July 6, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Actor Andy Griffith died this week. Griffith is best known for “The Andy Griffith Show,” a 1960s television series set in the fictional small town of Mayberry, North Carolina. Griffith played Andy Taylor, the local sheriff and a widower rearing a young son with the help of a lovable but ditzy maiden aunt. In his obituary of Griffith, Douglas Martin of the New York Times wrote, “The show imagined a reassuring world of fishin’ holes, ice cream socials and rock-hard family values during a decade that grew progressively tumultuous.” The show aired in black-and-white, but the cast did not. Although nearly a quarter of North Carolinians are black, the show – which ran for eight seasons – cast a black actor in only one episode. Needless to say, there were no neighborly Hispanics, Asians or Native Americans, either. If Aunt Bee was a lesbian, she never let on. In a largely appreciative reflection on “The Andy Griffith Show,” Shani Hilton writes in The Awl, “Mayberry is shorthand for a simpler time. And as we all know – we all know this, right? – a ‘simpler time’ is shorthand for a time when white people didn’t have to think about whether they were treating nonwhite people (or women) like humans.”
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New York Times columnist David Brooks covers a lot of policy issues, and he covers them from different perspectives: political, sociological, psychological, even quasi-philosophical. His material is usually fresh and he consults a variety of sources. This is a good thing. But it strikes me in reading his column today that at the heart of every Brooks column, no matter what the topic, is the same message: the country should be more like Mayberry.
In his column today, Brooks laments the failure of boys – boys like the young Henry V of England! – to do well in school: “By 12th grade, male reading test scores are far below female test scores…. Eleventh-grade boys are now writing at the same level as 8th-grade girls. Boys used to have an advantage in math and science, but that gap is nearly gone. Boys are much more likely to have discipline problems.” Brooks says boys are falling behind because “The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious.” He means girly. Many boys don’t fit into this mold and “respond by disengaging and rebelling.” Why, all this reminds me of an episode of the “Andy Griffith Show”: Opie and his (white-boy) friends don’t want to do their boring history homework, but Andy sparks their interest by relating a fractured version of the beginnings of the American Revolution. Oh, why can’t teachers be more like Andy Taylor?
Nowhere does Brooks mention that boys used to do better than they do now – compared to girls – because teachers, even female teachers, favored boys over girls. Teachers expected girls to behave demurely, but they rewarded aggressive behavior in boys – “Call on me! Me!” In a 20-year study, published in 1994, the researchers found that “Teachers … are much more likely to praise, help, correct and criticize boys – all reactions that help build achievement and self-esteem.” The curricula, too, were almost totally male-oriented: in a 630-page textbook covering the history of the world, only seven pages related to women. Brooks is right to be concerned about boys’ failure to adapt to our traditional educational environment, and right to suggest that educators look for ways to better accommodate them. But we should all be delighted that girls are finally getting their due in school.
(School performance translates to how men and women are faring in today’s economic environment. In at least two other column, Brooks has written that white men today – that would be Opie and his friends all growed up, and their sons, too – are having trouble finding work. In reviewing Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, The State of White America, 1960-2010, Brooks noted, “[white] men in their prime working ages have been steadily dropping out of the labor force, in good times and bad.” Back in good ole 1960s Mayberry, of course, this never would have happened. Women and people of color knew their place. The locals were yokels, but the male yokels were the breadwinners. Barney Fife went to work; Aunt Bee stayed home and baked cookies.)
The invocation of Mayberry extends to most of Brooks’ writings. In his last column (July 3), Brooks advocated for a healthcare system that cleaved to “basic Republican principles,” one in which Mayberry’s residents took responsibility for their own health care by “bearing a real share of the costs…, hav[ing] skin in the game.” In his June 29 column, Brooks lauded the “modesty” and “restraint” exhibited by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Man, that John Roberts is a lot like Andy Taylor, isn’t he?
In a column titled “What Republicans Think,” published June 15, Brooks wrote, “In the decades after World War II, the U.S. economy grew by well over 3 percent a year, on average. But, since then, it has failed to keep pace with changing realities.” Republicans blame “the welfare state” for the loss of the Mayberry ideal: “Successive presidents have layered on regulations and loopholes, creating a form of state capitalism in which big businesses thrive because they have political connections and small businesses struggle.”
