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February 24, 2019 10:38 PM   Subscribe

 
YES

This looks totally fascinating. And hey, the author lives in my hometown!
posted by mwhybark at 11:26 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


I really like how he conflates the Punisher skull logo with beards, fascinating.

(N.B. I currently have an approximately 12 inch very very grey beard and have never served in any military capacity in my life)
posted by mwhybark at 11:30 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


Yeah I noticed the big beard thing was a *look* among the more alt-right, authoritarian, blue lives matter, 3%er people and hadn't connected it to changes in "special forces" regulations and military chic. There was recently a murder by a fascist weirdo of a Muslim businessman and I was confused for a second cause the murderer had a big, well-kept beard and the guy who got shot was clean shaven which is counter to like 2005-era idea of stereotypes.
posted by The Whelk at 12:00 AM on February 25 [10 favorites]


The last time I flew the TSA guys were all "sweet beard bro" and were very excited to make sure I met their "explosives expert," apparently because he was well liked and also had a big beard. It was odd, I will say that.
posted by mwhybark at 12:16 AM on February 25 [15 favorites]


That was pretty amazing.
posted by maxwelton at 12:25 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Amazing words, amazing images.

It made me think of this:
All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. This is the political formula for the situation. The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system. It goes without saying that the Fascist apotheosis of war does not employ such arguments. Still, Marinetti says in his manifesto on the Ethiopian colonial war:
“For twenty-seven years we Futurists have rebelled against the branding of war as anti-aesthetic ... Accordingly we state:... War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others ... Poets and artists of Futurism! ... remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art ... may be illumined by them!”
posted by chappell, ambrose at 12:38 AM on February 25 [12 favorites]


This is cool, but I was under the impression that the NSDAP's use of the totenkopf owes a lot more to earlier Prussian use than the Jolly Roger.

(Not to take away from this being solid work...)
posted by pompomtom at 12:43 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]


The Nazi use of the skull is in part from its use in freikorps unit imagery after the end of WWI, iirc. I think it may have been used in 19th century gear as well, but am not sure. I researched and wrote about this stuff like thirty years ago and my deets are shaky. What I seem to remember is that deaths' head imagery rises into popular currency in the post-Roman West along two axes, first, the memento mori works mostly associated with the Plague or Plagues (which do not specifically focus on the skull, by and large) and second, the use of skull imagery in indigenous art of the Americas. I do not recall being able to substantiate by secondary-source research the idea that the use of skull imagery in association with piracy was a syncretic usage of these traditions, but it seemed to me to be likely.

I would be interested to learn how that usage traveled into European military usage. It might well be independent of the pirate symbology, I think. Skull and crossbone imagery on headstones is widespread by the 1700s in both Western Europe and the Americas and may not have had anything to do with the black flag.

I can think of at least two uses of related imagery by French aviators (or maybe just one guy on two planes) during WW1, as well. That doesn't definitively cut the imagery loose from Prussian usages, of course, but it would tend to be evidence that it was not exclusive to German military use before the freikorps.
posted by mwhybark at 1:19 AM on February 25 [11 favorites]


I think it just means that the people displaying the skulls are the baddies.
posted by flabdablet at 1:30 AM on February 25 [13 favorites]


You should join my Army of the Rat's Anus.
posted by pompomtom at 2:08 AM on February 25 [4 favorites]


(fwiw totenkopf @ wikipedia, which bears out pompomtom)
posted by mwhybark at 2:21 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


#DeathCultAmerica
posted by glonous keming at 2:49 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


You should join my Army of the Rat's Anus.

The militant wing of the DemonRatic Party?
posted by Balna Watya at 3:34 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


You should join my Army of the Rat's Anus.

The militant wing of the DemonRatic Party?

They meet annually in Boca Raton Fl.
posted by Groundhog Week at 4:25 AM on February 25 [5 favorites]


That was excellent, thanks for posting. I was especially struck by the points made about the decoloring of the flag.
posted by soundguy99 at 4:37 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]


Retweeted by William Gibson.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:59 AM on February 25 [4 favorites]


I was especially struck by the points made about the decoloring of the flag.

That's another military/paramilitary symbol, decoloring or changing the colors to fit a camouflage pattern.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:27 AM on February 25 [9 favorites]


I was just about to mention Gibson. Anyone who has read his recent work will have noticed how fascinated he's become with the paramilitary, formerly "mall ninja aesthetic". (Less easy to make fun of now.)

A few years back I noticed this book, Warrior Dreams by J William Gibson. It's about this exact topic.

Here's the blurb:
"Argues that America's defeat in Vietnam and challenges to the status quo have created a crisis in American identity, and have given birth to a reactionary new war culture."

Here's more in depth description.

I've always imagined that William Gibson found this book one day, read it, and became obsessed with the trend which he then blended into his observations of "Otaku" culture or maybe just how masculinity can sometimes emerge as an obsessiveness.
posted by Telf at 5:36 AM on February 25 [11 favorites]


You know what’s a great palate-cleanse after the aesthetics of fascism? Billy Porter’s spectacular Oscar dress.
posted by thivaia at 5:42 AM on February 25 [47 favorites]


It's amazing how Stallone was able to spot this market and feed it well enough to make it grow huge. He comes up with Rocky, a bit of revenge porn for the battered white ego (but it feels nuanced and sensitive by later standards). Then First Blood, to rewrite ending of the Vietnam war, the Punisher, Judge Dread...
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:56 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Whenever I see men like this I picture not only fascist paramilitaries, but the violent, desperate gangs in The Road*, roving around and killing off the last scraps of the civilization men like them destroyed.

