Mayberry Ethics

A theme here at ethics alarms is that ethics, unlike morality, is fluid and dynamic. Society gains in ethical enlightenment over time with reflection and experience.

Since I have been severely limited in my activity of late, I found myself watching an episode of the classic sitcom “The Andy Griffith Show.” Many, indeed most, of the popular shows from the Fifties-Sixties era feel stilted and naive today, but not all of them: “The Andy Griffith Show” is one that holds up beautifully. Like many TV shows then (but few today), the continuing saga of Sheriff Andy Taylor’s challenges as a single dad and the center of sanity in a small town full of Southern eccentrics often focused on societal values and ethics lessons, though it never crossed into preachiness.

The episode I happened across, “One Punch Opie,” was about peer pressure and bullying. A new kid in town is bullying the other children to do things they shouldn’t, like raid Mr. Foley’s fruit and vegetable stands outside his store and steal apples and tomatoes. When Opie (the then-unbearably cute Ron Howard) refuses to follow the gang, the much larger kid threatens him. Opie ultimately confronts the boy who quickly proves that he is a coward, and backs down, ending his malign influence over the other boys.

The bullying theme was not what struck me about the episode, however. The new kid breaks a street lamp with an apple, and Sheriff Andy has Opie round up the other boys who witnessed the crime so he can have a chat with them. (The troublemaking new kid refuses to come along.) The boys all say they witnessed the act, but didn’t throw the fateful fruit. Andy tells them that he’ll let their error in judgment go this time, but the next time, he’ll tell their fathers. “And you know what that means,” Andy says. “It means you’ll get a whippin’!”

Yes, in 1962, a wise and reliably benign TV authority figure casually referenced corporal punishment—probably with a belt, no less, as Andy didn’t say “spanking”—- as a fact of childhood and responsible parenting. Nobody blinked. Sixty years later, such a statement would cause an uproar, and be considered an endorsement of child abuse.

What accepted conduct today will seem equally wrongful in sixty years?

Ann Althouse And “Green Acres”, Or “When Trusted Bloggers Don’t Know What The Hell They Are Talking About”

This is a Popeye-–the Ethics Alarm category in which I have been forced to post because something irritated me so much I couldn’t stand it, or in Popeye’s immortal words,

As frequent readers here know, I am a fan of retired University of Wisconsin law professor Ann Althouse’s wide-ranging blog (even if she does refuse to include Ethics Alarms in her blogroll...). However, loyalty goes only so far.

Today I read this from Ann…

“Green Acres The Musical is a fast-paced, contemporary story that features the best in comedy, music and dance. This is the spirited musical comedy love story of Oliver and Lisa Douglas….He is a high-powered, Manhattan attorney and she is an aspiring fashion designer and, together, they are living ‘the good life’ in New York City. Faced with the overwhelming pressure to run his family’s law firm and live up to his father’s reputation, Oliver longs for the simple life, but New York and all that it has to offer is Lisa’s perfect world. What happens when two people in love find themselves wanting opposite lives sends us on a journey that is both hilarious and filled with heart.”

That’s the press release — published in Entertainment Weekly — for a “Broadway-bound” musical. I guess there’s no limit to how stupid and touristy theater in New York City can become.

When “Green Acres” was on TV in the 1960s, it was one of many sitcoms set in rural America. From the Wikipedia article on the “rural purge” —

the systematic cancellation of all that stuff: “Starting with ‘The Real McCoys,’ a 1957 ABC program, U.S. television had undergone a “rural revolution”, a shift towards situation comedies featuring “naïve but noble ‘rubes’ from deep in the American heartland”. CBS was the network most associated with the trend, with series such as “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” “Mister Ed,” “Lassie,” “Petticoat Junction,” and “Hee Haw”….

… CBS executives, afraid of losing the lucrative youth demographic, purged their schedule of hit shows that were drawing huge but older-skewing audiences….

It was decided that those rural shows — a refuge from the social and political upheaval of the 60s — were too damned unsophisticated and irrelevant for 1970s America. I don’t know if the long arc of history bends toward sophistication, but it makes me sad to see that one of the shows that were seen — half a century ago — as too naive and out of it for television is now the basis for a Broadway show. What is happening to us?

Well, what’s happened to you, Ann, is that you have forgotten the #1 obligation of a serious blogger, which is not to make your readers less informed, more ignorant, and more biased than they already are.  Ann is about my age, meaning that she had the same opportunity as I did to actually experience those Sixties era TV shows she is denigrating and lumping together, but either she did not, and is thus relying on a typically half-baked Wikipedia entry by their usual anonymous non-professional researchers, or she is deliberately misrepresenting them to justify a side joke (Donald Trump once performed the “Green Acres” song on TV, and Ann posted the video), or, as I long suspected, she’s a snob. Just as one shouldn’t review dinosaur movies if one isn’t interested in dinosaurs, a blogger shouldn’t pretend to analyze Sixties TV shows if she didn’t watch Sixties TV shows, and if Ann had watched those shows, she would have instantly known that her Wikipedia source article was crap.

At the end of the post, she says, returning to Broadway,

When I was a teenager in the 1960s, I saw the Broadway play “Marat/Sade” — “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.” That’s where it looked as though Broadway would go. Into immense creativity and sophistication. It’s so sad what happened instead.

I won’t argue that Broadway, the Broadway musical in particular, hasn’t hit the skids, and that it now generally seeks to be more of a theme park ride or a nostalgia-fest for wealthy tourists than a source of new ideas and daring entertainment. That case, however, could have and should have been made (I’ve made it myself in other venues) without ridiculing an unseen musical based on its source material. Continue reading

Rest in Peace, Andy: Mayberry Wasn’t Racist

In the wake of Andy Griffith’s death today, a friend of mine wrote this on Facebook: “If you’re waxing nostalgic about Mayberry as an idyllic 1960s Southern town, remember that it had no Negroes living there. Is it any wonder that show was so popular in the midst of the turmoil of the civil rights movement?”

The sentiment was undoubtedly motivated by good intentions, but boy, it is unfair. America was a largely segregated society in 1960, when “The Andy Griffith Show” began its trek to television Valhalla, and it was not up to the producers or writers of a folksy sitcom set in small North Carolina town to remedy that, protest it, or comment on it. This wasn’t “Andy Kills a Mockingbird.” It was a comedy, and a comedy unique and precious for celebrating basic ethical values like kindness, loyalty, friendship, tolerance, community, cooperation, patience, respect and virtue. There were no racist sentiments or attitudes expressed in Mayberry, and no reason to doubt that if a black family moved into the town, they would have been embraced, appreciated, and treated like everyone else. The fact that this may not have been true of a real North Carolina town of that period is as irrelevant as pointing out that real Scottish villages don’t disappear and reappear centuries later like Brigadoon. Continue reading