Shaving to the Bone

By Marc Dion

February 21, 2020 4 min read

In World War I, when the combatants hunkered down fearfully in miles of opposing trenches, everything took on the name of the trench.

There was trench foot, a disease, and a weapon called a trench knife.

And there was trench shaving.

Filthy, louse-ridden, frightened, uncomfortable under a heavy beard and without a razor, a man would hold a lighter or match in one hand and a wet piece of cloth in the other. He'd set fire to his beard and then wipe off the burned hair before the fire reached his skin. It was not something a sane man would do, although a teenage boy might try it on a dare.

In America, where our political combatants stare at each other over miles of ideological trench, we face the fact that, like a long dirty beard, democracy, and the republic itself, are nuisances, a nest for the lice of doubt.

Historically, democracies and republics are odd growths, things that break the level surface of the otherwise smooth skin of royalty, dictatorship and totalitarianism. The natural state of humans is slavery for most and power for a few, and we are forever trying to return to the bloody womb of oppression.

Like the way a beard will make you itch uncomfortably, and provides something extra to wash, republics and democracies require upkeep. The smooth skin of slavery requires a daily shave, it's true, but shaving is brutal and done quickly. It removes every hair without stopping to consider the value of any individual hair or wonder at the possibilities of goatee and mustache, or mutton chop sideburns.

Off with it all! Smooth democracy's messy, tangled growth of ideas into one level plain. Across that plain sweep the sharpness of steel. Let all the curling, erratic hairs die!

The look that follows is military, and the military virtues are popular these days, when hordes of those who never fought desire to adopt, without price, the appearance and toughness of the veteran.

I think of my good, gentle father, a man who served overseas in World War II, came home and never again touched a gun. He shaved five days a week, for the boss, but on the weekend he let his anarchistic beard come forth, two days of rebellion against a lifetime of tap dancing for a paycheck.

We are sick of thinking, of the effort of thought, of the attention required to groom our democracy, of the little, little trouble of keeping our freedom.

And we don't even have time to wait until the water runs hot, the time to spread the shaving cream evenly, not even the little bit of tender, prideful effort required to trim a mustache.

The republic is a heavy, uncomfortable beard, crawling with the lice of diverging opinions, with the biting fleas of gender, race and income. It takes more effort to maintain a republic than it does to watch a reality show. It takes more thought to vote than it takes to swallow a Vicodin. Some tasks are easier than others, and we prefer the easiest.

The match was lit a few years ago. This week, we touched the fire to the beard, or Pres. Donald Trump did, and his face glows orange in the astonishingly small fire of democracy smoldering out of existence.

To trench shave properly, you have to have a wet rag ready, to wipe off the burning beard before the fire reaches the skin. I look around, and I don't see anybody with a rag. This is going to hurt.

To find out more about Marc Munroe Dion and read featured by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit Dion's latest book, "Devil's Elbow: Dancing in the Ashes of America," is a hair-raising collection of his best columns about politics, pity and a good, close shave. It is available in paperback from, and for Kindle, GooglePlay and iBooks.

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