* the book, not the movie, which I haven't seen
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:03 AM on February 25 [9 favorites]


This was very interesting. A few thoughts:

1. I was especially struck by the points made about the decoloring of the flag.
At least around 2010, fascist activists in the former USSR used a de-colored Soviet flag. IIRC, their thing was that the benefits of the former USSR should be restored along fascist-nationalist (and homophobic and anti-woman) lines.

2. About the death's head: I've only seen a couple of references to this (I think one in Peter Linebaugh) but apparently there were some radical abolitionist protesters in the UK who carried the pirate flag, and it was understood as a specifically "pirate ships are the democracies of the seas" gesture. At least since the late eighties, there's been a left and anarchist counter-tradition of the pirate flag, too, but it was always understood as a pirate flag, not as a death's head. Like, you had the skull only as a reference to the Peter Linebaugh-esque take on pirates, not because skulls were a thing.

There's been a lot of skulls in mainstream popular culture for a while too, and I have always had trouble really theorizing it. In the mid-2000s, there were all those Alexander McQueen scarves and skull prints, and there was the vogue for sugar skulls and Day of the Dead stuff (among white people) and then it trickled down into, like, kids' stuff covered in death's heads. On a gut level, I don't like to see it - Day of the Dead is its own thing, but I don't feel good about seeing everyone tricked out in cartoon death's heads otherwise.

3. Beards: I know a lot of people who grow beards because they hate shaving, or because they individually think they look better with beards. However, there is also a misogynist-left beardie tradition that appears post-September 11 and is, I think, somehow related to cultural conservativism and anti-feminism. Like, when I see left men under forty with beards, I pause, because I associate bearded left men with a specific turn either to 19th century anti-feminist leftism or to contemporary left asshole-ism, the kind where you dismiss a lot of people's concerns as mere id-pol and make fun of the appearance of people you don't like. It's weird. I did not used to feel this way.

The whole thing is very depressing.
posted by Frowner at 6:28 AM on February 25 [17 favorites]


I few more thoughts:
If this is a post vietnam lefties lost us the war narrative continuation, it maps loosely over the post WWI narrative in Germany that led to WWII etc. Not a new observation.

This also ties in with the importance of facial hair and regimental moustaches etc, see also why the Amish shave their moustaches.

Military campaigns have often been a driver of fashion: brogues, buchers, modern jackets, neck ties, wrist watches etc etc. So this isn't entirely new.

Also, see historical references of Corporal's Mania. There are loads of historical rulers obsessed with military trappings. (Found this article while trying to remember the term.

Maybe the issue is with modern mass marketing and micro targeting of specific populations. Much easier to aggregate relatively small slivers of society and then pull more people in once the movement has gravity. I think of social movements as risk factors (Public Health definition.) IE Just because you're exposed to cigarette smoke doesn't mean you'll get cancer, but you're a hell of a lot more likely to get cancer if you are exposed to smoke. Similar to having a gun in the house etc. (I think that Cory Doctorow teased out some of these broader ideas in his recent interview with Yascha Mounk.)

This culture always reminds me of the character Roland Weary from Slaughter House Five. He's someone who fetishizes militarized cruelty and comes to WWII with a trench knife with fantasies of disemboweling people.
posted by Telf at 6:40 AM on February 25 [4 favorites]


I am CONSTANTLY surrounded by the horrible effects of the US military on generations of men, which affect everyone else around them. Can we, you know, have childhood fantasies of literally anything else that transfer over into the real world now?
posted by Young Kullervo at 6:46 AM on February 25 [4 favorites]


This comic saddened me, because I'm a white man under 40 (well, barely under 40) with a big beard who dresses in black and likes to decorate with skulls (but not the Punisher logo). And yet I'm a lefty who tries real hard to be a good intersectional feminist. At what point did my preferred aesthetic become a uniform for these jackasses?
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:53 AM on February 25 [10 favorites]


This is super interesting, and works really, really well in the comic format. It does a great job of highlighting the specific fashion elements and outlining fascist fashion and shedding some light on where all this comes from historically.

BUT specific characteristics isolated out don't a fascist (or anything else specific) make. I know plenty of folks in their 30's who have beards (I do too, because I hate shaving), but since other markings are missing, none of them signal as fascists. Even really pretty small differences can alter how someone is perceived; For example the very last panel, if you were looking at someone with a neutral expression on their face, and they were wearing that hat and those glasses with that beard, you could safely assume they have at least fascistic sympathies. Swap the sunglasses with the back-strap with regular old sunglasses, and (at least to me?) that signal gets turned down. Again swapping them for spectacles or non-aviator style glasses, and you've turned down the signal again. Swap the hat for a flat brimmed snapback, even one with a black american flag, and the signal decreases more. Changing the styling of the beard could have drastic alterations to perception of how fascistic someone appears. Fascist beard and signals, lefty beard and signals. These kinds of things are a gestalt, and since fashion is complicated and completely subjective, it's very much like the Stewart and porn quote of "I know it when I see it."

