Saturday, January 6

Post-9/11 America: Updating Mayberrry and Sheriff Andy Taylor

A coincidental unearthing of a 60s-era Andy Griffith show segment discussed in a 2004 Lean Left blog entry invited a simultaneous posting.

Below is the key segment courtesy of that evoked Kevin Keith's wistful 16 June entry "Where Have You Gone, Sheriff Taylor".

The answer to Keith's question surfaced during November's midterm's elections in Wisconsin, a development I discussed in an unpublished email to friends I have posted below Keith's analysis.--Moose

I was channel surfing recently at a friend’s house; I happened upon an old “Andy Griffith Show” episode, and started to watch. (I don’t have TV service myself, so when I do stumble into contact with actual . . . uh, what’s the word? . . . “programs” . . . I tend to gawk at the box like it’s 1936 and I’ve never seen one before).

What I found was a lost nation, and a right world gone wrong.

For those too young to remember (i.e., anybody reading a blog), the “Andy Griffith Show” was a program back in the early days of network TV - B&W TV, actually, for most of its run - that starred Andy Griffith, a then-popular comedian with a kind of hick/Southern shtick, and an impossibly young Ron Howard, who looked at age 8 exactly like he looks today. The setting was a small rural town, presumably in the South though nobody had an accent; Griffith was the good-natured Sheriff Taylor, so calm and laid back he didn’t carry a gun. (Don Knotts had a star turn for a number of years as his dimwitted Deputy Barney, who carried a gun but was so stupid that he was allowed only one bullet. Jim Nabors also rose to stardom on the show as the yokel Gomer Pyle; the character became so popular that he was spun off onto his own show by joining the Marines and becoming the legendary “Gomer Pyle, USMC.”) Little Ronnie Howard played the Sheriff’s son, Opie.

So, on this episode, Opie and his buddy are fooling around with a tape recorder and secretly tape a bank robber Andy has arrested, discussing his crime with his lawyer in his prison cell. They excitedly run to Sheriff Andy and explain what they did, trying to tell him they know where the money is hidden. Sheriff Andy is horrified and throws up his hands, explaining that the law does not allow eavesdropping on lawyer/client conversations and he cannot listen to their story. He gives the boys a lecture about Constitutional rights and gravely admonishes them: “I know you were only trying to help, but the law can’t use that kind of help.”

In the meantime, Andy’s dotty Aunt Bee has prepared an immense home-cooked meal for the prisoner because she’s afraid he’ll be sad, eating alone in his prison cell. She puts a rose on the tray to cheer him up. Andy delivers the food and gives the prisoner a little speech about how much better he’d feel if he confessed. The prisoner looks skeptical. One of Andy’s deputies keeps hassling the prisoner for no reason, apparently just feeling resentful of lawbreakers; Andy sends him outside and apologizes to the prisoner.

The boys realize that the bank robber’s lawyer is going to get away with the money. They can’t let that happen, but every time they try to explain (it never occurs to them to just shout “we know where the money is!”), Andy cuts them off, insisting that he cannot be a party to a violation of the prisoner’s privacy. Finally, the boys sneak into the jail and confront the prisoner. They explain that they know about his scheme and they aren’t going to let him get away with it. They also explain that they know it was wrong to eavesdrop on him, and they’ll be punished if they are forced to use that knowledge to right the wrong the prisoner has done. So they ask him, as a favor, to confess to the crime and give back the money, so that they won’t be punished for revealing what they know.

When Sheriff Andy comes back, the prisoner confesses to bank robbery and tells him where the money is hidden, saying that Andy’s earlier speech has made him realize it was wrong to rob banks. Andy congratulates him, and on his way out tells the boys: “See - the law doesn’t need illegal help!”

Now, I have to say I’m a bit skeptical that a bank robber - even one wearing a chalk-stripe suit - would cop to a felony just to save two boys from getting grounded. However, this heartwarming display tells us a lot about what’s wrong with America today.

