Belgian Minister of Health and Social Affairs, Maggie De Block, has recently come under fire for, well, being too fat for the job. Her critics seem to think that Ms. De Block’s more-than-rubenesque stature would be a detriment for running the Ministry that should, among other things, deal with the country’s ever-growing obesity problem.
Just as picking up a few swearwords can help one’s efforts to learn a foreign language, hearing political quagmires of this kind can be of great use to a novice to the Belgian body politic. Keen to find out more, I scrolled pass the photos, to Madam Minister’s curriculum vitae. As it turns out, De Block has been a quite successful at her previous post of Immigration Minister, having managed to slash the number of asylum requests by half. Unlike her predecessor, whose tenure was marked with controversies and personal scandals, De Block actually has professional expertise in a health-related field (being a general practitioner for 23 years). And, for what it’s worth, she tops the charts in popularity among Belgian politicians. All of these things typically make people think that one will be a fine Cabinet Minister. So, where does all this fastidiousness about weight come from?
Let me start by striking the unavoidable populist chord – if Maggie De Block was a man, her plus size would never be used to question her competence. For instance, her male gravitational equal, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, had to deal with the issue of his own weight in terms of electability (“is he too fat to win a presidential election?”), but nobody seriously brought it up as a possible detriment to political performance.
The sexism implicit in such selectivity aside, the fitness for office line of criticism usually takes two forms. The first is the classic doubtfulness of one’s ability to do the mythically responsible job of a public servant – “Since X’s condition is recognized as a disease (as it is the case with obesity), and elected office Y is such an extraordinarily stressful job that impacts millions of people (as it is the case with the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs) – we just can’t afford a shred of doubt in X’s ability to hold the office of Y!” This sort of doubtfulness sounds well grounded but, in fact, it doesn’t seem empirically sustainable – Roosevelt was wheelchair bound, Eisenhower had a heart attack and a stroke while in office and Churchill was a heavy drinker. If a paralyzed man, a stroke survivor and an alcoholic could manage to win WWII (among other things), there’s no reason why an obese women wouldn’t make a great Health Minister in Belgium.
The other shape in which the fitness for office argument comes is indicative of a broad trend in contemporary Western politics. Namely, the question is not so much whether X can do the job, but “whether X, given that he/she embodies problem Y, which the society condemns and the Government is trying to fight, is able to adequatelyrepresent the Government’s stance on problem Y”. Now, this argument does not question one’s commitment to the Government’s goals – nobody seriously posits that Maggie De Block will secretly oppose a tax increase for fries and burgers because she looks as though she loves them too much. The question raised is of her effectiveness as a poster girl for a specific Governmental policy, a public representative of society’s opinions and stances who not only does, but looks the part.
Over the last couple of decades, the Western public sphere has increasingly emphasized public officials’ role as representatives of popular attitudes and opinions, rather than their governing or lawmaking capacity. The public is becoming obsessed over who a candidate for office is (the first black presidential hopeful, another Bush, a charismatic speaker, a gaffe-machine) instead of focusing on the results he has achieved in his previous work. As Margaret Thatcher once said, “It used to be about trying to do something. Now it’s about trying to be someone.”
Perhaps the most obvious testament to the truth of Lady Thatcher’s assertion is the 2008 US Presidential election, when Barack Obama beat John McCain. As it happens with American Presidential elections, the political decision made in ’08 consisted of more than just picking one man over another. However, the focus on the representative, rather than policy-making aspect of a public service was never more evident than in 2008. Barack Obama, the most inexperienced major party presidential nominee in a century (with a total of one year spent in the US Senate and seven years in the Illinois State Senate before deciding to run for President) beat John McCain a five-term Senator with one of the most active legislative careers in the history of the US Congress. Since McCain’s political record was, well, existent, it was rightfully scrutinized, while Obama has managed to associate his candidacy withchange, despite the fact that, during the campaign, most voters could not name a specific policy change that Obama would implement as President. Yes, some people did indeed believe that Obama could fix the US economy by giving one of those very eloquent speeches that made journalists go gaga – but that’s not how he got elected. The US election of 2008, more than any other in recent history, was about choosing a symbol of an overwhelmingly supported ideal – change – and not about deciding who will be able to govern more successfully.
This reduction, on the public’s part, of a political leader to a poster boy for current socio-political trends carries with itself a denial of the political leader’s right to wield power, set socio-political trends and, in a word, govern. Nowadays, the political leader’s chief task is to be a credible spokesman. And that is exactly where Maggie De Block, an obese woman in charge of promoting the fight against obesity, would supposedly fail.
By denying Government Ministers their role as governors, we are not denying governance itself. We are just tacitly delegating it to different recipients. And wherever that trend may lead us, it will most certainly not be a good place.