Mister, we could use a man like Archie Bunker again

My friend Jack just posted something on Facebook about the TV show “All in the Family,” noting how the backward-looking theme song, “Those were the Days,” and the character of Archie Bunker could serve as a reasonable stand-in for Donald Trump and his “Make America Great Again” campaign.

I get the sentiment, but it’s total slander of Archie Bunker to equate him with Trump. Indeed, we need more Archie Bunkers, not fewer. Or, at the very least, we need more of the impulse which brought the character of Archie Bunker into existence. 

Norman Lear’s creative genius and Carol O’Connor’s acting genius is still astounding over 40 years later. They created a character in Archie Bunker which half of the audience could make fun of as some out-of-date neanderthal while the other half could think he’s a role model, beating back the horde of degenerate America. Really, go ask your dad or your grandpa: there were a huge number of “All in the Family” fans who didn’t take the show and its treatment of Archie Bunker as satire. The saw him as a straight-up hero, put upon by modern times and modern attitudes. Jack himself notes that his dad rooted for Bunker. So did my dad, which is saying something because my dad has hardly watched any TV for most of his life.

The key was that neither Lear or O’Connor put their finger on the scale too heavily in either direction or, if they did, they put it back on the other side of the scale to compensate. The same could be said of Rob Reiner’s Meathead character who could, one moment, be a spokesman for the young generation and the next look silly for advocating some of the Baby Boomers’ even-then eye-roll worthy values.

Inconsistency? Hell no. Reality. Most people have bad opinions about some things but are generally decent people who are right about other things. They’re human beings with human motivations and human imperfections. We forget that when we start talking about politics and social issues, suddenly believing that we are righteous and our opponents are wicked. We are so adept at creating straw men when portraying our adversaries. That may help us make superficially impressive arguments for our world view – look at how MORONIC that person who holds THAT view – but it ignores that part about humans being wrong about a lot of things and does nothing to draw in those who may disagree with us to engage in something approaching a useful discourse.

None of that is to say “hey, who knows?” None of that is to play that false equivalency game in which we say everyone is right in their own way and who are we to judge? That’s bullshit. Of course there are right things and wrong things. There is such a thing as social progress. There are objectively bad political views and objectively harmful policies. Archie Bunker and Jack’s dad and everyone who agreed with them on how bad it was that George Jefferson moved in next door or how bad it was that Edith wanted a job were wrong and probably racist or sexist for believing that. The same went for any number of things Archie thought on that show and, for that matter, what his intellectual descendants believe today. They were and are on the wrong side of history in many important respects.

However, social progress does not come by one side defeating the other with some single or finite or decisive argument. There is not a moment in which there is a victor and the vanquished. I may be right about something and the guy I’m arguing with might be wrong, but there will not be some “ah ha” moment in which he surrenders and I can flex. There are too many millions of people with too many slight variations on their world view and there are too many factors involved in any one belief or any one bit of social or political policy to where anyone can claim personal victory or, for that matter, must admit personal defeat. Social and political change is the result of a process larger than the two people arguing or the two candidates competing. It is certainly not in any one person’s control. And there is pride involved too, as well as matters of personal identity. To expect someone to abandon all of that as a result of your bit of rhetoric is foolish in the extreme.

Social change happens over time. Those who find themselves on the wrong side of history are humans with pride who require time to adjust to new realities. Reducing that process to personal argument and demands for capitulation has never made much sense to me. Making caricatures out of those whom one perceives to be one’s enemy seems counterproductive. Indeed, the very nomenclature of combat – enemies and allies, victory and defeat – should all be tossed out, even if it would make political discussion awkward for a bit. 

I just go back to Archie and Meathead. They were political enemies but they were literally family. As such, they had to maintain their relationship with respect to the things that mattered while hashing out their political and social differences. I can’t remember what the last seasons of that show were like, but I assume Archie came around on more than a few things. Not because he agreed Meathead was right – he was friggin’ Meathead after all – but because he just realized that times had changed and was doing his best to fit in those times, even if it was uneasy for him. Hell, he probably told himself that he won just as many of those arguments as he lost and that, to the extent he viewed things differently it was despite Meathead, not because of him. How progress is made matters, but nowhere near as much as the fact of progress being made itself. Whatever helped Archie get through the day is fine by me. 

Life isn’t like a TV show, but I’d like to think that we, as a society can be more like that. That we can engage those who don’t believe what we do in a constructive way, all the while knowing that the mostly uncontrollable blob that is society will be settling these arguments, not the two of us arguing with one another. I won’t give up my beliefs and I know you won’t either. I’ll still think that my side of things will prevail and you will too. But we’ll know that we will all still have to be living in this world after the argument is over and that, in the meantime, there is other stuff in life that is important besides this argument.

And that, maybe, we can drop it from time to time and do whatever the societal equivalent is of having dinner with Gloria and Edith.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.

Leave a Reply