By David Michael Newstead.
Fidel Castro is interesting the way a time capsule is interesting, because his reign intersects with so many major events in world history: the Cuban Revolution, the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the rise of Che Guevara, the Mariel Boatlift, and more. And how many other world leaders ruled through the entire period between President Eisenhower and President Obama, between Nikita Khrushchev and Vladimir Putin? Throughout the years, a caricature of Castro entered our culture and has remained a fixture for decades. He was a bearded revolutionary in green fatigues who gave eight hour long speeches, smoked Cuban cigars, and evaded multiple assassination attempts by the CIA. Outside of that portrait, of course, Fidel Castro was a highly polarizing figure with generations worth of criticisms leveled against him regarding human rights abuses, his communist dictatorship, and the perennial impoverishment of the Cuban people. With his passing, it’s hard to say what the future holds for a place John F. Kennedy called “that imprisoned island”. Over the last fifty years, Fidel Castro went from being a young revolutionary to a senior citizen. The Soviet Union collapsed. And the classic cars in Havana became mechanical reminders of life before the American embargo in 1960. When those cars will finally breakdown and when the ruling Communist Party will finally fall from power is anyone’s guess. But Castro once said that he never shaved his beard, because it saved him time throughout the year. As it turns out, time catches up to us all.
By David Michael Newstead.
Enjoy some blog posts from the last year to reflect on throughout the month of November.
By David Michael Newstead.
As you may have noticed, bearded politicians in America have steadily declined since their heyday in the 1800s. During that time, men like Abraham Lincoln and Rutherford B. Hayes occupied the Oval Office. But tragically, there hasn’t been a full beard elected to the presidency since Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and not even a single moustache in the White House since William Howard Taft left office in 1913. In this year’s primary, for instance, Ben Carson was the only bearded candidate among the 17 Republicans vying for the nomination, further illustrating how facial hair is the exception and not the rule in American politics. But could that be changing?
Recently, I spoke with one of the founders of BEARD PAC, which is an actual Super PAC in the American Midwest. Short for Bearded Entrepreneurs for the Advancement of a Responsible Democracy, BEARD PAC’s mission is to “act to independently support the candidacies of bearded candidates nationwide.” Below, I’m joined by BEARD PAC co-founder Jonathan Sessions to discuss politics, facial hair, and the 2016 election.
David Newstead: I was curious why you decided to start a Super PAC and what you’ve learned since then?
Jonathan Sessions: Well, actually, this was a comic brainchild of mine and my friend Andy’s from high school. So, over ten years ago, we were sitting around as high schoolers do and commenting on the fact that presidents were no longer elected with facial hair. You know, we went through this era where generations of presidents all had facial hair. And as we’d entered modern history, we’d stopped seeing presidents elected with facial hair. They’re very clean-cut individuals and there would be actually comments about people not getting elected because they had facial hair or not getting the nomination because they had facial hair. So, we realized that something needed to change.
So, we came up with this in high school. There wasn’t really the mechanism to do anything at that time. We thought about forming a State PAC, but that didn’t quite make a lot of sense. You know, if there’s one thing Missouri’s got it’s a lot of people with facial hair. So, we waited. And then of course, Citizens United came down and that gave us an opportunity to have a little fun.
David Newstead: And was that process difficult?
Jonathan Sessions: That process was stupidly simple.
David Newstead: I mean, I’m sure you remember Colbert Super PAC?
Jonathan Sessions: Yeah, Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. The process is comically simple. I mean, it’s truly a one-page form that you can download and fill out. I have a background in being actively involved in politics. I’m elected to my local school board and I’ve been actively involved in quite a few local and state campaigns. Ethics commission reports are pretty simple. Or I don’t know about simple. They’re complicated, but it’s like anything. Once you do it enough, you get the hang of it. So, that’s probably one of the things I’ve heard. People don’t realize Super PACs have to report, but the reporting is remarkably simple.
David Newstead: Just out of curiosity, because you’re an elected official, do you and the other co-founder have beards?
Jonathan Sessions: Andy and I both have beards. Although, Andy is not elected in any capacity, but he does work in political fundraising. I will say I’ve been giving Andy a hard time, because just this last week for summer he shaved down to a moustache. Or I call it the East Nasty ‘Stache, because he lives in east Nashville. But up until about a week ago, Andy and myself have both had beards continuously for years.
