Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

May 16, 2016

The Politics of the Beard

By David K. Shipler

            Here’s the short version: Since I grew a beard on a whim in the summer of 1978, I have been mistaken for many kinds of people in several different countries: a KGB agent, a Maine lobsterman, a Jewish settler, a member of ISIS, and a homeless person. I was told in Kabul that if I added a turban, I could be a mullah, and a conservative in Israel suggested that I put on a yarmulke and go to the West Bank to see how a religious Jew would feel among hostile Palestinians. Each misidentification carried an interesting little lesson.
So did the beard’s absence, for when I went without it for a few months in 1995, I became unrecognizable in certain quarters. When I attended an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where I’d worked from 1988-90, nobody greeted me; they simply didn’t know who I was. And my older son’s wedding pictures, taken during that interlude, show this mysterious fellow among the family members, like some interloper. Who is that guy? A woman I know slightly did recognize me bare-faced and quipped, “You’re in disguise!”

This comes to mind because of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s fleeting attempt to grow a beard that could coexist with conservative Republican politics. It was an obvious mismatch, but one that he began last fall while hunting at a deer camp. Ryan has been in the news lately as something of a political flirt who enjoys playing hard to get. He didn’t want to be Speaker, so he said, and now doesn’t want to endorse Donald Trump. Sometimes he continues to resist, as he did the calls for him to run for president. But usually he gives in, as he did when his beard became a liability.
“New House Speaker Paul Ryan Grows Muslim-Friendly Beard as he Begins Campaign of Defending Islam,” declared the website Now the End Begins. “History shows us that only two ethnic groups of people have rules regarding the growing and wearing of beards—Jews and Muslims. Ryan, a staunch Roman Catholic, is not Jewish. So that only leaves Islam.” Twitter lit up with rightwing kooks imagining Muslim infiltration in high places. Even the staid National Review, in a piece headlined, “What is Paul Ryan Thinking?” urged him to “grow the economy, not facial hair.”
So in January he shaved it off. I sympathized, but I’d shaved mine off for better reasons: After I painted the bottom of my boat, I couldn’t get the blue paint out of my beard. Besides, my wife, Debby, had been wondering if the guy she married was still under there. He was not, and I was quickly persuaded to grow it back, where it remains today. That’s no problem, because I’m not a Republican. Or a Muslim. Or a deer hunter. Or any of the characters I’ve been mistaken for.
The first incident came in Tallinn, Estonia, where I’d agreed by phone to meet Yuri, an evangelical Protestant trying to leave the Soviet Union with his family for the West so they could freely practice their religion. He wanted his plight to be reported in The New York Times, so we set a date at the entrance to my hotel on a wintry evening. Snow blowing in the darkness, I waited just inside the door, saw no one, went outside to wait, saw no one, and finally spotted a man alone. He didn’t seem to be looking for anyone, but I approached him anyway and asked in Russian if he was waiting for David Shipler.
I was in a sheepskin coat, a Russian fur hat, and a full beard. I guess I looked more Russian than American, and the man was startled. “What do you mean?” he said, and turned quickly away. I took the train back to Moscow later that evening.
Yuri called me. I was there, I said, where were you? I was there, he said, where were you? We agreed to try again when he came to Moscow, and we did. This time, I spotted him—the same man I’d startled in Tallinn—and went to reassure him that I was, indeed, Shipler. Oh, he said, I’d thought you were KGB! Ah, I thought, I’ve been in the Soviet Union too long--time to move on.
In the next stop, Israel, my beard helped people think I was Jewish, although I’m actually a fallen Protestant, and it brought the yarmulke suggestion from my conservative friend who wished upon me the discomfort of a Jewish appearance on the West Bank. I told him no thanks, I didn’t believe in participatory journalism.
Nevertheless, in the States when I once applied for a frequent flier account while checking in (back in the day, you filled out a form at the counter), the card that arrived in the mail a few weeks later read, "Rabbi David Shipler." I still have it on my office wall.
Then in Afghanistan, as Soviet troops were preparing to withdraw, a friendly Telex operator asked me smilingly, “Everybody in your country have a---?” and, unable to come up with the word in English, he moved his hand around his chin. No, I said, very few. Well, he grinned, with a turban you could be a mullah. We had a good laugh together.
One day in Maine I sailed into the coastal town of Stonington, where a schooner had anchored and discharged its passengers for a few hours ashore. I anchored my boat, went to town for some shopping and ice cream, and asked the tourists how they were enjoying their cruise. Fantastic, they said. Could they take each other’s picture with me? I was puzzled but agreed, and we sat together in shifts on a bench while they passed cameras around. But why me? I asked them. No answers at first, until one finally said, You’re a lobsterman, right? Ha, no, sorry, I said. Just a summer person. They looked crestfallen.
 Within a few hours one afternoon on the West Bank in November 2014, I was mistaken for two diametrically opposed characters. Teenagers outside the Kalandia refugee camp, where my Palestinian interpreter and I were waiting for a camp official we were to meet, stared at me, and one said, “There’s a settler. Let’s kidnap him.” When my interpreter translated, I laughed, but he was streetwise enough not to think it was such a joke, and we walked quickly away.
A little later, on the road to Jerusalem, we stopped by a group of young Palestinians in their teens and twenties who were getting ready to stone Israeli troops walking on a rise not far away. Two of the youngsters carried slings of the biblical kind. A few had kaffiyehs wrapped around their faces, showing only their eyes. I wanted to talk with them, but they were too high with excitement, as if they were about to go to a World Cup final.
One boy, spotting me, said, “DAESH!” the Arabic acronym for ISIS. So, one moment I was a Jewish settler, and the next, an operative for the vicious Islamic State. Too bad I’m not fluent in Arabic. Although DAESH is considered a derogatory term, perhaps I could have played along and used my supposed authority to advise the young men not to waste their lives hurling stones at Israelis. For half an hour later, as we continued toward Jerusalem, a couple of ambulances sped by the other way, toward the spot of what we had seen as the approaching confrontation.
The most recent misidentification came on an icy February day in Bethesda, Maryland. Recovering from a broken ankle, and wearing a cumbersome orthopedic brace under shabby jeans, I was walking awkwardly from a physical therapy appointment. I needed a haircut, and my beard was even scragglier than usual. I hobbled toward the intersection, where a pile of snow separated me from the button I had to push for the pedestrian light. Gingerly, trying not to slip, I reached over the snow for the button, when a kindly and elderly (i.e. about my age) woman came to me and asked gently, “Would you like an apple?”
Huh? I thought. “No thanks,” I said. She smiled sweetly, went on her way, and only after about a minute did I realize who she’d imagined I was.

