Archie, Edith and the wisdom of Bobbie Burns

Contributing WriterJune 8, 2013 

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!”

That is the civilized wish expressed by the poet Robert Burns. And in my white family – among millions of other such families – that was the wish that Archie Bunker fulfilled.

Archie Bunker, the diehard racist, reactionary and socially clumsy ignoramus, was played by Carroll O’Connor in the historic 1970s sitcom, “All in the Family.”

So let’s shed a tear today for Archie’s constantly embarrassed wife, Edith, played by Jean Stapleton, who died last week. No doubt Stapleton was proud of what she and O’Connor accomplished in smoothing the rough corners off many a real-life Archie Bunker. That disarming little sitcom changed minds and dragged millions of bigots all the way out into the light where they could become more nearly fair and rational.

Before that television show, most white people tended to be bigoted. Today, ironically, it is mostly only the dumbest members of the white race who still believe we are the master race.

O’Connor and Stapleton, along with the rest of that cast and crew, poked fun at and thereby diluted bigotry. They made bigotry not just hurtful but literally laughable. They made many a bigot see the silliness of what he had believed.

My father, for instance. He was a product of his era. He lived most of his life in white islands of humanity such as North Dakota and Idaho. After a few seasons of Archie and Edith, it dawned on me that my father had begun to see some similarities between himself and Archie.

He chuckled at the discovery. His mind opened a few cracks, due in no small part to the weekly wisecracks heaped on Archie Bunker.

Laughter is a kindly though effective tool. Gentle teasing can often be more persuasive than preaching at people.

My father and millions of others were given the gift to see themselves as others saw them. And they couldn’t help but laugh at recognizing their inner own Archie.

Yes, television is saturated with drivel. But when television does strike gold, it can be useful, entertaining and uplifting. That’s why I cringe when I hear someone boast that he doesn’t watch or even own a television set.

Such bogus purists need to be teased about the incontrovertible fact that holy television abstinence is a modern form of illiteracy.

Many books are also shallow and deliciously trashy. But you rarely hear anyone boasting that he doesn’t read books.

Archie and Edith were in cahoots with Robert Burns. Surely Burns would have admired the work of television actors giving bigots the gift to see themselves as others see them.

By coincidence, I am married to a woman who grew up in Burns, Ore., the town named after the Scottish poet. Not long after Sharon and I met, I told my mother the good news – I had found my lifemate. I said it was amazing how much Sharon and I had in common.

My mother was concerned at first that I was a bit giddy (guilty, your honor). She feared I might get my hopes up. I might crash and burn if it turned out we didn’t have so much in common after all.

“Having a lot in common isn’t crucial in marriage,” she said. “For instance, your father is a bigot. I don’t approve of that. But I still love him.”

That could have been Edith Bunker talking. And so it was that both Archie and my father managed to mellow a mite when exposed to the literature of laughter and to the heartfelt human understanding of two wise women steeped in love.

Bill Hall can be contacted at wilberth@cableone.net or at 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501

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