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Cops, crime, and TV.

It's official: The 1980s are history and the 1990s are here. The Reagan/Bush era of greed, nouvelle cuisine, traditional family values, and Just-Say-Noism is already grist for the nostalgia mills. We're now neck-deep in the Bill-'n'-Hillary thing: "meaningfulness," meat loaf, and a new set of "family values" and things to say No to.

Patriarchy (at least in its blatant, in-your-face form) is out. Working women and shared parenting are in. Selfishness (at least in its blatant, in-your-face form) is out; volunteering and wearing meaningful ribbons are in. Power dressing (at least in its most ostentatious, in-your-face form) is out; grunge and hiking books are in.

All this may be stylistically more comfy for those who remember Woodstock in its unmediated form. But if you look beneath the surface, at the real cultural politics of the Clinton era, there is not much to celebrate and quite a bit to provoke anxiety. The buzzwords and targets of government repression may differ, but the implications are equally reactionary.

In fact, the most telling difference between Reagan's "law and order" agenda and Clinton's is the shift of focus from sex - the major threat to Western civilization in the 1980s, if you recall - to violence and crime. Sex and violence are, of course, the two aspects of modern life in which the need for social control is always most urgent. When the area of vulnerability seems to be gender and family matters, as it did in the 1980s, women and sexuality come under fire. And when, as is the case now, anxieties shift to matters of race and class, violence takes center stage.

And so, at the moment, we see Madonna and Murphy Brown - Dan Quayle's private demons - coming down from the post office walls, and Dr. Dre and Butt-head - Janet Reno's - replacing them as America's most reviled group: poor or black male youth.

But if the designated evils and enemies have changed, the major players and their strategies are remarkably similar. In both cases, we have a beleaguered white, male power structure, worried about controlling one or another disempowered, disaffected social group. And in both cases, the media and the law are the arenas of choice.

Whether it's the breakdown of the family (supposedly caused by feminism) or the breakdown of the community (supposedly caused by poor and black youth), the solutions are always the same unimaginative, repressive ones: Don't worry about causes. Don't try to figure out why these groups are so angry and disaffected. Look to law and media - traditional agents of social control -to get them and their dangerous ideas and attitudes out of sight and under control.

"Violence" is primarily a cultural code word, being flung about these days in the interest of arousing support for massive increases in law-and-order legislation. The incidence of violent crime has remained more or less constant throughout America's excruciatingly violent history and may even be down a bit this year, as the FBI's own recently published figures show, and as legal scholar Lawrence Friedman documents in his massive new history of crime and the criminal-justice system.

Nor is it true that media violence, at least on television, is on the increase - unless you include news broadcasts featuring massive doses of officially perpetrated violence of various kinds. Reno's own major media event in Waco comes to mind. The most casual consumer of popular culture knows movies are where you get the most bangs for the buck.

So why, at this particular moment, have the guys on Capitol Hill chosen to create such a state of national hysteria over "newly" critical levels of real and symbolic violence on our streets and TV screens?

While I am always alarmed, and alert, when the threat of media censorship is raised, I don't believe that is the primary purpose of Washington's current over-the-top hysteria. What the guys are after - and they've already gotten it, I'd say - is a shift in television's programming agenda from family and gender "problems" to race and class concerns.

Television, after all, has always had a direct relationship to political and economic power in a way that movies do not. It has always been charged with addressing matters of social control, through its entertainment programming as well as its news. And it has always featured two dominant genres in prime time - the family sitcom and the crime series - and each provides guidelines and models for "correct" belief and behavior, for workable problem-solving, in our private and public lives.

In the Reagan/Bush years, we had a glut of family shows - some liberal and "realistic," some more conservative and hokey - all of them presenting personal and gender matters as solvable within the confines of traditional family norms. Dan Quayle, of course, was not satisfied with many of the "solutions" these shows provided in the vexed matters of gender and sexuality that came up in those years, but he was an ingrate. Each of these shows - even Murphy Brown - did its best to keep the notion and authority of "family" alive and functional through a very shaky time for gender relations.

Now, though, we need to switch, says the new regime. The networks, in compliance, have produced a whole new set of shows featuring lawmen as heroes and crime as "the problem." First, there's the glut of tabloid crime shows, cheaply made documentary records of actual police actions against actual criminals, which have virtually overtaken the early prime-time slots. As good as this trend is for the law-and-order troops, it doesn't quite do it for Clinton's own main constituency: educated, baby-boomer liberals.

