How Archie Bunker’s Daddy-Issues Explain “Cancel” Outrage (Seriously)

By Paul Thomas Zenki

On post-modernism, Mr. Potato Head, and All in the Family

In the early months of 2021, Americans of a certain age had our childhoods canceled.

In late February, Hasbro rebranded its “Mr. Potato Head” line of toys as “Potato Head”. Although the Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head figures hadn’t been changed or renamed at all, widespread misreporting of the move was quickly celebrated by many on the left and decried by many on the right as degendering, sparking a tweetle beetle battle over a non-event that dominated headlines for days.

The following month, Seuss Enterprises publicly announced its decision from the previous year not to continue publication and licensing of a half-dozen relatively obscure Dr. Seuss titles containing stereotyped caricatures of non-white ethnic groups. My Quora feed was jammed with questions about why Dr. Seuss had been “canceled”, triggering answers like this one (bolding in original):

“You don’t understand what’s actually happened here. These books have been around for years. Their real offense is that they are a cornerstone of traditional children’s books…. Racism is just the excuse to get rid of this traditional style material….

“Woke judgment is founded on post-modern theory (though the idiot on the street who embraces it never looks that deep). If you understand that you know that truth or innocence is not how things are judged by the woke. Wokeness, powered by post-modern theory, is intent on destroying old frameworks, particularly moral frameworks.” –Bruce Newman

And thus, supposed liberal “cancel culture” has become an endless font of outrage.

At first glance, it can be hard to grasp why rebranding cheap pancake syrup, boxed rice, and plastic toys, or discontinuing a few nearly forgotten kids’ books could cause such a stir. It can be even harder to see how such business decisions could be equated with the intentional dismantling of “moral frameworks”. What, after all, is “moral” about processed food logos, dress-up dolls, and the whimsical nonsense of early-reader picture books?

But the human brain is a funny thing. We like to believe our brains operate by logic. But they don’t. Logic is an output of the brain, not its operating system. Our minds don’t run on logic any more than a lumber mill operates on wood-fired engines. No, the fundamental driver of our mental processes is association — this goes with that. And sometimes, quite often in fact, association overpowers the logic we attempt to impose on it.

We want to believe that our upbringing was good, because we want to believe that those we loved, who brought us up, were good. If the things they accepted as not being racist are in fact racist, that means those we love most in our lives accepted racism. Which would make them racist, as well as ignorant for not recognizing it. Which would make them bad, and kinda stupid to boot.

For many people who grew up with Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Dr. Seuss’s Chinaman, clearly binary-gendered toys, and public displays of the rebel flag, believing that any of these things might be inherently bigoted is simply unacceptable. And so it is easier to believe that there’s not actually any bigotry there to be seen. And if the charges of bigotry are phony, there must be something else going on behind the curtain.

That “something else” is an attack on who they are, and the world they grew up in. And the people attacking them are, obviously, dishonest about their stated motives, and either manipulating others for their own purposes or else too gullible to see that they are being controlled by the manipulators. As such, they are inherently untrustworthy, and dangerous to the fabric of the national culture.

Of course, this battle did not begin in 2021, or even in the 21st century. In what I regard as one of the most powerful moments in American television, this clash between progressive and conservative views of the past, and those who lived it, was embodied in Mike Stivic and Archie Bunker of All in the Family. In the eighth-season episode “Two’s a Crowd”, the conservative Archie and his progressive son-in-law find themselves locked overnight in the chilly cellar of a local tavern, where they drink from a bottle of whiskey and end up having the first genuine heart-to-heart conversation of their relationship.

It is in this scene that Mike, along with the audience, comes to understand what makes Archie think the way he does. Forty-two years later, it’s still worth watching. (Note, this clip contains racial slurs.)

Here is a transcript of their conversation, although to truly feel the power of it, you have to watch the actors deliver the lines.

Mike: Did you ever think that possibly your father just might be wrong?

Archie: Wrong, my old man? Don’t be stupid. My old man, let me tell you about him, he was never wrong about nothing.

Mike: Yes, he was, Arch.

Archie: Eh!

Mike: My old man used to call people the same things as your old man. But I always knew he was wrong. So was your old man.

Archie: No, he wasn’t.

Mike: Yes, he was.

Archie: He was not.

Mike: Your father was wrong.

Archie: Don’t-!

Mike: Your father was wrong!

Archie: Tell me my father was wrong, let me tell you something. Your father who made you? Wrong? Your father? The breadwinner of the house there? The man who goes out and busts his butt to keep a roof over your head, and clothes on your back, you call your father wrong?

Hey, hey, your father. Your father. That’s the man that comes home bringing you candy. Your father’s the first guy to throw a baseball to you. And take you for walks in the park. Hold you by the hand.

My father held me by the hand. Oh, hey. My father had a hand on him now, I tell you. He busted that hand once, and busted it on me. To teach me to do good. My father, he shoved me in a closet for seven hours to teach me to do good. Cause he loved me, he loved me.

Don’t be looking at me!

Let me tell you something. You’re supposed to love your father. Because your father loves you. Now how can any man that loves you tell you anything that’s wrong? What’s the use in talking?

Conservative outrage over what Americans on the right have come to call “cancel culture” is rooted in this way of seeing the world. If my people were good people, then they were not bad people, and they would not have believed in bad things. When you tell me that emblems of my childhood were bad, you are telling me that those who embraced them were either bad or too ignorant to know better. That is an insult, and unacceptable. Therefore, they were not bad, and you must have ulterior motives for saying they were.

And so it’s easy to see why there is no end to the arguments between Archie and Mike, why they never end up seeing eye-to-eye, why neither one ever brings the other over to his way of looking at things. Because it’s not about what’s actually going on.

It’s about how can anyone who loves you tell you anything that’s wrong. What’s the use in talking?


Header image: Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker (Tandem Productions, promotional)

Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.