Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mourning In Mayberry

Long Hot Summer Days - Sara Watkins (mp3)
Delia’s Gone - Johnny Cash (mp3)

When Andy Griffith died last week, it was a punch to the solar plexus. We’ve lost a distressing number of cultural icons in the past few years, but this one seemed different. It felt like Mayberry went up in smoke.

Mayberry was brilliant because it was a safe Rorshach test for the soul.

If you were a conservative-leaning person interested in morals and values, Mayberry had it. Sheriff Andy Taylor was a responsible man, an involved father, and a leader of his community, equipped with a sense of both justice and mercy, of kindness and fairness. And everyone went to church. Mayberry also looked a lot like 21st Century RNC conventions, which is to say almost completely male and white, with a sweet white-haired lady who cooks all the meals.

If you leaned left, you appreciated that wealthy people weren’t thought too highly of, and poor people weren’t mocked. Ernest T. Bass wasn’t mocked or the butt of jokes because he was poor or chemically unbalanced. In fact, very little of the humor in Mayberry was at someone’s expense other than Barney Fife.

In Mayberry, money didn't determine happiness, nor did it singularly secure you a place of distinction in the eyes of the townsfolk. Nor did wealth create bad or cruel people, necessarily, although the perception of social class distance often created tensions or misunderstandings within the plot.

I grew up watching the reruns, and a few years ago, I helped lead one of many series that links episodes of the show to Biblical teachings. But I’m no fanatic or walking encyclopedia of Mayberry lore.

I only know we’ve lost something we’re not going to get back. It's usually a waste of emotion and time to mourn such things, but this one deserves an exception.

A string of recent articles all feel loosely interrelated to the death of Andy Griffith:

In short, the current generation of parents and teachers suck despite or because of their best (if ultimately selfish) intentions, and Andy could have helped. The higher up the monetary ladder you climb, the less humane you become. And, ultimately, the philosophical pursuits that spawned good things (e.g. civil rights, women’s lib) carried with it the yang of obsessive selfishness.

The reads are depressing, but important. Fortunately, there’s a beautiful silver thread weaving through all of these brilliant, somewhat depressing pieces, a sliver of hope amidst numerous downer observations: we know something has gone terribly wrong. And, as G.I. Joe so wisely acknowledges, Knowing Is Half The Battle (TM).

Culturally speaking, we are waking up to the damage that our collective self-interest and inward focus has done to our society as a whole. In the movies, the Body Snatchers keep winning, but you can’t fight them if you don’t even realize they’re amongst us.

Much like Delia from Johnny Cash’s song, maybe Andy Taylor is gone because we killed him. Sure, we didn’t kill him with our bare hands. We just left him in the car to overheat while we went into the office to check a few emails. We drove right past Mayberry on the way to Harrah’s Cherokee. The town itself and the many wonderful ideals it stood for was the beaten traveler, and we were too busy to stop and see it dying. Andy was TV’s Good Samaritan, the only one willing to rescue it, and now he’s gone, and Mayberry with him.

This is the exact moment -- the moment of despair combined with an understanding of just how serious a problem we face -- when new leaders can emerge and create new towns, new hopes, new ideals.

Can't we give ourselves one more chance?
This is our last dance.
This is ourselves.


Susan said...

You know Billy, I'm not sure I agree that the rebuttal to David McCullough's speech was brilliant. Very good maybe, but she does the same thing he does...lumps an entire generation into one category, and I resent that. I've been accused of being Pollyanna before (something I'm most certainly not these days), but I still don't think it's quite as bad as you make it out to be.

Billy said...

Thanks for the comment, Susan. So I like that kid's response better than you did, I guess. No big whup.

As for whether it's "as bad..."? In our politics, we're less civil, and words like "compromise" are damned by all but the quiet middle who mostly sit idly by. In schools, much like in politics, the squeakiest get the grease and the loudest get the steering wheels. It feels plenty bad.

Yes, I'm painting perhaps a slightly darker picture than our zeitgeist deserves, but it's always darkest before the dawn, so I'm sorta hoping to push the clock forward faster than it might be moving. I'm ready for some sunlight.

troutking said...

I'm certainly prone to nostalgia and romanticism, but not for Mayberry and small town America in the 50s and 60s. Someone needs to go all Mad Men on Mayberry or Mt Airy or wherever. Racism, sexism, ignorance, poverty? I'm not sure everyone was having such a good time back then and there. We have things to fix, but not because everything seems so great on the Andy Griffith show. Having said that, Barney was hilarious.

Billy said...

@Trout -- Those depictions exist already. Go rewatch "Mississippi Burning" or "A Time to Kill" if you worry about the lack of exposure to the South's ugly smalltown underbelly. Or, even better, watch "In the Heat of the Night" again.

Yes, Mayberry was fake and (literally) whitewashed. But how many people or characters can kids or adults watch on TV anymore who stand for much of anything admirable or decent? Andy Taylor never, that I can recall, espoused or condoned any of the "isms" or prejudices you mention. He might have been sheriff of Honkeyville, but I'm pretty sure he took the right side on those issues when he had opportunity. Good luck finding any decent role models on contemporary TV.

I recommend "The Downside of Liberty" column. We attacked and addressed a lot of vital social issues in that bygone era, with the unintended cost that we have become a more obsessively self-interested culture.

Bob said...

I don't think "The Andy Griffith Show" was obligated to be the moral barometer of America or The South in the 1950's. It was a sweet, innocent comedy, and there surely is a place for that.

Sure, gritty realism and social commentary have their place, but I would challenge the notion that Mad Men is an accurate record of that era either. It's an invention, too, one that happens to have killer props and details and set pieces to give it verisimilitude.

I don't think we need Sheriff Andy banging every available woman in Mayberry.