An article in a November 1997 issue of the Times (London), stating its case against European monetary union, was entitled “The Black Hole at the Heart of Europe.” It began, “At the heart of the Euro-constellation, shortly to be renamed EMU, yawns a black hole, threatening to suck in any economy which strays into its gravity field. The black hole is called insolvency.”
Whatever the merits of the argument, the nature of the imagery caught my attention, since I am interested in black holes of an entirely different substance and category that may pose an even greater threat to European homogeneity and prosperity than the black hole offered by a single currency. These are phenomena I would describe as cultural black holes (CBH), which exist not only in Europe but virtually everywhere in the world.
Before I cite some examples of CBHs, it is helpful to look at a general definition of black holes of the better-known cosmic variety, as described by scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Fred Hoyle, since I will take the liberty of drawing certain parallels, in the cultural sphere, to the celestial bodies discovered by science.
A composite description might read as follows:
A black hole is a theoretical celestial body with a gravitational field so strong that nothing can escape from its vicinity. The body is surrounded by a spherical boundary, called a horizon, through which light can enter but not escape; it therefore appears totally black. Material may fall into a black hole, but no information or energy can come out of it. The radius, or spherical boundary, is also referred to as an “event horizon.” In this area, gravitation severely modifies time, space, and other phenomena.
A black hole is a fearsome concept—that of a cosmic vacuum cleaner, capturing, sucking in, and annihilating anything straying too near its orbit.
Cosmic Black Hole
What, then, do I mean by cultural black holes? When and how were (are) they created? Who or what are the victims? How common are they? Why are they dangerous? Who, if anybody, is responsible for forming them; who is culpable?
A cultural black hole, in my loose definition, is an undiscussable core belief of such intense gravity that it transcends or distorts any other beliefs, values, or set of principles that enter inside the spherical boundary of its gravitational field and absorbs, indeed swallows up, the precepts held by the “victim.”
To carry the imagery further, just as in the case of the cosmic black hole, light can enter the CBH, but it can never escape; that is, enlightenment as might be offered to a cultural group by another cultural group with a different set of cultural values loses all impact as it falls into the CBH and disappears into blackness, nothingness, obliteration.
Do such things ever happen? Yes, they do, all the time. Cosmic black holes, as scientists admit, are still in the hypothetical stage; none has yet been positively identified. CBHs, on the contrary, are spread across the surface of the globe. Classical CBHs often have political or religious origins. Unbridled patriotism, jingoism, religious fanaticism are cases in point. “My country, right or wrong” is a CBH, though it sounds good in times of war. This particular CBH, sucking in the normal rational and humanistic beliefs of a British soldier, enables him to shoot a German or Argentinian soldier with whom he shares a host of Western and universal values, morals, and a cultural heritage. The trenches of World War I were both physical and cultural black holes, accounting for a massive distortion of views and (unfortunately) the deaths of millions of otherwise peaceful British, German, and French young men.
“There is only one God, Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet” is a CBH, inasmuch as the assertion, when absolute, brooks no argument, dissent, or alternative. A Muslim, though perfectly amenable to reason and open to debate, influence, or persuasion in other areas, may be completely intransigent and intractable if your argument impinges on the credibility of Islam. Such is the gravity and intensity of the Muslim’s belief that it transforms, sidelines, or relegates to insignificance any connected or peripheral circumstances or conditions that you may be discussing with him. Consequently, a rational analysis of the attacks of September 11, 2001, even by moderate Muslims, was a near-impossibility. It is not just Islam that is at fault. Fanatical Hinduism, Quakerism, Zionism, or any other absolute religious creed might serve equally to destroy any reasonable or enlightening discourse.
The problems caused by political or religious questions are, in fact, not the subject here, except where they intersect with cultural traits. The CBHs with which I wish to take issue have little to do with patriotism or religion, though they are closely connected with the “national programming” of various cultural groups. Most of us “own” a cultural black hole or two, and we frequently drag in those who approach us. They may be sucked in as we devalue their discourse and subordinate it to our (black) indisputable credo. Usually we are unaware that we are doing this.
