By John Nichols
The Dalai Kama, shown here at the Kohl Center in May, will return to Madison this week. (photo by: File photo)
When Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and the City Council decided to welcome last year's visit by the Dalai Lama with the "appropriate placement" of Tibetan flags in his honor -- including a Tibetan flag above the City-County Building -- the Chinese consul in Chicago, Zhiyuan Ji, wrote a letter to the mayor in which he declared himself to be "astonished" that Madison's city government would take official action to welcome the Tibetan leader.
The diplomat complained that the Dalai Lama is "not merely a religious figure, but a political figure who has long been engaged in activities of separating Tibet from China."
On his precise point, the consul was correct.
But if the consul knew anything about Wisconsin's history, he would not have been astonished by the decision of officials in Wisconsin's capital city to show their solidarity with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, who will again visit the Madison area in coming days, is not merely an inspired and inspiring spiritual leader. He is, as well, the head of a state in exile.
The nation of Tibet, one of the most ancient yet persistent jurisdictions on the face of the planet, was invaded and occupied in the 1950s by the Chinese military.
It has been a colony ever since.
And Wisconsin does not abide by colonialism.
Few tenets were more central to the thinking of this state's greatest political leaders, Robert M. La Follette, John Blaine and La Follette's sons Phil and Robert Jr., than the principle that imperialism -- whether practiced by the United States or its allies -- was at odds with the deepest values and the highest ideals of the American experiment. The United States was founded in revolt against the British empire and the imperial reach of its monarchy.
A country that threw off the shackles of colonialism in the 18th century, the Wisconsin progressives believed, could not be party to the fitting of a new set of shackles on a new set of colonies in the modern era. "(No) country which has established liberty and equality of opportunity within its border will join in a movement to deny those rights to the people of the rest of the world," declared La Follette in 1920.
"If we are to stand as a just and righteous nation before the world," La Follette explained, "we must thwart the imperialistic schemes of our masters of finance."
That counsel was not taken by most American leaders. Today, the United States is engaged in its own career of empire -- careening about the oil-rich nations of the world with an eye toward establishing an empire of influence every bit as unwieldy as a previous King George's monstrosity -- and it is supporting the empires of other powerful nations, especially that of China.
But Wisconsin will have no part of conquest.
So we fly the flag of Tibet. We welcome the Dalai Lama. And we celebrate the peaceful resistance of the Tibetan people to an occupation of their homeland that is as brutal as it is illegal.
The facts of China's colonialism, like all before it, are horrifying. An estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese. The Tibetan language has been replaced by Chinese. Thousands of Buddhist monasteries have been destroyed and tens of thousands of Tibetans have been imprisoned, relocated and tortured. Tibet's natural resources have been exploited by the Chinese.
But more powerful than the reality of Tibet's oppression is the example of the Dalai Lama.
Forgiving and flexible, even gentle, in his challenge to the Chinese, he has in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin King preached pacifism and patience. In so doing, he has forged an international consensus in favor of Tibetan freedom.
This summer, as Beijing invites the attention of the world by hosting the Summer Olympics, the Dalai Lama has offered the Chinese government space in which to negotiate. The Tibetans have made reasonable demands that allow the Chinese to save face while at the same time advancing the cause of self-determination.
It is to this cause that the heirs of Wisconsin's progressive tradition, U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, and state Rep. Joe Parisi, have pledged their support as they have stood in solidarity with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan freedom struggle.
When we fly the flag of Tibet and welcome the Dalai Lama in coming days, no one should be astonished.
We are merely upholding Wisconsin's legacy of opposition to the imperial enterprise and all of the pathologies that extend from colonialism.John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times.