January 26, 2017

January 26: THE DUKES OF HAZZARD - Creating a Generation of Anti-Heroes

THE DUKES OF HAZZARD: Premiered January 26, 1979

Originally published January 26, 2014.

You only need to read a few of these posts to recognize that I am, by nature, obsessive. I'm interested in many things, but some things scream out to me and demand a deeper understanding. There is no consistent pattern around what makes something I'm interested in become an obsession, either. It's not limited to a powerful moment or a mesmerizing display. It's not limited to art or media or sports or nature. The only connecting thread is that - upon later reflection - I recognize that the things that I'm most obsessive about later connect heavily with other non-related parts of my life and "connect the dots", so to speak, in helping me to understand my world. That is, of course, a "chicken or the egg" argument; it's impossible for me to ever know if the things that connect to make meaning found me somehow, or if I am merely using the tools at my disposal to create a meaning. Regardless, I've been obsessive since my childhood, and nothing obsessed me more in my younger years than The Dukes of Hazzard.

I was a child of the '70s. Born in March of 1970, I came into the world at the height of the Viet Nam war. I had begun walking and talking when Nixon ran for his second term. I was in pre-school when he resigned. I was six when Gerald Ford shook my hand while campaigning for re-election in suburban St. Louis. By the time I entered third grade, the division within the nation over the war and the fall of Saigon had caused a massive, festering wound. The nation's trust in the Presidency had been compromised by the President himself, and his successor had let him off the hook in an effort to simply wipe the slate clean and try to power through the pain Nixon had caused. It was a time of a national identity crisis. We were not the military superpower who could settle disputes and wipe out Communism in a smaller, poorer country. Our undefeatable leaders were not only human, they were crooked. And not just crooked in a shady, "personal gain" way like Agnew's corruption. This was "power mad" crooked, complete with shady nutcases fumblingly handling his dirty work. The President looked less like a world leader and more like the weasel at the bar who convinces his tougher, dumber friends to beat up his enemies. And so, despite the political leanings of the time, America elects a President from the opposite side of the political and moral spectrum. They elect a Baptist peanut farmer from the pleasantly-named Plains, Georgia. We elected a man concerned about people and the world. We elected "one of us", and allowed the political machines of the day to grind him into a pulp. Carter entered the White House with objectives to clean the ecology and help the schools and stop wasteful spending. Even members within his own party saw themselves damaged by these ideas, and set to work stopping him at every turn. By 1979, the economy was in a free-fall, inflation was through the roof, gas shortages were endemic, borrowing had slowed to a near-halt, unemployment was up. Carter had proven himself to be a good man for America, but a bad man for the Presidency.

Not that I was aware of any of this, at the time. In 1979, we lived in suburban Detroit. I never had a sense where my neighborhood stood politically (they were mostly auto workers), and it never seemed to inject itself into our grade school curricula. But I was a child who watched a lot of TV and listened to a lot of music, and the messages of the day crept in. Most notably in a show I immediately gravitated towards, The Dukes of Hazzard. Judged solely by its writing and its character and set design, The Dukes of Hazzard is a show for kids. And a fairly simple one, at that. Two cousins, Bo and Luke Duke, split their days working on their family farm, run by their uncle Jesse and cousin Daisy. The rest of the time, they drive around the rural dirt roads of Hazzard County, Georgia in their 1969 Dodge Charger R/T. They are, of course, the mortal enemies of the corrupt power-broker of Hazzard county, J.D. "Boss" Hogg and his minion, Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane. Every episode was pretty much the same. The Duke boys would get in trouble for something they did not do. Boss Hogg would figure out a way to pin all of his corruption on them and rid Hazzard County of them forever. The Duke boys would somehow escape from jail, evade the police or other assorted villains in a car chase, expose the real culprits and save the day. Also, the car would jump huge distances without a scratch and Daisy Duke would show off her legs in hot pants.

To say I fell in love with it would be an understatement. I had my mom buy me the Matchbox cars for the show. I would use my baseball card collection to build an entire Hazzard county on my bedroom floor and re-enact chase scenes around (and often times through) the baseball card houses and barns. I dreamed of the day I could own a 1969 Charger R/T. (34 years later, still the same dream.) I dreamed of an adulthood doing the same things the Duke boys did: work hard, drive fast, hang out with family and friends. There was a message there which made sense to me, even if I could not see the bigger picture at play.

The Dukes of Hazzard was primarily a kids show. Yes, adults watched it for different reasons, but it aired on Friday nights at a time not generally reserved for the coveted twentysomething demographics. It's a time slot advertisers used for kids too young to hang out with friends and the parents who watched TV with them. But the message behind the show was more than simple pleasure. The Dukes of Hazzard was the first show that truly presented anti-heroism to children. The message was fairly simple, and a pretty direct reflection of the post-Watergate era. The villains of the show were irredeemably corrupt. They were also long-standing elected officials. No matter how corrupt they were, no matter how much the public hated them, they regularly won election after election. Democracy in Hazzard County was non-existent, and so the idea of the anti-hero made sense. People rose to the occasion and instilled morality where the system would not allow it.

Every theme in The Dukes of Hazzard heralded rebellion. The car was named The General Lee and carried a confederate flag on its roof. The names of the characters were obvious and leading. The Dukes were named for Confederate generals, Biblical names, flowers. Even uncle Jesse (unmarried with no kids) had a name that echoed Jesus.

If The Dukes of Hazzard was responsible for any change in society, it was the change that naturally stemmed from a leadership which could no longer be trusted. America had always believed that our leaders would lead us to continued greatness. The decade prior to the arrival of The Dukes of Hazzard eroded that narrative dramatically. And The Dukes of Hazzard arrived to remind us that we can trust ourselves to self-govern in the absence of a higher power. That not only can we trust our own instincts, we can thrive by them. We can make the world a better place as individuals than we can as a collective democracy. Democracy, the show seemed to be saying, can be corrupted no matter how closely we monitor it, but it doesn't require us to be corrupted with it. For us to avoid that corruption, however, we need to stand outside of the system. We need to defy it at times. The show could only have been set in the deep South. The anti-government narrative has no history in a northern city; the Dukes would have looked like a separatist militia. But the Confederacy aspects of the deep south made the Dukes' reaction to a corrupt system seem historic, ingrained. This gravitas allowed the entire audience to feel the power of self-reliance outside of a crazy system that no longer represents their values. And it allowed them to feel for a moment that they were too fast to be caught in their run from that craziness. And that for a moment, they can fly over river beds and dry gulches. And in the end, they can race home in time for dinner, all the better for what they had been through.

Whether intentional or not, The Dukes of Hazzard created a generation of kids who saw the benefit of self-reliance over reliance on a government. A generation who believed that their internal compass was more reliable than a corruptible democracy. The Dukes of Hazzard may have been silly television, but it spoke to something much deeper in our society. And it changed the way we viewed ourselves as a people.


External Links:
  • Cooter's Place, the headquarters of "Hazzard Nation". Run by actors Ben Jones.

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