Saturday, September 3, 2011

Quote of the Day (Econ Prof Asks: Ugly Rights—Why Not Now?)

“Why not offer legal protections to the ugly, as we do with racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women and handicapped individuals?”—Daniel S. Hamermesh, “Ugly? You May Have a Case,” The New York Times, August 28, 2011

In his 1985 collection of articles called Happy To Be Here, Garrison Keillor had a particularly droll piece, “Shy Rights: Why Not Pretty Soon?” Just the title was enough to set me chuckling about the steady encroachment of new rights and where it might lead.

Keillor quotes from a new “group” of heavyset people who fight the use of the term “fat,” insisting that they are “total” people and that slimmer types “are not all there.” I always thought that something like this was satire. But in last Sunday’s New York Times, Professor Daniel S. Hamermesh attempts to make it reality--or, at least, as much reality as the force of law can give it.

The professor’s new book, Beauty Pays, sets out the grave disadvantages suffered in the workplace by those not blessed with good looks. Twenty years of research, he remarks in his Times op-ed, have demonstrated that being attractive “helps you earn more money, find a higher-earning spouse (and one who looks better, too!) and get better deals on mortgages.” An article in yesterday's Huffington Post cited his term: "pulchrinomics."

And so, the good professor is advocating, with a straight face, giving less-naturally-favored people all the rights of an aggrieved minority, even advocating that they go to court to redress any perceived workplace discrimination. To wit:

* protecting the ugly through small extensions of the Americans With Disabilities Act;
* encouraging the less attractive to take their case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and similar agencies; and
* passing affirmative-action programs for the group.

As I read the article, I scratched my head. The premise sounded like something out of one of producer David Kelley’s outlandish plots for Boston Legal. Many people, even readers of the Times, might regard it as a positively bizarre alternative future for a group that might be called (to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen) "the homely and the hunted."

On second thought, however, I detected the most ingenious stimulus plan for the legal profession since the start of the Great Recession and the Limping Recovery. I see no downside to President Obama including this in that televised speech he wants to deliver next week (if he can successfully confront the Capitol Hill GOP, cackling and lying in wait for him like those murmuring, malevolent, murderous little critters that terrorize that innocent young girl in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.)

At one fell swoop, Obama would be silencing the phalanx of the left wing of his party who’ve been growing increasingly annoyed with him—trial lawyers—and realigning the political map by attracting overweight Republicans to the Democratic cause. (Despite liberal talk about “fat cats,” it doesn’t appear that either party has a monopoly on the most rotund citizens of the republic.)

I notice that Professor Hamermesh teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. That would be Rick Perry’s neck of the woods, wouldn’t it?

Evidently, the professor wants to become a punching bag for his governor: a reminder to Tea Partiers that, if you leave The New York Times and its readers in charge of the world even for some lazy late-summer Friday afternoon (sort of like Assistant Secretary of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt, who dispatched a battleship off for possible action against the Spanish when his boss took off for a little weekend R&R), this is the kind of scheme they’ll concoct.

“We surely could agree on who is truly ugly,” Professor Hamermesh writes, anticipating one possible objection to his plan, “perhaps the worst-looking 1 or 2 percent of the population.” Is it really so easy, though?

Consider Johnny Sack, the goodfella played so marvelously by Vincent Curatola on The Sopranos. Fans of the late HBO show will fondly recall how Johnny was so devoted to his very heavyset wife Ginny that, when fellow mob man Ralph Cifaretto made a raunchy joke about her weight, the loving if volatile husband had to be persuaded, with enormous difficulty, to rescind a vengeful hit he ordered on Ralph. Ginny, Johnny, blinded by love, insisted, had a “Rubenesque” figure, and he would be damned if someone thought otherwise.

If this is what Johnny Sack had in mind for Ralph (who ended up meeting his maker under other circumstances), I don't even wanna think what he would have done with the professor.

Professor Hamermesh also seems not to have understood the deep truth of the W.H. Auden lines that time “is indifferent in a week/To a beautiful physique.” Virtually everyone knows someone—an actor/model, even someone from your own past—who, catastrophically, quickly or slowly, lost their looks. What happens to them in the professor’s scheme? Are they now deemed “too beautiful to fail”?

Professor Hameresh’s belief in overwhelming consensus on who belongs among the ugly elite is the kind of theory that only an academic locked up too long in an ivory tower can produce. But, far from facilitating a change to more tolerant social patterns, this kind of consensus can only bode ill.

Children may be cruel in how they taunt other youngsters deemed ugly, but what about adults? Compensating individuals who, in some cases, might not have made strenous enough attempts at dieting is certain to excite resentment among those who foot the bill. Moreover, the absolute certainty about particularly ugly individuals can also harden psyches badly bruised already by the term when applied to themselves.

That cruelty lies at least partly behind my choice for a picture here. Should I have picked the professor (who, let it be said, is so confident in his own looks that he includes lots of pictures of himself on his Web site)? Not really, because some readers, given the variety in how people judge appearances, might not have judged him the handsomest of men, and that wouldn’t be kind to him, would it?

Should I have picked an obese or otherwise homely celebrity for the image? Heaven forbid. While some readers might have derived some sadistic enjoyment from that spectacle, it would be more than a little ungallant to post something like this.

And so, I selected this still from the 1989 Tom Hanks film, Turner and Hooch. I once read that eight--count ‘em, eight--different writers worked on its screenplay. What a waste of time, since everyone involved bowed to the inevitable fact that all the really heavy dramatic (and comic!) lifting in the movie was performed by its canine star, who couldn't say an intelligible human line.

As you may remember--or, perhaps, this photo will remind you--this furry “star” was no Brad Pitt when it came to looks. In fact, in the oppressive massiveness of his unpleasant mug, he was more like Charles Laughton.

This image--or something close to it, I suggest--gives a pretty visceral sense of what young boys for years have meant when they refer to less-naturally-advantaged (or, as Professor Hamermesh calls them, “looks-challenged”) members of the opposite sex as “dogs.” The term is boundlessly mean, and I'm afraid that the professor's WPA for the legal profession will do nothing to make its recipients feel better about its sting.

There is another reason why some might resent Professor Hamermesh’s proposal: Discrimination on account of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation was based not simply on social custom but law. Such a superstructure made it virtually impossible for victims to emerge from its restrictions.

By contrast, look around and you’ll see an ugly person triumphant. Perhaps she turned into a swan upon hitting adulthood (believe it or not, without even the plastic surgery the professor believes so necessary for beauty among those not born with it). Perhaps an ugly man became so filthy rich he could not only take over companies but also accumulate trophy wives.

Or perhaps the person entered politics--a profession that, in the famous formulation of former Bill Clinton handler James Carville, is “show business for ugly people.” If you doubt what that can do for you, think of Henry Kissinger, a student so devoid of looks that hardly anyone wanted to sit next to him in the cafeteria at Harvard.

Fast forward two decades, when Herr Doctor, now a senior adviser to President Nixon, squired around the likes of Candice Bergen, Gina Lollobrigida, Samantha Eggar, Marlo Thomas, Persis Khambatta, and even a “Bond girl,” Jill St. John.

No wonder Dr. K felt that power was “the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

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