Is it illegitimate to criticize the physical appearance of public figures?

Van Wijk writes:

Recently you said: “On the more serious side of the issue, I’ve mentioned before how the physical type of contemporary Western leaders, including the increasing number of girls—yes, girls!—in high-level government positions, is one of the signs of our decline. Miliband, the foreign secretary, looks like a bar mitzvah boy.”

You also said, if memory serves, that Chertoff resembles an HIV patient.

A person does not have any control over his own physical appearance, and therefore I don’t see how it can be held up for serious ridicule. I was raised to consider that kind of ridicule to be incredibly rude and unacceptable, but it seems that you don’t do or say anything without a good reason. What reason do you have for making such comments?

LA replies:

You forgot to mention the former British secretary of multiculturalism, Ruth Kelly, whose appearance and dress I have made fun of, as well as Tsipi “Sniffly” Livni, the deputy Israeli prime minister who came on the Charlie Rose program and acted like a person who had never learned the use of a Kleenex.

You don’t seem to have noticed that we’re not talking about private individuals, we’re talking about public figures, people in high government positions in America and other Western countries, people who look increasingly unserious and immature, and whose behavior and conduct of their office increasingly matches their appearance. To say that the British Foreign Secretary looks jejune or immature, which is what I meant by calling him a bar mitzvah boy, is a legitimate observation. It suggests national weakness. I also called Rick Lazio, Hillary Clinton’s opponent in the 2000 Senate race, an “Italian bar mitzvah boy,” so callow did he seem. And his ineffectual conduct in that campaign fully matched his appearance. And because Lazio was so unserious and without substance, we’re now facing the prospect of having Hillary Clinton as president.

I discussed Michael Chertoff’s physical appearance in the context of the recent immigration debate. The fact that the administration’s point men in drafting and promoting this catastrophic open borders bill were a Hispanic immigrant, Carlos Gutierrez, and the spectral Chertoff, who were often photographed together, was a remarkable piece of political iconography which expressed the truth about this bill and about this administration. That the man who is responsible for protecting America’s borders is such an unimpressive, wasted-looking individual is significant. It sends a message. These are legitimate things to discuss. A society expresses what it is by the kinds of people it puts in leadership positions.

Even if Chertoff were a strong and effective leader, his disconcertingly wasted appearance would be a legitimate topic for comment. But when he is in reality a proponent of national suicide, the fact that he himself looks like an AIDS poster becomes symbolically rich.

The phenomenon of weak, immature, sneaky-looking individuals in high government posts began with the Clinton administration. Never before had there been such paople—manifest low-lifes, sleazes, people without respect, without character—surrounding a U.S. president: people like James Carville, Rahm Emanuel, Paul Begala, and others. This change in the personality type and physical type of the people running the government was never discussed in the media. But it should have been, because it was intrinsic to the Clinton presidency and to the larger changes in our culture that were occurring during those years.

I reject the idea that we should not discuss such things because they are not “nice” or not elevated enough. Politics is not just a matter of abstract ideas; politics is conducted by concrete human beings.

This doesn’t mean that we are free to make personal comments about people in any circumstances. It’s not a license to say whatever we feel like saying. Everything depends on context. For example, if we are having a debate with a person, we observe the rules of debate. But when we’re talking about a public figure or a government leader who is not a participant in our discussion, that’s a different matter.

Also, there is a certain informality to blogging which is part of its charm. In a formal article, I would obviously not have made some of the remarks you object to. Again, context is everything.

- end of initial entry -

Alan Levine writes:

Am not usually picky about such things, but I thought Van Wijk was largely right in criticizing you for picking on personal appearances. I would, however, qualify this; Chertoff’s looks do suggest questions as to the man’s health and his physical ability to perform his duties,

Of course, one can’t always tell; President Kennedy looked healthy but was so sick that that alone should have disqualified him for office. while some men can look, or even be, seriously ill and still function. Or be preferable anyway; FDR should not have run in 1944 but even when 3/4 dead was preferable to a Bush.

