James Buchanan was gay. So why our modern intolerance for beards?

James Buchanan was gay. So why our modern intolerance for beards?

[Ed. – No, really.]

[O]ne reason why Americans find it hard to believe Buchanan could have been gay is that we have a touching belief in progress. Our high school history textbooks’ overall story line is, “We started out great and have been getting better ever since,” more or less automatically. Thus we must be more tolerant now than we were way back in the middle of the 19th century! Buchanan could not have been gay then, else we would not seem more tolerant now. …

This ideology of progress amounts to a chronological form of ethnocentrism. Thus chronological ethnocentrism is the belief that we now live in a better society, compared to past societies. … Unfortunately for us all, just as ethnocentrism makes us less able to learn from other societies, chronological ethnocentrism makes us less able to learn from our past. It makes us stupider.

To think even for a moment about aspects of personal presentation other than sexual orientation forces us to realize that we today are not necessarily more tolerant. Consider facial hair. In 1864, with a beard, Abraham Lincoln won reelection. Could that happen nowadays? Is it mere chance that no candidate with facial hair has won the presidency since William Howard Taft — and he wore only a mustache? Indeed, since Thomas Dewey in 1948 no major party candidate with facial hair has even run for president, and Dewey wore only the smallest of mustaches.

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Perhaps the presidency is too small a sample. Let’s add in the Supreme Court. Since 1930, 34 different men have served on the Supreme Court. All save Thurgood Marshall have been clean-shaven. (Lest readers think that Marshall’s tiny mustache might topple this argument, let me point out that during most of the last 82 years, 70 percent of adult black males have had some facial hair, yet the only three African-Americans to have served on the Supreme Court or as president have had almost none.) …

Forgetting Buchanan’s sexual orientation helps us forget all the other national secrets we have packed into that closet with him. Ultimately, it prompts us to succumb to chronological ethnocentrism. If, however, we can rid ourselves of the fantasy that we are always getting better, then maybe we can create a nation that actually becomes more tolerant. Then we might — again — elect a real gay president. After all, just three months ago, Disney started letting white male employees grow beards.

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