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The Truth, Mainly - 09/25/1995

'All in the Family,' circa 1995; why aren't we laughing?

The longer I live, the more I come unstuck in time. Decades telescope on me, and the past and present mud-rassle around inside my mind, disturbing the exquisite order of my thoughts.

For the last several months, every time I sit down to read a 1995 newspaper I hear in my mind's ear a 1971 song about the 1930s. It's unsettling.

No more affirmative action, the newspaper tells me they're saying in Washington these days, and I hear a voice singing:

Boy the way Glenn Miller played

Songs that made the Hit Parade

Guys like us we had it made

Those were the days.

Jesse Helms, the newspaper says, fumes about money for AIDS research because people get the disease through "deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct." Bob Dole, the newspaper says, returns campaign donations from Log Cabin Republicans, a gay group that somehow wandered into the GOP's big tent.

And you knew who you were then

Girls were girls and men were men

Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.
I read about Phil Gramm telling ADC mothers and their children to get off the wagon and push, about proposals to cut off legal aid to the poor, about plans to get rid of Americorps and student loans and the graduated income tax.

Didn't need no welfare state

Ever'body pulled his weight

Gee, our old LaSalle ran great

Those were the days.

The voice I hear, as anyone over 25 knows, belongs to Archie Bunker of "All in the Family," who back in the seventies made us laugh ourselves silly at his bungling efforts to be a bigot. The efforts were funny because they were nearly always thwarted by the enlightened majority, Edith, Gloria, and the Meathead.

They were also funny because the really deadly bigotry of the fifties and sixties was still fresh in our minds and most of us were ready to laugh at bigotry that tripped over its own shoestrings.

Archie's homophobia, for example, was expressed in his disgust for "preverts" and undermined by his discovery that a macho drinking buddy at Kelcy's Bar was a "man's man" in more ways than one.

His sexism was all wrapped up in goofy notions of what "groinocologists" do, and in his indignation at talk of "breasts," even when the subject was chicken parts.

His racism never quite rose above the level of farce. In one episode about the Meathead's temporary impotence, Archie asked Lionel's uncle about the secret of black sexuality. Something to do with soul food? Hog jowls, the uncle said, but you have to watch out for the side effects: the urge to shine shoes and tap dance.

Archie hardly ever saw that he was the butt of the joke. Made it even funnier.

The Truth, Mainly


But that was then, I have to keep telling myself.

Then our politicians pretended to be more tolerant than they really were; now they pretend to be more bigoted. What we laughed at in the seventies, Congress seems to take seriously today. And threatens to enact.

Why else would Jack Kemp have felt the need earlier this summer to warn his party that it will be "very hard to govern the country if it runs a campaign that separates people by race and gender"?

Imagine how we'd have reacted in the seventies to the idea of letting the states, rather than the feds, run the welfare programs. We'd have seen it as darkly comic because we'd all have remembered how states like Alabama and Mississippi had taken care of their poor—mostly black—only a decade earlier.

And what about that ugly little phone call Cynthia Tucker talked about in her column last week? Sen. Helms, on "Larry King, Live," got this call from a fan: "And Mr. Helms, I know this might not be politically correct to say these days, but I just think that you should get a Nobel Peace Prize for everything you've done to help keep down the niggers."

In the seventies, we'd have assumed it was a bad joke, that the caller was an unskilled ironist, posing as a racist in mock admiration of Sen. Helms.

But who today can—or wants—to put a charitable interpretation on anything connected to the least charitable man in the Senate?

And how about George Bush on the U.N. women's conference in China?

Here's what Hillary Clinton said: "If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights, once and for all."

Here's what George Bush said: "I feel somewhat sorry for the Chinese, having Bella Abzug running around in China."

I hear Archie Bunker's voice again, this time telling the Dingbat to stifle. But why aren't we laughing?


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage meaning from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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