As for characters like James Carville, surely the man’s manners and views are more repellent than his looks.

Josh writes:

That was an impressive response to the poster who claimed that a person “does not have any control over his own physical appearance.” Of course Chertoff could have supplemented his stereotypical homosexual appearance and hence changed his physical attributes. I see this phenomena regularly at the different gyms I train at. Although many times those steroid induced muscles aren’t able to dissuade me from seeing a homosexual nature. One also can’t help but look at Western female politicians and see their appearance as butch-like. Does Western politics attract these types of “manly” women? And why does Western politics seem to attract so many more “womanly” men?

Mark A. writes:

I think it is perfectly acceptable to criticize the physical appearance of public figures. One’s physical appearance demonstrates the amount of respect one has for himself. Contrast Ronald Reagan with Bill Clinton. Ronald Reagan was tall and very strong. His strength was not entirely due to his genes. He woke up every morning and went to his personal gym where he trained with free weights. The man was in his 70s! Compare that to the then 40-something Bill Clinton—the ultimate Baby-Boomer-Man-of-Appetite. Shabby dresser. Fat. Physically unimpressive. Bill Clinton’s weight and his sexual infidelity showed that this was a man who could not control his appetites.

RWM writes:

The fact that a person cannot control his physical appearance is irrelevant to the question of how telling his appearance is, unless the person CAN control his appearance and that fact alone says something further. These observations are important even when the precise mechanism of the relation between physical attributes and character eludes explanation. I am convinced that, through experience and specific training, the faculty of intuition can quickly perceive things about many people based on appearance alone; that is, things that prove true as more information confirms the impression. I refer not to ordinary heuristics based on appearance, which all can recognize, but things which often prove surprising and, as I said, elude ordinary understanding.

Moreover, you were citing examples to explain the general trend. It seems that people once considered certain attributes of character important in high level government positions, and expected a reasonable congruity with physical appearance (or at least considered important a very great incongruity). The trend you cite is an important observation. I’m glad you shared it.

Mark P. writes:

You wrote: “The phenomenon of weak, immature, sneaky-looking individuals in high government posts began with the Clinton administration. Never before had there been such people—manifest low-lifes, sleazes, people without respect, without character—surrounding a U.S. president: people like James Carville, Rahm Emanuel, Paul Begala, and others.”

I wonder if this is a function of the strange egotism of the Clintons? The idea is to elevate worthless people of low achievement, people who would otherwise not rise on their own, both to guarantee loyalty and never to outshine their masters. No one would ever confuse people like Begala, Albright, Reno or others of outshining their benefactors.

Laura W. writes:

I agree with you that the appearance of many public figures does reflect character and is fair game. We usually have considerable leeway to work with what nature has bestowed. I find men who spend long hours jogging or working in gyms, interspersed with long hours at desks, to almost always have a look of immaturity. And, women who bleach their hair and smile incessantly, who can help but call them girly? If I were a man in power, I’d cultivate jowls and welcome graying temples. If I were a woman running for president, I’d never smile, eschew lipstick, chew tobacco and spit on the floor. I’d also never be elected.

Dylan H. writes:

It is absolutely pertinent to note and remark on and discuss the physical traits of public figures. Fashion models spring to mind: gaunt, deathly and seemingly morose, a chic blend of physical and (apparent) psychological attributes. From this we gather, and observe, that the effect of this typecast on young women is decidedly significant and negative. To wonder aloud what effect our increasingly immature and “sneaky” politicians are having on us, young minds especially, is perfectly valid.

The trend Lawrence has called our attention to is a flagship reminder of Western society’s general decay and confusion and is worthy of some discussion. I would suggest, however, that this initial problem is not so much the absolute cosmetic condition of our leaders—their lousy posture, bad hair, cheap suits—but the bearing of the individual who carries those burdens. Even within the trends of youthfulness over substance and the relentless drive toward homogenization of men and women, we can perceive worth and respectability in individuals that transcend their outward appearance.