Cultural Black Hole
Take, for instance, the American Dream, which underpins the mentality of the mainstream American culture (not the subcultures). Americans imbued with this spirit or credo firmly believe that the dream exists and is obtainable only on American soil; no other dream can coexist with it. You may arrive with your visions of the Swedish welfare state, the British quality of life, or the earthly utopia of Costa Rica, but nothing you can say or do will change or even influence most Americans in their belief in the work ethic, efficiency, democracy, the almighty dollar, time as money, and the various simplistic and often materialistic trappings of American society. Here we have an example of a yawning CBH of staggering dimensions. Its surface gravity is so strong that it enables a U.S. president to mobilize half a million troops in a few hours and dispatch them to Kuwait, Haiti, Panama, Vietnam, Grenada, Korea, or Afghanistan in the unalterable belief that only Americans can preserve democracy and free-trade routes. It took Margaret Thatcher fewer than four days to send half the British navy to the other end of the world in 1982 because “the lion’s tail had been twisted.”
The fact that CBHs allow politicians manipulative powers is regrettable, but what is more significant from the cultural point of view is the extent to which people are blinded when they are within the “event horizon” referred to earlier. Britons are, in the main, calm and phlegmatic people, yet the rampant jingoism in 1982 sprang from nowhere, and anyone present in the screaming crowd seeing off the troopships on their way to the Falkland Islands could not fail to be astonished at its intensity.
Massive CBHs have been created by the rewriting of history. In the late 1950s I traveled from London to Helsinki on a Russian ship; we were about one hundred passengers, mostly British. The crew and stewardesses were very friendly, meals were passable; in most respects it was a very pleasant trip. In the evenings after dinner half a dozen of the ship’s officers joined passengers in the bar to socialize. From the very first evening, politics became the subject of discussion. We were subjected to vigorous political indoctrination, for the Russian officers were committed Communists. This in itself was hardly surprising, given the situation at that time. Debate with the British (many of them students) was occasionally heated, but not more so than a university debate might be. What amazed me was not so much the Russian officers’ blind belief in Communism as their particular version of history. They were clearly educated men, yet all of them believed that World War II had begun in 1942. They had never heard of the Battle of Britain or the RAF. They believed the Soviet Union had won the war single-handedly against Nazi Germany. Yes, the Americans had contributed some small amounts of war matriel, for the purpose of blinding the Russians to the actuality of an American- British-German-Japanese conspiracy to surround and contain Russia after the war. Churchill was, according to the Russian officers, a British Nazi, Truman was the father of the atom bomb. Yes, we ate decently in England (they saw this every two weeks on their visits to the U.K.), but most of America was starving.
Nothing any of us could say made the slightest impression on these men. Any argument we contributed, however well documented, was simply discarded. Some of the British students, who were Communists and were on their way to Moscow, were also not believed. When the topic of discussion occasionally turned to sports, ballet, painting, or architecture, however, the Russian officers were knowledgeable, interesting, and amenable to other opinions.
In certain countries CBHs of irresistible gravitational intensity are born out of centuries of hatred for or divisions between neighbors. Examples are reciprocal attitudes between Greeks and Turks, Flemish Belgians and Walloons, Koreans and Japanese, Jews and Arabs. It is virtually impossible for an outsider to these inimical stances to make any kind of neutral or impartial statement in the presence of the contestants. They are dangerous CBHs in every respect.
Other CBHs are more benign, though no less powerful in their effect on their environment. In Japan the concept of “face” is a CBH. Few nationalities easily accept losing face, though some handle it much better than others. In Japan, China, and Korea, however, the issue of face assumes such importance that all aspects of one’s behavior must be subordinated to it. Successful negotiations, contracts, and other agreements are achieved in these countries by parties constantly “giving face” to the other side. Preserving and giving face is the key to success and progress. On the other hand, a loss of face destroys any other activity in the vicinity.
