Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Did Ozzie and Harriet Have It Right?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 16, 2008

            Back before Sarah Palin, there was Dan Quayle.

            Do you remember Dan Quayle? Of course you do: He was the forty-fourth Vice-president of the United States , who served in that office from 1989 to 1993, under President George H. W. Bush. The man most  famous, perhaps, for that alternative spelling of potato.  The man who made such astute observations as "We don't want to go back to tomorrow, we want to go forward,” and  that "The future will be better tomorrow.” The great geographer who once observed:  "I love California. I practically grew up in Phoenix ," or that “It's time for the human race to enter the solar system.”  The statesman who addressed the United Negro College Fund (whose slogan is "A mind is a terrible thing to waste") with the immortal words: "You take the United Negro College Fund model that what a waste it is to lose one's mind or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is."

            But most significantly, perhaps, Vice-president Quayle is remembered for issuing the opening salvos in a decades long outcry against “the decline of the American family”. The tirades really haven’t stopped since.

            On May 19, 1992, Vice-president Quayle gave a speech to the Commonwealth Club of California on the subject of the Los Angeles riots that had followed the acquittal of the four policemen charged in the beating of Rodney King. In this speech Quayle blamed the violence on a decay of moral values and the decline of the family structure in American society. In an aside, he cited the title character in the television program Murphy Brown as an example of how popular culture contributes to this "poverty of values", saying: "It doesn't help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another 'lifestyle choice.'"

            The reaction was immediate and intense. Liberals and feminists and what have you attacked Mr. Quayle ferociously (which always struck me as kind of like shooting fish in a barrel, which is, nonetheless, a favorite occupation of some of us). The Vice-president was saying that single parent households are not really families, some intoned. He was denigrating women who bore children out of wedlock as beneath contempt, others charged. He was inferring that children raised by single mothers could not grow up to be fine, upstanding members of society (even, who knows, President  some day), others proclaimed.

            In fairness, of course, Vice-president Quayle said none of these things. Indeed, Candice Burgin, who played Murphy Brown in that series, said that Quayle had delivered “a perfectly intelligent speech about fathers not being dispensable,” a point with which she fully agreed.

            But what the Vice-president also inferred was that the “intellectual elite” which controls Hollywood encouraged the fragmentation of the American family by “glamorizing” out-of-marriage childbearing, as in the case of the character Murphy Brown.

            But did they, really? Or was this particular episode of the series saying not that it’s great to have children out of wedlock—not even that it’s commendable necessarily—but just that it happens.

            The series then went on and tried to portray a strong, capable, independent woman struggling over her decision as to what the next step in her life should be. In spite of the other options available to her, Murphy decides to have the baby and raise it herself, to the best of her abilities. That’s hardly subversive ideology. Actually, it seems kind of stoic and even sort of traditional to me.

            But during the whole Murphy Brown brouhaha, others rushed to the defense of the beleaguered Vice-president (who later admitted that, actually, he had never watched the show himself). His running mate, George H. W. Bush (“Daddy Bush” as my dear mother calls him), forty-first President of the United States, sternly intoned that America needed families that were “more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.” (Even though he didn’t mention that the Waltons were also staunch Democrats, who always voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt.)

            Well, if the truth be told, we might all want to be more like the Walton and less like the Simpsons, too. But we’re not, not always. That’s just the way life is, and that’s just the way relationships and familiesare. We may have some idealized vision of who we should be—and how our families should be—and how our children should act; but then life happens—and we have to learn to adjust and cope with the reality of the situation.

            But I also think that, perhaps, the Waltons/ Simpsons dichotomy presents a false choice—just as comparing our own families (imperfect as they are) to the “perfect” models we watched on the television while growing up: the Andersons from Father Knows Best; the Nelsons from Ozzie & Harriet; the Cleavers from Leave It To Beaver; the Huxtables from The Cosby Show (for those of you a little younger).  

            All these families (and our own) probably had a lot more in common than what we might glimpse on the surface. (Just as different sizes and shapes and configurations of families share more common characteristics and strengths and challenges than we might first assume).

            Certainly, the “decline” of the family didn’t begin with Murphy Brown, or with the Simpsons, or even with Mom going off to work.

            It’s not just on television that the family seems to be going to hell in a hand basket—but even in the Bible (of all places), as well:

            We may well ask whether Adam and Eve presided over the first “dysfunctional family”: one brother slays another and “East of Eden” he was cast—you don’t get any more dysfunctional than that!

            Look at David, whose father-on-law, King Saul, tries to kill him out of jealousy. David, who while married to Michal covets the beautiful Bathsheba, so has her husband sent off to war and killed. David, whose own son Absalom (his favorite!) rebels against him and is killed in the rebellion. What a soap opera David’s family would make!

            The Bible also presents a much wider view of exactly what a family is than the “One man and one woman together for a lifetimes, with their biological and adopted children,” as no less than the Rev. Jerry Falwell once defined it. A whole lot of families in the Bible (let alone on television) don’t meet the late Rev. Falwell’s definition:

            In the Old Testament, large and extended families were common, maybe even the norm. Abraham’s family included not only his wife and sons, but nephews, nieces, cousins, and various relatives by adoption as well. It numbered into the hundreds! (At least he didn’t have to buy Christmas presents for them all!)

            On a smaller scale, there’s Naomi and Ruth who were mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, and who remained together, lived together, and continued to function as a family after the deaths of their husbands. The story of Ruth and Naomi presents one of the loveliest stories of support and real “family values” in the entire Bible, it seems to me.

            The New Testament is even more varied in its depiction of different kinds of families:

There was Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, who lived with his two sisters, Martha and Mary.

Paul wrote to Timothy, who was an unmarried man who lived with his mother and his grandmother.

