Artifact: Shear Anxiety

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Haircut cops in Kabul rounded up a few dozen of the city's barbers in January, charging them with turning men into Leonardo DiCaprio wannabes. That's a serious matter in Afghanistan, because its extremist religious rulers, the Taliban, regard most foreign haircuts as "anti-Islamic." The supposed problem with the DiCaprio cut, which copies the actor's look in Titanic (and which is known locally as a "Titanic"), is that it lets hair fall over the forehead and thus interferes with prayer.

Of course, there's another problem. Participating in clothing and hair fads is an act of self-fashioning, and has been anathema to totalist regimes whenever it has arisen. In fact, while the 20th century's despots had little trouble controlling elite taste, they were all flummoxed by popular culture. The appeal of consumer goods and commercial culture may embarrass Western critics, but from Eastern Europe to Russia to China, it has proved irrepressible. The path to political freedom is strewn with such market "vulgarities," because the release from repression is first a release from the prison of self.

Political "Islamists" (whose coerciveness misrepresents the faith) are coping with this no better than did their totalist predecessors. Iran's mullahs, for example, have been forced to relent on the cultural front, allowing citizens to own pop recordings and, increasingly, relaxing enforcement of the stringent public dress code. Just so, the Taliban, surveying Kabul's streets for would-be DiCaprios, are spying the tip of the iceberg that will eventually sink them.

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