This askme from BenevolentActor reminds me of this; he was worried he's coming across like a neo-nazi. Nothing about his appearance signals neo-nazi, but if you were to draw a venn diagram out, there'd be some overlap. Just having a shaved head doesn't make you a nazi, but avoiding Doc Martens and white polos might be a good choice if that's your goal, you know? Small changes in fashion can have big signaling implications.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:10 AM on February 25 [12 favorites]


I am married to a tall white dude with a shaved head and a beard. The only things he is signalling are "I started going bald in eighth grade" and "its easier to have a beard since its going to grow anyway" and "if I have no hair on top of my head and no beard, I look like a weirdo".

You'd know that hes not a nazi or involved in some hate-driven militia after two seconds of conversation with him, but at face value he fits the description of someone that might give you pause. I showed him the question that furnace.heart linked above, and he thought there some good insights in it. He was surprised that his look said anything, because it was just practicality and not looking like a weirdo for him.

Pleeeeease, society as a whole, don't take the beards from us. They are so wonderful. Sometimes a beard is just a beard.
posted by Gray Duck at 7:44 AM on February 25 [15 favorites]


I feel like I lack the context necessary to understand this.

I remember reading a year or two ago about the unprecedented military-civilian divide in America, and this piece seems to be evidence of that: the author grew up in a military family and grew to understand the world in that context. Because it's a short piece, he's making a lot of assumptions of what his audience will know, and since I don't know what those assumptions are, I'm lost.

And what's worse is that America isn't just divided on the military-civilian axis: it's also divided on class, gender, sex, ethnicity, profession, generation, geography, religion... It feels like we're not one country, but one hundred. And, like, I may be uniquely stupid or naïve,* but it seems more likely to me that we're all like the blind men and the elephant: each understanding and internalizing a little piece of what's wrong with America, but missing at least some of the wider context involved.

There was a recent BBC article on civilization collapse, and one of the causes of collapse is complexity: the society becomes so complex that nobody can keep track of all the things that are broken and the ways to fix them any more. (Even assuming that anybody who had the power to fix them was interested in doing so.)

This piece makes me feel like there's a new broken thing that I wasn't previously aware of and don't really comprehend. And it also makes me think of a lot of times in the past where people have lashed out at me for seemingly no reason at all, and I wonder if I have inadvertently—through how I dress or style my hair or whatever—crossed some boundary into which those attacks might have made sense. (Like, yes, I have a shaved head and beard, and meant literally nothing by it, but maybe people read something into that?)

Anyway, I wish I had more context. Maybe anything would make any fucking sense if I did.

---

* OK, OK, I'm probably at least more stupid and naïve than average, but...
posted by ragtag at 7:52 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]


I have a beard too, guys, it's ok to have a beard.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 7:57 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


An opinion piece from Task & Purpose: "While I have nothing but respect for the special operations community, they’re the ones who started this God-awful phenomenon we find ourselves in the midst of, something I call “peak beard.”...Not that long ago, a beard marked a wearer as either a member of a southern rock band or someone with a deep desire to appear eccentric. Then 9/11 happened, and American special operators deployed to central Asia and the Middle East in unprecedented numbers. The rapid successes of those unconventional forces, especially in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom, made them heroes — and, eventually, fashion icons."

(By way of saying there is a difference between a beard and an operator beard.)
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:12 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Back in 2010 one of those first person shoot/military simulation games called "Medal of Honor" came out and had a whole advancement system that included options for beards. As you ranked up and progressed through the game you were allowed more and more leeway to deviate from the uniform and appearance regulations eventually allowing the player's in-game avatar to sport a big bushy beard.

I thought it was weird then and I think it's weird now but this comic really puts into context.
posted by VTX at 8:28 AM on February 25 [5 favorites]


Odds and ends:

I've thought that a requirement of beardlessness is a way that society oppresses men. I know there are many worse things imposed on women, but beardlessness requires time, money, and pain, and it's much easier for some men than others. However, the symbolism might be more complex than that.

The author's use of "innocence" is interesting. I've been thinking "unaccountable authority" (I was thinking about police rather than the military). Any suggestions for clear words for the desire to have some people free of social constraints on how they treat people?

Add the Grateful Dead to the list of popular skull iconography.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 8:38 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


I remember reading a year or two ago about the unprecedented military-civilian divide in America, and this piece seems to be evidence of that

This is also part of this military cosplay that non-military people take on. They are invested in militarism as an expression of power, empire, nationalism, and masculinity, and so they dress in this particular aspirational way because they're never going to be in the military, or they are now beyond the age/physical condition where that is a possibility, but they want to signal their alliance with the ideologies they believe are expressed by military membership.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 8:57 AM on February 25 [6 favorites]


I liked some aspects of the essay, but thought that others really crossed over into overreach. The thing about the Jolly Roger being a privateer flag, for example, is simply wrong; there was a theory that "Jolly Roger" referred to a red flag used by some privateers, but there's no actual proof, and pirates absolutely used the skull and crossbones flag, among many others. Plus, skulls are much beloved of goths, surely one of the least militaristic of subcultures. The rise in accident rates is likely due to the increase in SUVs which are seen as safer for their drivers, despite being more prone to roll-overs; SUVs are used by some military, but were on the rise in the civilian market before the recent wars. Big lumberjack beards were popularized by big-city hipsters before they were known as special forces "operator" beards. (I almost wrote "bears" there, which is yet another bearded subculture, of course.) The bearded G.I. Joe was an attempt to disassociate the franchise from the military as the Vietnam War became less popular, ditto the astronaut Joe. And so on.

