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All in the Family and the Politics of Nostalgia

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All in the Family debuted nearly 50 years ago, in January of 1971. In the 1970s, cable and satellite TV were in their infancies, and network television had a far broader and deeper cultural impact than it does today. In those terms, All in the Family was probably the most important TV program of the era. It was America’s top rated show for five straight years, and it produced a couple of big hit spinoffs (Maude, The Jeffersons).

I recently saw a re-run of an episode that featured this dialogue between Archie Bunker, the lovable bigot from Queens, and Mike, the — to use a concept that hadn’t been verbalized yet, but which was already rampant — politically correct college boy who is married to Archie’s daughter:

“If your spics and your spades want their rightful share of the American dream, let ’em get out there and hustle for it, like I done,” Archie complains to Mike, when Mike is going on about civil rights yet again.

“So now you’re going to tell me the black man has just as must chance as the white man to get a job?” Mike asks him.

“More,” Archie says. “He has more. I didn’t have no million people marchin’ and protestin’ to get me my job.”

Edith, Archie’s simple-minded sweet-natured wife interrupts the argument:

“No,” she says. “His uncle got it for him.”

The show was full of moments like that. Everybody loved All in the Family, in part because everybody loved Archie Bunker. Norman Lear, the show’s creator, talked about this three years ago:

I always think if something’s funny, it will draw everybody. I saw one focus group that CBS invited me to watch. I’m sitting with a group of CBS guys on one side of a one-way mirror watching about 30 people. Each one has a dial on the arm of their chair and there’s this big clock-like instrument on the wall. As a group, if they’re disliking something, the needle on the instrument goes off to the right and if they’re liking it, it goes off to the left. I’m looking at people who are indicating they don’t like something but whose bodies are showing me belly laughs. I realized these people didn’t want to say they’re laughing at a bigot and what he’s saying, but they’re laughing. That taught me everything I needed to know about focus groups.

Of course the ambiguity was always to what extent the show’s overwhelmingly white audience, reflecting the demography of the country at the time, was laughing at a bigot or with him.

Lear made sure that the show’s writers and directors were always careful to humanize and soften Archie: hence the “lovable” adjective that always modified “bigot” in descriptions of him. Sure he hated non-whites, feminists, gays, liberal college students etc etc in a vague abstract way, but underneath the gruff exterior lurked a fundamentally good-hearted man — anyone who saw the show can attest to the framing — who said lots of bigoted things, but who didn’t literally hate the people he was constantly blaming for ruining the country of his youth.

The show’s theme song, given such a memorably charming off-key rendition by Carroll O’Connor and Maureen Jean Stapleton, was supposed to be understood by the audience as a gentle satire of the by-then already widespread reactionary backlash to what came to be thought of as the Sixties:

Boy the way Glenn Miller played,
Songs that made the hit parade,
Guys like us we had it made,
Those were the days,
And you know where you were then,
Girls were girls and men were men,
Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again,
Didn’t need no welfare states
Everybody pulled his weight,
Gee our old Lasalle ran great,
Those were the days

50 years later, this has gone from a tongue in cheek description of the world view of reactionary white people to a practically literal statement of the Republican party platform.

And of course a lovable [sic] bigot from Queens is now president of the United States — a fact which I suspect is related in some twisted way to the fact that Donald Trump’s core demographic base — old white people — were all watching All in the Family as children, teenagers, and twenty and thirtysomethings a half century ago now, but deriving pretty much exactly the opposite message from it that Norman Lear intended to convey.

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