David Newstead: I mean, it would be a scandal otherwise, really.
Jonathan Sessions: Yeah, it’d be like a Feminist PAC being run by men. A beard PAC being run by clean-shaven people.
David Newstead: Like family values candidates having extramarital affairs.
Jonathan Sessions: Yeah, it’d be something hypocritical like that.
David Newstead: Do you guys have a favorite president or a favorite politician? Like who are you picturing in your mind when you think of this ideal candidate?
Jonathan Sessions: There are easy ones to go with. I mean true leaders in facial hair such as Abraham Lincoln. And the story with Abraham Lincoln is he received a letter from a young lady who said she had four brothers and two of them were very much in support of him, but the other two said they would only vote for him if he grew a beard.
David Newstead: And I mean, he was elected twice. And he grew a beard.
Jonathan Sessions: But then you look at like the juxtaposition to today where Bill de Blasio shaved his beard. He had a beard for years, but before he ran for mayor he shaved his beard. And you think like, this is an incredibly liberal man. He is the kind of person where you would assume a beard isn’t going to sway a voter.
David Newstead: That leads into my next question. Especially from the 20th century onward, bearded politicians have been most often associated with left-wing politics. Like in the case of hippies, beatniks, hipsters, and notable communist revolutionaries like Che. Because of that, is your Super PAC left-wing in its focus or are you hearkening back to the more moderate and conservative beards of the 19th century?
Jonathan Sessions: Good question. Yeah, I think there is, in current day, the stereotypical Burt’s Bees political style of bearded man. But last we looked at U.S. Congress, it was pretty equally split facial hair both to the left and to the right. You know so, we’re non-partisan. We don’t have any particular leaning. We’re looking for individuals with good policy and a full beard.
David Newstead: So along those lines, would supporting Sikh-Americans, Muslim-Americans, Orthodox Jews, or the Amish be something you’d be interested in? You know, strong beard proponents.
Jonathan Sessions: We’re not concerned with an individual’s faith or religious beliefs.
David Newstead: So, if they have a beard, however they acquired this beard whether through politics or their faith…
Jonathan Sessions: Or personal preference.
David Newstead: …personal preference, shaving sensitivities. Whatever the reason, it’s fine with you?
Jonathan Sessions: I’ll be the first to say, 95 percent of the reason I don’t shave is just sensitivity.
David Newstead: I believe last I checked, you’ve raised $53 or $52 dollars?
Jonathan Sessions: $52, I believe it is.
David Newstead: And how have you spent this money?
Jonathan Sessions: Well, right now, we’re really thinking about what our options are. Obviously, we don’t have like Karl Rove money. So, we’re looking to see what kind of options there are. One thing that has intrigued us as we get closer to the general election, we do recognize and are thankful for a recent court ruling that says Instagram videos do not count as advertisements. And so, we have a lot of flexibility there at a very low cost of entry to do videos and photos on Instagram. We do have an Instagram account. It is currently bare. But you might see us post somethings as we get closer to the general election. Obviously with limited funds, you know we have limited opportunity.
David Newstead: That’s not a bad idea.
Jonathan Sessions: BEARD PAC is all about enjoying the loopholes in American politics.
David Newstead: Just to double check, are there any powerful, shadowy corporate interests behind your Super PAC?
Jonathan Sessions: I’m not going to disclose that information.
David Newstead: Nor do you have to.
Jonathan Sessions: Nor do I have to.
David Newstead: I assume you’ve been paying attention to the election?
Jonathan Sessions: We’ve been paying attention for a while. We’re always on the lookout for a beard in politics. Paul Ryan, for instance. Paul Ryan had a great looking beard. And then the second someone said, “Hey, wanna be speaker?” Boom! Beard gone. It’s not even a real election. It’s a Congress election. Done.
David Newstead: Among the presidential candidates, what could they do to attract support from BEARD PAC?
Jonathan Sessions: They’d start by growing beards. And then, we’d humor a conversation and take a finer look at the policies that that individual is supporting. Politico did a really great piece on “What would these candidates look like with beards?” And it was a while ago, so there were a lot more monkeys in that circus
David Newstead: We did have a lot of candidates.
Jonathan Sessions: Yeah and so they put beards on all of them. And I stand by that Obama would look good with a beard.