In his June 12, column, Brooks is concerned that Americans “don’t think straight about authority…. Those ‘Question Authority’ bumper stickers,” he writes, “symbolize an attitude of opposing authority.” Brooks says Americans should learn to follow the leader, to “elevate those who are extraordinary” and “defer to them and trust their discretion.” This, of course, is precisely the Mayberry model: the town is full of lovable goofballs who make hilarious mistakes, and can’t figure out right from wrong until the beloved and respected authority figure – the kindly Sheriff Taylor – sets them straight. Andy’s folksy wisdom also gets the best of big city slickers who happen by Mayberry. Here Andy encourages a talented ne’er-do-well and perpetual denizen of the Mayberry jail to become a country music star. After a certain amount of hijinks, Andy negotiates an excellent contract for the ne’er-do-well with a big-time music promoter from the city. During the course of the show, Andy falsely arrests the music promoter, then serves as judge and locks him up. Andy is every arm of the law. John Roberts would rule Andy’s actions unconstitutional. But not Brooks. In Brooks’ model – we followers should defer to our leaders. Everything will work out in the end.
In his June 8 column, Brooks contrasts today’s slippery morality with that of the good old days when “most Westerners would have identified themselves fundamentally as Depraved Sinners. In this construct, sin is something you fight like a recurring cancer – part of a daily battle against evil.” Brooks’ advice: “Next time you feel tempted by something, recite the Ten Commandments.” That is how they did it in Mayberry. In this episode, Andy is able to rein in the excesses of a big businessman who wants to violate Sunday closing laws, oh, no! By the end, Andy has Mr. Moneybags singing “Church in the Wildwood” and recalling his own moral roots. Not the Ten Commandments, but damned close. Perhaps Brooks would be upset if he realized that it was the wisdom of the “government man” who prodded the businessman to follow the wise and just customs of the faithful.
In his June 5 column, Brooks compares Mayberry, with its “moral abhorrence about things like excessive debt,” to today profligate American scene. “Recently, life has become better and more secure,” Brooks writes. “But the aversion to debt has diminished amid the progress. Credit card companies seduced people into borrowing more. Politicians found that they could buy votes with borrowed money. People became more comfortable with red ink.” In Mayberry, there were no credit cards, and the trustworthy Andy didn’t have to buy the people’s votes. More important, they didn’t have to overpay Andy! Correctly predicting that Wisconsin voters would not unseat Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Brooks sees the state’s recall vote as a referendum on reining in the salaries and benefits of those overpaid government workers. Retaining Walker, Brooks writes, is “a vote against any special interest that seeks to preserve exorbitant middle-class benefits at the expense of the public good.” (Did I mention Brooks recently purchased a $4-million house?)
Brooks celebrates the essential Mayberry in his June 26 column about rocker Bruce Springsteen. Say what? No, really. Brooks writes about the importance of place:
My best theory is this: When we are children, we invent these detailed imaginary worlds that the child psychologists call ‘paracosms.’ These landscapes, sometimes complete with imaginary beasts, heroes and laws, help us orient ourselves in reality….
If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all….
The whole experience makes me want to … offer some pious advice: Don’t try to be everyman. Don’t pretend you’re a member of every community you visit. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible.
Brooks grew up in New York City and the Main Line around Philadelphia. But his “paracosm” – his “imaginary world” – is Mayberry, R.F.D. The imaginary hero Andy Taylor – or someone much like him – helps Brooks “orient himself in reality.” Or so he opines.
I did not cherry-pick these columns. I started with Brooks’ most recent column and worked backwards till I couldn’t stand to read any more. (I did take the Springsteen column out of order because it so well illustrates Brooks’ Mayberry ethos.)
The problem with Brooks repeated evocations of Mayberry morality, of course, is that Mayberry is a fiction. Real teachers are usually underpaid, and most will not re-enact history to interest unruly boys (though some will!). Real “savvy businessmen” do not mend their ways when Sheriff Obama serenades them. (Obama tried that.) And leaders unfettered by the rule of law do not ever end up doing the right thing.
Andy Griffith knew that. The fictional town of Mayberry was based on the real town of Mount Airy, North Carolina, where Griffith grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. It took him years to become an “overnight sensation,” and even then, his career had its ups and down. Griffith was a life-long Democrat. With Ron Howard, who played Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show,” Griffith cut a commercial for candidate Obama in 2008. In 2010, Griffith cut another ad promoting Medicare and the Affordable Care Act – the social safety net program Brooks wants to cut back and the healthcare law Brooks wants to repeal. I don’t know what David Brooks’ real views are. But I do know this. If he follows the trail of his own advice, he will find it does not lead to Mayberry.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com