Folks of a certain age or background will all be familiar with a certain phrase: “There are three ways to do things – the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way.” This reflects the fact that the armed forces have their own specific rules and regulations for every situation, and deviation is simply not allowed. This is intended to reinforce unity and cohesion, but is well known for creating localized situations that are the exact opposite (and gave birth to the also well known “snafu”; if you’re not familiar with that one look it up, I’ll wait).
The reason I bring this up is because of the Army’s new regulations on dress and appearance. According to a recent report on NPR, these regulations “clamp down on tattoos, mohawks, long fingernails, [and] dental ornamentation.”
The report also notes that “[t]he Army is also banning some hairstyles popular among African-American women. The stated goal here is professionalism, but some soldiers and even members of the Congressional Black Caucus are upset, and they are urging the Obama administration to take a second look at the rules.”
Before I go off on a rant about this, let’s take a look at each sides arguments as expressed in the report, and let me also note that I have done no deep investigation of this issue, simply listened to this one report and am offering a completely and (clearly) uninformed opinion. Also I am sure I will be receiving more than a few comments regarding a white man weighing in on matters of African American female hairstyles, so I would like to go on the record as stating that I will completely ignore any such racist and sexist attacks.
So what is the argument against these regulations? According to Lori Tharps, who teaches journalism at Temple University and co-wrote “”Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America”, the issues are essentially that “the policy itself does not take into consideration the history and culture, as well as the simple, you know, biological makeup of black hair and what it requires. They have effectively deemed inappropriate some of the most effective and popular hairstyles that many of these women wear.”
Have to say, straight out the gate I’m less than impressed. Most of these arguments seem at best irrelevant and at worst hyperbolically pointless. To the best of my knowledge, the Army doesn’t take into account anyone’s history or culture, outside of the bare minimum for religious observation, when making regulations. That’s kind of the point. Everyone is supposed to be brutally equal, as close as possible, both for fairness and unit cohesion. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out they just stopped using the terms “mick” and “hymie” just last week. The issue of biological makeup is relevant and salient, and worth exploring in more depth, however.
Unfortunately(and this may be the fault of the restricted medium of the radio interview) it seems that the question of biology only comes in as a matter of convenience. For example, when discussing the new regulations regarding corn rows, Ms. Tharps states that:
I think the problem is it takes a little more technique and talent to produce really neat, tight corn rows as described here, whereas almost anybody could make the same kind of look with a two-strand twist. Most black women really understand what those subtle differences are.
I mean, some of the styles they’re suggesting aren’t efficient at all, for example, doing corn rows is very time consuming. Weaves and wigs are extremely expensive and this two-styles that they outright ban, dreadlocks and twists, are the most efficient and economical styles that a black woman with natural hair can wear. And again, we go back to that idea of uniformity. That is kind of both the burden and the blessing of black hair in the United States of America.
Aaaand again I take issue. I personally have very curly hair (see above. Now imagine that all over my head.) Other guys I know have very straight hair. Believe it or not, a high and tight looks like crap on me, but it’s regulation. A cue ball doesn’t look a lot better, but it’s regulation. I’m not suggesting I have the same issues as an African American woman might, but again, this isn’t about convenience, it’s about whether or not the regulations can be met without being an undue burden. Joining the Army comes at significant costs, and personal expression is one of them.
Finally there’s the issue of the words the Army has used to describe the banned hairstyles, specifically “words like unkempt [and] matted”. Ms. Tharps describes these as “culturally insensitive words” due to the “backstory of black people and their relationship with their hair in this country”. Having not read the regulations I don’t know if they only and specifically address the hairstyles most common to African Americans or if they are referring to my beloved mohawk as well, but again this seems a case of “the Army way”. Even Ms. Thaps admits “at the end of the day, you cannot say that they are racist”, and this seems to me a case of oversensitivity and taking offense where none is intended or justified. But honestly? If this were the entirety of the issue I’d say just change the wording and be done with it. It’s not important to the core issue for the Army, and it is important to the people it affects.
And speaking of the Army, let’s take a look at their reply. According to Renee Montagne, “We reached an Army spokeswoman for comment. She pointed out the regulations apply to all female soldiers regardless of race.” Well la-de-da. That’s the moral equivalent of saying they’ve established a regulation tampon for use by all soldiers, regardless of gender. I wanted to take the Army’s side, if for no other reason than because I saw little to no merit in the opposition’s case, but this? This is a case of being your own worst enemy. Which is, after all, the Army way.
During the Nineties, I had a very specific hairstyle. It’s not very hard to describe, except for the fact that it’s hard to admit to.
Here’s the truth of it: I have naturally curly hair. Oh sure, you think this is a good thing. I’ve had many a woman tell me she’d love to have my hair. But at that time the fashion among men was to have long hair, and if I tried to grow my hair long it basically came in as a ‘fro. The alternative was something even more ghastly, although at the time I didn’t realize it… a mullet.
I didn’t really understand at the time what the big deal was, although at least a few of my friends tried to give me subtle hints, usually things along the lines of “hey Bob, you may want to get a haircut”, or “dude, you have a mullet, please shave it off before we have to kill you in the name of good taste.” Had they been a little more direct I might have been spared the indignity.