David Newstead: You know, I feel like ideologically speaking it’s weird that Bernie Sanders doesn’t have a beard. It seems like that should have already happened decades ago.
Jonathan Sessions: Yeah. He seems like a non-grooming kind of guy. I will confess that mid-beard looks like you’re just being lazy before it gets full enough. For any candidate, I would be hesitant to suggest growing a beard mid-campaign. It may not hurt. I don’t think it would hurt. You could just say, “I’m growing a beard. Discuss.” I’m sure there are some like body people that manage style that would say, “No, you just look lazy.”
David Newstead: I mean, it wouldn’t be the strangest thing that’s happened in this election.
Jonathan Sessions: It wouldn’t be. It wouldn’t be. I mean, I would be personally interested in seeing Donald Trump do a beard comb over.
David Newstead: Oh god.
David Newstead: Going back to an actual question, are there any beard policies that you advocate for? The things that come to mind are a recent Supreme Court case about prisoners being able to grow beards and there’s been a lot of discussion over the last few years about Sikhs in the U.S. military being able to grow beards. Any comment?
Jonathan Sessions: There’s a good couple of things you’re addressing there. One, I have had a longer beard, like decently long, and I would say I could not imagine hiding a knife or a gun in my beard. I mean, that’d be impressive if someone could pull that off. So, there’s that. In regards to your second point, while I understand there may need to be some management for specific jobs. Like we’re not opposed to hairnets. But why does everything have to have such a nihilist approach? Can we find a happy medium? You know, can we make an adjustment for someone’s face? I come back around to like we shouldn’t be dictating as much into personal lives. Like that kind of thing – a personal grooming choice of someone’s.
David Newstead: So if you’ll humor me, I’m going to say the name of a U.S. president and you just say whatever facial hair style comes to mind. Like what facial hair should they have?
Jonathan Sessions: Alright.
David Newstead: JFK?
Jonathan Sessions: I have a hard time saying that like he needed anything more than like a five O’clock shadow.
David Newstead: See, I saw him with like a Tom Selleck moustache.
David Newstead: Richard Nixon?
Jonathan Sessions: Richard Nixon is Mutton Chops. I say Mutton Chops.
David Newstead: I sort of envisioned an evil turn-of-the-century handlebar moustache like an old-timey villain.
Jonathan Sessions: I could see that as well. I could. Kind of like something out of Gangs of New York.
David Newstead: Barack Obama?
Jonathan Sessions: Barack Obama. I think he’s gotta rock the James Hart like just let it kind of go, get a little long. Keep it trim up top. Just maybe a high top, but keep it pretty clean. And then, just let that beard go.
David Newstead: See, I went in the other direction with that. Cornell West style. Because he won’t be president anymore, so he can do whatever he wants. Just let himself go.
Jonathan Sessions: Oh, I see that. Yeah, just let it go. I mean, as he gets older.
David Newstead: President Ronald Reagan?
Jonathan Sessions: Ronald Reagan. I see as like a 1970s moustache guy.
David Newstead: I sort of envisioned maybe a Clark Gable, sort of a 1930s thin moustache. And I don’t even know how they achieve it is the other thing.
Jonathan Sessions: I’m sure mascara.
David Newstead: Personal favorite, FDR?
Jonathan Sessions: Young FDR or old FDR?
David Newstead: Your discretion.
Jonathan Sessions: I think just out of respect for his forefathers, I’m gonna go moustache. Like Teddy Roosevelt rocked a moustache.
David Newstead: Good association.
David Newstead: There’s no right answer to this, but maybe a goatee on FDR. I don’t know.
David Newstead: Then, honorable mention question. Vice President Joe Biden?
Jonathan Sessions: You know, I really would love to see Joe Biden with one of those chin tails like the lead singer of Anthrax.
David Newstead: See, I had said Soul Patch. So, I feel like that’s roundabout the same thing.
Jonathan Sessions: I could see Uncle Joe with a Soul Patch, starting like a White Snake cover band.
David Newstead: Alright, so two closing questions. First question. Who is your Super PAC endorsing in the 2016 presidential election?
Jonathan Sessions: We have not made a decision yet.
David Newstead: Ok. Second question. Who is your Super PAC endorsing in the 1870 presidential election?
Jonathan Sessions: 1870! Who are my candidates?
David Newstead: If I remember correctly Rutherford B. Hayes and then another old white guy?
