Archie Bunker, Umberto Eco, and the Status Quo
By Dennis D. McDonald
Last week’s “live” broadcast by ABC of its recreated All in the Family episode was simultaneously entertaining and depressing.
The actual performances, led by Woody Harrelson as Archie Bunker and Marisa Tomei as wife Edith, were a real hoot. They captured the attitude and timing of the original with entertaining precision.
The depressing part? The show itself. Once upon a time (more than 40 years ago) we were able to laugh openly at Archie Bunker’s outrageous racism and sexism. Now our country’s government is controlled by an openly racist administration and elected representatives who stay silent in the face of the administration’s destruction of government social services and the environment.
What’s worse, an entire ecosystem of media and communication systems exists now that enable and reinforce attacks on common decency, science, and traditional American values of tolerance.
Were he to “exist” today, Archie Bunker would have no difficulty constructing and then residing in a media bubble that constantly reinforced his biases by demonstrating that he is not alone. And sure as God made little green apples Archie would wrap his outbursts in the flag and claims of “free speech.”
How does this relate to Umberto Eco? I am reading right now his 2010 novel The Prague Cemetery. I’m simultaneously entertained and repelled by the main character’s casual references to 19th century European racism, conspiracy theories, violence, and by the way these are reinforced and amplified by the personal and public media of the day.
Everyone comes in for ridicule—Catholics, Jesuits, Jews, and Masons. Eco has his multiple-personality main character work his way through a sea of forgery, deceit, spying, double dealing, perjury, and even murder. No racial or ethnic stereotype is too small for the main character to amplify and exaggerate as he works—for hire—to undermine any social movement or group opposed by his employers.
The detail and complexity that Eco demonstrates throughout the story is impressive. Many of the people the main character comes into contact with were real including Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas, Garibaldi, and Freud. It helps to have Wikipedia handy as you read this clever novel.
Here’s a question: Was Archie Bunker smart enough to have existed at the time covered by the Prague Cemetery?
One hopes that Edith would have been able to keep Archie’s baser instincts reined in. But Archie might very well have been an enabler of and willing conduit for the messages of hate and fear so commonly available now that are weakening America. That’s a disturbing thought.
Copyright (c) 2019 by Dennis D. McDonald