The worst part of it all was that I had role models to look up to in Hollywood who made it look good. I mean sure, they had feathered hair instead of curly hair, but other than that? Totally making it work.
What’s that you say? Name one? Okay. Patrick Swayze.
That’s right, star of such great films as Dirty Dancing, Ghost, Roadhouse… um…
Okay, I got nothing.
The point is it seemed like a good idea at the time. Besides, what was my alternative, try to look like Kurt Cobaine?
But this isn’t about justifying. This is about owning the past and learning from it, as well as helping others to avoid my mistakes. And the first step to doing that is to name my mistakes. That’s where you come in.
I’ve always preferred the term “frullet” to describe the hairstyle I had, as a noxious portmanteau of “fro” and “mullet”. A friend suggested that didn’t quite encompass the magnitude of my mistake, and instead suggested “mulleto”. Personally I think that sounds like a coffee drink you would get at Starbucks. So I throw it open to you: what would you call it?
In case you missed it, Stephen Colbert got into a bit of trouble on Twitter this past week due to a tweet that went out over a Comedy Central controlled Twitter account for his show. Things got very ugly very quickly, including calls for his job and the hashtag #CancelCorbert.
Let me start by saying I am not here to defend the tweet. I think we can all agree it crossed a line, at least for Twitter (some argue it was acceptable in context during the show; having not seen it, I can’t take a stand either way). That having been said, I do think there is something to be said for a wider context that is being ignored, one that has value and validity beyond the scope of a single show: the nature of comedy itself.
I’ve been writing comedy in one medium or another for almost twenty years now, and I’ve always kept two rules in mind. The first is a joke that goes all the way back to vaudeville: “dying is easy; comedy is hard.” Everyone thinks being funny is easy right up until they try it. Even telling a joke someone else came up with takes timing, skill, and panache; being original and funny is exponentially harder. The second rule is one I learned back in college: the more offensive the joke is, the funnier it needs to be. Let’s not kid ourselves, there’s hardly anything in this world that isn’t offensive that is laugh out loud funny. Hitting the balance between “bust a gut” and “bust you in the mouth” is difficult, and it’s easy to miss the mark.
There are other complicating factors as well. Comedy is a moving target for a lot of reasons. One of them is that societal mores are always in flux. What was hilarious ten years ago is kind of uncomfortable today and will be outright taboo next week. The same thing happens in reverse. What’s more, comedy often plays a role in that social change, pushing boundaries, creating safer spaces in which we can talk openly about things that are forbidden in “polite” conversation. The down side of that is that it becomes easy to step on toes, go too far, and yes, even cross a line.
Another complicating factor is that, like it or not, comedy IS contextual. If you read a transcript of almost any performance by Bill Cosby, you might chuckle, or you might just say “I don’t see what’s so funny.” But when you watch him in action, it’s a whole different story. Pitch, tone, pacing, facial expressions, everything he does goes into his comedy. My father used to say that Chevy Chase could make him laugh just by walking into a room. Truth is he can do the same thing for me, but that doesn’t translate to Twitter.
Finally, sometimes you’re just under the gun and a bad joke gets through. It’s easy to sit back and play armchair comedian, complaining how “he should never have said that.” We’ve all done it. But how easy is it to write a half-hour of humor five nights a week? Even with a writing team, it gets exhausting. I used to do 1,000 words of humor a week, and I only lasted a couple of years with breaks every few months. The Colbert Report has been running for almost ten years, with over 1,300 episodes. That’s almost 500 hours of jokes. Is it remotely possible that a bad one might slip through now and then?
Once again, I’m not saying that nobody should be offended. It was offensive, and deliberately so. It was inappropriate for the medium, and hopefully will not be repeated. But calls to fire Colbert or cancel the show are misguided at best and opportunistic grandstanding at worst. There are better things to rage against.
Ol’ man Winter,
Dat ol man Winter,
He act like a playa,
But he mus’ be a hater,
He jes’ keeps trollin’
He keeps on trollin’ along.
He don’ like birdies,
He don’ like flowers,
An’ dem dat likes ‘em
Is shovelin’ fo’ hours.
But ol’man Winter,
He jes keeps trollin’along.
You an’me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ racket wid pain,
Tote dat salt!
Lif’ dat snow!
Drive on ice
An’ away you go.
Ah gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of shovelin’
To the point of cryin’,
But ol’ man Winter,
He jes’keeps trollin’ along.
Don’t look up
An’ don’t look down,
You don’ want to see
De white stuff around.
Bend your knees
An’bow your head,
An’ lift that shovel
Until your dead.
Ol’ man Winter,
Dat ol man Winter,
He act like a playa,
But he mus’ be a hater,
He jes’ keeps trollin’
He keeps on trollin’ along.