That having been said, I think that there is a sort of young veteran subculture that makes use of a lot of these signifiers simultaneously; military online communities are full of pictures (often presented scornfully, especially if it's known that the veteran was a POG, or Person Other than Grunt) of the young veteran who goes to college or hangs out at Starbucks with his cap with the subdued American flag on the front, Oakley Gascan shades, "tactical" pants, a Grunt Style T-shirt with some swaggering motto on it, their old combat boots, and their Army backpack. But that look has also been adopted by a lot of guys who wish that they had been in the service, like this guy. It's also pretty close to standard redneck wear; I see a lot of guys walking around with hunter camouflage outfits, not just the jackets and caps but full outfits, well outside of hunting season.

And I used to wear military stuff because I grew up in the post-Vietnam military surplus store era; I would wear my uncle's Vietnam jungle weight jacket to school, have owned a couple of pea coats and still have a black bomber jacket (shades of Gibson's Pattern Recognition), and even got a pair of woodland camouflage military pants once for a Great Pumpkin costume (the pattern represented the leaves on the pumpkin vine, see). I also wore a West German army coat for a while for the same reason that I got the pea coats: amazingly warm and comfortable. Anyone who wears a trench coat is wearing a military-derived piece of clothing. Military style does end up disseminated in the culture, but often due to a swords-into-plowshares kind of thing, not necessarily (or not completely) because of a perpetual-war culture.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:58 AM on February 25 [14 favorites]


The use of "innocence" isn't about just the unaccountable authority, it fosters a belief that whoever we're talking about is the "innocent" party and that therefore their actions are beyond criticism. "Hey, that guy is totally innocent, he was just doing what he had to do!" "He's clearly innocent here, it's just a case of boys being boys."

If you're perpetually the "innocent victim" literally any atrocity you commit is justified as the innocent party simply defending themselves.

So it's part of a desire to be free of social constraints but it's wrapped up in this rationalization that they're innocent victims defending themselves against their oppressors and while we understand that it's a post-hoc rationalization of heinous behavior those perpetrating it really believe it and internalize it.
posted by VTX at 9:02 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]


I thought this was about a pretty specific aesthetic, not, like, beards and skull stuff in general. I don't think the takeaway is that beards are intrinsically a marker of Bad Men, or that black clothes are only worn by white supremacists. I thought part of the point was that subtlety is vulnerability to these guys; this isn't a subtle look that you have to scratch your head over, this is an in-your-face statement, because they want you to know they're tough, Proud white men.

In other words, worry not, guys with beards. There have been many times when I had a beard and wore all black, and no one ever confused me for a Nazi.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 9:03 AM on February 25 [16 favorites]


Plus, skulls are much beloved of goths, surely one of the least militaristic of subcultures.

Yeah, but that's part of a more memento mori thing, as mwhybark explained above. There's usually an aesthetic difference, in that a goth skull tends to be rounder, usually fairly realistic (unless cuteified cartoonishly) and sometimes grinning, but rarely shown as aggressive. An operator/punisher skull often has stylized eye sockets to mimic angry eyebrows, sharper angles, and is depicted with mouth open in a screaming/biting pose.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:06 AM on February 25 [9 favorites]


I was especially struck by the points made about the decoloring of the flag.

That's another military/paramilitary symbol, decoloring or changing the colors to fit a camouflage pattern.


I am confident that my 5 year old would identify the majority of these as "bad guy" insignias. Snakes, skulls, no colors...when do kids forget the basic iconography of good vs bad??

Another difficult question is what subcultures are available to boys and young men that promote healthy masculinity?
posted by fraxil at 9:13 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


While I have nothing but respect for the special operations community, they’re the ones who started this God-awful phenomenon we find ourselves in the midst of, something I call “peak beard.”...Not that long ago, a beard marked a wearer as either a member of a southern rock band or someone with a deep desire to appear eccentric. Then 9/11 happened, and American special operators deployed to central Asia and the Middle East in unprecedented numbers. The rapid successes of those unconventional forces, especially in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom, made them heroes — and, eventually, fashion icons.
I'm not sure that narrative lines up with reality. I seriously doubt that the kid at an Arcade Fire concert in Williamsburg in 2004 in skinny jeans and a vintage t-shirt with ornate, "ironic" facial hair is fetishizing the special forces aesthetic.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:00 AM on February 25 [4 favorites]


Noting the shift to all camo all the time as a "play acting fantasy" - I have to wonder if some of it is because of the shift to all-volunteer forces. Like, now that they have to lure people into volunteering, we have to make them look COOL and FIERCE. First, everyone gets to wear cool camo BDUs! Now, even regular Army folks get berets.

Add in the American failure to deal culturally with military defeat, and it's all progressively amped up boasting with plumage.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:17 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure that narrative lines up with reality. I seriously doubt that the kid at an Arcade Fire concert in Williamsburg in 2004 in skinny jeans and a vintage t-shirt with ornate, "ironic" facial hair is fetishizing the special forces aesthetic.

I mean, I think a key thing to bear in mind is the overdetermination of trends, also how people's own motives are frequently a bit opaque to them in the moment. Beards might become a thing because of a confluence of military, retro and dirtbag-masculinity trends in culture, and those trends themselves kind of draw in all kinds of sometimes-contradictory ideas about class, gender and how we understand the past. And the person with the beard might not, in the moment, be able to break down what draws them to having a beard.