Jonathan Sessions: 1870. Now, the last president elected with facial hair was Benjamin Harrison in 1888.
David Newstead: Wait. Full beard or facial hair?
Jonathan Sessions: Full Beard.
David Newstead: Taft had a moustache, so that’s the last facial hair of any kind.
Jonathan Sessions: There are photos of Truman when he would go to Martha’s Vineyard. He would grow a beard on vacation, but he wasn’t elected with one.
David Newstead: Alright. So, Benjamin Harrison was the last full beard.
Jonathan Sessions: So, there was an election in 1872. I was going to say 1870 sounds like an off year.
David Newstead: Yeah, I just kind of made it up really. lol.
Jonathan Sessions: I just did a quick google search like who would that have been? So, Ulysses S. Grant won in 1872. But out of all of them, Benjamin Brown was governor of Missouri and a Vice Presidential candidate and he had a legit beard.
David Newstead: It’s a shame it’s fallen out of fashion, but maybe you guys are leading the resurgence.
Jonathan Sessions: We’ll see what happens. I will say that if I could compare my beard to a president, I would say it would be a solid Ulysses S. Grant.
David Newstead: What about your co-founder, Andy?
Jonathan Sessions: You know, Andy rocks some mutton chops every so often. So, I would say he would be a Martin Van Buren. Like a really solid Martin Van Buren.
Note from the Author: Two interesting historical notes came up while I was putting this interview together. Although beards are most commonly associated with left-wing politics today, every fully bearded president in U.S. history was actually a member of the Republican Party in the 19th century: Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, and Harrison. It’s also worth pointing out that every black Republican candidate for president so far this century has had facial hair: Alan Keyes, Herman Cain, and Ben Carson. Food for thought.
By David Michael Newstead.
Christopher Oldstone-Moore is a history professor at Wright State University where he focuses on gender and masculinity. And today, we’re discussing his new book, Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair. It’s a far reaching examination of the subject, covering things like evolution, biology, and ancient history. Notably, he delves into the beards of ancient Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Rome. The book also explores the facial hair issues of early Christianity and the Middle Ages as well as the larger political and religious significance of facial hair all the way to the present. Our conversation is below.
David Newstead: You’ve studied this material for some time now. Writing this book, what did you learn about facial hair and masculinity that you didn’t already know?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: That’s what is really fun about this subject. Very little was known about the history of facial hair by anybody. Some people knew parts of the story, but the whole thing has never been told. One of the surprises is the prevalence of shaving in the history of Western civilization. Many imagined it went back and forth in a fashion cycle over time, or that shaving was relatively recent, but that is not even close to true. Times when beards predominate were fairly rare. The common explanations of why beards come and go—like the invention of the safety razor– are also wrong. What I learned is that changes in ideas of masculinity are often represented by changes in facial hair.
David Newstead: You mentioned the lack of research related to facial hair, what challenges did that present? And how did you overcome them?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: This was a huge challenge. For one thing, granting bodies do not generally recognize this as a worthy historical topic. The National Endowment for the Humanities turned me down flat. So money was hard to come by. Second, much of what I did was original research, which means I had to find, study and analyze material that few, if anyone, had looked at before. In many cases I had to have these items translated from the original Latin, German, Russian, and so forth. My main way to overcome these obstacles was time and tenacity. It took me more than a decade to research this topic. It must be said that the joy of finding new things that no one ever knew about helped keep me going.
David Newstead: When and how did you develop an interest in this subject?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: About 14 years ago, when I was looking for new material on social history for my classes at Wright State, I looked into the matter of shaving and facial hair styles, and found to my surprise that no historian had studied the subject. This seemed like too important a subject to be passed up!
David Newstead: During your research for the book, did you find yourself especially identifying with any of the historical figures you discuss? Peter the Great? King David? Abraham Lincoln? Clark Gable?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: Abraham Lincoln is a very likable figure. His humbleness comes out even in the story of his beard. He was not vain about his looks, but did follow the advice a little girl to grow his beard to look better. I also felt some sympathy with those in the past who wrote about beards, like the Renaissance scholar Marco Olmo or the 18th-century writer Jacques Dulaure, who were in a sense earlier versions of myself. On the other hand, many of the figures I discuss are really terrible people, like Peter the Great and Stalin.
