In honor of Movember, a couple of lessons we can learn from people who have poked fun at the ‘stache.
1. If you make light of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, prepare to face the consequences. 90% of the comments on this Foreign Policy list of Dictators with Mustaches (thanks, Denise!) are from Turks, insulted at Ataturk’s inclusion. Somewhat disappointingly, the Turks are more upset about the implication that Ataturk was a dictator than the implication that his mustache was silly.
Sure, if you’re writing for an American magazine, “the consequences” might just be an angry internet mob; but Mr. Homans should know before his next vacation to Istanbul that insulting Ataturk is actually illegal in Turkey. The cult of Ataturk as Turkey’s founder, leader, guardian and savior is not only legally encoded – it’s very, very powerful. Calling Ataturk a dictator – in any context – will be taken by many Turks as a personal attack. In Mr. Homans’ defense, the text under Mustafa Kemal’s photo – “as he guided Turkey toward economic and political liberalization in the years that followed, he shaved [the mustache] off entirely” – does not paint the Father of the Turks as much of a dictator at all. Besides, the extent to which Ataturk’s rule was autocratic is certainly a valid question to discuss. Regardless, blithely putting him on a lighthearted list of dictators was definitely a PR misstep.
2. Speaking of PR missteps, Osip Mandelstam probably should have learned from his: a dictator who will exile you to the Urals for insulting his mustache is probably about to go off the deep end. Leave the country. As Foreign Policy mentions, the poem that got the venerable and tragic Russian poet arrested (the first time, in 1934) included an insult to Stalin’s mustache. Тараканьи смеются усища – literally, “his cockroach-whiskers laugh,” or, in one particularly dreadful translation, “Cucaracha’s moustaches are screaming.” It insulted other parts of Stalin’s person, too, like his fat, “worm-like” fingers, and finished off with a racist stereotype of bloodthirsty Ossetians. (Stalin wasn’t even definitively Ossetian! Geez, Mandelstam.) Mandelstam survived that arrest and exile, only to be re-arrested during the great Purge of 1936-1938 and sent to the Soviet Far East. He died in a transit camp in Vladivostok at the end of 1938.
[Incidentally, to continue the short story recommendations from my last post (anyone read Babel yet? No? You are a constant disappointment.), try Varlam Shalamov’s “Cherry Brandy,” a meditation on Mandelstam’s death in the transit camps.]
In any case, I hope my gentleman readers are enjoying Movember, and will consider modeling their mustache off that of a Eurasian political leader. Just make sure you make it clear that you’re not trying to be insulting.