While these shows are certainly about law and order, they are not of a kind the Clintonites feel comfortable with. They are sleazy, crude, and quite often openly racist. They are meant for an audience for whom niceties of taste and gradations of moral nuance and subtlety are not important. They are less likely to need convincing than the politically correct Clintonites that traditional redneck attitudes and policies actually make sense. They already know lots of people who swear by them.

And so we have a new set of classier crime shows infiltrating the 10 to 11 p.m. slot, where shows like thirtysomething and Northern Exposure make their homes.

Most notable is NYPD Blue, the latest entry from Steven Bochco, who is one of perhaps only two real auteurs of the small screen (the other is Norman Lear). Bochco is also one of Hollywood's prominent liberals. Like his other shows, Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law, NYPD Blue has won great critical acclaim, even from the mavens of high culture for whom most television is beneath contempt.

In many ways, the praise is justified. NYPD is high-quality television from an aesthetic and intellectual standpoint. It offers subtle, sophisticated portrayals of the issues of the day. Bochco gets the nuances of contemporary social and psychological interactions right, and he captures, perfectly, the moral ambivalence of many of us - caught between People's Park and South Central L.A., between the Free Speech Movement of our past and the expensive tuition payments of our present.

But one's taste for NYPD over tabloid shows like COPS, like one's taste for Timberland boots over power suspenders, is more a matter of style than politics. In fact, a comparative look at NYPD and COPS reveals a lot more about the relative class positions of its respective audiences than about their political views, which are alarmingly similar.

These crime shows are the best indicators of how little the terms "liberal" and "conservative" mean these days. The fans and followers of Steven Bochco's and Bill Clinton's crime policies (for they are identical) may call themselves liberal, but their actual agendas, as seen on NYPD and in the President's new crime package, tell a different story.

It is the liberal Clinton, after all, who is pushing the death penalty and stiffer penalties for drug and other crimes, while remaining eerily passive on gun control. And it is Bochco, the Hollywood liberal, who is updating the images of Sergeant Friday and Eliott Ness to fit the new Clintonesque spirit of "communitarianism" and "meaningful politics" for those of us who "deserve" decent communities. Thus, as Clinton's crime policies sadly echo those of George Bush, so does Bochco's artistic vision of the issue echo the sleaziest, most reactionary tabloid shows. The differences in both cases are largely stylistic.

Week after week on COPS, we see footage of actual police officers handling the problems of the poor, badly groomed, ill-spoken Others who have the misfortune to get in the line of fire of some social disaster, either as victims or as perpetrators of "disorder." Civil disturbances erupt because people are dealing drugs, or getting drunk and disorderly, in bars, in their homes, or on the streets. The cops arrive and shove the more unruly or disrespectful around a bit as they steer the more powerless and confused - women, children, and the elderly - toward temporary safety.

All this takes place amid a welter of harangues, insults, and demeaning "advice" about how one should live. Those who deal with drugs and guns are attacked most viciously, of course. They will soon be behind bars, and their families and neighbors will be free of them for a short time. They deserve rough treatment, because they are scum, degenerate, morally depraved. The so-far-good citizens are warned to stay away from these trouble-makers and to keep off the streets if they are women or children - and if they are not, to find something useful to do.

Then the cops shamble off to their squad cars muttering to each other about the animals they must spend their days and nights uselessly herding about and lecturing. "I can't understand how these people's minds work," they are prone to mutter as they turn the keys in their ignitions. "Thank God for the cops," we are prone to mutter as we watch them drive off.

The language, the brutality, the tackiness of the social scene, the bad hair, the filthy, crying children, the untidy lawns, dirty sidewalks are a turn-off. We would not wish to have any of the participants - criminals, cops, or victims - over for dinner. These are not our neighbors; they are the people we see on subways and sidewalks, begging or dozing. If they are cops, they go off, after hours, to their own suburban communities where they frequent bars and diners in which the jukeboxes play songs we don't recognize.

When we turn to NYPD, however, we feel more at home. The principals are still cops, but the way they think and talk is not so different from the way we ourselves have been taught to think and talk - once you get past the superficial nods to class and race differences in the accents and slang words. (Bochco won his big fight to be allowed to use words like "turd" in prime time.)

In Bochco's world, as in ours, moral dilemmas and social issues get articulated verbally and dramatically, as they don't on COPS. There, people don't anguish over the ethics of their work, of how they treat those who are different. The sense of bottom-line urgency and survival makes that unnecessary. And the audiences the shows intend to reach are not, it is assumed, as likely to worry about delicate moral nuances before they feel comfortable locking someone up.

