Thursday, 29 November 2007

On Criticism, Rhetoric and - Outbursts

Britain is a country of genteel humour - and yet the UK parliamentary system allows for the most vicious theatricals of any Western democracy. Americans, by contrast, are generally proud to be more brash than their stiff-upper-lipped cousins - and yet, in politics, the consider too much passion (or, God forbid, criticism) a cardinal sin.

One reason for this, it seems to me, points to an inherent disadvantage of Presidential systems. The President, the nation's most influential politician, at the same time acts as commander-and-chief and, most importantly, personifies the country as Head of State. That's why, for Americans, insulting the President equals disrespecting the country.

In the UK, a politician could not disrespect the Queen. But the Prime Minister, who is "merely" the Head of Government, can be shouted down with cries of "shame" by an uncompromisingly hostile opposition. Prime Minister's Question Time is the prime example - ever-shocking to Americans, it is, to me, the most beautiful embodiment of what democracy is all about. (It also saves the UK from incompetent leaders - George W Bush would not survive even the lightest grilling in the House of Commons)

All this just to say: to an American audience, Senator Ted Kennedy's impassioned plea for a rise in the US minimal wage seems ludicrously, even dangerously, agitated. To those of us used to parliamentary systems, on the other hand, it may ring true - not in spite of, but rather due, to its highly rhetorical pitch.