AL BUNDY THE COUNTRY

When I was a kid in the eighties and nineties, Married…With Children was a primetime favorite. The sitcom was always higher in controversy than ratings, defined by a humor that was equal parts bigoted, misogynistic, and homophobic. And yet it had an All In The Family charm to its self-conscious depravity.

Sitting in the pantheon of sitcom families as the endearing worst version of ourselves, the Bundys were the perfect late century antithesis to the nuclear ideal. Al, the heedless husband who regrets every facet of his family, finds happiness only in nudie bars and his beloved million-mile Dodge that gets him there. His neglected wife Peggy does no housework at all, filling her time by shopping with Al’s money while simultaneously humiliating him. And their kids Bud and Kelly hold mutual disdain for both of their parents despite acting exactly like them.

One of the more memorable character backstories was of course Al’s. He would often remind those around him that as quarterback for Polk High he once scored four touchdowns in a single game. As a salacious women’s shoe salesman, this would become his touchstone for masculinity to remind himself and others that he’s still got it, whatever “it” defined men in the nineties. And while we may never get a sequel series depicting Al Bundy’s geriatric years, we can be certain that in some forgotten midwestern nudie bar he still reminds people of his peak years in high school.

America, we’ve become Al Bundy. And it’s time to change.

At some point, your achievements lose value. In youth baseball, I once made it onto the top team after knocking a few homers in tryouts. At the time, it was a well earned point of pride. But I was ten when it happened, so you’d forgive me for leaving that off my résumé in recent years. 

This is because I reject the ideals of what I’ll call Bundyism: the indefinite leaning on past achievements as a replacement for present innovation.

In past months, we’ve heard our president encourage the preservation of the coal industry. There still exist company towns in America, solely to provide for the processing of coal. Put yourself into a family of a single company city. I imagine the fear of seeing the heart that pumps the lifeblood of your town beat ever slower as the years pass. Generations of families who take up their ancestors’ mantle watch the end of the line draw near. It’s not even about the coal really, it’s about the history, the backstory. You are carrying the same tradition that your great great grandparents gave birth to. And one day you wake up and the world tells you that you can’t do that anymore. That isn’t freedom. It feels like tyranny.

Sometimes a lie feels real good. In this case, some believe that coal can thrive indefinitely, and these company towns will resurge to prominence. And what that really means is that thousands of families will get to regain the honor of carrying their family’s history into the future. But it’s not true. There is a definite, knowable end for coal. To forsake this fact while rejecting new, cheaper, sustainable improvements is prime Bundyism.

A century ago, coal thrived. That was back when whiskey was medicine and doctors smoked. It was also before the EPA existed. The current administration’s own EPA site outlines why sulfur dioxide, produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal, is harmful to human beings. Even if coal reserves were going to last us for thousands of years, we at least know for certain how incredibly unhealthy it is.

And it’s not going to last for thousands of years. The exact date of depletion is contested depending on who you listen to. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates about 348 years left, while the World Coal Association figures it will only take 150 years. Oil will be gone in just 50, at least according to BP. The sun, however, will be here for roughly 5 billion more years. It will outlast the Earth. Purely by the metrics, the boldfaced truth of nature will force you to change. At some point, we will need more dependable sources of energy.

Either you take on that disappointment today, or you doom your descendants to do it for you. I’m not saying this to be mean. I’m saying this because fossil fuels will absolutely run out some day.

I understand the innate poetry in connecting our present to our history. Our ancestors sparked the industrial revolution and propelled the 20th century toward unimaginable progress. An oil driller in the 1890s couldn’t have imagined the 405 freeway today, but the two are connected through time. And there is to me something beautiful about that.

But when you hold so tightly to the way things were, whether it be the early days of energy production or that time you scored four touchdowns in a single game, you ignore your ability to write a new backstory today. That 19th century oil driller wrote an incredible moment in our history. Why are you resting on his laurels still? Can you imagine what it would be like to draft a new story that will be the poetic backstory for your great great grandchildren?

I know it feels bad to be told you can’t do something you want to do. When we use words like ‘freedom’ in America, this is the essence of what we mean.

But you don’t want to be Al Bundy, do you? Al never took a single moment to improve himself, because he rested on the way things were. He just assumed it would always be the way it used to be. And then one day he found himself behind the curve, unable to write his own destiny because he was already married with children, so to speak.

You have the opportunity right now. And if we rest on our nostalgia for too long, the moment to write the backstory to inspire the future will have passed you by.

Bundyism doesn’t just apply to our energy industry, it applies to everything.

The debate on gun control has yet again been brought to the forefront through tragedy. Guns are a strong point of nostalgia for Americans. It was thanks to guns that our country was founded, after all. 

