The Facial Hair of a Hundred Years Ago

By David Michael Newstead.

The facial hair of a hundred years ago was like a portrait gallery of old styles and the forgotten empires that created them. In Europe, this was epitomized by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany whose appearance would be ridiculous to modern audiences. From his elaborate uniforms and spiked helmet to his capes and long handlebar moustache, the man was practically a caricature of the past. In contrast, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson – clean-shaven and in a suit – might be seen as a harbinger of things to come. Of course, clean-shaven leaders in suits are now much more common than extravagant monarchs. And while facial hair may not be the best measure of historical changes, it’s sometimes hard to miss.

American History X Revisited

By David Michael Newstead.

American history tends to get whitewashed and Disneyfied overtime until the past seems like something it never really was. Of course, there are lots of good moments in American history and I don’t mean to diminish that. Then again, anything tends to look good when you leave out all the bad parts.

I say all that to say that race and racism are central to American history and any attempt to paper over that fact is at best a well-intentioned fantasy. In bookstores, for instance, I used to have this habit of opening up American history books and seeing if they made any real mention of Native Americans. More than a few do not. Similarly, African Americans and others tend to fall by the wayside in this grandiose national narrative we’ve constructed overtime. It’s not incorrect per se, it’s just an incomplete picture of what happened. And to quote founding father Benjamin Franklin, half a truth is often a great lie.

Lately, I keep thinking about the movie American History X. I like movies a lot, I’ll just say that now. But this isn’t one you enjoy exactly. It’s thought provoking more than anything else and sad as you watch one tragic event or bad decision leading to more of the same and you’re left to wonder if that cycle ever really ends. The film is almost twenty years old now and it follows a misguided young man as he moves into and later out of the white supremacist movement.

It had been awhile since I’d actually sat down to watch it. American History X is from the late 1990s after all. The film stars the normally affable Edward Norton who is transformed into a muscle bound Neo-Nazi skinhead covered in tattoos and swastikas. But we also get to see Norton’s character before he shaved his head and became a Nazi and the unfortunate path that took him there. Given the subject matter, it can be difficult to watch. There’s graphic violence and racism. But everything people are grappling with in 2017 is right there: xenophobia and immigration, anti-semitism and arguments about police violence, angry white people and hate proliferating the internet.

As an audience though, we’re not just bombarded with hate for the sake of it. You watch how the main character and his brother are pulled in. And you get to see them realize everything that’s wrong with it, how their anger and grief were manipulated. How that hate solved nothing. Is that some kind of redemption? I don’t know. The movie ends with a quote from Abraham Lincoln and so that’s what I’ll leave you with: We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

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The Most Famous Beard

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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.