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The politics of hair

With great hair comes state responsibility, as Silvio Berlusconi might tell you.

In January, Bill Gates took time out from "helping all people lead healthy, productive lives" and making sure his children weren't using iPods to take a barbed swipe at Silvio Berlusconi's tragic battle with hair loss.

"Rich people spend a lot more money on their own problems, like baldness, than they do to fight malaria," he told Süddeutsche Zeitung. That month, the style-conscious prime minister had "mystified" Italians by suddenly appearing outside a Milan hospital sans much of his transplanted rug, which, in 2004, had given him so much masochistic joy ("I am very happy to have subjected myself to such pain").

But Gates, blessed at 54 with a full head of filamentous biomaterial, seems to have overlooked the palpable link between follicular health and power dynamics. The Guardian's Hadley Freeman has written on the "most unfair state of affairs" that "discriminates against baldies"; Samson's struggles to come to terms with his hair-related self-esteem issues, meanwhile, famously resulted in much unnecessary strife -- his inability to adjust to an unfortunate haircut led to eye surgery at the hands of the Philistines, whose licences to practise in ocular care had not been approved by the General Optical Council.

Hair has recently spiked in value, with a lock that belonged to Napoleon fetching £8,600 at a New Zealand auction. The prestige attached to the former French emperor's hair, however, was no match for that of the singer Elvis Presley, who was allegedly a king. A "wad" of his jet-black hair the size of a cricket ball sold for $115,120 in 2002; a single strand was purchased last year for £1,055.

In North Korea, the dissident potential of long hair raised alarm among the ruling elites in 2005; that year, the government launched a television campaign exhorting men to get "a proper short-back-and-sides". It went on to name and shame transgressors, insisting that: "People who wear others' style of dress and live in others' style will become fools and [the] nation will come to ruin."

Yet the North Korean tactic of clamping down on hair crime is, perhaps, flawed. The leader of Japan's Your Party, Yoshimi Watanabe, has instead taken a more proactive approach, exploiting hair's semiotic value for political gain. Though formerly mocked by colleagues for being the leader of the "new party [of] one person", Watanabe's followers swept this month's House of Councillors election, winning ten seats.

Many, including the Mainichi newspaper, have ascribed Watanabe's recent success to his distinctive "antenna" hairstyle, reportedly based on David Beckham circa 2002. "He had tried various styles with a trial-and-error approach," it said, "including one with bangs and a swept-back style. But his 'Beckham' cut garnered the most support."

On a final note, it's worth noting that the new Australian prime minister Julia Gillard's partner is a former hair product salesman. More on this from John Pilger in the next issue of the New Statesman, out Thursday.

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