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The Whisker Rebellion

The ongoing and seemingly endless argument about a border wall and its resulting partial government shutdown seemed the most absurd story of the day, but then we caught our first glimpse of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz wearing his newly-grown beard.
Apparently we were late notice, as the beard looks fairly far along, and the terms “Ted Cruz” and “beard” yielded more than 5 million “hits” when we typed it on the Bing search engine. So far the beard seems to be getting decidedly mixed reviews, as beards usually do. Some find it rather dashing, others consider it ridiculous, and quite a few paid the backhanded compliment that at least it covers up a certain portion of Cruz’s face.
Cruz does have an unlovely visage, which bears an unfortunate resemblance to Al Lewis’ “Grandpa Munster” character on the old “Munsters” sit-com, and that has no doubt been an impediment to his political ambitions. It can’t explain his runner-up finish in the Republican primaries to President Donald Trump, who is by no means a matinee idol, but it probably had something to do with his relatively narrow win against the crazily leftist but youthfully handsome Democrat Beto O’Rourke last November. Our guess is that the close call prompted Cruz to grow the beard, as these days beards are thought to convey a hip and up-to-date style.
Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, James Garfield and Benjamin Harrison all wore beards, while Presidents Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft all sported mustaches, and President Martin Van Buren had some formidable sideburns, but back then facial hair was meant to convey the wisdom of age and an Old Testament sort of seriousness. Since Woodrow Wilson every president has been clean shaven, as until recently beards were largely associated with bums and beatniks, and except for Kansas Gov. Bob Bennett back in the mid-70s we can’t recall any politicians with any sort of notable whiskers. Former Vice President Al Gore famously grew a beard, and might still have it for all we know, as he hasn’t been in the news for a while, but that was after he’d lost the electoral vote to President Bush and around the same time he got divorced.
Beards are back in fashion, though, and might yet reappear on a presidential portrait. They no longer convey the wisdom of old age and a certain sort of Old Testament seriousness, but those qualities are by now hopelessly out of fashion, and we can well imagine modern voters preferring something more hip and up-to-date. Even so, we think the Cruz beard is a mistake.
To our admittedly heterosexual tastes few men look better with facial hair, and Cruz is not the exception. In his case a beard won’t fool anyone into thinking that he’s anything but a bookish and ideological square, and we still think he’d do better with that image. He can’t maintain the tough guy image he once sought to portray after so much obsequiousness to the victor who dubbed him “Lyin’ Ted” and ridiculed his wife’s looks and insinuated that this father was in on the assassination of President John Kennedy, and he’ll never be anybody’s idea of hip and up-to-date, and he’s unlikely to ever be president, so he might as well be the authentically clean-cut conservative that we hope still lurks behind that shiny new beard.

— Bud Norman

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Football and Freedom

The high secular holiday of Super Bowl Sunday is approaching, and in accordance with our contentious times it has already been preceded by the perennial Super Bowl controversy. These obligatory annual brouhahas usually involve the exhibitionist tendencies of the half-time performers or some slightly politically incorrect aspect of one of the commercials or the pre-game felonies of one of the players, but this year all the scolds are in a huff about the very existence of the sport of football.
Any sensitive and well-read football fans have surely noticed that their favorite sport has lately been blitzed with criticism. The courts have sided with a class action of brain-damaged ex-players in a lawsuit against the National Football League, the president has declared he would not allow his hypothetical son to play the game, such elite corners of the press as The New York Times are wondering if it is “Immoral to Watch the Super Bowl,” while everywhere the anti-football folks are getting their kicks in. There’s even talk of banning the game altogether, and anyone who thinks that football’s longstanding place of honor in American culture and its multi-billion dollar standing in the business community makes this idea far-fetched should try exercising such once-sacred rights as lighting up a cigarette in a barroom or installing an incandescent light bulb in a living room lamp. Despite the massive ratings that Sunday’s contest will surely generate, the combined power of the liability lawyers, the prudish pundits, and the easy gullibility of public opinion will be hard for even the most barrel-chested linemen to resist.
This time around the anti-football faction is citing some admittedly believable and alarming statistics about concussions, but we suspect they have other reasons for their opposition. Football is ruthlessly meritocratic, a last redoubt of exclusive and unapologetic masculinity, draws its best players from that remote region of flyover country which persists in voting for Republican candidates, provides an analogy to both warfare and capitalism, uses racially insensitive team names, and is in almost every other regard an affront to progressive sensibilities. At all levels of competition the sport is impeccably proletarian and multi-racial, with an abundance of tattoos and dance moves and other fashionable accoutrements, but even these culturally-sanctioned saving graces cannot rescue football from the damnation of a modern liberal. The modern liberal envisions a world where cooperation replaces competition, where multi-cultural commingling replaces physical contact, girls rule, and a mean old game like football has no place.
Football is a mean old game, and there’s no use denying it. The sport has slowly evolved from the “mob games” played in vacant lots of slum neighborhoods by New England ruffians, which were of course decried by the sophisticated inhabitants of that region, by the 1904 college season it racked up an impressive 18 fatalities, which of course provoked an intervention by the progressive Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, and its toll of seriously injured players has steadily increased ever since. The undeniably macho Roosevelt’s sensible reforms spread out the offensive to end the Greek phalanx “Flying V” offensive formation that once trampled over defenders, effectively ending the fatal era of football, and all the endless rules changes that have followed have also been intended to make the game safer, but nothing the rules committees have devised eliminated the risk inherent in the nature of the game. Like the regulatory agencies struggling to keep up with an ever-innovating economy, the game has always lagged behind the rapid pace of improvement in the speed and size and injurious strength of the players.
That squeamish editorialist at The New York Times who wonders about the immortality of watching the Super Bowls describes the queasy feeling he gets watching the bone-crunching hits that occur in every game, and we have to admit that we can empathize. Our own football-playing was limited to neighborhood bouts in the backyard and a nearby cow pasture, but it provided enough hard hits that we can extrapolate that skinny wide receiver must be feeling after 270 pounds of pure linebacking muscle puts a sudden stop to his seven-yard gain. Nor can we fault the president for advising his hypothetical son against playing organized football, even if his hypothetical son looked just like a young thug who was seen slamming creepy-ass cracker’s head against the pavement of a Florida suburb, as we reached the same decision even without his wise fatherly counsel. For all we know of corporate liability law the courts might even have reason to order the NFL to pay some compensation to the leather-helmet era players who had their bells rung once too often, and as far as we’re concerned anyone who will forgo the Super Bowl on moral grounds is wished a nice afternoon at the art museum or drum circle.
For those who prefer to watch the two best in teams in football fight it out for sporting immortality, we wish you a well-played contest. For those gladiators who take that frost-bitten arena in New Jersey, we wish you good health and the God-given right to test your God-given talents in a championship game. Should the effort to ride the world of football be successful the effort to rid it of roughness, risk, and Republicanism would be furthered, and that would be a shame.

— Bud Norman