Wednesday, 30 August 2017

On high heel fauxrage and other natural disasters...

So Melania Trump walked on a damp road in a pair of heels? So what? They're her damn feet, she can trudge about in the hurricane aftermath wearing a grass skirt, clown shoes and mittens if she likes.

Honestly, like slagging off Theresa May for her leopard print kitten heels, there are plenty of good reasons to criticise the Trump presidency, or indeed May's atrocious attempt at being prime minister, without taking petty cheap shots at footwear. Grow up. Do better. Quit reducing women to their shoes.

Hell, while I'm in the mood for confessing to unpopular opinions, I am not even convinced of the need for presidents or prime ministers to personally visit natural disaster areas. They have television sets, internet access, telephones, and plenty of people to keep them up to speed on what is going on. There is no need to physically put oneself in the middle of a natural disaster to understand that people are suffering, or that the recovery and rebuilding process of homes, bodies and lives will be long and expensive. 

When a leader visits a natural disaster site, it's really just a photo opportunity. And it's an expensive photo opportunity at that - by the time you factor in the transport and security costs, all of which come out of the public purse, it's a ridiculous indulgence.

But, idiotically, we are living in the era of good versus bad optics. And it is good optics for a leader, and ideally his or her partner, to visit a disaster zone and generally get in the way, diverting resources away from people in genuine need. 

People demand to see their leaders furrow their brows and do the empathy face as they talk to fire brigade staff who have better things to do, or victims who have just watched their worldly possessions and the cat get washed down the road. It's as if we have never really gotten over our need for a benevolent king, deigning to throw gold coins at the starving masses and squeeze the cheeks of adorable urchins.

And woe betide the leader who flubs the visit. George W. Bush was criticised over the photograph of him looking pensively at the devastation on Hurricane Katrina from a plane and for taking too long to get to the Gulf Coast - the storm took place on 29 August 2005 and he flew back to Washington from holiday on 31 August, flying over the disaster area on his way.

Barack Obama's response to Hurricane Sandy, including his embrace of Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, turned out to be slightly better optics, apart from partisan hacks who condemned Christie for getting too close to the president.

And back in 1974, Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, found himself in the midst of a media storm after Cyclone Tracy flattened the northern city of Darwin on Christmas Day. He was on holiday in Greece at the time and he cut his trip short to briefly visit Darwin on 28 December, three days after the cyclone. Then he flew to Sydney on 30 December, where he chaired a cabinet meeting. It was at that meeting that it was decided to form the Darwin reconstruction commission, made up of representatives of the federal departments of housing, construction, urban and regional development, the Northern Territory and Darwin City Council. But in that long-gone era, a time that predated social media and 24-hour rolling news coverage, the urban myth that Whitlam never went to Darwin at all was given oxygen. Whitlam had a busy, productive three or four days back in Australia before returning to his European adventures.

Good for Gough. I'm glad he continued his holiday after doing what he had to do, delegating responsibilities to people who were actually in Darwin. What more could he do? What would be the point of him lingering around Darwin like a fart in car? People who knew what they were doing did what had to be done. That is the best possible outcome after an awful weather event which killed 71 people.

We should judge our leaders on their actions in times of crisis, on whether they make it easy for the public and private sector to play their roles, on whether they lead with humanity, on whether they are constructive rather than using visits to disaster areas for self-promotion. Melania Trump's shoes shouldn't even be a conversation point.   


Photography by swister_p/Flickr

1 comment:

  1. Quite true. Gough's response when criticised was "Why would I want to stay there? I would only get in the way of people who know what to do!" A man of great common sense!