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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 12-06-2021 00:14

Alberto blunders into a political minefield

Instead of moving forward with the times, Alberto Fernández took several steps backwards to an epoch in which having European roots was regarded as a good thing. He is by no means the first president to do this.

To judge from what he said when trying to butter up the Spanish premier Pedro Sánchez, who along with a bunch of businessmen was paying him a visit, Alberto Fernández is proud to be president of “the only white country south of Canada” to be found in the Western Hemisphere. This is the subtext of his light-hearted remark – which he wrongly attributed to the Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz but in fact took from the works of a rocker he greatly appreciates – that “Mexicans came from Indians, Brazilians from the jungle, but we Argentines arrived in boats” coming from Europe. 

Once upon a time, such sentiments were commonplace and struck visitors as true enough: a century ago, the Peruvian writer Ciro Alegría certainly thought Argentines looked decidedly European, with, he noted, surprisingly many having blondish hair. Since then much has changed. Argentina may still be predominantly “white,” but the majority seems far less so than apparently was the case in the rapidly receding past.

Almost immediately, Alberto – whose ability to put his foot in his mouth rivals that of Foreign Minister Felipe Solá – felt obliged to apologise to the Mexicans and Brazilians. As it happens, most Mexicans have long enjoyed boasting about their pre-Columbian heritage; when such talk was in fashion, many liked to imagine that a “cosmic race” was arising in their country. What is more, in much of Latin America “Aztec” is regularly used as a synonym for “Mexican,” so saying they descended from “Indians” was not that insulting. The same cannot be said about telling Brazilians they came from “the jungle.” Alberto must be fully aware that his statement immediately brought to mind the widely-condemned custom, which is still common enough in Argentina and Uruguay, of calling them “macaques.” 

In much of the world, as well as here, interest in the ethnic characteristics of the local population and regarding them as a matter of vital importance was declining sharply until, thanks to the efforts of the allegedly progressive identity-politics crowd, it started making a vigorous comeback in the United States, the United Kingdom and many other places. This is unfortunate: until barely five years ago, Martin Luther King’s famous “dream” of a world in which all people would be judged by the content of their character and not by the colour of their skin seemed to be within reach, but then many “activists” who had once supported him suddenly decided that he has got it all wrong; in their view, the colour-blindness Luther King recommended was really racism in disguise and has to be done away with.

The evident desire of such people to make out that racial prejudices remain as strong as ever, and that people who say they treat everyone the same no matter what they look like or where they come from are really dyed-in-the-wool racists who need re-educating, can be attributed to a reluctance to abandon a cause some have found highly profitable. In the English-speaking countries, there is plenty of money, lots of well-paid jobs for “diversocrats” and a considerable amount of professional renown, to be made from “fighting racism.”

For understandable reasons, such individuals do not like to be told that these days genuine racists are as rare as flat-earthers and no longer represent a serious threat, so they insist that the societies they live in are in thrall to “systemic racism” and, whether they realise it or not, almost all people of European ethnicity are “white supremacists.”

In the US, this cult enjoys the backing of Joe Biden and the federal government apparatus which orders schools to teach pale complexioned kids they are “oppressors” by nature and should therefore beg forgiveness from their darker-hued fellow pupils. “Taking the knee” is a ritual which is regularly performed in sports arenas in the US and the UK, to the disgust of most spectators who greatly dislike being lectured to in this way by their moral superiors. 

As luck would have it, up to now Argentina has been spared most of the censorious woke nonsense which has cost many people guilty of thought crimes their career prospects. Nonetheless, an increasing number of academics who take their cue from what is happening in the US have begun chiding their compatriots for refusing to give up what they say are outdated ways of thinking.

Among the most willing to take the knee, as it were, to doctrines emanating from US campuses are, strangely enough, Kirchnerite operators, whose loathing for “the empire” does not prevent them from exploiting its ideological innovations, especially those they can use to discomfit their foes by accusing them of clinging to racist stereotypes. For them, it makes sense to treat the porteños and others who support Mauricio Macri, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and the rest of them as being ethnically different from the bulk of their compatriots, which is why for many the “critical race theory” which is stirring things up in the US is seen as a welcome addition to their political arsenal.

They also find attractive the woke notion that Western societies are so “structurally biased” in favour of the old oligarchic ruling classes that the legal systems they have adopted should be drastically changed; some fervent US Democrats think that ridding the Supreme Court of its conservative majority by packing it with advanced thinkers would make for a good start. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her advisors are watching them closely. 

As he made embarrassingly clear a few days ago, Alberto has yet to get the message. Instead of moving forward with the times, he took several steps backwards to an epoch in which having European roots was regarded as a good thing. He is by no means the first president to do this. Most of his predecessors, including Raúl Alfonsín, tangentially alluded to the alleged advantages they conferred by telling prospective investors that Argentines were a high-quality breed; they took it for granted that listeners would understand that it would be a mistake for them to assume they were like other Latin Americans.

Is this what Alberto was trying to tell Sánchez? In a suitably contrite mood, he is now doing his best to persuade the Mexicans and Brazilians that deep down he thinks they are just as good as Argentines, but while they may formally accept his apologies, they will probably assume they are insincere and that Alberto is a “white supremacist” at heart. So too could others who are constantly on the lookout for nasty racist leaders they think deserve to be barred from polite international society and, to drive the point they want to make home, organise demonstrations against them whenever they turn up in foreign parts. 

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).


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