Friday, September 26, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XL: The Golden Age of Beards


Something very puzzling happened back in the 1830s. But, I get ahead of myself...

This train of thought got started a few days ago with the announcement of Attorney General Eric Holder's impending resignation. A wise guy, I forget precisely who, lamented the fact that President Obama's Cabinet was now a mustache-free zone. Which brought up the question, how long had it been since we had a President with facial hair?

The answer was kind of surprising. Our last mustachioed President was William Howard Taft. Yes, the Oval Office has been whisker-free for over a century. But before him? An almost unbroken reign, from 1861 to 1913, of bewhiskered Chief Executives. From Lincoln to Taft, excepting only Johnson and McKinley, for fifty-two years our Presidents had beards, mustaches, or both. But only in that era. Before Lincoln, there were none. Likewise, after Taft, there have been none.

The question is ... why?

I read somewhere that the Founding Fathers consciously emulated the Roman Republic in a lot of things, facial hair being one of them. Romans, at least in that period, were famously clean-shaven. But, so were just about all of the European upper-class of the late 18th Century. Even the Russians, whose nobles were famous beard fans ... at least, up until Peter the Great instituted a tax on them.

Along about 1830 or so, that's when things started changing.

I haven't been able to find a source that will tell me exactly why. Near as I can tell, all over the European-controlled world, all at once, men decided that growing beards was the manly thing to do. It became an expression of strength, virility, courage, what have you. And there was an impressive variety to be had.

Grant and Lee wore beards, of course. They were fairly ordinary, and their owners kept them well-trimmed. Other men, they let it hang out. Like Ambrose Burnside, for example.

Seriously, he could take off with a decent headwind.

Or James Longstreet.

A small squirrel could find refuge.

Or Jubal Early.

Combs? For the weak and the cowardly.

Or Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

Are you calling me a coward?

And let us not forget John Brown.

He was right. But he was more than a little crazy.

By 1860, it was pretty uncommon to find men in public life who went whisker-less. Joe Hooker was one of the few Union generals who came to mind. And as the Civil War generation grew old, the younger generation emulated them. The generation after that, not so much. Men still wore beards, of course, but they were on their way out as of 1914. The Great War finished the job.

That part, I understand. With the advent of chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas on the battlefield, whiskers weren't just unfashionable. They were a deadly hazard, because they prevent your gas mask from making a proper seal. Clean-shaven once again became the thing, for fashion and for safety.

Recently, beards have been making a comeback, at least amongst civilians. They're still a no-go under military regulations ... pretty much for the same reasons as a hundred years ago.

But I do wonder. How much longer, before we see some whiskers in the White House again?

It ain't a bad look...

Friday, September 19, 2014

In Praise Of Federalism

Yesterday, Scotland went to the polls and decided they still wanted to be part of the United Kkngdom, as opposed to a separate nation. Not everyone is happy with that decision. However, I can't help but think the question itself could have been avoided, had Westminster been willing to devolve some real power to the constituent nations -- Wales, England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

If you squint at Devo-Max in bad light, it looks a lot like something familiar to those of us here in the States... Not that we haven't had our own problems with it.

A hundred and fifty years ago, six hundred thousand Americans died sorting out the primacy of the Federal government over the several States. That notwithstanding, the several States still enjoy a fair degree of autonomy. That autonomy is what prevents such a referendum from becoming an issue over here. Paradoxically, autonomy undergirds unity.

It has several other advantages.

I've heard Federalism described as "fifty laboratories of democracy." It's not a bad image. Each state tackles issues in its own way, some successfully, some less so. The bad ideas get left behind. The good ones -- a key example being the Massachusetts health care reform law that became the basis for the Affordable Care Act -- become more widely adopted. We are seeing it happen in marriage law, too. And in marijuana legislation. A few States try something new, others see it work -- well OR poorly -- and take the lessons to heart.

And sometimes, different conditions will perforce lead to different laws. Montana, with cities separated by miles upon miles of a whole bunch of nothing, will NEED different highway rules than Rhode Island. It's lunacy to force identical rules on both.

And, last but certainly not least, our founding documents state clearly that a government's legitimacy rests upon the consent of the governed. As a practical matter, it's easier to secure that consent at the local level, than at the State or Federal level. The more decisions that are made closer to the citizen, the better. You feel more like you have a real stake, more like you can have a real effect on policy.

I have a lot of friends who disagree. I expect I'll be hearing from a few shortly. Nonetheless, I'm still a Federalist.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Video Del Fuego, Part LXVI

Kidney stones are a whole bunch of no fun. The treatment is marginally preferable to the ailment.

Oh, I'll probably feel much better about the whole thing in a few days. But on Wednesday morning, I had an extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy ... which is a fancy way of saying I got punched in the gut by Science.

This is how you feel the morning after:

So, how was your week?

(Note: I do have to say that the folks at USMD Hospital in Arlington, Texas did a fine job, and I have nothing but good words for their care and treatment. And they did warn me that there'd be some pain afterwards, so it's not fair to imply that they were at fault in any way.)