On NYPD, by contrast, when a cop is racist or homophobic (as Bochco realistically portrays many) in a way that jangles the refined nerves of educated liberals, the politically correct among them are right there to talk them through their moral errors, all the while rationalizing distasteful actions they - nonetheless - take against poor and minority folks, in the name of social necessity.

The cops on NYPD are intelligent and educated. They read books. They know about gay rights and the black middle class. But they are stuck - because of their class positions as "go-betweens," to use Frantz Fanon's words - with the job of cleaning up the same messes as the guys on COPS, and in much the same ways. And that's because the shows, in both cases, do not stray from the view of crime which assumes that causes matter less than effects, and that the only community whose problems deserve to be named and addressed is that of the white middle classes, who mostly pay taxes, vote, and buy the sponsors' products. In other words, there's no need to address the problems of the poor and dark-skinned people who are most likely to commit crimes and be their victims.

Let me illustrate with a few typical NYPD incidents:

[paragraph] An aging gay writer comes into the precinct to report the theft of his Academy Award by a male hustler. He proceeds to relate a most embarrassing and graphic tale of his own sexual humiliation. The cop who takes the report is clearly disgusted. But, as it turns out, he is not just a bigot; he is a literate fan of the old guy, and ends by lecturing him about giving up his sexual dalliances and depravities and getting back to work at his art.

[paragraph] The same cop, in another episode, treats a middle-class black man who is justifiably outraged at being hauled in a as a crime suspect in an equally demeaning, bigoted manner. The cops' black superior - whose first concern is social order, of course - outrageously supports the officer against the black man's complaints, making it clear he has no sympathy for blacks who make scenes and carry on about racism at the police department. But never fear. He isn't really an Uncle Tom. Later, he gives the bigoted cop a lesson in racial tolerance by forcing him to sit in an all-black restaurant and eat ribs, while the rest of the patrons give him hostile looks.

[paragraph] Women, too, are treated according to race and class differences on NYPD. Recently I saw a scene chillingly similar to ones I've seen often on the tabloids. A poor single mother, at first assumed to be the victim of the armed robber in whose car she and her son are found, turns out to be an accomplice. Immediately, just as on the tabs, her small son is dragged crying from her arms by a well-dressed female prosecutor who gives him some upscale toys to ease his panic, while his mother is handcuffed and carted away.

You see the pattern. Bad things are felt, said, and done on NYPD to those who don't fit the white, straight, middle-class norm, but always in the interest of law and order. And then the cops responsible - unlike the boors on COPS - are reminded of, or given, lessons in political correctness, so that they, and we, feel better.

So what about the causes of crime and violence? What about the injustices of a social system that oppresses and punishes those who are born poor and black? Lawrence Friedman, in his excellent history, tells us that now, as in colonial times, it is poverty - not "evil," or bad grooming, or a failure to read good books - that causes crime.

Why then, if we're in a new, more liberal era, don't we have crime and law series in which defense lawyers are featured? Shows in which those who try to approach the problems of the inner cities with prevention and reform rather than punishment have their dramatic and socially compelling stories told? Why not public defenders or even inner-city social workers and teachers as heroes, supporting those whose own victimization, from birth, lead them to the acts of nihilism and despair we see so vividly portrayed on COPS and NYPD?

One need only ask the question to see the answer writ large every day in the headlines of The New York Times and CNN. No one in power - with the possible exception of Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who is now marked as a madwoman and renounced by her boss - is much interested in solving the social problems that cause crime and violence, not even the most obvious one: access to guns and ammunition. Middle-class voters, the ones who watch COPS and NYPD, simply want the most disturbing extremes of our problems eliminated from sight by any means necessary - more police terror tactics, more prisons, more executions.

In light of all this, I find myself, more and more often, watching reruns of dumb shows like Murder, She Wrote, Matlock, and even Perry Mason, where the defendants, if not poor and black, are at least seen to be unjustly accused by the stupid, amoral authorities, while the heroes intrepidly seek out truth and uphold justice for the underdogs of the world. This is the stuff my parents watched, the stuff that we baby-boomers scorned when we got educated and socially outraged.

But just maybe it was all that hokey concern for challenging authority and defending social outcasts that helped produce a bit of the radicalism of the 1960s. I shudder to think of the souls of the generation raised on the atrophied, self-centered moral sensibilities of Bochco and Seinfeld and David Letterman.
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Title Annotation:Culture
Author:Rapping, Elayne
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 1, 1994
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