Consider clothes you've worn. For instance, when I look back to the mid-nineties I can clearly see the relative modesty and relative-gender-neutrality fashionable at the time, even in clothes that seemed to me to be revealing or tight when I wore them. I can see that minimalism was a big deal, even when I look at clothes that didn't seem minimalist to me. I can see the influence of the seventies in ways that I didn't understand at the time. Etc, etc. Even when I wore kind of oddball clothes that were not obviously in line with what was fashionable, you could still see the larger cultural influences in the way I wore them and how I thought they should fit.

I think that while the linked piece is talking very specifically about a couple of subcultures, it's inevitable that the forces which make such distinct and visible subcultures are also churning away in the larger culture.

~~
Also, dominant trends work themselves out in different ways. I was particularly struck by the visibility of military SF after September 11, for instance, because I had a couple of friends who got super, super into Stargate fandom. You had very conservative fandom where people were extremely into what you might call an innocence narrative - Earth people fight off space imperialists! And also fight to imperialize people in another galaxy, because whatever we do is right! - and then a lot of fandom stuff explicitly critiquing/rewriting all the military/imperialist themes in out of character but often very charming ways. But both ends of the fandom were super into the military imagery - uniforms, weapons, insiders(military) versus outsiders (bad other military or maybe aliens), the whole idea of the "mission"/exploration/colonization. Whether left or right, Stargate fandom was absolutely shaped by the post-9/11 environment and the ensuing fascination with and valorization of the military.
posted by Frowner at 10:44 AM on February 25 [12 favorites]


I don't have much of a horse in this race, although I think it's worth noting that the military community writ large—and it's a pretty big community; even as there are fewer people in actual combat roles, compared to in past eras when we had conscription, there are a lot of people in military-adjacent roles (especially contractors) who would have been in uniform in the past—there are fashion trends like in any other community.

In the civilian fashion world, you have a relatively small number of tastemakers, the avant garde who wear the latest and greatest, and then their stuff trickles down until eventually it's on the sale rack at Walmart, by which point those tastemakers wouldn't dream of wearing it.

The same thing happens in the military; it's largely the US special operations community that sets the tone. They're the cool kids that everyone tries to emulate, at least among ground forces. (It's literally elitism, in the sense that they're the elite, definitionally. I assume in the Air Force it's probably the pilots or something.) "Op8r beards" came from them, as did the appeal of other pieces of non-standard kit. There's a sort of above-the-rules aesthetic there, which is obviously appealing if your goal is to differentiate yourself from the regular military.

But there's a constant treadmill aspect to it. Once something becomes widespread, especially outside the community, it becomes less cool; it loses its value as a community signifier. (5.11 pants, I have been told on good authority, are right out.) If the Army decides to let everyone and their cousin grow beards, the SOCOM dudes will, I'm absolutely sure, suddenly discover the joys of a good, close shave, even when downrange. And in a year or two, the only people with beards will be Sikhs.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:50 AM on February 25 [6 favorites]


I mean, I think a key thing to bear in mind is the overdetermination of trends, also how people's own motives are frequently a bit opaque to them in the moment. Beards might become a thing because of a confluence of military, retro and dirtbag-masculinity trends in culture, and those trends themselves kind of draw in all kinds of sometimes-contradictory ideas about class, gender and how we understand the past. And the person with the beard might not, in the moment, be able to break down what draws them to having a beard.

I don't disagree that motives can be opaque in the moment, but the flipside is that I think we have to be careful about our assumptions, too. Once we expand the argument beyond a subculture into something bigger, I feel like we run the risk of projecting values onto people and making broad judgments about them without their input. It's one thing when it's a very specific wannabe-paramilitary subculture, because that's a specific style that people are adopting in order to communicate a specific message. It's something else when the argument is made about beards in general, because that's going to involve a much, much bigger variety of influences. Different subcultures, regional stuff, and so on (and different guys will latch onto different things, so one guy might feel strong, another guy might feel anonymous with his face hidden). And you wind up with people like me saying "wait a minute," because I had a beard for a long time, and it feels like a gross oversimplification of my own past motives to reduce it to just a couple things. By all means, I'd love to have a discussion about the cultural influences that made beards such a thing for so many years, because there's a lot to unpack, good and bad, but of all things, beards aren't a monolith.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 12:00 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Some good points about how the essay is concerned with an in-group esthetic, that is, it is designed to communicate membership and an expectation of shared cultural assumptions toward others who identify with the in-group. In this particular case it extends past the specific signifiers he's writing about (skulls, black clothing, decolored flags) because hey, that's the way subcultural coding works, right?

I have a friend from high school who is a good man who is considerably to my right but who consistently challenges rightist memes on FB and so forth. He served an entire 25 year career in the National Guard and served two tours in Iraq; his units were transportation units primarily responsible for trucking supplies from the airport in Baghdad to where they were needed. He's retired; he lost people under his command; he experiences PTSD symptoms and writes about it. He was an effective NCO, as far as I can tell, and he appears to understand that his responsibility toward the people he served with and toward other veterans means that part of his responsibility in civilian life is to model appropriate behavior and attitudes for this military and ex-military constituency.

One aspect of his veterans' culture is the adoption and display of non-uniform garments that communicate details of the wearer's military service to other miltary-affiliated people. He shared images on FB of his biker vest, a heavy black vest intended to be worn over an outer garment in the manner of MC colors. He had decorated it with various unit insignia and embroidered emblems that taken together told the story of his service.

