A Short History of the Pads of Brillo

A Short History of the Pads of Brillo

Martians visiting planet Earth are mystified by the racist ruckus over Representative Cynthia McKinney’s hair.


Dear Beeblebrox,

It’s been an interesting week on planet Earth, particularly since I had old friends in town, just arrived from Mars. “Take us to your leader,” they said, and next thing you know we’re being greeted by the President, the Vice President and both full houses of Congress. We were welcomed warmly because I took the time to read that great interplanetary guidebook you lent me and made a quick stop in Times Square. There, along with the throngs of underage drinkers and other undocumented life forms, we rustled up some very authentic-looking souvenir Congressional ID cards. Then we stopped by Tiffany’s for some custom-made souvenir lapel pins that said Member of Congress.

With those to-die-for holographic calling cards and those becoming little pins, we were waved right on in by the Capitol Police, right past the long lines of hoi polloi and the X-ray machines, faster than the express lane at Disneyland. Pin recognition, it’s called. The older, outmoded technology of facial recognition is no longer sanctioned by their Earthland Security–possibly because members of Congress seem to have two, three, sometimes half a dozen faces to choose from. In any event, unlike the bouncers manning the velvet ropes at New York City nightclubs–who know an A-lister from an out-of-towner no matter what shoes you’re wearing and could care less that you flew in all the way from Mars–Capitol Police simply cannot be expected “to know all 535 members of Congress by sight.”

And so it was that our Martian visitors glided on through the great portals for an entertaining afternoon of line-item laser tag. (Of course, the ease of our passage was no doubt assisted by the fact that Martians, though hairless and goggly-eyed, do bear a fetching resemblance to the humans’ dearly beloved Congressman Tom DeLay, if, that is, he were to be shaved all over and slightly poached.) On our way out of the House of Representatives, we noticed a small scuffle as the Capitol Police wrestled with a dark, angry headful of illicit hair; a “dangerous do” had been trying to smuggle its way into the halls of power. This was a phenomenon heretofore unknown to us, but when the Martians and I homed in on the muffled thudding in the hall, we were able to collect a trove of field notes about the natives.

First, we were able to conclude that a member of Congress is anyone who wears the pin. Anyone who does not wear the pin must go to the end of the line and be searched from head to toe, bowing down and removing shoes and hats and jackets as they enter the great temple. The pin is magic, you see–talismanic, revered, like the bishop’s ring or the Heisman trophy of the sports arena. How thrilled and proud our friends the Martians were to discover that the pin not only granted entry but defined you dispositively as a member of Congress.

Second, anyone who does not wear the pin will have restraining orders issued against the entire lot of the hairs on their head. We’re not yet sure of the connection there, but as far as we’re able to make out, the realm must be protected against the evil powers of hair that is not “subdued” or “locked tightly.”

This “bad” kind of hair is a most fearsome sort of weapon. It must be linked somehow to the humans’ fear of terrorism. “Catastrophic” hair seems to have a mysterious shrapnel-strewing potential, like “an explosion in a Brillo factory.” It has a will of its own and “stands on end.” Once standing up, it does not bow but “threatens,” like a “riot” of prisoners, or a “nest” of birds, or a coven of witches, or a den of thieves. “Unruly” hair “speaks,” and of “disrespect” no less! It “screams” of its home in the “ghetto.” It apparently propagates itself too freely, too thickly, with the excessive generative enthusiasm of what the humans call a “slut.”

Even when “twisted” repeatedly to get it to conform, it behaves unpredictably, like a “bad accident.” Whether coiled close to the skull like a pit of rattlesnakes or loosed to the wind like “trash,” it inspires fear and loathing. Even when “contained” by threads to tie it down as firmly as the Lilliputians tied down Gulliver; even when braided like a “milkmaid” or a “corn row”; even when weighted down with ceramic beads to make sure it doesn’t rise up and offend; even when bathed in chemicals to kill the noisy passion, bad hair retains its powers to blind the innocent observer. It remains “exceptional,” “out of fashion,” “out of control,” “ostentatiously humble” and “aggressively not slick.”

I suppose this blinding power of hair is why facial recognition is so low in the humans’ arsenal of self-protection. However it may seem to us, to the humans’ hair is somehow more potently identifying than width of brow or color of eyes. “Who could notice the cheekbones, the nose and the smile with the loaded distractions of that washerwoman crown of braids?” asked an editorial in their widely circulated newspaper the Washington Post. Notice the placement of the word “loaded.” They use that same word when speaking of guns. In other words, it would appear they can tell whether someone is a “loose cannon” or “safe” by whether the hair is “scattershot” or “a smooth, controlled cap.”

Anyway, can you get a few of the Terran anthropologists on this? The hair doesn’t speak to us; we don’t hear a thing. But to the humans, the hair is yelling “confrontation!” and it makes everyone’s optic nerves turn to stone when it stands up or lies down and it is “impossible not to stare” at anything but that bad, bad hair. One possible clue: The only thing the humans fully agree on is that the hair is all about race.

But the guidebook says race is a “card” game…

NB: I would like to thank my entire Law, Media and Public Policy class at Columbia Law School for inspiring this satire, in particular Adam Weiss and Hawa Allen for their insights about the degree to which Cynthia McKinney’s hair and its various styles have taken on a separate life, indeed a symbolic geography, of their own. All quotes are taken from actual blogs, or from the editorial and opinion pages of the Washington Post–with the exception of “ghetto trash,” “explosion in a Brillo factory” and “ghetto slut,” for which Atlanta shock jock Neil Boorts is alone responsible. –P.W.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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