The Power of Eyebrows
I am an outsider but I live with an insider. I’ll call him Peter (because that’s his name). Peter is the proud owner of several insider attributes that I don’t have. I am small, Asian, female, an anxious refugee living in Britain at the mercy of my hosts. He is tall, white, a confident native Brit with beetle-brows.
Right there you can see five of his insider attributes: gender, colour, height, indigenousness, and eyebrows.
The social advantages of being male and pale are obvious. But does height really matter?
A ‘well-known fact’ – a Size 0 grain of truth dressed in a fat-suit of hype – is that taller US presidential candidates ‘always’ win. The theory is that the shorter candidates lose the instant they jump onto their feet and the TV cameras expose their smallness, long before they open their mouths to insert said feet.
But in the 2004 presidential election, the shorter George Bush beat the very tall John Kerry. (I sat next to Kerry once, and he didn’t strike me as particularly tall. Then he stood up.) Kerry is six-foot-four, as tall as that tallest and most revered of all US Presidents, Abraham Lincoln. If Lincoln managed it, why not Kerry?
Because height is a minor factor in the hierarchy of insiderness. Its sine qua non is being a deep-dyed member of the tribe. I reckon Bush’s PR man Karl Rove’s genius lay in giving Kerry a worrying tint of not-quite-American otherness, while portraying Bush as the all-American insider.
In reality, the Bush family inhabited that stratospheric realm where international dynasties make and lose millions of dollars (or riyals or roubles) while flying blithely above the heads of ordinary citizens who have the misfortune to be stuck in the little boxes known as countries. The Bush dynasty had friends like the Bin Ladens. Salem Bin Laden, Osama’s older brother, had even been a founding investor in George W’s first oil company, Arbusto Energy. Yet Rove managed to make Bush appear ensconced in the ‘Merr’ca’ box with the voters.
Remember Nadine Dorries’s notorious remarks about the UK’s Conservative leaders, Cameron and Osborne?
‘Not only are [they] two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk, but they are two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others – and that is their real crime.” [My italics]
So Cameron and Osborne could be forgiven for being posh, but not for lacking empathy. Bush and Kerry too had to demonstrate real understanding of their citizens’ needs. And their citizens’ deepest need – always, but especially after 9/11 – was reassurance about survival.
9/11 provided Bush the opportunity to grandstand as a tribal champion, safeguarding his people from life-threatening attacks. He rallied US citizens and world leaders to join him in his Global War Against Terror, to protect and avenge his traumatised voters.
His Coalition of the Willing would storm into Iraq, sort out Saddam in three swift days, before sweeping into Syria and Iran. That was the plan. The US had the most powerful military in the world. Bush, as its commander, was flexing his military and political muscles, to the cheers of his voters.
The most powerful man in the world was also hunting down the most wanted man in the world: George W was hunting his business partner Salem’s kid brother, Osama. It’s a small, bizarre world, this world of the rich and powerful.
Tony Blair loyally committed the UK to supporting Bush. But then France spoiled everything: it would neither participate in the invasion nor support it. Other countries, like Germany, rumbled in behind the French.
The French government’s effrontery, their betrayal, as many Americans saw it, sparked anti-French hysteria. They poured French wine down gutters in front of French Consulates, They downed ‘freedom fries’ instead of French fries – the same old twice-fried chips, now also twice-named. They breakfasted on ‘freedom toast’, the eggy-bread formerly known as French.
Guess where Kerry stood on invading Iraq? He advised against it. Just like the French. It wasn’t hard to persuade voters that Bush would obviously do his best for the people, as one of them, but Kerry didn’t – couldn’t – understand them.
Kerry had been educated in Europe, at an elite boarding school in Switzerland. Kerry wasn’t just a posh boy, he was European posh. Un-American posh. I observed Republican TV interviewers shedding crocodile tears over this poor little rich boy, sad and lonely, implying that the experience of being abandoned in Switzerland had left him emotionally estranged.
In fact, Kerry had attended the institut for only a year, and had been a big success there, but the make-believe trauma was a handy way to paint him as a man as chilly and remote from understanding the needs of regular American voters as the snowy Swiss Alps.
And wasn’t his wife kinda foreign too? The sophisticated Maria Teresa Thierstein Simes-Ferreira Heinz was of Portuguese descent, born in Mozambique, spoke five languages and had won the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism. Laura the librarian’s image was of an ordinary housewife watching the pennies: renting and returning their jigsaw puzzles because ‘they’re expensive to buy’. Renting jigsaws?
Kerry had spent childhood summers in Brittany, and spoke French. Bush could barely speak English – his gaffes ‘proving’ he was a good ol’ country boy from the US of A, unlike those urbane Europeans with their Machiavellian verbal dexterity.
Really? Bush’s much-quoted Francophobic gaffe – ‘The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur’ – was such a beautifully constructed, faux-innocent line. Did he really say that spontaneously?
Did he say it at all? Alastair Campbell said that Shirley Williams had said that Tony Blair had said that George Bush had said it, but that Tony Blair had said that Bush hadn’t. Had Rove’s team written and circulated it?
Who knows? The sad truth is that these master-spinners constantly delude us – because we let them. We’ll attach distorted, exaggerated meanings to facts about someone’s gender, colour, height, or how much they understand us, if they support our fear-led prejudices.
Will the leaders to whom we give life-and-death power over us understand what we are really scared of – the survival threats to us, our identity and our tribe – so we can trust them as our champion? No wonder Nigel Farage, leader of the UK’s Independence Party, is doing so well.
And he’s got expressive eyebrows. I mustn’t forget the power of eyebrows.
A colleague with magnificent eyebrows, bristling like a pair of hedgehogs luxuriously outstretched above his eyes and kissing across the bridge of his nose, said research showed that the beetlier your brows, the more impressed people are by your authority. You look like someone who understands what’s what.
I checked out Peter’s eyebrows. He has fair skin, fine fair hair, blue eyes – but ferociously fluffy black eyebrows. Hah, so that’s been the secret of his authority!
I must get myself a mascara wand, the kind with the thick, soft end like a tiny chimney brush. And a portrait of Frida Kahlo, for reference.
Then watch out, world – here I come.
Anuradha Vittachi is an internationally-published writer, award-winning TV documentary-maker, and co-founder of OneWorld, the world’s first Internet portal on human rights and sustainable development (1995). Anuradha was the UK’s civil society delegate to the G8’s taskforce on closing the global digital divide and one of the LSE ‘s 27 Global Civil Society Pioneers. In 2006, she founded OneClimate, and in 2013, co-founded the Hedgerley Wood Trust, which uses innovative media to deepen public empathy for the health of people and the planet.