Saturday, March 31, 2012

real scared

You're not makin' it easy for me and Opie to walk down Main Street.

-- Paul David and John L. Greene, "The Battle of Mayberry" (April 4, 1966)

So I wuz' a-watching this episode of The Andy Griffith Show, and it near scared me to death.  Seems Opie was writin' a historical essay for a contest, and they would publish the winning essay in the paper.  The topic was the legendary Battle of Mayberry, when heroic settlers defeated the savage Indians, and made North Carolina safe for little groups of white men.  And the kids were supposed to do a lot of research.  After all, there was a lot of material to work with.  Everybody in town had an ancestor in the battle, and everybody's ancestor was the main hero.  Aunt Bee told about Captain Taylor, and Clara showed up with the actual sword that had won the battle, and Floyd the Barber and Goober fought about their forbears till they stopped talking.  Opie wrote all their stories down in his notebook.  He even talked to Tom Strongbow, who told him how the Cherokee Chief Strongbow (who was of course the hero of the battle) with fifty braves turned back five times that number of white people who had guns, winning the victory and protecting the ancestral hunting grounds.

So to help Opie get an edge in the contest, and perhaps to resolve the conflicts in his source material, Andy took Opie to the big city library to find something more like original sources; and Opie found out the truth.

And here's the truth.  There was no battle.  There was an argument between fifty Indians and fifty settlers about cattle, and they all made up their differences and got drunk together, and by mistake somebody shot a cow, and that was the only casualty.  There was no battle.

"Oh boy," said Andy.

And here' s where I got real scared, because I thought I saw where this was going.  'Cause Opie would obviously win the contest, and then they would publish his essay, and it would insult everybody in town (and their heroic ancestors), and Opie would be the least popular boy in school, and Andy the least popular sheriff.  The real treasure of Mayberry was of course its community spirit.  So no true citizen of Mayberry, no public official or  leader, would want to shred the consensus on which community depended, for the sake of a revisionist history.  So this is where it was going: Andy was a-settin' out to suppress the truth.  And I was scared he would win.

First he tried to corrupt his son.  He told Opie that he didn't have to publish what he knew -- that his essay would still be the best in the school, and he would still win the contest and get published in the paper.  He told him how important it was to keep the peace, and respect people's feelings, sometimes more important even than the truth.  But Opie wasn't having it.

So then Andy tried to corrupt Opie's teacher (who by the way was also Andy's girlfriend).  He said she had to cancel the contest; but that just wasn't going to happen.  So then he begged her to give the prize to some other kid; but that was askin' her to lie.  And then he begged that they not publish the essay after all, and she said it was too late, it was all arranged and couldn't be changed.  And then he lamented how hard this was going to be for him.  But the lady's heart remained obdurate.  Andy had failed to suppress the truth.

So the essay was published, and the townspeople were offended.  And then something strange happened.  The governor got wind of the contest and read the winning essay on the radio.  All tuned in to hear him, and the governor praised the town for its honesty and integrity, for following the truth wherever it led, even to debunking of precious false memories.  And all were pleased.  They agreed that they were a fine and honest community.  Andy and Opie could walk down Main Street again.

And I, of little faith, had doubted.  I didn't think this show about small town values would defend the truth; I had thought the show would endorse consensus over truth.  Ah, those were the days.  When we thought that truth was important.

And this is how truth would win in those days.  Mayberry -- perhaps we have forgotten -- was in the South.  There were no black people there; but its fictional conflict took the form of the great campaigns against Jim Crow and segregation.  The community's consensus -- its civility -- was based on a lie, told and retold by all from morning till night.  Mayberry said they had heroically beaten the indigenous peoples.  The South as a whole said that the "Niggrahs" had been given freedom but had shown themselves "not ready," and now they lived separately but equally, and it was best for everyone.  To question any part of this false history at any time was to make oneself a public enemy, a person who could not walk down Main Street.

When Nine black children in Little Rock challenged false history, walking down their own Main Street to Central High, the scene was ugly.  Officers of the law enforced immoral law, and well-dressed mothers shrieked abuse into the ears of children.  Until, as in Mayberry, a larger authority intervened.  The governor changed the ethical equation in 1966 Mayberry, as the 101st Airborne Division at the command of General Eisenhower changed the power equation in 1958 Little Rock.

This is how truth breaks in upon the world -- by appealing to the higher power or, as Emerson said, by drawing the larger circle.  Revelation is always a power play.  Sometimes truth arrives at a drunken supper party, sometimes in a prayer, sometimes at a therapy session, sometimes in an election, and sometimes -- if we manage it no better way -- in a murderous mass conflict.  But it's never on the lesson plan.

A liberal knows that he can never own the whole truth; but the liberal faith, the pragmatic faith, the American faith, is that greater truth inheres in the larger realm.  Mayberry on the day in question was corrected by the larger truth of North Carolina, and Arkansas on its chosen day was corrected by the larger truth of the United States.  "Around every circle another can be drawn," wrote Emerson.  The search for truth is freedom, and freedom expands in the ceaseless drawing of the larger circle.

The truth is a thing that no one can own.  We can only increase the size of our vision.  Every ideology, every religion, every national epic, every form of life, is a partial rendition of the truth seeking wholeness.  The truth however is not partial but whole in itself; its wholeness is what gives the lie to falsehood.  Beyond the songs of the master and the slave there is a greater song that includes and explains them both.  Truth is what always seeks to be be larger, more complete.  When we balkanize the truth, we give our reverence to the lie.

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