He’s Got the Look

February 3, 2015 The European Greece Yanis Varoufakis Jón Gnarr

Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis came for finance talks and made the fashion pages. Why are we so surprised when someone couples a fresh approach with a different look?

There was an interesting little stir on social media this week, when the freshly-minted Greek finance minister traveled to London. This was his second stop on a tour of finance ministries across Europe, and Yanis Varoufakis’ every step was closely watched. As he appeared at Downing Street No. 11 to shake hands with British chancellor George Osbourne, the press immediately noticed his non-traditional choice of outfit. In fact, you can find a report about this on the Guardian’s fashion pages: Varoufakis wore an untucked, bright blue shirt along with a knee-length leather jacket. Together with his cunning smile and shaved head, his looks were an immediate sensation on the internet — people were either appalled by it or happy to point how how stiff George Osbourne looked next to his counterpart.

The excitement surrounding his appearance was all the more interesting because Varoufakis brought with him a fresh approach to the crisis that has been holding Greece in deathgrip for close to seven years. The rift between Northern Europe and Greece became all the more apparent by the way Varoufakis broke protocol with his appearance — never mind the fact that he visited Britain and France before announcing that he would see Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister (and possibly his biggest adversary) on Thursday.

I found the mere fact that there was such a reaction quite telling. In politics, more than in most other branches, supposed reliability is projected through appearance. Any national parliament features a crowd of politicians in uniform: Similar outfits in muted colors. Deviation from the norm, it is implied, is inappropriate, for politics is serious business. After all, the future of the country is at stake! In representative democracy, every politician is supposed to serve the public and must therefore be dependable and rock-solid. Differentiation should happen on the political scene, with the motions made and decisions taken.

A character like Varoufakis, who is currently shaking up the political and financial establishments in Europe, was only hoisted onto the political stage through a crisis. I can hardly picture him running for a political post under normal circumstances, possibly because that would oblige him to file his way through the ranks and ditch his leather jacket on the first day of the job. But with conditions in Greece turned upside down, he could very much be himself. Similarly, the crisis in Spain has led to the emergence of the left-wing party Podemos, fronted by a charismatic—and ponytailed—Pablo Iglesias. Not the kind of guy who would usually run in an election. Are these men and their parties successful because they are different or are they different because that is what it takes to be successful in our crisis-ridden times?

A few years ago, I interviewed then-mayor of Reykjavík, Jon Gnárr. He is a former comedian turned politician. Gnárr, who had also been voted in during the crisis, said the following:

We have created this idea about the politician: an alpha personality, a fast-thinker, a fast-speaker. But by doing this we are eliminating a lot of people. We need fresh blood‚ and people not generally associated with the profession. That includes the slow thinkers, scientists, artists, and shy people as well as overweight people. According to the myth we have created, politics is such extraordinary work that only the chosen ones can work there. But that idea is actually very dangerous for democracy.”

Gnárr has a good point. How come we have so long been assuming that a virtually uniform class of people could come up with the full spectrum of ideas necessary to solve political problems? Having a political class that is more diverse, that has different backgrounds, and of which some people dare to travel to Britain with their shirt untucked should be one with a wider set of ideas to draw from.

I sometimes wonder how many ideas we have deprived ourselves of through our insistence on reliability and appropriateness. Perhaps it takes a crisis to really notice those people on the fringes.

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