At the top of the back of the vest he had placed a square emblem embroided with the Greek-alphabet words "molon labe", which is a reference to a quote attributed to King Leonidas at Thermopylae, roughly "Come and take them". To him, the phrase denotes Spartan valor and virtues, and in our discussion of his use of it, he told me that he used Spartan imagery and pop culture references as unit motivational tools with regard to the people serving under him. He is very attached to the phrase and to the way he feels it functions as a cultural signifier, which is enhanced by displaying it in Greek because it limits the knowledgeable audience.

I pointed out to him that the first place I had ever seen the phrase so displayed was on some of the uniforms of the Richmond neo-nazis and that uninformed onlookers could reasonably read it on his garment as an indicator of sympathy with their views. This did not go over well. (I did not go into other details about Spartan culture and the fundamental problems the West has created for itself by lionizing Sparta.)

The phrase itself describes his reaction to this idea: he will not give it up. I came to understand that viewpoint, but it seemed clear to me that there was no way he could reasonably expect an outside observer to see the emblem as a symbol of fidelity to democracy and martial values.

This essay makes a similar point with regard to beards and black clothing, and it's uncomfortable. The author's interest in the contemporary neomilitary use of Punisher skull is distinct from the general use of death's head imagery in military and pop culture context but the imagery is worthy of critical examination.
posted by mwhybark at 12:29 PM on February 25 [9 favorites]


Military campaigns have often been a driver of fashion: brogues, buchers, modern jackets, neck ties, wrist watches etc etc. So this isn't entirely new.

Hugo Boss...
posted by jkaczor at 12:52 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


mwhybark: there was no way he could reasonably expect an outside observer to see the emblem as a symbol of fidelity to democracy and martial values.

An appropriate expectation; Sparta was no democracy.
posted by clawsoon at 1:07 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


roughly "Come and take them". To him, the phrase denotes Spartan valor and virtues

To me, it's a phrase associated with the pro-Second Amendment activist crowd. I understand it as "I am armed, and ready for a fight."
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:24 PM on February 25


It's not the beard by itself. It's the beard in combination with other signifiers like camouflage, de-colored flags, "tactical" clothing/accessories.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 1:43 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


I mean, expressing admiration of (our reconstituted idea of ) Sparta isn't exactly unproblematic. And we all know what, as my lefty snowflake friends say, "moron labia" means now.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 1:47 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Isn't it as easy as this: It doesn't really matter what your motivations are, or whether you've sported a style for donkey's years...if some group of assholes has come to use something you wear or drive as a marker for being in their group, it sucks, but people are going to read you as a member of that group because of the association. And once you become aware of that, it does become a conscious choice to keep on keepin' on. I mean, I have a beard now mostly because I'm lazy, but honestly had no idea that it was currently a signature of right-wing morons. And so I will probably shave it off next time I remember to take a razor into the shower.

All I can think of is that I know when I see a "man truck" is that inside is a trumper. If I was a person of color or a woman that might give me pause in dealing with that person. Am I sending the same message by being a white dude with a beard? My beard isn't part of who I am, and if going without it makes some people more comfortable in this time and this place, maybe that's worth being slightly less lazy.
posted by maxwelton at 1:58 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


( side note I don't get this idea that having a beard is easy or lazy ...I spend way more time grooming, combing, trimming my beard then I would if I was just clean shaven I have a beard because I think my chin is weak, which is probably one of those small but crucial differences between a personal fashion beard and operators beard)
posted by The Whelk at 2:02 PM on February 25 [11 favorites]


(The Whelk: Everything about me is lazy.)
posted by maxwelton at 2:04 PM on February 25


no shit beards are a lot of work. fuck split ends forever #$&%

Am I sending the same message by being a white dude with a beard?

unless you are doing a tactical beard as part of an overall military fanboy look, I cannot imagine that anyone will read a mainstream facial hair style as a political statement. this seems like an Extremely Online reaction.

if we cede every deliberate aesthetic choice to the bad guys, we will all end up fighting over the shades of our beige jumpsuits.
posted by prize bull octorok at 2:55 PM on February 25 [10 favorites]


Sparta was no democracy

No doubt, but, the more I have learned about Athens, the less admirable they seem too. The hope of relief from Athenian domination is what led many city-states to ally with Sparta.
posted by thelonius at 2:58 PM on February 25 [4 favorites]


(I mean I got a beard but also a tartan sweater and blazer and big WE ARE ALL WORKERS button so)
posted by The Whelk at 3:01 PM on February 25 [3 favorites]


But there's a constant treadmill aspect to it. Once something becomes widespread, especially outside the community, it becomes less cool; it loses its value as a community signifier.

