If the masses of North End restaurant owners claiming discrimination and barging into press conferences last week revealed anything, it’s that Mayor Michelle Wu’s policies have created an increasing number of impassioned critics eager to express their disapproval. This is perhaps why the latest infringement on her personal life from disgruntled groups has moved from her doorstep to inside her very brain.
On March 26, Boston Globe reported that a rumor had been brewing over the past few months about Wu’s mental stability. The rumor — which has been proven completely false — alleged that Wu suffered a panic attack as a result of overwhelming political pressures and protests outside her home. In the political petri dish of online comments and right-wing networks, the gossip festered further to include a supposed hospitalization.
The point of this article is not to harp on blatant falsities disseminated by adult versions of the girls who spread rumors about you in middle school. The love affair between click-hungry media outlets and alt-right groups hoping for media attention is a toxic one— and something our editorial board has called out before.
What the latest controversy surrounding Wu requires instead is an examination of why panic attack allegations became the weapon of choice for the mayor’s critics.
Wu’s critics used a false panic attack as proof of her incompetence. Evidently, they — and the many others who eagerly hopped on the misinformation train — drew a direct line between a panic attack and some sort of jaw-dropping, inexcusable weakness.
They also operated on the outdated belief that the panic attack was Wu’s own fault. What else could convince Bostonians that her supposed hospitalization made her an unfit leader, rather than a human being who faced an understandable reaction to a stressful job?
Let’s not forget that panic attacks are fairly common for the general population, and anxiety is an increasingly prevalent disorder in today’s interconnected society. For those who still believe seeing a therapist is something to be communicated in a whisper, it’s time to recognize that mental health issues don’t make you a bad person or an incompetent individual.
Of course, citizens deserve to know if their leaders are incapacitated or unable to serve their duties. But Wu’s career-jeopardizing trip to the hospital was nothing more than a figment of anonymous online commenters’ imaginations. The trailblazing politician has proven herself time and time again to be capable and level-headed— even when a group of agitators exposed her and her children to verbal abuses and, quite possibly given their vaccination status, COVID-19.
Beyond capitalizing off continued stigma surrounding mental health, the rumor is also a cover for old-fashioned ideas about women in power. What better way to discredit a female politician than to imply she is emotionally unstable and too mentally fragile for stress? Evidently, the rumor-mongers took the release of Bridgerton’s second season a little too seriously, because the accusation feels straight out of a 19th century treatise on female “hysteria.”
This isn’t the first time naysayers — usually from one particular side of the political spectrum — have used rumors to lend credence to their pre-existing biases. In 2004, conspiracy theorists accused former president Barack Obama of being a closeted Muslim and concealing the fact that he had been born in Kenya, rather than his native Hawaii.
The guiding notion behind these falsities was that Obama was distinctly un-American. However, his opponents chose to hide behind a false citizenship accusation to justify their sentiment rather than admit that it was because he is a Black man. In the same way, Wu’s critics have channeled their belief that she is emotionally unstable and incompetent into a hospitalization rumor rather than clearly attribute this prejudice to her identity as a woman of color.
But now that the Victorian ideas of her opponents are out in the clear, how many more of the abuses Wu has endured can be attributed to her race and gender? To be fair, Wu’s policies have been unprecedentedly progressive, and she has not shied away from tackling hot-button issues with controversial solutions. This has no doubt attracted many more critics than her predecessors.
But would protesters really be emboldened to show up at the mayor’s front porch at 7 a.m. if his name was Ian O’Irish? Would they stand outside WBUR and call him a bad person in Irish Gaelic? Boston may have been progressive enough to elect Wu, but it hasn’t been progressive enough to treat her with basic human decency.
In the face of these attacks, Wu’s response is cause for hope. Regardless of how you feel about her policies, from calm rumor rebuttals to polished, put-together public appearances, Wu consistently proves herself to be a capable politician.
Contrast this with former President Donald Trump. After allegations that Trump had sexually assaulted multiple women, he responded with an emotional rant rivaling Trisha Paytas’ infamous kitchen-floor breakdowns. Juxtaposing these two politicians’ responses to attacks on their credibility certainly demonstrates a stark contrast in character. But the irony is apparent only when we look at which demographic of the duo society trusts to be its leader and which one we continue to doubt at every turn.