Long ol’ Winter forever keeps trollin’ on…
Recently Jeffrey Tucker wrote an excellent piece for The Freeman describing what he perceives to be a schism in the libertarian movement between “brutalism” and “humanitarianism”. While I find myself leaning more in the direction of what he describes as humanitarian, I have to admit to feeling some pull toward the brutalist side of the argument. Perhaps it’s a bit over-simplistic of me, but I truly do believe that part of the essential nature of liberty is the liberty to be an asshole.
What I believe is missing from Mr. Tucker’s argument is something else that libertarians believe very strongly in: the power of markets. Markets both in goods and in ideas. Both have a place in bringing people together and tempering the worst impulses of humanity. The desire for more and better goods and a higher quality of life for ourselves and our families drives many toward civility, particularly as they mingle with others they otherwise might not be exposed to and find they are not so different from themselves. Those who cannot be led by this carrot can be chased by the stick of ostracism; they will not be forced to conform, but others will not conform to them, and they will find the world can be a difficult place for the man without a community.
Is there a chance that people will exercise en masse the “right to disassociate” as Mr. Tucker phrases it? Absolutely. But I believe there are two viable counter-arguments to that: the positive one is to point out that in doing so they deny themselves the benefits of the free market and specialization, which, having seen what others are gaining thereby, they are likely to want again for themselves. The negative but still undeniably true answer is that, short of coercion to the contrary, people do this anyway. Cliques, sects, factions, parties, cults, denominations, splinter groups – whatever they choose to call themselves, by legal means or not, formally or informally, people are constantly setting themselves off from others, erecting borders around themselves so as to define quite clearly whether you are one of “us” or one of “them”. A humanistic philosophy won’t change that.
Ultimately I suppose I differ from Mr. Tucker in one key way, which is this: his humanistic approach lists out all the benefits that human society as a whole, and the individuals who comprise it, reap from liberty, and sees that as the reason liberty is a value. I see humans, each individually, as the highest value in themselves, and as such I cannot conceive of any course but liberty to guide them. It is a subtle distinction, but an important one.
I made a bologna and mayo sandwich for lunch today.
This isn’t really significant in itself, except for a few things. First, I rarely take my lunch to work. I’m more of a “get out of the office” kind of guy, even though working in Arlington makes that an expensive proposition. Second, even when I do take my lunch to work, I’m usually too lazy to actually prepare a lunch; I’ll just grab some leftovers or a frozen meal. Finally, I greatly prefer a hot meal to a cold one, so whether eating out or dining in having a cold sandwich really isn’t my style.
So why this sandwich, and why today? I didn’t really give it much thought, other than that I was craving bologna and mayo. Then as I was making lunch this morning it hit me all at once: Dad would have been 68 today.
It’s a small thing, nothing really, and yet everything. Dad was a great cook; he could make everything from chili to French onion soup to a complete turkey dinner with all the trimmings. He was a master at the grill or the stove, and yet he never lost his love for something as simple as a bologna and mayo sandwich. It’s the first kind of sandwich I ever learned to love, and I even put it on a hoagie roll, because that’s the kind Dad would have liked.
I don’t think about Dad every day any more, which is as it should be I suppose, although I think about him more days than not. I still miss him, and I always will, but I have to get on with my life. I’m just grateful to realize that he’s always going to be with me in all sorts of little ways, ways I won’t even realize. My love of music, my love for animals, my fierce loyalty to my family, even my temper…
And bologna and mayo sandwiches.
There’s a lot of speculation going around lately about what’s the source of all the trouble in the Crimea region of Ukraine. Many are blaming Moscow for stirring up trouble, possibly as a precursor to an invasion. I’m here to reassure you now that the truth is something far, far more sinister:
It’s the people at Rand McNally.
To understand why, you have to go all the way back to the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. Things were looking good at first for high school students; we had one less Germany to memorize for Geography class, and only one Berlin to worry about, but we still had it pretty easy as far as Eastern Europe and Asia went. Basically all you had to know was “U.S.S.R.” and “China” and you got at least a C.
Then suddenly the U.S.S.R. broke up without any warning, and overnight we’ve got a Georgia that was never on our minds, more –ia’s than a Cthulhu summoning, and so many Stans you’d think it was a callback for “A Streetcar Named Desire”. In short, we got screwed. Oh sure, you might think the concerns of a few high school students pale in comparison to the desperate need to live free of tyranny, but you are overlooking one key element: these were the future mapmakers of the world. And nobody messes with mapmakers with impunity.
They bided their time, waiting decades to get all the pieces in place. They manipulated elections, staged revolutions, and even plotted assassinations where they needed to. Think I’m being paranoid? Think about this: they know where you live. They know where everybody lives. Nobody dares to cross them, not if they know what’s good for them. Do you really believe the Apple Maps roll-out was such a disaster because Apple can’t design an app? They wouldn’t play ball, and they got punished for it. Google pays their dues every month.
And now those poor high school kids who failed Geography because of a bunch of whiners who yearned to be free of a totalitarian regime are finally getting their ultimate revenge. They’ve manipulated the world and Russia in particular to dance to their merciless tune, all for one purpose: to thin out the number of countries they have to print on a map.
Hey, it’s less crazy than anything Vladimir Putin can come up with.