July 15, 2015

Summer rerun: How The Beverly Hillbillies explains your salvation

A while back I’d made an offhand comment that 1965 might well be the year that defined the decade of the 60s; prior to that, much of the 60s still depended on the 50s for its definition; after that, the 60s devolved into the disintegration of everything familiar, an era that continued well into the 70s.

And so perhaps it’s appropriate that we take a closer look at the Malcom Muggeridge article I mentioned at the end of this week’s TV Guide review (March 6, 1965), because I think there’s more to this piece than we can get into in the regular “This Week” format.

Muggeridge, although he once claimed to have no sense of humor, was widely known as a wicked satirist; the New York Times referred to him as a “caustic social critic.” He’d been the editor of the British humor magazine Punch, and he was rarely at a loss for words – or targets of that caustic criticism. He wasn’t afraid of being outrageous; witness his 1957 Saturday Evening Post article “Does England Really Need a Queen?” which, needless to say, created something of a stir back home.

However, there was always a serious subtext behind Muggeridge’s humor, and this side became more pronounced as the 1960s evolved. He became an outspoken critic of the counterculture, especially the drug and sexual revolutions. By the time of his 1966 book Tread Softly for You Tread on My Jokes this more serious side was much in evidence, so despite the TV Guide cover’s promotion of Muggeridge’s article as “a renowned critic’s witty report on the British passion for American TV” (and in fact the dry Muggeridge wit is certainly visible), I think it fair to assume that Muggeridge was really talking about something much more profound, especially regarding the spiritual evolution (or devolution) of British and American society.

The premise of this article is an analysis of why The Beverly Hillbillies has become the most popular program on British television. This is due in large part, according to Muggeridge, “precisely because they are so tremendously American.

The fact is that we Europeans, whatever we may say to the contrary, are crazy about everything American. Indeed, I sometimes think that the more anti-American we purport to be in attitude, the more Americanized we tend to become in our tastes, our speech and our attire.

OK, so that’s easy enough to follow. There’s long been a school of thought that anti-American attitudes are born of jealous as much as anything. (Whether this is still the case, or that in the intervening 50 years American culture has earned that antipathy on its own is another question.) But just what is it about the Hillbillies’ American-ness that makes such an impression on Brits – or fellow Americans, for that matter?

Muggeridge suggests that there is an innocence about the Hillbillies that appeals to a cynical populace. “We, too, yearn after wealth which does not corrupt; after an innocence which triumphantly survives the possession of riches.” Jed may have hit the jackpot with that oil strike, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed either he or his family, “constantly on the edge of succumbing to the lures of luxurious living, but always at the last moment pulling back and resuming their old, virtuous ways.” There is an irony to this, though, in that our cynical selves would rather admire the virtuous than emulate them: “In accordance with the principles of an Affluent Society as laid down by Professor Galbraith, we have rejected the outmoded Christian notion that the poor are blessed, but we should still like to be convinced that it is possible to be rich and blessed.”* By watching the success of the Hillbillies each week, we are reassured that we can have our cake and eat it too.

*Muggeridge was in large part responsible for bringing Mother Teresa to popular light through his book Something Beautiful for God. I suspect therefore that the phrase “outmoded Christian notion” is meant as brittle sarcasm.

And this success bodes well not only for the here and now, but for the hereafter as well. “Week by week [the Hilbillies] demonstrate that, though possessed of great wealth, they can still just get through the needle’s eye into the kingdom of heaven.” Muggeridge expands on this spiritual aspect, for it is one that is crucial to understanding the role of television in modern culture – it “is largely dedicated to providing reassurance on precisely this score.”

The early Christians, in order to secure themselves against indulgence in sensuality and cupidity, persuaded themselves that their fleshly appetites were vicious and great possessions a handicap to virtuous living. The writings of the fathers and the saints are full of denunciations of sex and riches. Now, when we have created a way of life in which sex is our chief relaxation and riches our main pursuit, traditional Christian teaching in this respect would seem to require revision. We cannot accept the drastic notion of ourselves as sinners. Nor can we in decency just repudiate the fathers and the saints.*

*Almost 50 years hence, has anything really changed?

The answer, therefore, is to demonstrate that the two can coexist, “that, like the Hillbillies, we can be rich and still successfully repel the assaults of the Evil One.”

