Political faux pas in America
February 2, 2007
ONE of the hottest topics on American news networks over the past few days surrounded Democratic Senator and Presidential candidate, Joseph Biden, following his comments on another Democratic Presidential candidate, Senator Barak Obama.
In recent weeks, Obama has become a poster boy for American diversity – or what their neighbours in Canada might call multiculturalism. The only black person in the Senate, his directness, honesty and clean-cut image has catapulted him into the spotlight of American politics and created the impetus for his recently announced presidential campaign for 2008.
Biden's mistake? "I mean," said Biden on Wednesday, "you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."
Believe it or not that statement has earned Senator Biden speculation about his anti-racism credentials and outright charges of racism It should be noted that earlier this year Biden called for the removal of the Confederate flag – one of the most racially divisive images in America behind the triangular hood and the burning cross – from the federal building in one state.
Biden, perhaps fortunately, made his remarks after the U.S. mid-term elections. The lesson of Senator George Allen is surely still fresh in the mind of American politicians.
With a slight lead in the polls shortly before the elections last November, Allen secured his defeat when he directly referred to an Indian man at a rally as a "macaca". Not only was the term a known derogatory one used at persons of Indian descent, but the man who he said it to was employed by his opponent to follow the incumbent Allen around and videotape him in case he made any mistakes which could be used against him.
Guyana is a study in contrast to America. It isn't that our politics don't get vitriolic. Guyanese politicians take it and give it with the best of them, and no political party has been immune from the tendency to say something off-colour now and then.
But in a political system more defined by race than is America's, we strangely have had no major racial gaffes in the past few years. Even openly ethnic political parties cannot seriously be accused of making any damaging slips of the tongue in recent times.
Not that it matters much. Our ability to punish individual politicians is curtailed by the fact that we do not have a political system like America wherein the individual politician – either Independently or from one of the major camps – courts and wins the right to represent a specific geographical constituency. And while the electorate seems to be slowly shifting away from race as the major basis for choosing its political leadership, we are far from having a policy-and-performance based system for choosing those who represent us in Parliament. As someone once noted, icebergs melt very slowly.
Of course, political mistakes come on varied forms, racial and otherwise. As many as there are, however, by American definitions, we have ways of not making them an issue. In many ways this could be seen as a negative reflection on our society, our tolerance for the fallibility of our political leadership as a whole.
On the other hand, we hopefully will never reach the stage where entire political careers can fail on the basis of a simple misquote.