Monday, June 08, 2009

Those Were The Days

On the venerable TV program Sunday Morning last Sunday they ran a profile of Norman Lear, the creator of a host of shows popular in my adolescence such as Maud, Good Times, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, One Day At A Time and the biggest hit of the bunch, All In The Family. After cataloguing his list of 70's hit shows they described how in the 80's--
...he grew alarmed as evangelical Christian preachers grew more visibly and vocally involved in politics, with views and tactics he found divisive.

In response he ran a TV ad with an ersatz construction worker who looks into the camera and says,
There's gotta be something wrong when ministers try to tell you you're good Christians or bad Christians depending on your political point of view.

That ad was the seed of what would become Lear's activist group, People for the American Way.

In the recap that I have linked CBS abridged most of the discourse that followed. In the broadcast he went on to explain that a person's "compact" with God was purely personal and should remain completely separate from politics.

I was fully aware of Lear's leftist activism, but watching this several things occurred to me. First was the irony of his professed moral outrage at political organization of groups of Christian believers. His response was to create his own political organization based on his like-minded cohort of ideological believers; the apparent message being, "it's bad for people I don't agree with to organize politically, but okay for me." This, of course, is the purest definition of hypocrisy: condemning someone else for behavior for which you fully justify yourself in engaging.

Second was how absolutely his attitude embodied Francis Schaefer's explanation of post-Christian Western society's push to compartmentalize faith in complete isolation from secular life into a sort of purely private "upper story" of our lives.

And finally I thought of his old sit-coms and how one can look back a see the degree of influence they had exerted on our culture. I had already been thinking along these lines after watching a series of interviews with Andrew Breitbart on National Review TV in which he talked about the staggering power of film and television. Lear's roster of sit-coms are the perfect example of this concept. In the guise of merely commenting on society, he instead cleverly shaped it by taking conventional middle-class values and opinions, creating fictional situations that would stress them to their extremes, and making their spokesman a hateful buffoon like Archie Bunker. While millions of men across the country tuned in because they identified with Archie, their children watched and learned the lesson Lear was teaching: men like Archie, whether they are your father or the next door neighbor, are stupid, ugly, and loathsome--hate them and their values. In coupling Archie's repugnant character traits--hypocrisy, misogyny, bigotry, selfishness, pettiness, conceit, and general ignorance--with conventional middle-class American values--patriotism, strong national defense,property rights, gun rights, small government, religious faith, premarital chastity--young men and women of my generation were subtly and gradually persuaded to despise those values, to culturally throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Thirty years later the state of our culture is something of a mixed bag. In some ways, such as pregnancy outside of marriage, we are far worse, but in others we have reclaimed some of our former values. Crime rates, for instance, have greatly improved from the dark days of the 70's when liberal social theories had suffused through our criminal justice system, drastically reducing jail time, and crime of all kinds hit its peak in the country's history. And while children out of wedlock have become almost normative, teen pregnancy has markedly regressed. Universities and colleges across the country ban military recruiters from their campuses and cancel ROTC programs, but few people if any would dare show our service men and women the contempt that our returning vets from Vietnam commonly endured. Still, nostalgia for a time of national confidence and cultural norms exerts its pull:
Boy, the way Glenn Miller played. Songs that made the Hit Parade.

Guys like us, we had it made. Those were the days.

Didn't need no welfare state. Everybody pulled his weight.

Gee, our old LaSalle ran great. Those were the days.

And you know who you were then. Girls were girls and men were men.

Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.

People seemed to be content. Fifty dollars paid the rent.

Freaks were in a circus tent. Those were the days.

Take a little Sunday spin, go to watch the Dodgers win.

Have yourself a dandy day that cost you under a fin.

Hair was short and skirts were long. Kate Smith really sold a song.

I don't know just what went wrong. Those Were The Days.