A CBH specific to the Chinese is their concept of Chung Kuo, the “Middle Kingdom.” China is the center of the world and has the oldest civilization (true); therefore, goes Chinese thinking, other countries are peripheral, young, inexperienced, often immoral, and lacking in real values—certainly not properly civilized. This belief is held not only by Chinese intellectuals but is also observable among the peasants. If you speak Chinese well enough to converse with a peasant in his rice paddy, she will politely interrupt his work for a few minutes, ascertain vaguely where you come from, exchange a few pleasantries, and then quickly resume her toil. She is not particularly interested in you (a foreigner). She is already at the center of things. This is where it is all happening.
The French CBH is their certainty of French intellectual superiority. I often ask French individuals if they subscribe to this belief, and they are honest enough to admit that they do. They don’t consider themselves immodest. The length and magnificence of their historical achievements simply leave them convinced that they have a mission to teach and civilize others. Their political, military, and economic strengths may no longer predominate as they once did, but the French perceive no diminishment or fading of their moral and didactic authority. It is very difficult for a Finn, Swede, or Dane to convince a French individual that he or she can learn something from Scandinavians. Try telling the Frenchman that in the twenty-first century France will only be a bit-part player in world events and you will soon perceive the yawning depths of the French CBH.
In Britain, the polarization of society is a CBH, certainly as far as the upper and working classes are concerned. The British traditional capacity for reasoned debate breaks down when confronted by the “us and them” phenomenon—the unfortunate legacy of an early Industrial Revolution.
The Swedish obsession with consensus is a more benign, though often irritating, CBH. Endless meetings, where everyone’s opinion has to be heard (though not always agreed with), lead to habitual deferring of decisions, ultracautiousness, and woolly guidelines from Swedish managers. Innate fear of confrontation and overreliance on the team for initiatives slow down action and decisiveness in Swedish society.
If in countries such as France and the United States being over- confident and overtly overopinionated is CBH-related, in Finland the opposite is the case. The Finnish CBH is one of extreme taciturnity; opinions are strongly held but often unvoiced. The Finn has an obsessive talent for self-effacement. The manager of a Finnish engineering company told me recently that he sent fifteen of his engineers to service machines in a South American country for three weeks. After the engineers returned, the South American managers refused to pay the bill, saying that they had never seen the engineers and did not believe they had really been there! Modesty and self-deprecation are not unattractive values, so a CBH is not necessarily always entirely negative, though it complicates communication in no small measure!
Another somewhat positive CBH, though troublesome for Nordics, is the Italian compulsion for voluble conversation and persuasion. Italians—the most communicative of all humans—are convinced that they can persuade anybody to do anything, provided they can get them in a face-to-face situation and capture their attention long enough. They often fail to understand that this tactic may not always work with some nationalities, for example, Nordics, Koreans, and the Chinese. The Italian passion for lengthy self-expression also prevents their interlocutor from providing an adequate reply. Italians can speak and listen at the same time, but Nordics and the Japanese cannot.
The Russian CBH is suspicion. Centuries of bad governance and propaganda have conditioned Russians to regard anything said by authorities (or foreigners) to be untrue and exploitative. Stalin’s “freedom” preserves its meaning only in the clandestine dictionary of laughter (a secret joke). Within the Russian CBH horizon, frames of reference are distorted to such an extent that using normal (Western) vocabulary to convey meaning or information becomes an exercise in futility.
The Australian CBH, its ironic view of authority, is perhaps only a “grey hole,” since the Australians’ basic cheerfulness and openness place them among the most readily sociable of humans. Nevertheless, what they call the “Tall Poppy Syndrome” is an enduring national trait and harks back to the arduous days of the convict transports and early settlements, when to rise above your mates or to associate with hierarchy would damn you in the eyes of your peers. Modern Australians will discard their normal congeniality at the drop of a hat if you show any sign of adopting a superior attitude or pulling rank, and any reasonable suggestions you try to offer after that will be devalued.
