When I moved to Australia in 1979 it didn’t take me long to become aware of the ‘cultural cringe.’ That was a concept–an emotion, really–that I had never come across. What American had? For those of you who may yet be unfamiliar with the term, ‘cutural cringe’ is a sort of inferiority complex which causes people in a country to dismiss their own culture as inferior to the cultures of other countries. Said another way, it is a belief that one’s own culture is backwards and unsophisticated compared to other cultures. I’m sure it occurs elsewhere in the world, but Australia was the poster child for Cultural Cringe. These days it isn’t such a big issue–indeed, the pendulum has swung rather far in the opposite direction. But today I’m interested in another phenomenon that is a bit similar, but more acute. I call it Cultural Clench, which I define as “a contraction or tightening of a part of the body to suppress a strong emotion in response to extreme anger or embarrassment caused by the words or actions of a fellow countryman or the government.”
I am prompted in this by the excruciatingly stupid “joke” made by an Australian newsman to the Dalai Lama. I can’t believe there is anyone on the planet, within cooee of a newspaper, radio, TV, or computer, that has not heard about it, but just in case I’ve missed someone, here’s what happened: Karl Stefanovic from Australia’s Today Show, thought it fitting to tell the Dalai Lama a joke about himself when he interviewed him. Now, I don’t think there is a more charming or gracious man in the world than the Tibetan Leader, and he has a marvellous sense of humour in the bargain. But even he can be forgiven for being totally gobsmacked by the stupidity of Stefanovic’s idea of a joke: The Dalai Lama goes into a Pizza Hut and says to the guy “Make me one with everything.”
It’ll be quite a while before some of us can unclench over that one.
Countries all around the world experience gaffes by politicians and various celebrities from time to time. Some are merely embarrassing, others cause policy changes, but the worst ones are those that cause Cultural Clench.
In India last year, New Delhi’s moral and ethical protestations that India’s space programme is entirely peaceful was shot down by an embarrassing revelation by the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) which publicly announced a roadmap for its ambitious military space programme. It was scathingly described like this: “While top Indian military officials (i.e. DRDO) set ambitious milestones for destructive military space systems, Indian political leaders make contradictory claims about the nation’s peaceful intentions for outer space.” Oops!
There seems to be no end to the flow of embarrassing revelations to come out of the UK. Due in part, no doubt, to the well-developed tabloid press, but it is mostly due to the British Royal Family. Hold on! I know there are many fans of the Royals and a great deal of pride in their history and traditions–fair enough, too–but whether you look at recent history, or spread your search back a long ways, you’ll find more scandals than bedbugs in a backpackers hostel. Let’s just look at a few examples: Prince Charles. Think tampon. His stated ambition was to be a tampon, and he’s pretty close to reaching that goal if being a total dickhead counts. Prince Andrew seems to be a festering sore on the butt of the royal family, and of course we all remember his wife’s toe-sucking incident. As amusing as all of this is to the rest of the world, it must be one giant clench for the British public. And for the Queen, of course.
Then there’s the USA. No shortage of embarrassments there, either. But as an ex-pat American, I think I speak for all of us yanks living abroad when I say most of the day-to-day silliness that comes out of America merely vexes those still living there and whips the US press into a frenzy (I’m thinking Weiner here). To the rest of the world it is just that–silliness. In recent years there’s only One Big Clench that counts: George Bush.
Most of us still aren’t over the cramp. MM