When I think of our tradition of personal gun ownership, I equate it to our history of slavery. Our constitution had in plain terms a method for determining population in the era of slave ownership. The Three-Fifths Compromise stated that a slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person, whereas a free white man would be counted as a whole person. No one seems to have considered at the time whether slavery should exist at all, only the parameters by which it apparently must.

Thankfully the Civil War spurred abolition. But try if you can to imagine what it was like to be descended from a Confederate family. You might have to break ties with your own familial pride in order to progress into the modern age. It must have felt like tyranny at the time, so much so that we shed each others equally American blood over it. The most in our history.

Breaking tradition is hard to do. Abolishing slavery required our country to implode. And even then, African Americans still had to suffer another whole century before the law found them to be equal countrymen. All thanks to Bundyism, the resistance to progress for the preservation of tradition.

Guns demand the same analysis of history. Always in this debate the words ‘Second’ and ‘Amendment’ are tossed around. It’s true, there’s a blurb in the constitution, not unlike the Three-Fifths Compromise, that explains the parameters by which we can all own guns. And kind of like with slavery, it doesn’t seem to have been considered whether anyone should own guns at all.

I personally side with the vision of a world where guns don’t exist. I suppose you’d call this a ‘liberal’ ideal, but I don’t see it that way. It’s a human ideal. Our objective goal for humanity, whether we’ve voiced it or not, is for everyone to have everything they need and want in life. In other words, why not live in a world where guns aren’t necessary because competition isn’t necessary? No one needs to rob or kill because they have everything they need.

But as much as I want to believe in that world, I’m not sure it’s possible. Not without drastic Orwellian changes that are probably too far beyond the pale to discuss here. And with roughly a gun for every American in circulation, we need to speak in practical terms. These 350 million plus weapons will not be collected overnight, and some will not be offered up willingly.

It’s also not a perfect analogy with slavery. Guns are not people. And of course, guns can still serve a practical purpose within basic ethical boundaries. Some folks opt to buy a gun to protect their family, and I don’t find fault with that instinct. If someone tried to hurt someone in my family, I might wish I had a gun too.

But they only serve that purpose because nothing better has come to replace them. Just as coal will absolutely make way for more sustainable energy, why have we not even attempted to improve upon the gun?

Allow me to introduce a little sci-fi. In Judge Dredd, a dystopian comic-turned-movie in which police are also Judges who dole out sentences on the spot (usually death sentences), Dredd’s famous do-everything pistol is the Lawgiver. If someone other than Dredd attempts to fire the Lawgiver, it explodes in that person’s hand. For our purposes, we might opt for a locking system over an explosion, but the idea is sound.

It’s something to look at. So much so that a number of companies already have working prototypes. You’ll also notice on that page the reason why these aren’t everywhere today. The NRA opposed it as far back as 1999, not because they didn’t like the idea, but because they didn’t think people should be restricted from buying old-fashioned ‘dumb’ guns.

Bundyism. It’s like saying we should give people the option of getting their energy from coal or the sun. Sometimes choice is the illusion of freedom. To insist upon the improvement of an idea can be the illusion of tyranny. But being given a safer, smarter option, even if it is against your will, is for your benefit. To clutch to dangerous, sloppy technology, purely because it’s tradition, is only kicking the can down the road to your kids and their kids, who will still be grappling with this issue. Do you really want the choice to buy a car with or without seat belts? Is that really freedom?

At a minimum, if guns were attached biometrically to a user, we could begin to curb the illegal resale of guns. Perhaps there’s a way to retrofit current models. And perhaps we could have a program like tax incentives or hard cash to encourage people to retrofit their weapons in this way. Perhaps ‘dumb’ guns could be rented on site at ranges for the gun hobbyist to enjoy. Perhaps hunters could still purchase the equipment they use to feed their families while conceding a slight modicum of safety redesign. Perhaps there’s an even better idea none of us have heard yet, some option between all the guns and no guns at all.

But simply to point at the Second Amendment, a centuries old backstory, and say that’s still good enough is to do exactly as Al Bundy did. As a country, we will not improve, we will continue to be humiliated by other countries, if we do not take stock of ourselves in this moment and decide whether we want to continue to rest on history, or whether we are brave enough to write our own story.

Nobody cares who America used to be. And we don’t get to be The Greatest Nation On Earth™ because we still do the things that made us that way at the start. It’s a title that needs keeping, it must be earned again and again. Just as we removed the slavery that once bolstered the economy, just as we will remove coal which powered a revolution, the change isn’t always easy. But if we don’t change, our kids will look at us the way Al Bundy’s kids look at him, like a man who didn’t even try to better himself.

I don’t expect us to fix gun violence overnight. But I expect us to try. Unless we really are Al Bundy the country, unwilling to let go of our tired backstory of violence. In which case, go ahead, stick your hand down your pants and careful not to hit your gun.

© C G 2018