Dear Paul Ryan: See what you’re missing?


  1. Very enjoyable, Dave. And scary, too! Wow - It's a dangerous world out there! Thanks. (I do remember you from pre-beard days, too!)

  2. David,

    I grew a beard in 1970. My primary motivation was laziness…oops, time efficiency. With a beard, maintenance and grooming of my chin area required a touch-up every week or two plus an occasional trip to the barber shop, which I had to make anyway. It was great. No more blood on the bathroom basin. No more annoying stubble on weekends. My wife was happy. My friends were complimentary. It was a big win. The beard is still with me today.

    I have had no memorable experiences that I can attribute to my beard. I have never been mistaken for a spy, a rabbi, a mullah, or a fisherman. I have never experienced any bias or ill-treatment because of it, at least so far as I am aware. In part, this may be because my career has been in or on the periphery of academia, where beards are sometimes taken to indicate a capacity for deep thought. (It should be so easy.)

    I have never been tempted or urged to shave it off. Even in the seventies, beards had become socially acceptable. I knew clergymen who wore them. My best friend’s father, an FBI agent, threw out his razor the day he retired. The beatniks of the fifties may have given beards a bad name. But in the larger scheme of things, you had Presidents Lincoln, Grant, and Garfield, every general on both sides in the Civil War, Walt Whitman, John Muir, and Alexander Graham Bell. And the Almighty Himself when He walked among us. All bearded. All acquitting themselves admirably.

    If I was ever tempted to shave it off, the thought evaporated for good in about 1988 when my daughters (age 14 and 12) were looking at a scrapbook and came across a picture of me pre-beard. “Eww,” said one. “Is that you?” Said the other, “Eww! Don’t shave it off.” Case closed. As for Paul Ryan, he answers to a different constituency than you and I do. Thank goodness.

    Thanks for a fascinating report.

  3. Just re-read it. Still a great one, Dave. And fun! Thanks!