This is apparently the origin for the word "Tawdry," in fact: St. Audrey's Lace were fashionable necklaces that became such a signifier that by the 16th Century cheap versions were flooding the market and being referred to just as "tawdry lace" and their popularity among the lower classes then led to them just being a symbol of classlessness and now we're just left with the word. (c.f. Burberry's panic over similar shifts today.)
posted by Navelgazer at 3:25 PM on February 25 [7 favorites]


Possibly if I adopt the habitual wearing of such tawdry lace collars my cultural alleigances will be clarified to the casual onlooker, I sort of like the idea!
posted by mwhybark at 3:37 PM on February 25


Been mulling this graphic essay today, and I think I walk away with the message not to sleep on this constellation of signifiers--not to dismiss it as cosplay, or as a .mil-derivative fad. That's what lets its danger fly under the radar and just...blend in, like some reverse grey man. This is an appearance-conscious vanifesto, and we ignore this harbinger of anticipatory fascism at our peril.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:40 PM on February 25 [3 favorites]


Also re beards, not that I think this is in itself determinative or anything, but there are huge amounts of historical images depicting big bushy beards on men in American and Western history, and heck, my personal kind of beard, Gandalf's beard, right, is commonly referred to as "patriarchal". We see it in American history associated with first, frontiersmen, and then (usually not a foot long, mind) within a military context in photographs of Civil War officers and generals. After the War these beards lengthen and are more widespread, I suspect possibly as a signifier of military service in the War, which is interesting.

Post 9/11, another vector for big beards and reactionary politics is the success of Duck Dynasty, and the use and presentation of big unruly beards and long redneck hair in that show is unambiguously tied to viewpoints and attitudes we would today associate with Trump and racism. Those beards are also tied to the use of Confederate flags and the associated complex of fragile masculinity and are intended to refer to the beards worn by Civil War veterans, in my opinion.

I started growing this beard immediately after the election of Donald Trump, I guess as a gesture of resistance, although it was not a specifically planned thing. Now I'm more kinda curious how long I can get it. I've worn it on a few long road trips and there's no ambiguity about how it is percieved in the Southeast: I have had people stand up and salute me while calling me General Lee, in jest I imagine. I have been called Uncle Jesse, referring to Bo and Luke's uncle from the Dukes of Hazzard.

I can't say I really reflected on it much - I have a lifelong preference for maintaining subculturally-affiliated appearances and people in the Southeast seem in my experience to always have been more ready to offer verbal commentary, from hostile or menacing and corrective to approving and amused, to my style of dress over the years.

I really have some thinking to do.
posted by mwhybark at 3:56 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Couple loose ends - I did share with my friend how molon labe is a signifier of, like, open carry, and that as such can be reasonably taken as a warning of danger, not as a signal of a loyal protector. This appeared to be a concept that took him totally by surprise, and he told me he would reflect on it, something I expect he did do.

Finally, the other thing about having this enormous mane of grey hair (my head hair is about 24 inches long and steel grey as well) that amuses me is that I look to be about seventyfive years old. I do not know why I find this so amusing, but literally every day I look in the mirror and laugh with joy at the absurdity of my appearance.
posted by mwhybark at 4:03 PM on February 25


I feel there's an entire essay that could be written about this Grunt Style t-shirt alone.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:07 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


no shit beards are a lot of work. fuck split ends forever #$&%

Having a short beard is close to zero work; you just trim it back periodically and that's all. But every time I decide to grow my beard longer I (re)learn how much work it is.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:54 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Someone could crank out a pretty solid undergraduate Social Anthro term paper on practically anything Grunt Style sells. I mean...

Also if anyone is looking for examples of the type of beards in question, their website is basically a taxonomy of that particular aesthetic.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:15 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Skull and crossbone imagery on headstones is widespread by the 1700s in both Western Europe and the Americas and may not have had anything to do with the black flag.

I was just in Barcelona and noticed a number of skull and crossbones images on the tombs around the cathedral abbey. I was perplexed and I don't recall seeing such images before. I mean, what does it say besides the obvious "he dead?" Any information on the significance of this image would help close a parenthesis for me.
posted by sjswitzer at 7:17 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


I was just in Barcelona and noticed a number of skull and crossbones images on the tombs around the cathedral abbey. I was perplexed and I don't recall seeing such images before. I mean, what does it say besides the obvious "he dead?" Any information on the significance of this image would help close a parenthesis for me.

Oh man, I'm not an expert by any stretch, but I think the gist is that yes, it's basically saying "he dead." It makes sense if you think about it in comparison with other symbols of death: so, for example, think of the iconography surrounding death that presents it as a "gentle slumber" or a "peaceful respite," or something like that. You might see grave art depicting euphemisms for death, like willow trees and urns, or angels. Think of today's funeral homes, which talk about gentle tranquility and so on. There's a different attitude towards death when it's depicted as something calm, or as something angelic (which in some contexts means focusing on the spiritual life after death).

Compare that to a skull, which makes a very clear declaration that this person has died. I mean, there can be a spiritual component as well, but there's no mistaking that this body has died, as we all do. It's a more earthly attitude towards death. I'm most familiar with death's-head grave art in strongly Protestant culture, where it was a declaration of death and spiritual rebirth, but I know you can find similar iconography all over. I guess the key thing is to think about what a skull isn't: it's not a soft attitude towards death, or a euphemism, but a more stark declaration of what death is and what has occurred.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 8:37 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Another full beard wearer here, along with long hair, and have done so since the 1990s. And yes, it's quite a bit of work.

I get all kinds of attention.
-airline attendants often praise the hair
-TSA people pick me for "random" security (to be fair, less often now than in 2001-2005)
-barbers plead for the chance to cut the hair, even for free
-some older men and women (mostly in the south) suggest I need a haircut
-some bearded American men compliment it
-younger people ask me if I'm a musician
-a few older people have joked that I must be on Duck Dynasty
-the occasional Russian wonders if I'm an Orthodox priest
-in North Africa, some conservative Muslims wanted to talk with me
-in the Balkans, some took me for either a conservative Serb or a religious Bosniak
-in college, one frat house insisted that I was Charles Manson, and would shout "hey Charlie!" when I walked past
posted by doctornemo at 7:44 AM on February 26 [6 favorites]


Re: the comic, it identifies a cultural strand well.

