Barney Fife and the Rise of the American Police State

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The danger in America is that our modern Fifes are not comic characters with single bullets and hearts of gold but deadly serious, heavily armed agents of the state bent on enforcing the letter of the law without regard to common sense or a sense of justice and mercy.

It remains one of the most legendary of television series, telling the stories of small-town life in an America that was already slipping away when it aired in the 1960s. The Andy Griffith Show ran on CBS television from 1960-1968, starring comedians Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor and Don Knotts as Deputy Barney Fife. In the series, the two maintained law and order in the fictional, yet eminently recognizable, American town of Mayberry, North Carolina.

On the show, little Mayberry remains untouched by change, despite the political and social turmoil of the decade that permeated much of the country in the decade of the 1960s. The threat of nuclear war, the sexual revolution, the rise of feminism, and racial tensions seem very far away. Mayberry is not merely the center but more accurately the totality of the characters’ world. Even nearby Mount Pilot, the county seat, seems a distant location, Sheriff Taylor occasionally compelled to go there on business. More rarely, the characters journey to Raleigh for the wider pleasures offered by the big city; however, with the exception of a single episode late in the show’s run, these trips are taken off-camera, the characters only referencing them.

The show’s production team indeed did not feel the need to put the characters in exotic locations to breathe new life into scripts and generate greater ratings. (In contrast, the equally legendary television series I Love Lucy eventually moved its characters from their modest New York apartments to large houses in the Hollywood hills.) In the very few episodes that depict the characters in another location, the intent is to contrast the ever-changing outside world with the insulated and static world of Mayberry. In one episode, for instance, Andy, his son Opie, and his Aunt Bea are on a bus, when Opie points out “another grown-up lady” on the street wearing trousers. “Somehow it seems all right out here,” Andy says, “but I would sure hate to see a thing like that in Mayberry.” The essential conservatism of Mayberry is evident even in the name of its only beauty salon, “The Fleur De Lis”; there will be no Jacobin revolt against the political and social order here.

Though filled with comic characters, The Andy Griffith Show centers on the interplay between Griffith’s sensible and kindly Sheriff Taylor and Knotts’ bumbling and self-important Deputy Fife. After the show’s first season, Griffith realized that he should play the straight man to Knotts’ character, and the formula made for one of the most uproarious comedy teams in the history of moving pictures.

Deputy Fife is devoted to enforcing the law by the book, issuing tickets to old ladies for jaywalking on a main street that has few cars and speeding tickets to truck drivers going a mere five miles over the posted limit in an effort to get their vehicles across the one steep hill in town. One of Fife’s most famous lines is “nip it in the bud,” by which he means that even a nascent whiff of unlawfulness must be met with the most draconian police enforcement measures lest chaos ensue.

Taylor’s casual approach to law enforcement, on the other hand, is exemplified by his rejection of the wearing of a tie, and, more significantly, by his refusal to carry a gun. Universally respected and loved by the townspeople, the good sheriff enforces the law through the force of his innate and obvious righteousness and his prudent deployment of common sense. In the few episodes in which Taylor does choose to don a weapon for an assignment, it is always for the purpose of capturing an escaped convict who is an outsider to the safe haven that is Mayberry. In one episode, Taylor goes so far as to shun bringing a weapon to a meeting with a former convict for whose incarceration Taylor is responsible and who seems to be eager to settle the score with the sheriff. (In a cleverly executed plot twist, it turns out that the man merely wants to thank Taylor for setting him on the straight and narrow.)

In contrast to the casual Taylor, the strait-laced Fife wears a tie and carries a gun at all times, though the latter is famously kept unloaded by order of Taylor, the one bullet he is allowed to have being worn on his belt. This literally disarms Fife’s character, whose tyrannical proclivities in another character in another show might be troubling. Fife is humorous—like the Nazis of the television series Hogan’s Heroes—because he is so incompetent. Also, the ever-reliable Taylor provides a check on him when necessary. Many times when Fife rants about some perceived breach of the law and consequent threat to the social order, the sheriff simply interrupts him (“Barn, Barn!”) and provides a few words of wisdom to calm him down.

In addition, we the viewers are repeatedly assured that beneath his self-important, bumptious exterior, Fife has a heart of gold. For example, in one of his few self-aware moments, Fife tells a judge who is investigating the sheriff for his laxness in following procedure that Taylor has taught him an important lesson: “When you’re a lawman and you’re dealing with people, you do a whole lot better if you go not so much by the book, but by the heart.”

Today, Sheriff Taylor feels like a character from a bygone era. As American society responds to its cultural, moral, and social meltdown by heavily arming its police forces and by training them to be aggressive in their enforcement tactics, it has abandoned the creed of the Sheriff of Mayberry and chosen what might be called “the Fife option.” As evidence, all one need do is consider the many recent examples of police brutality and overreach, from the shooting to death of a boy armed only with a toy gun, to the tasering and resultant maiming of a handcuffed young woman, to the humiliating body cavity searches that now seem common during routine traffic stops.

The danger in America is that our modern Fifes are not comic characters with single bullets and hearts of gold but deadly serious, heavily armed agents of the state bent on enforcing the letter of the law without regard to common sense or a sense of justice and mercy. Mayberry, the American Shire, is a symbol of our vanished past. Today the dark shadow of authoritarianism has crept into every corner of the land. We have sent away the Sheriff Taylors and replaced them with police officers whose hearts are too often like those of Tolkien’s Black Riders—once good but now deformed by their slavish obedience to the all-seeing eye. In the unenviable choice between unlawful chaos and authoritarian order, Americans have chosen the latter, and we are suffering the consequences.

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This blog post has been reproduced with the permission of The Imaginative Conservative. The original blog post can be found here. The views expressed by the author and The Imaginative Conservative are not necessarily endorsed by this organization and are simply provided as food for thought from Bigger Pie Forum.

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