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Cultural Genocide and Cultural Healing

When I read earlier this week these words of the Dalai Lama on the Chinese murders of Tibetans demonstrating for human rights and self-determination, I was moved by the depth of helplessness expressed by this great teacher who is seldom seen as shaken. The Dalai Lama's quiet words struck me as it would to see an ordinary person in the grip of hysteria, tearing his clothes in despair:

"'I do feel helpless,' he said in response to a question at a wide-ranging, emotionally charged news conference here in what has served as the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile for nearly 40 years. 'I feel very sad, very serious, very anxious. Cannot do anything.'”

The Dalai Lama accused China of waging cultural genocide against the Tibetan people, calling for an international inquiry into Chinese actions against protesters. If there is a meaningful international response, it will be because he and his supporters have been able to awaken moral conscience in sleepwalking practitioners of realpolitik. Even he is unsure that this can happen, as he expressed a few days later:

"'Last few days I had a sort of feeling, a tiger, of a young deer in a tiger’s hand,' he said, in the most intimate confession during the winding, two-hour long exchange. 'Deer really can fight the tiger? Can express. But actual fight? Our only weapon, only strength is justice, truth. But effect of truth, justice sometimes takes longer time. Weapons power is immediately there.'”

Last night, as I listened to Barack Obama's speech on race, justice and common purpose in this country, I was moved again, this time by the simple realization that I had never heard a candidate for U.S. office speak with the depth, brilliance and truth that this man brought to those issues that present our greatest opportunity and our greatest shame. It was an honor just to listen.

I had to stretch to wrap my mind around the truth that the speaker of these words could be president, a possibility that is being manifest right now for the first time in U.S. history:

"I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners—an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible."

Tibet's Chinese masters responded predictably to the Dalai Lama's remarkable words, mechanically parroting the absurd accusations that constitute China's official line; but few (if any) accept their words at face value. Some broadcasters have already responded as Obama described in his speech, playing "Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words." But from all I have read and heard, a much larger number had ears to hear and eyes to see the great opportunity his speech presents.

We are living in extraordinary times. Our capacity for instantaneous communication at a distance has enlarged our world beyond anything our ancestors could have imagined. With a few clicks, we can see what is most painful and horrifying on this planet, and what represents the moral grandeur of which human beings are capable. These technologies are spreading so fast that the greatest concern now is whether bandwith can keep pace with demands. People in China and other nations with closed-door information policies tirelessly seek ways around the restrictions, often keeping just one step ahead of the authorities. Even Cuba, where authorities have long determined to keep people under a dome of silence, on Friday issued a government memo authorizing the open sale of computers, DVD players and other electronic devices.

The human capacity for liberation has been growing by leaps and bounds. Yet my entire lifetime has been marked by the suppression of cultures, too many instances to count. The thousands of Tibetan temples destroyed by the Chinese government since the 1950s are lost forever. The pre-World War II Europe of Jewish communities and heritage is lost forever. The life of Palestinians in Jaffa before 1948 is lost forever. The pre-1994 culture of Tutsi people in Rwanda is lost forever. The past can never be restored. The longing for what has been lost can never be assuaged. As in all things, the only question is what to do now, and now, and now.

As I write this, I am listening to the music of Dengue Fever, an L.A.-based pop music group started by two Jewish brothers, Zac and Ethan Holtzman, and featuring vocals by the extraordinary singer Ch’hom Nimol, who is descended from a long line of beloved and respected musicians in her home country of Cambodia. The music features wheels within wheels of cultural synergy: during the Vietnam War, Cambodian musicians were inspired by surf and other pop music from the U.S. to make their own remarkable recordings, braiding that western music with traditional lyrics in their own language. In the mid-seventies came the Khmer Rouge period, when Pol Pot presided over a genocide that was cultural, physical, structural, nearly total. Musicians and other artists perished by thousands along with other Cambodians (Amnesty International estimates the total killing at 1.4 million souls). One of the Holtzman brothers discovered some of the recordings on a trip to Southeast Asia decades later and, inspired, set out to recreate it.

"Pop music?" you may be asking. "Why is she bringing up this triviality?" But stick with me, because it is anything but trivial. The existence of Dengue Fever expresses the other remarkable quality of this moment: that along with the speed of information, the scale of horror and the height of possibility now set before us is the perpetually morphing force of human creativity, resilience and ardor in answering the only question there is: what now? All around the planet—Cambodians in L.A., Tibetans in Dharamsala, countless others everywhere—people are refusing to be eliminated or assimilated, but remaking culture with something old, something new, something inherited, something borrowed.

This is a new world. It can be the old one with fancier bells and whistles, or it can be a time of awakening to what is already true, that we are joined, and responsible each to the other, and—I hope, I hope, I hope—ready to turn down the noise so we can hear the call to love and justice that is sounding now and now and now.