Maybe there is some vague but prevailing belief today that you must not appear or sound too “together” or smart otherwise the general voting public will not be able to “relate.” In other words, the per capita occurrence of degenerates in politics is the same as ever, they’re just not bothering to cover it up nowadays. To sympathize with slobs is very different from just being one.

When disheveled looks are matched with sloppy speech and an arrogant or uninformed manner of speaking, the public should notice and should do something about it. Right about now we have a new youngest voting class that has not been exposed to dignified American leadership, such as that of Ronald Reagan or his UK counterpart, Margaret Thatcher. With so few examples in living memory, it is easy to see how the notion of traditional standards (of any kind) is slowly being eroded by the tide of the new Liberalism.

Van Wijk writes:

I must not have made myself clear. Obviously factors such as weight gain and loss, clothing worn, hairstyle, and the way one carries oneself are physical attributes that we all have some control over. A public figure should not be morbidly overweight or go to functions in a tank top and spiky hair and expect to be taken seriously. Things of this nature are so blatant that I took them for granted, but reading the majority of responses, perhaps I should not have.

My point was mocking those things that we really don’t have control over. A short person cannot become tall, and a person with an enormous nose cannot obtain a smaller nose outside of surgery. Would you criticize Robert Reich as being too short to be an effective statesman? If genetics prevent Mr. Chertoff from gaining substantial weight, how would you have him improve his “disconcertingly wasted appearance”?

Should people who are created unusually in any way be barred from being public figures?

This is what I was talking about.

LA replies:

Don’t you think you’re making something of a mountain out of a molehill here? Creating a problem where none exists?

Van Wijk replies:

As I said, I was raised never, ever to make fun of someone just because he was physically unusual. You seem to be resorting to appearance more and more lately, and this makes me uncomfortable. Isn’t it enough to attack someone’s political positions? Not every traditionalist looks like you.

LA replies:

So tell me how many people I have attacked for physical attributes about which they can do nothing and which do not reflect on their character at all, but are purely physical traits?

Van Wijk replies:

Chertoff for one. And Lowri Turner, the woman who had the non-white child. At the end of your initial post you wrote: “What a selfish, stupid women. From her photo accompanying the story you can tell she’s stupid.” Perhaps you just meant her facial expression or the way she was dressed, but you didn’t specify.

I also recalled, quite a while ago, a poster writing you and saying how amazed he was at how physically small Mestizo Mexicans were. You replied something to the tune that their size belied the threat they posed to us.

LA replies:

Leaving aside the Mexican thing, which is a separate issue, that’s two. Let’s consider them.

My observation about Chertoff was made in the context of (1) his unmanly demeanor generally, (2) his mealy, weak execution of his specific duties to defend America, and (3) his actual treasonous actions against America.

My observation about Lowri Turner was made in the context of her publishing a column in a newspaper and on the World Wide Web saying that she is alienated from her own daughter because of her daughter’s darker skin (a daughter she deliberately chose to have by marrying an Indian man), one of the most despicable things I’ve ever seen a human being do.

In both cases, the attack on their appearance/demeanor was made because their appearance/demeanor reflected their actual behavior, namely the “chestless” quality of Chertoff, and the stupid, insensible, selfish quality of Turner. I didn’t just attack people out of the blue because of things about themselves they can’t change. If Chertoff were not behaving like a chestless traitor, I would not have attacked his weak, reedy appearance. If Turner had not done something supremely crass and stupid, I would not have thought of saying, “that woman is very stupid looking.”

van Wijk replies:

So, criticize their unmanly demeanors, their weak executions and incredibly stupid decisions. These render remarks about their unchangeable appearances gratuitous and utterly unnecessary, context or no.

Such comments only reflect poorly on the commentator.

LA replies:

You have a right to your opinion.

