Joe Biden is no Jay Leno. To begin with, he's not funny. But as the U.S. vice president, he also has no business mocking people on the basis of their race, religion or sexuality -- which is exactly what he did when he bastardized the accent of an Indian call center worker this week in New Hampshire.
Think I'm exaggerating? According to the Atlantic Wire, we shouldn't be offended. And, to be honest, the accent isn't exactly Peter Sellers. But think of it like this: how about if he had done a lisping and limp-wristed version of a gay call center worker?
Jay Leno came under fire this week for showing a picture of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, and joking that it depicted Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's summer home. But while that also might have been in bad taste, it was first of all an understandable mistake and secondly in keeping with Leno's role as a comedian. It's not obvious to an American that misidentifying the Golden Temple would be a serious offence (though there was some thinly veiled jingoism leveled at Romney's "exotic" Mormon religion along with his wealth). And comedians are always flirting with the line between poking fun and giving insult.
Biden's lampoon is more serious, both because it is an obvious invitation to xenophobia and because of his role as a head of state. Sure, it's not exactly appearing in blackface. But it falls on the same spectrum. And that's why India should be worried about its tendency to cry wolf.
No doubt a complaint will be made from somewhere. Perhaps even an official one. But given India's tendency to knee-jerk "sensitivity" it will have little impact. Blowing up over Leno's innocent mistake and Salman Rushdie's attempt to speak at the Jaipur Literary Festival in Rajasthan this week -- where he had planned neither to read from the banned Satanic Verses nor attack the Muslim faith -- has already robbed these protests of their power.
For the record, incidentally, call centers account for a very small portion of India's business process outsourcing sector. Most of the industry's revenue and profits come from more complex operations like writing software. Also, Americans would do well to remember the stellar service they once received from U.S.-born telemarketers and automated answering machines. Personally, I'd rather listen to an enthusiastic and professional "Raj from Bangalore" than his sullen or computerized American counterpart.