Archie was a sympathetic bigot, not an irreedemable racist
The Stinson Beach Doc Fest is coming up on Nov. 4-6, with proceeds to benefit the Stinson Beach Community Center. I’ve been seeing lots of big signage around West Marin about the festival, now in its third year, and which this year features docs about Yo-Yo Ma, Iranian centrifuges, Maya Angelou, ranching in Marin—and Norman Lear, the 1970s TV legend responsible for such classics as Maude
, All in the Family
and Good Times
. It’s impossible to overstate the impact those comedies had on the culture at large, and by extension the “culture wars” that emerged in the 1970s, tackling, as they did, hot-button issues that ranged from abortion rights to racial justice to sexual assault.
Lear is 93 and maybe more relevant than ever this year. There was a moment during the third presidential debate between Clinton and Trump the other night where Hillary highlighted the fact that the horrible person who shot up that Orlando gay nightclub earlier this year, was a Queens guy. Just like Donald, she noted—perhaps nastily.
And just like All in the Family
's Archie Bunker, who has practically morphed into an archetype for the particularly American strain of ignoramus posturing that is animating a lot of the Trumpian fury these days. “Archie Bunker for President” made the rounds back in the day as a bumper sticker and sew-on patches and stickers. My old man had the patch and loved Archie as much as he loved "pro"-wrestling icon Andre the Giant, speaking of battles that are rigged to exploit their maximal entertainment value.
If you don’t understand or don’t care to understand the “typical” Trump supporter—who may be kind of obnoxiously obtuse, but who isn’t an actual manifestation of pure evil—that person may be embodied in the figure of Archie Bunker. That person is not completely irredeemable, especially in the face of his own humanizing encounters with The Other–in this case, the black neighbor George Jefferson. It was funny when Archie talked conspiratorially about “The Blaaaacks”
because he was presented by Lear as a sympathetic bigot instead of an irredeemable racist. It’s not funny when Trump does the same because he is an unsympathetic bigot who has presented himself as the candidate of choice for irredeemable racists. Plus he's a real person, I get that.
The press materials accompanying Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
do a better job than I can of boiling down the essence of Norman Lear’s genius: His iconic shows “cracked open dialogue and shifted the national consciousness, injecting enlightened humanism into sociopolitical debates on race, class, creed, and feminism.”
All in the Family
first aired in 1971, in the midst of one of most convulsively violent periods in American political history, and remains a potent reminder of the power of comedy to bridge violently divergent viewpoints with some much-needed laffs. It harkened back to “simpler” times—didn’t need no welfare state/everybody pulled his weight
—while goosing the simple-minded for buying into the nostalgia ride in the first place. Archie may have been the original, ur-deplorable, but every once in a while he scored a moral victory over the liberal excesses of freeloading Meatheadism, as embodied in the character of Mike Stivic, played by Rob Reiner. And Lear was brutally non-partisan in his portrayal of Archie’s educated Marxian son-in-law as something less than a proto-feminist icon. Meathead was no Alan Alda. Indeed, he may have been the original mansplainer.
Which of course brings us to the annual Al Smith Dinner, held last night in New York during the last desperate weeks of one of the most convulsively violent election seasons in recent American history. Trump’s nasty turn at the dinner-roast last night served only to underscore how this has been one heck of an abjectly off-key presidential season in dire need of a spasm of hilarious release. Trump's obvious inability to have a few sincere laughs at his own expense betrayed the whole point of the dinner, which is to let comedy do its healing, leveling magic. He totally blew it.
So if you think Trump TV might be airing re-runs of All in the Family
, think again. Triumph of the Swill
is a more likely ratings grab these days.
For more info on the festival, go to http://stinsondocfest.org/