Clipping penalty

August 11, 1994|By Russell Baker

JUST WHEN it looked as if Los Angeles had cinched the national nuttiness championship, along comes dear old Dixie titillating American lust for the clownish with an uproar about whether a female skull may be shaved bare as a brass doorknob.

Naturally, a judge has already had to intervene. Where would American farce be without the courts? If he had had a firmer grasp on the American character Stephen Sondheim would have titled his famous ballad "Send In the Judges."

With this latest sensation, silliness connoisseurs who lie awake wondering if O.J. Simpson can get a fair trial with only $10 million to spend on lawyers now face the dawn wondering if Shannon Faulkner can get a fair haircut.

For people who haven't tuned in lately to the mad dogs of talk radio, a summary of the facts: Shannon Faulkner is a young woman recently admitted by court order to the Citadel in South Carolina, an all-male, college-level military academy.

Boyish hazing rituals are part of what has long passed for an educational program there. Traditional humiliations include a "knob" haircut for all first-year students, and the school wanted Ms. Faulkner shaved as bald as everybody else. Its spokesman says the purpose is to "take every vestige of individuality away from the members of the corps."

Real military boot camps operate on the same theory, the aim being to destroy individual identity and turn unmanageable civilians into efficient soldiers, seamen and Marines.

The justification: in these trades the ultimate purpose is to kill while avoiding being killed. This is serious work best done by highly organized groups of more or less interchangeable human parts. Individuality tends to be a handicap.

The haircutting is at least as old as Alexander the Great, who ordered his soldiers' hair cut short before he set off to conquer the world. A practical man, Alexander reasoned that in close combat long hair gave your enemy something to grip for better leverage while mutilating your person with swords and axes.

Hygiene was a consideration, too. Long hair is vulnerable to lice, and war has always been a fecund activity for vermin.

Since none of these explanations apply to today's military academies it is hard to say why skull-shaving continues in their indoctrination. It may simply be that, like all bureaucracies, they crush people who ask, "Why?"

Well, after unwelcome Ms. Faulkner was court-ordered into the Citadel, the next question was about her haircut. The school insisted on a full "knob." It was, said the school spokesman, "part of the Citadel experience," which Ms. Faulkner had told the courts she wanted to enjoy.

It turned out, however, that she can do without this part of the experience. Women at West Point are indulged with a short, short cut; why couldn't Ms. Faulkner be? asked her lawyer. For yes, we were back in court again, this time with the judge being asked to apply the Constitution to barbering. "Only in America," as comedians are always saying.

Bumper stickers appeared in Dixie. "Shave Shannon," they said. Male chauvinist swine, not to mention just plain swine of both sexes, were delighted when the judge ruled that the school was "at liberty to treat the hair on her head the same way it treats the hair of every other cadet."

Feminists saw injustice. Talk-radio frothers frothed, and are frothing still no doubt, for this is the sort of issue that gratifies the American hunger for passionate emotional outbursts about matters of absolutely no consequence.

A female Irish singer, Sinead O'Connor, has had great success in the entertainment world despite shaving her skull bare. It's possible a shaved Shannon might set off a new fad for American youth.

There are puzzlements here, though. One is why anybody -- not just Ms. Faulkner, but anybody -- wants to attend a military academy. It is tempting to conclude that such a person -- man or woman -- deserves whatever is being dished out.

Such contempt must be tempered, however, by the fact that Gen. George C. Marshall, probably our finest soldier-statesman since George Washington, came out of just such a school, the Virginia Military Institute.

Another question: Doesn't the "knob" humiliate male students as thoroughly as Ms. Faulkner? Why don't feminists also protest on behalf of these wretched young men? Shouldn't we all? It might even put a little iron in a few of the young male students.

8, Russell Baker is a syndicated columnist.

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