by Susie Khamis, Altitude, Volume 4, Article 2, 2004.
When the Dalai Lama tours the United States, his public appearances are staged with the sort of fanfare that is generally reserved for stars of the screen. Indeed, when the Dalai Lama tours the United States, he is often photographed with stars of the screen. Hollywood celebrities like Richard Gere have famously befriended the charismatic leader, while others like Brad Pitt and the Beastie Boys have been similarly vocal in their support. At one Los Angeles function in 2000, Sharon Stone introduced the Dalai Lama as “the hardest working man in spirituality.” Even high-profile fashion designer Anna Sui was so moved by the Dalai Lama and the struggle of the Tibetan people that, as Naomi Klein writes in No Logo, ‘she made an entire line of banana-print bikini tops and surfer shorts inspired by the Chinese occupation’ (85).
Such support for the Tibetan people is often projected almost exclusively onto His Holiness, the XIV Dalai Lama. Whether addressing heads of state or undergraduate students, the author of Ethics for the New Millennium has become a popular and accessible guru for the English-speaking world. In terms of media effect, the combined wattage of this East/West alliance is little short of spectacular. If nothing else, though, these cross-cultural encounters illustrate the degree to which seemingly disparate forces collide and coalesce in contemporary popular culture. In other words, politics and spirituality are no longer debased by what was once considered tabloid triviality. All things being equal, one might assume that such glamorous company would have actually helped the Dalai Lama’s cause, translating into real benefits for the Tibetan people. However, according to Patrick French, a former director of the Free Tibet Campaign, the degree to which the Dalai Lama’s celebrity status has actually furthered the Tibetan plight is questionable. If anything, he argues, the celebrity glow may in fact imply material gains and political favour where none exist. Writing earlier this year in The New York Times, French warned sympathetic readers of becoming prematurely complacent: ‘US enthusiasm for the Dalai Lama is not the same as genuine political support for Tibet. No US government will place sympathy for Tibetans above US strategic and economic interests.’ (13)