Easy off, easy on. That's what the billboards used to say out West along I-40 somewhere between Amarillo and Albuquerque under that pitiless sky stretched endlessly across the treeless High Plains. The signs usually advertised some Roadside Attraction. A gas station-cum-petting zoo, a souvenir shop (AUTHENTIC TURQUOISE JEWELRY!), or maybe a "museum" featuring Genuine Indian Artifacts - pottery, arrowheads, maybe a skeleton of Prehistoric Man behind glass.
Call it cut-rate sacrilege. Then, after the kids had had their run and the grownups were caffeinated, it was back on the interstate to the next rest stop and/or alligator farm. It was all fairly depressing, but anything for a break from the glaring sun.
I thought of all that on reading what happened to a bunch of foreign reporters/tourists when they went to Lhasa, capital of Tibet - the Roof of the World, Land of Lamas, Shangri-La and all that. It's now Occupied Tibet, though the commissars doing the occupying pretend that Tibet is an "integral" part of China, and that Tibetan culture/religion is just another quaint curiosity for the tourists. A show to take in. And be taken in by. Every communist regime from Pyongyang to Havana has become quite proficient at running these Potemkin tours.
This time the visiting delegation was being escorted through the Jokhang Temple, a regular tourist stop in Lhasa, and was part way through its Official Briefing - i.e., pack of lies - when reality erupted. A group of some 30 monks burst into the proceedings, shouting things like: "Don't believe them! They are tricking you! They are telling lies! Tibet is not free! Tibet is not free!"
It was as if, in the middle of the same old play, the whole set had collapsed, and the real world had come flooding in. ("We interrupt this program to tell you the truth.")
Some of the monks wept as they told the foreigners their stories. They said they'd been held in the temple for weeks while the Tibetan capital was jolted by the violent protests that had finally made the world news. Naturally the UN's "Human Rights" Council - long dominated by exemplars of freedom like Cuba, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Vietnam and Zimbabwe - declined to debate the Chinese clampdown on the demonstrations. In Lhasa, the bodies were soon collected, the monks silenced, and iron order restored. But for a moment human voices had been heard.
It was enough to bring back memories of Tiananmen Square, 1989. Remember the great demonstrations, the rumble of tanks? And then the appearance of a lone human being defying the Power of the State while the whole world watched? The line of tanks slowed, then stopped. The invincible machine had proved vincible. For a moment the spirit of man, stark, solitary, yet never defeated, was glimpsed, never to be forgotten and always waiting to reappear. Every tyranny lives in fear of such a moment.
It was also enough to bring back a long-ago visit to another citadel of human rights, the late Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of unlamented memory. It was 1983, and we innocents abroad were being given a stage-managed tour of Zagorsk, the ancient monastery an hour from Moscow that the guidebooks say not to miss. For centuries the focus of pilgrimages and then the seat of the official, state-approved version of the Russian Orthodox church, the monastery was being run much like any other Intourist attraction.
From afar the gold-and-white churches, with their delicate crosses glistening in the sun, had beckoned like a mirage. The priest who welcomed our group of American journalists whisked us through an adjoining museum, where thousands of icons had been collected, classified and catalogued like so many genuine Indian arrowheads. As a spiritual center, Zagorsk had long since been converted into a roadside museum - a discreet, Disneyesque view of religion.
As we were escorted in and out of the various chapels at Zagorsk and past walls of icons, much as one would be invited to admire the remains of an extinct culture, an undercurrent of murmuring could be heard all around us. It came from the pilgrims who didn't realize that religion was a thing of the past. They'd come to Zagorsk to do penance, heal their souls, say their thanksgivings, praise Him.
No desperate monks interrupted our tour to shout the truth, and yet the prayers all around said more than any protests whole about which was the living culture and which the fading regime.
At one point a troika of official priests conducted our Official Briefing. An editorial writer from Virginia - Gene Autry Owens of Roanoke - quickly dubbed them the Three Stooges, and the name stuck, for they were perfect representatives of Sovreligion. Each explained how grateful to the all-powerful State its subjects were. They were less priests than goodwill ambassadors for tyranny, exemplars of what happens when the church becomes but an arm of the state.
We came away knowing this kind of "faith" can't last; its falsity is transparent. It doesn't touch the soul. On the contrary, its very purpose is to anesthetize it. (Any American who thinks religion would benefit by government support might profit by the history of the Soviet-sponsored kind.)
Something tells me the temples of Lhasa will still ring with prayers long after the current Chinese empire follows its predecessors into the annals of the past. One day a free Tibet will no longer be a dream. And a free China will no longer be limited to an island off the coast of the mainland. Call it faith. And while its fruits may be long in coming, it is more convincing than Official Briefings, more enduring than tanks.