Jesus himself was born out of wedlock, of course. He probably spent most of his childhood in a single-parent family: according to most accounts Joseph (who was older than Mary) died sometime after Jesus’ twelfth birthday, leaving Mary to raise her son (and whatever other children she had) by herself.

According to the Protestant historian William Sheek, who has studied the question of families in the Bible in some depth, biblical families are constituted by birth, marriage, adoption, and choice. A family exists in scripture, Sheek says, “whenever a particular group thinks or feels they are a family.” So much for the definition of “one man, one woman, and their children, united for life”. Indeed, the biblical definition of a family seems strikingly similar to that given by that “subversive” “elitist” organization, the American Home Economics Association, which defines a family as “two or more people who share certain values and have a common commitment to one another over a course of time.”

As Rev. Richard Gilbert puts it: “The family, in all its many configurations, embodies the mutual promise of a group that loves and cares about each other.”

            Certainly, when we go back and watch some of the episodes from these old television series, we do get a sense of how much things have changed. Those days when Dad would come home from the office, hang up his hat (remember when men wore hats to work?), and announce “Honey, I’m home,” and Mom would come scurrying out of the kitchen, wipe her hands on her apron, give him a peck on the cheek, and ask, “How was work dear?” – those days are gone.

            Or—did they ever exist—really?

            In many ways, of course, the “good old days” really weren’t so good.

            Conservative voices might want to call us back to more “idyllic” days of the past. But which past, we might ask?

            An imaginary past where Dad went to work, and Mom stayed home and baked cookies? Or a more real, verifiable past where (in 1959), 25% of Americans lived in poverty (compared to 13% today); where interracial marriage was still illegal in more than a dozen states; where black men and women basically had no civil rights in many areas of our country. 

            We tend to romanticize the past, of course, and it’s true, I think, that nostalgia holds an increasingly heavy hand on us as we get older. But the past was never as simple as we think it was.

            I remember one family whom I absolutely envied as I was growing up. Theirs, like ours, had three sons. They lived in a neat little two-storied house a few streets up the hill from us. When we went to visit them, the lawn was perpetually mowed and the floor was continually swept. Mom stayed home, wore an apron continually, and baked cookies, while Dad (who did wear a hat) went off to work, dressed in a coat and tie. There was even a big old fluffy dog, who greeted you at the door, and would slobber you with kisses when you came in.

            I envied this family because they seemed to have so many parts of the American dream—the “perfect” family—that mine did not.

            It was only years later that I discovered the demons that lurked beneath the well-manicured and tightly-controlled surface: Dad was a rage addict, it turns out, with a drinking problem of his own, who was prone to emotional and physical abuse. When no one was watching, Mom teetered continually on the edge of an emotional breakdown. Two of the three sons led short, unhappy lives, fighting their own demons of emotional illness, and social isolation, and petty criminality.

            For this particular family, beneath the “Ozzie and Harriet” veneer, there lurked something pretty close to a living hell. For others, I suppose, the veneer was the reality, and family life for them really was a valley of love and delight and sheer bliss. For most of the rest of us, things were somewhere in between—not quite the Nelsons, not quite the Cleavers, but not the Simpsons, either.

            For every one of us who can honestly claim a “perfect” childhood, there is another of us who has harrowing stories of neglect or abuse. Then there are those of us who have our demons, but who also remember the blessings of a home life where people did their best to give us the opportunities we had to grow and seek and become who could become.

            “The family, in its old sense, is disappearing from our land, and not only our free institutions are threatened, but the very existence of our society is threatened.”

            So wrote a contributor to a Boston newspaper—in October of 1859.

            “Happy families are all alike,” Tolstoy once wrote. “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So it does seem, at least from the outside looking in.

R.D. Laing once said that the family may be imagined as a web, a flower, a prison, a tomb, or as a castle—all depending upon the perceptions of the people involved. And in all periods of human history—and in different periods of our own individual histories--  there have been families that matched each of these metaphors—or which combined elements of several of them, in their ongoing evolution and change.

If our own families (past or present) seem dim and faded compared to those on Ozzie and Harriet or The Donna Reed Show, then at least, perhaps, we can take some comfort in the fact that we’ll never be the subject of a made for television movie, at least.

What’s the secret to a strong family then?

In a book called, appropriately enough, Secrets of Strong Families, Nick Stennet and John Defrain answer that question. The “secrets” they identify are:





A Sense of Spiritual Direction

Coping Ability (lots of “Coping Ability” when the other five “secrets” don’t work out!)

Those are the “family values” that really matter in this modern world. If our families are working together, and developing these six things—Commitment—Appreciation—Communication—Time-- A Sense of Spiritual Direction-- Coping Ability—then whatever they look like on the outside, our future and the future of the world should stand secure.

A good society provides families with the opportunities they need to foster these values within themselves. But ultimately, it boils down to personal responsibility, and our working our through twists and turns and always imperfectly, these “family values” in our own lives.

As our new President-elect has stated:

“But we must also admit that [government] programs alone can’t replace parents; that government can’t turn off the television or put away the video game, and make a child do her homework; that fathers must take more responsibility for providing the love and guidance their children need.

“Individual responsibility and mutual responsibility—that’s the essence of America ’s promise.”

It’s not the kind of lamp we have that determines where we sit at the table. It’s not external changes in society that determine where we hold our families, deep inside our hearts.

“There is as much trouble in governing a family as in governing a whole kingdom,” Montaigne once wrote.

 It sure seems that way at times.

Just ask poor King David… Or ask Homer Simpson… or ask Ozzie and Harriet, when the cameras were off.

But it is also true that, so very often, from life’s greatest challenges life’s greatest blessings do flow.

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