It is not only tempting to draw parallels between the 60s that Muggeridge describes and our own time, it is virtually impossible not to do so. Many of us dream of what we would do with sudden wealth, should our Powerball number finally come up. We may quit our jobs, buy homes for our loved ones, establish scholarships, fund charities, buy a fancy sports car. One thing is for sure, though: our sudden wealth will not change who we are. We not only say this, we not only believe it will be so, we have a desperate need to believe it.

The role of television in all this cannot be minimized. As I’ve so often suggested, television does not create so much as it reflects, and the truth reflected by the success of the Hillbillies is one that dates back to the Victorians. “[O]bsessed as they were with the lusts of the flesh, [the Victorians] were always trying to demonstrate in their popular art that chastity could survive in the poor and the simple despite all the lures and stratagems of accomplished seducers. We, obsessed with money, seek in our popular art to reinforce the conclusion that the poor remain blessed even when they become rich.” Television, therefore, simply takes its place in a long line of visual media as reinforcing this belief.

What saddens me and, I think, would sadden (though perhaps not surprise) Muggeridge as well, is how we’ve seen this attitude change in the last few years. You hear much talk about the utility of morality, especially in terms of religion, and especially in terms of the American Founding Fathers. It is said, and it is a debatable point, that most of the Founders were Deists. However, it is undeniable that most of them understood the need for a civic religion, even if they themselves didn’t believe in its truths. Franklin, for instance, felt that organized religion was necessary to keep men good to their fellow men, writing Thomas Paine that members of society “have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security.”

This attitude is mostly a given in Muggeridge’s article. Even if we strive to make wealth coexist with virtue, we do not deny the merits of virtue. We know that being blessed is a desirable state to be in, and we understand, even if only subconsciously, that the desire for wealth and power and sex somehow diminishes that state of virtue – else why should we attempt to reconcile it all?

Today, however, I don’t think anyone would be sure of that. Rather than aspiring to a virtue that, though it may be unattainable, is still recognized as being worthy, we now deride virtual altogether. Not only are there fewer and fewer standards which a majority can agree on, there is disagreement as to whether or not standards are even necessary. Viewers in the 60s may have looked at the Hillbillies as quaint, but they felt good about the idea that they could be both “rich and blessed.” Today, the blessed part isn’t important – we’d rather be rich and sated.

Not the Beverly Hillbillies
As evidence of the universality of the fairy tale epitomized by the Hillbillies, Muggeridge had cited, interestingly enough, The Beatles – a group he loathes, calling them “four moronic and unpleasing youths with long hair and little talent.” Nonetheless, a great deal of their appeal in 1965 came from the perception that they remained “unspoilt” by their wealth and fame. “[T]hey are still the same simplehearted, inarticulate Liverpudlians that they always were.” The Beatles are, in essence, Britain’s own Hillbillies.

Now, by the end of the 60s, I’m not sure anyone would have considered The Beatles “unspoilt”- by this time they’d encountered drugs, experimental music, and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In a way this exposes the fallacy of the fairy tale that so many longed to believe in. There’s an old saying that “when you lie down with dogs, you get fleas.” Likewise, wealth, power and sex create their own burdens, and by separating these from virtue, we soon succumb to their collective weight.

Muggeridge concludes his article with the observation that, thanks to television, “more people in the world today know The Beverly Hillbillies, it is safe to assert, than know President Johnson or even the Pope. Backward or undeveloped nations are shown by means of television the way of life toward which they so ardently aspire.” The global reach of television leads us into uncharted waters; “Such a thing has never happened before. No need to take on trust the rewards of toil and struggle; it is there, visible, on the television screen.” No matter who he is, no matter where he is, a citizen of the world “sees with his own eyes all he may enjoy and become”.

It’s quite interesting that an article with so many layers would be published in a “popular” publication like TV Guide, but the times were different, and serious content often landed in the magazine’s pages. By the way, if this all sounds a little dry and scholarly to you, it’s not meant to. Muggeridge’s article is in fact quite readable, and frequently slyly humorous. On the face of it Muggeridge is being his outrageous old self, satirizing the desire television has to be seen as Important. But behind his mock seriousness lies a true appraisal of the culture of the 60s and where it was leading, and I’ve no doubt that Muggeridge was deadly serious in his appraisal of what the popularity of The Beverly Hillbillies says about ourselves and our time. As Muggeridge might have said, “I’m surprised that you’re taking this seriously. But I’m even more surprised that you aren’t.”

Originally published March 2, 2013

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