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A BIGOT WHO TAUGHT US TOLERANCE



Published: Tue, June 26, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Chicago Tribune: The death Thursday of actor Carroll O'Connor, 76, marked a milestone for Americans of a certain age. We remember O'Connor best as the lovable bigot Archie Bunker in the TV sitcom "All in the Family." Much more was at work than comedic artistry. Whatever our race, faith or politics, there was an unsettling element of Archie in all of us.

When it first appeared in 1971, the show tackled the problem of bigotry in shockingly head-on terms. Archie Bunker exulted in mouthing ethnic slurs that had been taboo before on TV. But Archie reflected reality: most of us have spoken vile words we wouldn't want the objects of our scorn to hear. Archie didn't care. He was working-class, conservative, narrow-minded, America-love-it-or-leave-it and racist to the core. He said things about African-Americans, gays, feminists, liberals and foreigners that offended audiences. He called his liberal son-in-law "Meathead," insulted his neighbors and chauvinistically told his wife, "Stifle yourself, Edith."

In doing so, he also forced Americans of all hues and ideologies to confront their own narrow-minded, racist or bigoted conduct. O'Connor's enthusiastically played character helped nudge us closer to a tolerance -- still far from fully realized -- that built on earlier progress driven by the civil-rights movement, anti-war demonstrations and the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

Antihero: By bringing the bigot out of the closet and showing him for the buffoon he was, Carroll O'Connor took some of the sting out of the ignorance and intolerance that most of us had heard -- not just in Archie's living room, but in our own. He may have made some bigots proud by validating their antics in prime time. If so, they missed the point. He was an antihero, a flawed human being who tried to build himself up by tearing down others. He was lazy about his own views and, week by week, we saw him forced to confront the illogic and illusion behind them.

Mostly, he made us all -- whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Christians, Jews, Muslims, men, women -- laugh at ourselves. He made us think about how we treat each other, about the kind of society we had become and whether it was the one we wanted to pass on to our children.

In doing so, Carroll O'Connor did something extraordinary: He made a difference. The CBS show ran through 1979, but it endures as a model for tackling tough subjects. There is some Archie Bunker in the Jeffersons, in Homer Simpson, in Will and Grace -- in all of us. By behaving badly, he taught us to behave better.

Way to go, Arch. Those were the days.

FILLING IN HISTORY

Washington Post: The idea of creating a museum on the Mall devoted to the African American experience is back again, and it's high time something was done about it. The long-discussed project came within a hair of being realized back in 1994, when the House and a key Senate committee both passed authorizing legislation, only to be blocked later by the opposition of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. This year, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who has offered a bill to launch such a museum every year for a decade, introduced it again with some key new Republican allies, including its lead Senate sponsor, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Historical merits: Why should the Mall add another museum telling about what is, after all, part of American history? And if for African Americans, why not for Hispanics, Asians and on ad infinitum? These have always been the main questions proponents of a museum must answer. The responses bear some resemblance to the arguments that were successfully advanced for the Holocaust Memorial Museum and for the approved but not yet built National Museum of the American Indian. But the cases are all slightly different, and each must stand on its own historical merits. The Holocaust museum is not strictly speaking an American narrative at all, but it speaks to core American values and the need to stand up for them. America's relationship with its indigenous peoples is a central and rich, if dark, part of any honest national self-image. And the saga encompassing slavery, civil rights and the immense African American influence on American culture is likewise a key part of any understanding of the American experiment and its struggles and shortfalls.

Far from ghettoizing American history, these stories belong to everyone and ought to be appreciated as such. That can happen best with the prominence and visibility a full-fledged museum brings. Any future proposals for other groups can and should be held to the same standard.




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