do monks come from, then? Monks were taken, forcibly or not, from peasant families, taken to monasteries, where they did their monk thing. They recited their sutras, they meditated, they discussed theology, they wrote books on it. They made art, lots of it, and pretty nice. Who did all the work? The peasants, which were serfs to the monasteries. The monks were monks, of course, but they were also gangs of single men. Gangs of single men tend to be… not very nice. And the Tibetan monks weren’t very nice to their serfs, men or women. Or to themselves. While monks couldn’t marry, they still had balls, and odds are they liked to use them once in a while. Tibetan monasteries weren’t like European, or Chinese monasteries, were people who weren’t interested in the physical world could opt-in to join. Tibetan monasteries were the ruling class; it just happened that the ruling class was made of single men. I imagine that it was the closest thing to a permanent fraternity, but one ruled by old men. There are records on how the hazing, beatings and all manners of physical and sexual assault were fairly brutal. Of course they were.
Besides that, having a placed where the highest status is achieved by gangs of single men has interesting demographic consequences. According to some estimates, Tibet had 3 million people in the old days of the 8th century Empire, but by the 19th century it barely had 1.2 million people. Well of course, the monks weren’t reproducing themselves, and around 30% of the male population were monks. Serfs had children, but no great incentive to have a lot. Tibet is one of the few places on earth attested to have polyandry, i.e. men (usually brothers) sharing a single wife.
Tibet being very, very bad real estate, losing population was perhaps not a bad thing. The article in the link argues that Tibet, being the wasteland it is, was able to produce its highly sophisticated culture because its demographic system staved off Malthusian pressure, allowing for surplus wealth to go for the monasteries, which created a very striking religious package. Religious package which after being exported to Mongolia also reduced its population, and completely changed Mongolia from being an overpopulated land of bickering riders into a fairly urbanized and literate society.
Anyway, to the point: was China right to invade Tibet? The question is: how could it not invade Tibet? China had good reason to think that Tibet would become an Indian, and indirectly a British, or at least Western vassal. Why would China not grab a huge swath of land populated by a handful of people, which could perhaps contain some natural resources, but most importantly, was a hugely useful strategic asset? Of course Mao seized Tibet. That’s how the world works. Do you know both the Yellow River and the Yang-Tse both start in Tibet? And the Mekong, and the Indus, and the Bhramaputra, and the Salween. China is supposed to leave that alone? Come on.
Is the world worse off without Tibetan Buddhism having a sovereign state of their own? That I don’t know. As for the religion itself; I find it all to be pointless drivel, to be honest. Probably better than Chinese Communism, which is positively toxic. But Tibetan culture was pretty crappy, all things considered. It suited them well, for a thousand years, until it didn’t, because we entered the industrial age, and the military equilibrium changed. You are not allowed to have your own idiosyncratic culture and do your thing these days. Everybody is on everybody’s nerves, and looking for ways to take advantage and fuck with you.
Personally, I think it’s probably for the best that China was able to seize Tibet and achieve a better strategic position as a sovereign nation. China is very, very Westernized these days, more than I like, but it’s an independent state, one of very few on Earth today. If Tibet had to be sacrificed for that, well tough luck. Their culture was ok but not that interesting really, and at any rate that’s the world we live in. And there’s always pleasure in sticking it to USG and that insufferable contractor of theirs, the Dalai Lama.
Moldbug talked of the Patchwork of neocameralist nations. Pope Francis (!) talks of a Polyhedron of independent nations, all doing their thing. I think Scott Alexander had something similar. The idea of letting the hundreds flowers bloom, having a myriad cultures all doing their thing is of course a good and noble one. I’d rather we had more different cultures competing on this planet, instead of the rapidly declining death-cult of the modern Progressive state. I do feel Tibetans should be allowed to keep doing their monastery thing, dress in yellow, rape young monks and call Mongol mercenaries to burn rival monasteries. I find the Tibetan script to be very beautiful, even though they only use it to write pointless drivel. So I’m a little bit sorry that Tibetan culture couldn’t survive. And most Chinese I know would rather Tibetans stayed home. Tibetans are rough, high-T, low IQ people. The gypsies of China, in a sense. They’re also smooth with the ladies, good singers, dancers, and all that. They are a really, really bad fit in China. For everyone’s benefit they should have their own country and stay there.
Alas, this is the world we live on. There’s this thing called politics, and yes, foreign policy too. Bad people exist, they do bad things, and they force others to do bad things, sometimes preemptively, lest they do bad things to them first. Often it’s not very clear what is bad or whether it’s going to actually happen. Often foreign policy is used just as a way of achieving internal power. Shit happens. It will always happen. We can’t wish it away. All we can do is study it.