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Wiring Shangri-La

Even conservatives can have utopias. For us, however, they are usually imagined countries of the past, with their virtues exaggerated and their vices diminished. We know better than to try to create them now or even set them in the future, which we confidently expect will turn out badly. They are safer by far in the form of fiction, from which they cannot escape. One of the most potent of these ideal states was created by the author James Hilton, whose 1933 novella Lost Horizon gave the world the expression “Shangri-La,” a name still to be found, inscribed in tarnished or faded letters, on the gates of hundreds of English suburban homes whose owners hoped to find peace, and even peace of mind, behind fences and hedges and among birdsong and apple trees.

Popular writers are belittled by intellectuals precisely because they are popular. But Hilton was no fool, and his success should not make us despise him. His book begins in Berlin just before Hitler’s accession to power and is prescient about the approaching war. But it is mainly set in a secluded monastery, in a hidden valley that even modern man cannot easily discover and whose chief lama prophesies before he dies of “a time when men, exultant in the technique of homicide, would rage so hotly over the world that every precious thing would be in danger, every book and picture and harmony, every treasure garnered through two millenniums, the small, the delicate, the defenseless, all would be lost like the lost books of Livy, or wrecked as the English wrecked the Summer Palace in Peking.”

The purpose of the place, he reveals, is to “conserve the frail elegancies of a dying age, and seeking such wisdom as men will need when their passions are all spent … when the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the earth.” The monastery stands guard over, and is supported by, a small, contented society in the valley below, ruled by a rather jolly, if unlikely, mixture of Buddhism and Christianity.

The orthodox may be a little shocked by the fuzzy theology preached at Shangri-La, though in our secular world its unshakeable faith in the existence and purpose of a benevolent Creator is heartening in itself. What is more shocking is that, if you follow carefully the astonishing journey, described in Hilton’s book, that leads to this place, you will find yourself in a real country that has at least some of the characteristics of his imagined paradise.

The Kingdom of Bhutan, squeezed between India and Chinese-occupied Tibet, has managed to remain apart from the rest of our globalized world, partly because of its naturally fortified position thousands of feet up on the edge of the great Himalayas, partly because of its laudable, courageous king’s determination to preserve what he can of the harmonious, the delicate, and the defenseless. Alone among the world’s leaders he insists that Gross National Happiness is a more important measure of success than Gross National Product. He rejoices in his country’s isolation and takes good advantage of the fact that it is almost impossible to get into. There is one legal land border crossing and one airport, approachable only by pilots of considerable skill. He prohibits the wearing of jeans and other cargo-cult clothing (at least by day) and strives to keep mass tourism away from Bhutan’s lovely valleys and stupendous mountains. Every house, office, and hotel must be built in the country’s traditional style, an engaging mixture of half-timbered Shakespearean manor house and Tibetan lamasery. Until five years ago he even banned television, rightly seeing it as a menace to his settled, ancient, and profoundly religious society.

This was not technophobic spite or mindless resistance to scientific progress. Bhutan has fine modern hospitals and excellent schools. Its elite are educated to high standards, and instruction is in English from the first grade upwards. The ancient national sport, archery, is often performed with ultra-modern American steel bows. Laptops and cellphones are to be found, flashing and bleeping, among the ancient courtyards of Bhutan’s monasteries and fortresses. These are often the same place, as Bhutan has no separation between Buddhism and state, and when I interviewed the Home Affairs Minister, Jigme Thinley, I had to approach his office through sacred courtyards filled with monks in mulberry-colored robes, in the shadow of towering, forbidden temples. After passing through several exquisite anterooms, curtained door after curtained door, and accepting the compulsory cup of butter tea that accompanies all converse in Bhutan, I was at last brought into his presence. He was garbed in national dress, a belted robe, adorned with an orange scarf to denote his high rank, and enhanced with a sword—which he kindly drew from its scabbard to reveal a businesslike short blade. In the midst of our conversation, his very modern cellphone rang. It was a summons from the Royal Palace, which meant that he had to pull on a pair of magnificent ceremonial boots, compulsory court dress. Clad in mere dreary suit and tie, I wished my newspaper provided its reporters with ceremonial uniforms and yearned for the days of cocked hats, epaulettes, and ostrich feathers.

