Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Politics Of Beards

The Political Stage

He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man.
William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act 2, Scene I

Perry J Greenbaum: " Now, I have no intentions of ever running for public office, but it seems that if I did I would have to make a choice between my beard and public office. I think I'll keep the beard."
Photo Credit: © Sheldon Levy, 2011

The last president of the United States to have a beard was Benjamin Harrison (in office, 1889-1893); the last with any facial hair was William Howard Taft (in office, 1909–1913), who wore a mustache. The last major party candidate to run as president bearing facial hair was Republican Thomas E. Dewey, who had a mustache, in 1948. The last Canadian prime minister who wore a beard was Mackenzie Bowell (in office, 1894-1896), the fifth prime minister of Canada; the last with facial hair was Louis St. Laurent (in office, 1948-1957), who wore a mustache.

It it similar in Britain, France, Germany and Australia. No leader of any industrialized nation now has a beard. Facial hair among the leaders is acceptable only in nations where the the beard and facial hair are respected among its citizens, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan—essentially nations that are outside Christianity and the western tradition--nations where the majority of its citizens are followers of Islam. (Israel, the only Jewish state, also tends to follow western convention and mores in its politics.)
It has been said that voters do not trust men in beards or any facial hair, that a candidate for office must be conservative and clean-cut. Perhaps clean-cut and clean-shaven translates to a "clean" honest personality, whatever that means. Such is the conventional wisdom of image consultants, pollsters and political mavens. Given that facial hair, notably a beard, shows strong masculinity and individuality, such might provide the clue why beards on public officials are considered a handicap. (The historical decline of beards have both practical and cultural-religious reasons in America, the safety razor taking credit for the former and the Puritans for the latter, a New Yorker article points out.)

Perhaps, to a great degree, we really don't want our leaders, from the lowliest local office to the highest national office, to appear too masculine, too much of an individual. Too counter-culture. The buzz words today are consensus, and accommodation and beard wearers might not be able to concede. Or they appear too radical, or too individualistic. Of course that is nonsense. Might it be that too much is being read into a simple choice of aesthetics and facial hair?

Now, I wear a beard, and have done so for a number of years. I have had a mustache since my engineering school days, and kept it even when working for a conservative company (aerospace-manufacturing) in the 1980s. When I left the company and the profession in the early 1990s, to return to school (journalism and English literature) and devote my time fully to writing, I made some more changes. It was then that I decided to grow a beard, which I have kept since then. Now, I have no intentions of ever running for public office, but it seems that if I did I would have to make a choice between my beard and public office.

On second thought, if you ran for public office sporting some facial hair, even a modest mustache, that might separate you from the pack of similar-looking contenders.When you think about it, one of the endearing things about Jack Layton (1950-2011), the Canadian social democratic politician and the Leader of the Official Opposition, was his trademark mustache.

As a comparison, if you look at the official photos (here and here) of the gathering of the G8 or G20 leaders, there is a disconcerting sameness of the men in attendance. (Women are distinct in their own manner it seems.) If one wore a mustache or a beard, he would undoubtedly draw attention to himself as a leader with an independent mind.

That might make all the difference in the world. For now we are left with the beardless wonders.

1 comment:

  1. My nickname when I lived in China, in 1984 and again in 1989, was "Da huzi," meaning "big beard." Once someone asked me if I thought it was disrespectful. I said it was fine, as long as I wasn't called "Da duzi" (big belly).


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