Where is Archie Bunker when you need him? The reactionary, bigoted curmudgeon of the hit sitcom “All in the Family” was one of the key cultural touchstones of the 1970s. A buffoon, to be sure, Archie was also a readily identifiable American type, the self-pitying white man ill at ease with recent changes in the social order. But because Archie was also portrayed with depth and sympathy, the laughs at his expense helped the audience come to grips with the turmoil they felt wrestling with their own biases and those of family members.
Perhaps an updated version of that character could illuminate the trend of bashing American Muslims, most recently on view in the activism of the Florida Family Association. This evangelical Christian group is riled that a new television show, “All-American Muslim,” portrays its subjects a little too benignly. Where are jihadists? the association demands to know.
Why hasn’t the program featured terrorists, bomb-throwers or violence against women? “All-American Muslim,” which airs on TLC, chronicles the lives of five families in Arab-American communities in Dearborn, Mich., a Detroit suburb with a generations-long history as a home to Arabs, both Muslim and Christian. It’s a reality show -- and not a particularly entertaining one in the Snooki/Kardashian/toddlers-in-tiaras kind of way. The pace is slow and very, very explanatory. Zzzzzzz.
Perhaps that is because “All-American Muslim” is portraying reality, and TLC (formerly known as The Learning Channel) recognizes some value in Americans, well, learning something on TV. What viewers might gather from the show is that the vast majority of Muslims in America lead lives that are as mundane and ordinary as their own. Lives filled with work, faith and home. The episodes aired so far have been unapologetic about highlighting that fact.
The Florida Family Association calls this “propaganda.” It complains that the show “profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks.” How deplorable. Imagine, a reality show highlighting a broad reality. There is a Muslim sheriff’s deputy, a head football coach at the local high school, a single mom and an adult daughter living with her somewhat overprotective mother.
Some of the characters are traditional, very focused on their faith, such as the couple who are new parents. Others are less so, like the ultra-hip mom who wants to open a nightclub. Some of the women wear the hijab and many do not. And they -- gasp! -- speak Midwestern English.
In an effort to protect innocent Americans from this shocking truth, the Florida Family Association has pressured advertisers, most notably the hardware company Lowe’s, to withdraw their advertising. We’ve seen this kind of thing before. Right-wing Christian groups love to target TV shows and movies that portray gays and lesbians in a positive light. Right now, the Florida Family Association is also fretting that a new “Spider-Man” character is going to turn out to be gay. They’re campaigning against Marvel and Disney to keep him in the closet.
The more this activism succeeds, the more it fails. Ask Lowe’s how happy it is to be in the middle of this. The company has pulled a thread from its Facebook page on it decision to pull advertising from “All-American Muslim.” The company became alarmed at the rising hatred posted in comments.
That’s all the more evidence that shows like “All-American Muslim” are needed. Recall what “The Cosby Show” did for Americans’ perception of race -- yes, blacks can be affluent and upper-middle class and funny. Then there was “Ellen” for gay Americans, which laid the groundwork for the portrayal of gay parenting in ABC’s “Modern Family.”
The show doesn’t shy from the often effeminate characteristics of its popular co-stars. Most viewers get the humor, and are willing to live and let live. In a sense, such programs don’t change opinions on a given social issue so much as reflect the ways in which American opinions have already changed.
In the 1970s, the time was ripe for a character like Archie Bunker. America was ready to acknowledge and laugh at the ignorance that lived on in his resentful heart. Such a character wouldn’t have been possible a generation earlier, when the struggle for civil rights was still very much a matter of life and death.
These days, anti-Muslim activism in America is a fringe phenomenon, the province of opportunists on the right. Yet the fears it appeals cannot be denied. A healthy dose of perspective is needed, and, strange as it is to say, a sitcom or a reality show might just be the ticket.
Mary Sanchez, an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star, can be reached at Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413.