Richard B. writes:

People can control their physical appearance, or more correctly, their “public presentation.” I remember you pointing out John Bolton’s “looks” when he was up for UN ambassador, but you have gone on to say some nice things about him, all unrelated to his appearance. So, what’s wrong with making personal observations? We want a View from the Right, don’t we?

LA replies:

Bolton is a good example. Both of the things that I criticized about his appearance he could easily change. He could trim his grotesquely large, white mustache which makes him look so strange and clownish, and he could become aware of his weirdly rigid, autistic-like facial expression and do something about that. (He could, for example, try to smile occasionally.) Both of these things have to do with the public self-presentation of a public man (and not just any public man, but the man who was representing America at the United Nations) , and so are legitimate objects of criticism.

Josh writes:

It seems that Van Wijk doesn’t believe there is a connection between biological appearance and biological reality. Chertoff looks weak and gaunt because Chertoff is weak and gaunt. Al Sharpton looks arrogant and gangsterish because Al Sharpton is arrogant and gangsterish. And Rosy O’Donnell looks nasty and dykish because Rosy O’Donnell is nasty and dykish.

Biological appearance gives evidence of a biological reality. And the biological reality is that Western civilization is dying while its male politicians are increasingly of the effeminate type. This parallels the trend among female politicians who appear in the mold of a Rosy O’Donnell or Ellen Degeneres.

One wonders whether these trends emanate from the topdown or bottom-up when we consider popular culture and the trend in pink-clothed males and tank-top jean-wearing tatted-up chicks? That of course is added to the trend of “male” models who have the physique of the typical 16 year-old boy. There is something definitely amiss and Mr. Auster certainly has an eye for it.

Richard K. writes:

Is it illegitimate to criticize the physical appearance of public figures?

Let us not forget that after? the Lewinsky business, Hillary demanded that Bill give up cigars. He gave his humidor to Robert Reich to use as a summer house.

Stephen T. writes:

The pale and pampered, fat-faced, flabby and flaccid physique of Karl Rove—the look of a soft man who’s never put in a hard day of physical work in his life—always seems paradoxically appropriate as he connives to engulf Americans with the primitive, toxic culture of Mestizo Mexico, on the excuse that we don’t work hard enough.

Paul Cella writes:

I agree with you generally that physical appearance is a legitimate subject of comment in public figures, with these caveats or qualifications:

(1) We ought to be much more cautious in this sort of thing with women, because men owe women a certain respect and forbearance that they don’t owe other men. This caveat would not issue in an absolute prohibition (I certainly think, for instance, that you are right to reprove Ann Coulter for her skanky dress and appearance) but it should, to my mind, justify more careful judgment.

(2) As one of your other correspondents mention, physical appearance is indeed very often related to inner reality; but allowance must be made for exceptions. This may seem a mere platitude, but the number of voters who are swayed by mere physical attractiveness is astonishing.

(3) A considerable amount of, shall we say, deficiency in physical attractiveness, can be made up for by rhetorical skill. Just read Russell Kirk’s study of John Randolph of Roanoke if you doubt this. The man was a sickly, even ghostly figure, self-medicated by alcohol and (some suspect) opium—and yet his oratory mesmerized the House and Senate. His opponents dreaded his acid tongue and shattering dialectics. Of course, oratory, once a great art in the Republic, is a lost and denigrated thing now. More’s the pity.

Ben W. writes:

Of course image is important. If John Wayne were a 5 foot 2 inch, 70 pound man who threatened to show a 6 foot 4 inch, 250 pound villain right from wrong, would we have taken it seriously?

Or if Ronald Reagan had been the Hunchback of Notre Dame (instead of the Gipper), with a hump on his back, a bulb on his face and a limp, would we have given him the stage?

How about Ann Coulter, if she didn’t wear short skirts, have long legs and a long mane of blonde hair?

Sam H. writes:

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar would, of course, have agreed with you:

Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 2.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 25, 2007 06:12 PM | Send

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