“The Andy Griffith Show”, which ran from 1960 - 1968, was always held up as the quintessential mainstream, feel-good, conservative hokum. Nothing ever went seriously wrong, even the criminals were polite and well-mannered, and people’s confusions and errors could always be set straight with a few well-chosen words from a wise father figure. It was nonsense, but comforting and popular nonsense, and it perfectly encapsulated the values many Americans looked toward in the 1960s as the real world got scarier and more complicated. It shocked me, though, to see just what was considered mainstream in the mid 1960s.

Constitutional rights. Prisoners’ welfare. Sympathy for prisoners. Willingness to do right because it was right, and in defiance of personal monetary gain.

These were the values that conservatives at least liked to tell themselves they supported, 40 years ago; these are what passed as wisdom in the mouth of the lovable, patriarchal authority figure who ruled a #1 network television show for 8 years. This was what the famously conservative networks were putting on the air for the conservative audiences. The various rural comedies went off the air around 1970, to make room for “hip” shows like “M*A*S*H” and “Laugh In” that appealed to younger audiences. “Andy Griffith” appealed to the older crowd - it was essentially an outpost of the 50s holding on through the 60s until that no longer made sense. And that show - not the “radical” ones for the cynical younger generation - was the one holding up due process and the Bill of Rights as the values mainstream America was clinging to.

Apparently, in the mid-60s, network television felt it could appeal to mainstream, relatively conservative values by having a rural Sheriff make a speech about due process. Small-town righteousness meant carefully respecting the procedural limits of Constitutional law and refusing to countenance their violation. Homespun decency meant caring about the welfare of the people in our jails, and making a personal effort to ensure their comfort. Jailers’ responsibilities included protecting prisoners from abuse; even just verbally harassing prisoners was not justified simply because they were accused of breaking the law. (I have to admit I’m not buying the part about the prisoner’s confession, but let’s skip that one.)

Today, we have a dimwit Southern gunslinger heading the executive branch, and (what he claims are) mainstream values are exactly reversed from those of a generation ago. Officials charged with enforcing the law have made a concerted sweep through due process, privacy, and the Bill of Rights. Detention without charge or trial is now official policy. Warrantless searches, wiretaps, communications monitoring, and much more is now routine. Prisoner welfare has been a dead letter for decades, but we now witness the revolting spectacle of responsible government officials explicitly advocating - and approving - torture of prisoners who have not even been charged with crimes.

What happened to the people who smiled at a Sheriff who actually upheld the law and took it seriously as a constraint on his own powers? How is it that a nation that not so long ago held up decency, restraint, and the Constitution as exemplary of homespun Southern wisdom can now harbor criminals and sadists in its highest offices? Why did conservatives abandon what it was they were - supposedly - trying to conserve for the orgy of self-absorption, hate, and violence that now passes as conservative values?

Where have you gone, Sheriff Taylor?

Email posted: 13 November 2006 (revised 6 January 2007)
Subject: We're Not in Mayberry Anymore, Barney...

Hey, Folks:

During the 1960s, actor Andy Griffith played TV character "Andy Taylor," a small-town Southern sheriff whose low-keyed common sense approach to life and his job frequently banished big city con artists while saving quirky friends from their faintly darker sides in mythical Mayberry, North Carolina.

Still in syndication around the US, The Andy Griffith Show is Rural America's entertainment equivalent to Garrison Keillor's upscale skewering of Methodists and Episcopalians in Prairie Home Companion, a National Public Radio staple and iconic broadcast.

The Andy Griffith Show remains hugely popular after forty years of nonstop broadcasts. In achieving the status of icons, Mayberry and Sheriff Taylor personify to Boomer-aged Americans those enduring rural values embodied in small-town straight-shooters who are not flashy or fast enough to compete in the Big City Hustle.

According to the 10 November AP article from Milwaukee (linked below), mythical Mayberry is under siege from Big City sensibilities. It appears ol' Andy has hired an attorney to sue a Wisconsin county sheriff who Griffith claims illegally appropriated Sheriff Taylor's wholesome name and polished-apple image in an independent campaign for county sheriff.

Thomas Wolfe was a 1930s-era novelist from Asheville, North Carolina, which would have been "just down the road" from the mythical Mayberry. The title of Wolfe's most popular novel--You Can't Go Home Again--offers an emblematic metaphor for America's eroding community values and sense of decency in our unconscionable self-aggrandizement.

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