But it overreaches, as others have noted. Skull iconography is indeed way more complicated and diverse, for starters.

It also misses some things that would have helped its thesis. For one, economic insecurity - that can drive a desire to appear powerful, if you are power-less. If the author is focusing on the south, that describes a lot of people, especially in Appalachia.

For another, the historically new socialization of American war. We've marginalized warfighting since Vietnam, shifting it by class and geography. So despite some cultural approval of war, many feel sidelined and forgotten (I'm always struck by the phrase America is not at war; America is at the mall). So veterans can adopt the fashions the author describes to either feel more important, or to dig deeper into their marginality. Conversely, non-military men can embrace that outlaw nature.
posted by doctornemo at 7:50 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]


I wonder if this means an end to black clothing as a countercultural signifier. From the jazz era (les zazous in occupied Paris, beatniks in America), through punk, metal, goth and such, various subcultures that rejected the hegemony of mainstream culture have worn black, and this was not associated with fascism/authoritarianism. Now that black clothing goes with Oakley sunglasses, beards and Punisher skulls and blacked-out urban assault vehicles as an aggression/intimidation multiplier, could the colour be ruined for non-fascists, in the way that the Nazis ruined the ancient Hindu symbol they adopted?

Perhaps in the near future, menswear will diverge into two poles: radically transgressive (dresses, nail polish, exuberant colours) and grimdark fascist war uniforms, with no in-between.
posted by acb at 8:15 AM on February 26


Is it legal to drive a truck like that on America's public roads? I'm thinking of issues like the brake lights and the licence plate being blacked out.
posted by Paul Slade at 11:18 AM on February 26 [2 favorites]


Perhaps in the near future, menswear will diverge into two poles: radically transgressive (dresses, nail polish, exuberant colours) and grimdark fascist war uniforms, with no in-between.

I've had a beard (consistently) for the past 8 years and have no great desire to change it, nor to get rid of my black clothing. To avoid the fashy look, I am wondering if I can take a page from some basic style guides Example: if you want to take your casual look up a notch, just upgrade one article of clothing. Do the jeans and T-shirt but nice shoes, for example. I could see myself with my beard wearing tactical(-ish) pants, boots, and... a vibrantly colored shirt. But let's be real, if it's not pouring down rain and I don't have to dress up for the office, I'm in Birkenstocks.

tl;dr I probably haven't thought enough about this and I'm gonna hit post anyway.
posted by pianoblack at 11:30 AM on February 26


Honestly, there are so many factors that go into fashion that you can wear all black and look like any number of things. Like, are your pants skinny, slim fit, regular, cargo pants, something else? Are they made by a company like Levi, or are they work pants by a company like Wrangler? What's the T shirt you're wearing, is it a plain black shirt, or a band shirt, or a skull with the American flag on it? How is the shirt cut, tight, loose, V neck, something else? What about your sunglasses? Wrap around shades? Oakleys? Ray-Bans?

How about your beard? Close-cropped? Wild and wooly?

You could wind up looking like anything from a wannabe beat poet to a theater tech.

There are SO MANY subtle cues that go into what your clothes and your overall look communicate. If it were as simple as "wear black and have a beard and you will look like a fascist," it would probably be a lot easier to pass in various social settings, because it would be a world where stuff like the cut and quality of your clothes didn't matter.

I'm going to continue to wear all black, because it is impossible for me to believe that I, a skinny guy with glasses who sometimes wears slim black jeans and a metal shirt, is going to be confused for the kind of guy who drives an all-black pickup truck with a Punisher skull on it. Only on the internet is this a possibility.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 2:42 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


"Far-right fashion in Europe has become a niche industry over the past decade. Brands big and small have given everyone from hardened neo-Nazis to young men flirting with the far-right subcultures a way to express themselves that doesn’t fit neatly into what many think a far-right extremist is supposed to look like." The Far Right’s Secret Weapon: Fascist Fashion, by Michael Colborne, The New Republic.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:13 PM on February 26 [2 favorites]


From that article: "One way that the clothing socializes young men towards extremist thinking, according to Miller-Idriss, is through constant 'playfulness' and game-playing with symbols." It makes me think of young white men being hateful -- nah, they're just joking! -- on YouTube.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:19 PM on February 26


I'm not sure black and skulls will become simply acceptable as right wing style soon, at least not in the south. Last time I visited Arkansas plenty of folks I spoke with, including academics, thought the West Memphis Three were guilty.
In much of Louisiana Goths are still capable of eliciting fear.
posted by doctornemo at 4:21 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


Yeah, corpse, and then this: "Miller-Idriss found that many of the young men she interviewed used a uniquely German word to describe the brands and the kinds of young men who wore them—gewaltbereit, meaning ready for violence."
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:37 PM on February 26 [2 favorites]


Is it legal to drive a truck like that on America's public roads?

Car manufacturers now sell certain murdered out models directly to consumers.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 7:56 PM on February 26


Metafilter: I probably haven't thought enough about this and I'm gonna hit post anyway.
posted by VTX at 11:16 AM on February 27 [3 favorites]




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