The 1950s were so different from today. We watched westerns. The town Marshall was always fair and just. The bad guys were easy to spot – rustlers, train and bank robbers and evil landholders. They were always beaten and usually jailed rather than killed. In the 1960s and 1970s, westerns became cop shows. We had Andy Taylor and Barney Miller. They were fair and just, too. Sheriff Andy kept Deputy Barney in check and always treated Otis well when he was drunk. And Captain Miller’s force was integrated – a Black, an Asian, a Hispanic, several Jews, a Pole, and for a short time, a gay and a woman. They made us appreciate and respect police, the keepers of the peace. Police were there to serve and protect. Then came Serpico. He showed us that some cops weren’t clean; they were there to serve and protect themselves. TV cop shows followed that lead. By the 1980s, even the “good” cops were portrayed with imperfections, although usually in furthering the cause of justice. That’s when I stopped watching cop shows, so I don’t know what happened after that.
While the 1950s were a time of political conservatism, compliance, and conformity, the 1960s and 1970s introduced post-FDR liberalism, free thinking, and individualism. Those two cultures coexisted with considerable friction, even open hostility. Since then, there has been some mixing of philosophies, for example, conservatives now tout individualism while liberals conform to political correctness. If anything, though, the divide between the factions is even deeper than it was fifty years ago.
Many things have become much worse since then. Reagan made greed and selfishness not only acceptable, but a laudable trait of the monied class. Politicians competed to be the toughest on street crime while openly excusing their colleagues and campaign donors of far worse misdeeds. New wars were started to feed the Military-Industrial Complex that Eisenhower warned us about in 1961. Steroids were banned from sports but became fashionable among the very lawmen who jailed the vulnerable for marijuana possession.
There have been a few noteworthy positive changes since Johnson’s Great Society. The hot tech economy of the late 1990s created the first budget surplus since 1969, though it was short lived. Obamacare, the Democrat’s version of the Republican’s Romneycare, was a lukewarm yet divisive improvement for people without health insurance. Obama’s less conspicuous accomplishments, like negotiating international treaties on climate change and Iran’s nuclear program, creating offices to control health crises, expanding environmental and renewal energy programs, safeguarding LGBTQ rights, expanding support for veterans, and reducing the deficit created by Bush, have all been overturned by Trump.
What hasn’t changed since the 1950s is the bigotry that is ingrained into our society. Heretofore, it was hidden by most media and politicians. Now it is more out in the open. Individual bigotry has become more overt under both Obama, a target, and Trump, an instigator. White supremacists, fascists, and anti-government zealots who used to practice under the cover of anonymity now engage their adversaries openly on the internet and in the streets. Police forces and other law enforcement agencies across the country have been infiltrated by these thugs. On the other hand, systemic bigotry, the bailiwick of legislators and policymakers, has become more subtle since the 1990s, It is barely recognized by many white Americans. Everything our leaders have done since 1980 has only ingrained those problems into our society and rooted them even deeper into our justice system.
What we must now do is discuss and debate, boycott antisocial corporations, resist hatred and violence, protest in words and actions, and most of all, vote accordingly. Without open actions against discrimination based on race and origin, age, sex and gender, religion, and social class, no individual or systemic biases will change appreciably.
It’s unfortunate that these discussions don’t begin without a trigger, such as the murders of George Floyd and others, and the continuing use of excessive force by police with qualified immunity. Protests of these actions have occurred across the nation in large and small groups representing a variety of demographics. Some of the protests have, unfortunately, involved violence. Nevertheless, these protests are vital; they can bring about the changes we need. Antiwar protests of the 1960s and 1970s eventually led to the end of the Vietnam War. Civil rights protests led by Dr. King and others improved the lives of many, though recent events show that significant problems remain.
The halcyon days of Sheriff Andy and Captain Miller only existed on television but that image of a world where biases are confronted and rejected is something we can use as a goal. That is the Great America to which we can aspire. Let every American pursue happiness in their own ways, everywhere, forever, and without any more aggression by those who are supposed to serve and protect.
June 28, 2020