Civility in politics: Let’s keep Archie Bunker out.

Before Archie Bunker came along we Americans pretty much kept bigoted thoughts to ourselves. But in 1971 he entered our living rooms, and for twelve years viewers laughed at his diatribes against blacks, women, and foreigners. Were he on TV today he would surely vent about our mixed-race President and Mexicans illegally crossing the border. He was a man who had an opinion about everything, with little regard for the facts.

Publicity photo from the television program Al...

Publicity photo from the television program All in the Family. Pictured are Carroll O’Connor (Archie Bunker) and Michael Evans (Lionel Jefferson). In this episode, Archie visits a local blood bank to donate and meets his neighbor, Lionel Jefferson, who is also there to donate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As negative and blustering as Archie was, the show’s mostly white audience came to love him. Maybe that was because, like many of us, outside his home he had little power or influence. In the 1970s women and blacks were challenging white male privilege. A new generation, represented by Archie’s son-in-law, was upsetting the old codes of morality. Archie wanted the world to be like the one he’d grown up in. Many white Americans felt the same way.

Now we hear of politicians who are admired because they “tell it like it is,” “say what needs to be said.” Sometimes, like when they support broad generalizations with pseudo-facts, they sound a lot like Archie. My concern, however, is not that they sound like him but that they’re using fear and a sense of powerlessness to turn decent hard-working Americans into clones of Archie Bunker.

This is an effective approach for reaching people like me, that is older white folks. The rapidly changing technology and shifting morals leave many of us feeling out of the American mainstream. Republicans have long exploited this discomfort and stoked the fires of fear—fear of gays, immigrants, blacks, Muslims. Especially fear of government, how big it is, how powerless the individual is by comparison. Yes, we potential Archie Bunkers stand before them, frightened of a future bearing little resemblance to the world we grew up in.

Instead of those who appeal to the Archie Bunker in us, we need leaders who nurture our noblest qualities: compassion, generosity, an openness to new ideas. Leaders who can unite young and old, black and white, foreign born and native born.

So that our decency might prevail.

My advice to graduates

No one’s asked me to speak at graduation, but I’ve prepared a message for seniors anyway. The theme? The values you’ve been taught—get real. Nobody practices that stuff anyway.


Graduation (Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik)

1)     Like those exercises that required you to cooperate, group projects where you practiced team work. Wasted time, given today’s attitude: My opinion is the right one; I refuse to compromise.

2)     And admonitions to always tell the truth.  “I did not have sex with that woman,” one President said. All around you leaders bend the truth to support their point of view or make their opponents look bad. Documenting sources applies only to students.

3)     Remember being punished for name calling? In this political season you hear “Socialist elitist,” “King of Bain.” It’s the adult way.

4)     Countries you had to identify on a map. Their languages and cultures. Who cares? America is superior to them all.

5)     And what about the scientific method, all those pesky definitions about the difference between theories and hypotheses? Even if pains-taking research shows otherwise, the current ethos lets you believe whatever you want: human behavior doesn’t account for global warming, and evolution is just one of many theories to explain the physical world as we know it.

6)     Ever since kindergarten, teachers urged you to be more compassionate. But you’ll find that acceptance of difference, especially if others are homosexuals or immigrants, is so out of fashion.

7)     Sharing, too. What’s yours is yours. People living below the poverty level are too lazy to work, undeserving of food stamps or Medicaid. Tax money is better spent on the military.

Yes, graduates, in case you haven’t noticed, the education you’ve received has little relationship to the culture you’re stepping out into. You can, of course, adjust to the real world. Or you can envision a better way, put what you’ve learned in school into practice, and work for change.

In his inauguration speech in 1961 President John F. Kennedy said, “Let the word go forth from this time and place…that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans….” Every generation has the option—no, the obligation—to pick up that torch and put its own imprint on what it means to be an American. May yours bring a return to civility and respect for community.