The Mexican CBH bears some similarity to those of Russia and Australia with respect to antipathy toward power, especially if the power is North American. The gringo syndrome is centuries-old, and we are left in no doubt as to its origins. U.S. diplomats have learned that a prerequisite to any kind of reasonable or fruitful negotiation with Mexicans is the recognition of their national honor by showing the utmost, perhaps exaggerated, respect for the Mexicans’ rank and credibility. This pundonor (point of honor) sensitivity is shared by all Latin American peoples and is evident also in Spain, where the traditional preoccupation with “la dignidad del hombre” colors otherwise normal, rational discussion. In all dealings with Hispanics, this setting or backdrop of personal, regional, or national honor will persistently intervene. In the case of the cosmic black hole, it would be called “frame dragging.” Einstein’s observation that black holes “drag” space and time around them, distorting the surrounding fabric, is applicable, in cultural-black- hole terms, to proverbial Hispanic individualism, use of time (maana behavior), and dual perception of reality or truth (that of the immediate detail and that of the poetic whole).
The Germans have been model European citizens since the 1950s. They have a functioning parliamentary democracy, an excellent record in human rights, a strong environmental protection policy, and political stability. They have worked hard, not only for their own economy but also to establish a European spirit aimed at eliminating intracontinental conflict. They have eschewed involvement in military affairs to the extent possible. The German CBH is perhaps one of persistent cultural self-trust, a phenomenon also observable among Finns and the Japanese. This means that a German, Finn, or Japanese, meeting a compatriot at the other end of the world, automatically trusts him or her without necessarily verifying trustworthiness. This rather attractive trait, noticeably absent among Italians, French, Russians, and many others, nevertheless has the effect of blinkering the “trusting” individual not only to a compatriot’s deficiencies but perhaps also to the merits of others. It is a fact that most Germans, Finns, and Japanese see themselves as more honestly efficient than anybody else. This is, however, a CBH with perhaps more positive than negative connotations.
It has its dangers, however. There are different interpretations of “efficiency,” just as there are of “honesty.” Italian efficiency may involve long hours of apparent time wasting, gossiping in a caf after work. But the gossip may be gathering information useful for business or academic research or for developing a deeper relationship with a valuable client.
The most frightening and sinister CBHs in recent history have been state-induced. Apartheid and fascism (especially Nazism) were the most prominent and historically significant. Nazism was relatively short-lived but horrific in its intensity. The fact that 50 million decent and educated Germans were unable to climb their way out of it under their own steam demonstrates the power of CBHs. Apartheid was slightly less vicious but unfortunately more durable. Again it was morally opposed by the majority of white South Africans, many of whom left their home, country, and live- lihood in final protest. The universal popularity of Nelson Mandela after the demise of apartheid emphasizes what a futile decades- long exercise it had been. Yet it took intense and prolonged international pressure to bring about its downfall.
Extreme poverty and hunger preempt measured thinking or rational behavior in many parts of Africa and India. In the former Communist states of Eastern Europe, where toil gained little reward and idleness attracted no rebuke, there developed a gigantic CBH of apathy. This is proving hard to shake off all the way from the Baltic states to the Balkans, though inherently energetic peoples such as Estonians, Hungarians, Czechs, and Slovenians could claim some credit for accelerating the process. This apathy and antipathy to work should diminish over the next generation, but the slow take-up of entrepreneurialism by even the East Germans (and their nostalgia for Communist times) shows the depths of the CBH.
What can we do about cultural black holes? There are few grounds for optimism. Hawking has suggested that cosmic black holes may have formed in the early universe. Small ones (aboutthe size of a large mountain) might evaporate, but gigantic ones do not. Many CBHs, as we have seen, date back to the earliest histories of humanity and may in fact have existed in prehistoric times. We consider ourselves rational and knowledgeable, yet obduracy and intransigence persist, clouding our vision, distorting the framework of our logic, and blurring the blueprint of our pattern for survival.
Like cosmic collisions, cultural collisions wreak great damage. Much has been written about when cultures collide. Will cultures ever connect?
To end on a positive note, the Franco-German reconciliation, the gradual development of at least a thin veneer of global culture, the convergence of knowledge taking place through information technology, all give us grounds for cautious optimism. We may seek further hope in the growing interdependence of nations, the common pursuit of comfort and pleasure, the ascendancy of feminine values, the healing congruence of youth, and a continuing human yearning for education and security. In the meantime, beware of black holes.…