David Newstead: As I was reading, I was particularly interested in your research on Alexander the Great and Tsar Peter the Great, both of which are famous for being anti-beard and this got me thinking. What would you say are some of the negative effects of anti-facial hair policies throughout history?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: On this point, I would add the US court decisions of the 1970s and 80s (like Supreme Court’s Kelley v. Johnson) that support employers’ power to require shaving. Peter the Great, Supreme Court, etc. are imposing conformity and limiting personal freedom. This is deliberate, because this sort of body conformity is important for those attempting to maintain social order or control. This does not exclude the possibility of beards being enforced for the same reason. I also talk about the Taliban and ISIS, which enforce beards on all male subjects as a sign of piety and loyalty, and also the military requirement of European armies during the 19th century that all soldiers wear mustaches. It does seem, however, that shaving is the more popular choice when the goal is regularity and conformity.
David Newstead: If you could have a beard during any time in history, what historical era would you pick and why?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: The early seventeenth century Van Dyke beard is pretty cool. I think I could pull that off with my thin face. The massive, braided Assyrian beards of the 9th and 8th centuries BCE are perhaps the most awesome, but I don’t think I could manage it.
David Newstead: What’s the future of facial hair? And, for that matter, masculinity?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: That is the great unknown. It seems to me that we are not witnessing the full triumph of beards in our time. We do not have a masculine consensus on this. And this indecision may be a real sign of our times. There is no consensus on masculine style or on masculinity in general, and I am not sure we are getting one soon. I see websites were different guys or groups are promoting their ideas, but they cover the waterfront. This is likely to be the subject of my next book; what guidance has been offered to help men be men in the past, and now in the present? It seems to have become an increasingly complex and difficult matter. Our choices about facial hair have become correspondingly diverse.
David Newstead: Why do you think it’s become more complex and difficult nowadays?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: I can’t say for sure, but we live in times when gender norms are undergoing many changes, not just one or two. Masculinity is a far more complex thing when gay, trans and fluid sexualities are newly accepted as normal. Not just sexuality, but also family, social and political structures. Feminism and social change mean that the link between masculinity and family and political leadership is weakening. Men and women alike seem less committed to older social or family roles. On it goes. There are many more ways to be a man today, and much less agreement about what the norms should be.
David Newstead: Any final thoughts?
Christopher Oldstone-Moore: My main hope for this book is that people enjoy seeing history in a new way, and that it will inspire people to look at our world with fresh eyes, seeing masculinity as a dimension of our human experience over time.
By David Michael Newstead.
Right from the start, The Revenant blisters with life and death intensity. Throughout the film, survival and revenge fuel a trek across the hostile wilderness of the early 1800s. It’s an American West populated by unscrupulous settlers, roaming bands of Native Americans, and the unforgiving forces of nature. Eerily, the film has minimal music. Instead, there are long moments of desolate silence only interrupted by the carnage of history.
By Dave Philipps.
On his first day at the United States Military Academy at West Point, Simratpal Singh sat in a barber chair where new cadets get their hair buzzed short, forced to choose between showing his faith and living it.
Cadet Singh had grown up a Sikh. As part of his faith, he had never cut his hair or beard. But his faith also encouraged protection of the oppressed, which inspired him to join the Army.
The Army would not allow a soldier with long hair or a beard, so that day he watched his locks drop to the floor.
“Your self-image, what you believe in, is cut away,” he said in an interview. For a long time after, he would shave without looking in the mirror.
That was almost 10 years ago. The cadet graduated, led a platoon of combat engineers who cleared roadside bombs in Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star.
Last week, the Army finally granted now Captain Singh, 27, a religious accommodation that allows him to grow his beard and wrap his hair in a turban.
“It is wonderful. I had been living a double life, wearing a turban only at home,” he said. “My two worlds have finally come back together.”
It is the first time in decades that the military has granted a religious accommodation for a beard to an active-duty combat soldier — a move that observers say could open the door for Muslims and other troops seeking to display their faith. But it is only temporary, lasting for a month while the Army decides whether to give permanent status to Captain Singh’s exception.
If it decides not to, the captain could be confronted with the decision of whether to cut his hair or leave the Army. He has said he is prepared to sue if the accommodation is not made permanent.
“This is a precedent-setting case,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, a nonprofit public interest law firm that specializes in religious liberty. “A beard is a beard is a beard. If you let one religious individual grow it, you will need to do it for all religions.”