• U.S.

Video: Warriors In Los Angeles

5 minute read
Lance Morrow


Theo Huxtable graduated from New York University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. The large and loving family gathered: the plot’s only crisis had something to do with whether Theo could find enough tickets to the ceremony for all the friends and neighbors and family who had assembled to hug one another and make fond jokes. Dr. Huxtable (Bill Cosby) was goofy with pride. He had a flashback to the time some years before when Theo announced he wanted to forget about school and get a job: Dr. Huxtable, stern and loving, laid down the law. And then at the end of the show, Cosby and his television wife, Phylicia Rashad, walked off the stage set, out of fantasy into real time, as the studio audience applauded.

Now Dr. Huxtable is gone. What are Americans to do for fathers? Ronald Reagan was a hologram of American Dad. George Bush is, so to speak, a less vivid absence than Reagan. He seems to be away a lot, either physically or morally. When he does come home to try to focus, Americans almost wish he would not: He has been going too often into his ’50s flustery, dufus mode. Mario Cuomo is the only Democrat who looks and talks like a father, but he refused to accept the role, and that amounted to abandonment. He left the Democratic race to the sibling rivals (Clinton, Kerrey, Brown, Tsongas and so on), who have spent the season gouging one another the way kids in a big unhappy family do.

Love is a zero-sum game in America, and the children riot over it. Or rather, they riot in the absence of it: it is usually the want of love that makes children vicious and sends them out of control. It seemed perfect that Cosby, America’s ideal fantasy father (black) should vanish just at that moment: video metaphysics. Cosby-Huxtable was a heartbreaking American illusion. There is no deeper need among the nation’s most deeply needy blacks than perfect fathers, Dr. Huxtables, role models for male children, grown men who will do the first, indispensable thing for children: make them safe and happy. Then teach them how to grow up, how to be intelligent and responsible and how to raise children of their own. Without all that, nothing can be done. It must be hard for some young blacks not to think of The Cosby Show as a species of fraud, a looking glass into a never-never America for them. The set goes blank.

America makes itself insane with the envies and needs that its self-images create. To have and have not is relative. Last year’s movie Boyz N the Hood was set in the same South Central Los Angeles that was burning in last week’s riots. The characters, the boyz, were supposed to represent the dead-end hopelessness of black ghetto males. And they did. They also lived in relatively pleasant homes and drove customized cars and watched enormous color TV sets in a life-style that most of the residents of Kinshasa or Cairo would consider upper-middle class — nearly luxurious. An objective, literal-minded Marxist might wonder what the boyz’ whining was all about. But the terrible American lovelessness and exclusion and self-pity — the fatherlessness, the leaderlessness — gave the boyz a ring of truth. Grievance is comparative. If you feel inferior and hopeless and lost, especially compared with the Big White Other, why then you are. And you may go around blowing each other’s heads off: the most literal enactment of brainlessness.

Without grownups to sort out right and wrong, what is acceptable and what is not, judgments that should belong to the moral-responsible realm fall to that of sensational empathy, of momentary response. Discussion is reduced to jolts & of electric horror and freezes instantly as attitude — as racial stereotype. Society becomes a war of videos, in which orderly brainwork, any reasoning over rights and wrongs, is impossible. Cosby gave way on American television screens to endlessly reduplicated, hall-of-mirrors replays of the Rodney King video and the truck-driver video: the truck-driver video being the one shot from a helicopter when a group of blacks dragged a white driver from his vehicle and beat him almost to death (he survived).

In the moral flatness of button-pushing sensation, the truck-driver video accomplished the amazing task of nullifying the Rodney King video. The dumb, blunt message of the Rodney King video was: white cops are monsters beating defenseless blacks. The bottom-feeders’ message of the truck-driver video was that blacks are savage, racist animals who would beat a man virtually to death because he is white. On that level of discourse, if Americans choose to stay there, there can only be a gridlock of rage: blacks make demons of whites, whites make demons of blacks.

America is in certain ways a country out of control: drugs, crime, what has become a morally borderless wandering. The two videos are a matched pair, complementary. They are choreographed like mtv, performed by Road Warriors. The Rodney King video shows cops in the stylized tribal rioting that men in groups on dangerous excursions sometimes use as a form of bonding — solidarities of atrocity on the late shift. The truck-driver video looked like ritual sacrifice, the helicopter circling overhead, the rioters circling the trucker’s flung body. Both videos recorded naked power dances, conscienceless, brainless, evil, pain inflicting: I have your life under my boot. To look at them last week was to see Americans of both races going backward at the speed of light.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com