Before he went to see the king, the minister explained to me that this small, wild, remote country—so unmodernized that nobody is sure how many people live there—is determined not to follow the example of so many Asian nations, which have westernized themselves out of all recognition. Unconquered throughout its history, the only Buddhist state on earth, Bhutan has a quiet pride. “Many developing countries began with a sense of shame about what they were, and wanting to be like the West. Those who helped them promoted that kind of shame,” he told me. “We embarked on the process of development with a sense of pride in our culture, traditions, and customs.”

For many years, the kingdom sought to keep out television, which it saw as a great danger to its people. But five years ago the king abandoned the struggle. TV signals were already leaking across the southern border with India. Satellite technology and the invention of small, inconspicuous dishes meant that it was almost impossible to enforce the ban.

Anyway, the minister said, they thought that they were strong enough to withstand it. “We thought we were bringing TV into a society which was fully conscious of what it was and what it valued.” Persuasively, he argued that the coming of the cathode-ray tube had actually armored his people against the temptations of crass westernization. “Bhutanese people have discovered from the TV that they are not really badly off. They watch the news channels and what they find in the rest of the world is violence, crime, instability, war, poverty, famine, natural calamities, disasters of proportions we cannot even think of.”

There is some truth in this. And if the news was all that they watched, perhaps that is the only effect that it would have. But of course it is not. Everything—from wrestling to ultra-violence, bad language, and pornography—now comes howling, hissing, and roaring down from the satellites that can reach even into the most guarded and secluded valley, into the high, thin, pure air of Bhutan, which until recently was filled with nothing but millions of prayers. Grown adults are not all that much affected, though in the capital, Thimphu, everyone now gets up an hour later than they used to because they have all taken to watching TV late into the night.

It is the children, with their unformed imaginations and soft, vulnerable minds, who have been most immediately affected. I spoke to teachers who had seriously mixed feelings. Some were pleased by what seemed to be the greater self-confidence that TV brings to the young, having as yet failed to spot that this self-confidence is a byproduct of the conformity it also brings. TV allows children to know instantly what attitudes, words, jokes, and trends are fashionable, and allows them to fit confidently into the mass culture it creates.

Others were worried by the imitative violence in the playground, the way in which local sports now seem feeble and tawdry set against the glamour and power of international sporting heroes. And still others had noticed that their tiny charges had begun to use the filthiest words in the American lexicon of sewer language, all quite unaware of what they were saying.

Kaka Tshering, principal of Thimphu’s excellent Yanchenphung Higher Secondary School, observed, “Children are so engrossed by the influence exerted on them. They will lose their own originality.” He warned that aspirations, encouraged by TV, to emulate world-famous rock stars and sporting champions often end in failure and disappointment.

Gloomier still was the academic Dorji Penjore of the Center for Bhutan Studies, who lamented, “Television may have opened our outer eyes to the world beyond Bhutan, but it has closed our inner eyes. We know a lot about the United States and Iraq. But we don’t see the real transformation in our family values. Parents should be educating young people in their values, culture, and religion. But they are all caught up watching TV. They no longer teach by example and we are slowly losing our strong oral culture. Religious men and women no longer focus on their daily spiritual exercises. The farmer’s daily routine is disrupted by the need to keep up with the soap opera.”

On my last day in Bhutan I sat on a terrace above the small town of Paro, watching a lovely, chilly blue dusk settle over the clean, harvested rice fields, the perfect, fitting houses, which look as if they have grown out of the landscape rather than been built, the shrines glowing with hundreds of butter lamps, the huge mysterious temple fortress beyond, and the guardian mountains catching the very last of the light. There I met a North American educator who has been helping to strengthen the country’s school system. He told me of a ghastly event at one school, where he had watched little Bhutanese girls, wearing make-up and western dress, bumping and grinding to the sound of rock music. He suspected this could not have happened before the advent of TV, and it filled him with sadness. Perhaps there is, in the end, no defense against the hot rage of the modern world that endangers every good thing.  

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday.

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