Just read a very striking piece by E. J. Dickson in Rolling Stone. It says the “Cancel Cops Crusade,” in order to root out systemic police racism, killings & impunity, also has to take down the media images of the police. Even — especially– those of the “good cop.”
Why? because the problem isn’t “bad apples” but rotten trees — in fact, a national forest of 18000 rotten orchards.
To get to the core of the rot, this media dethroning, Dickson argues, has to include even the very best of the media good cops, including the clear favorite of the author and so many progressive TV viewers.
That would be Officer Olivia Benson (played so persuasively by Mariska Hargitay) the main character in “Law & Order-SVU.” In this role she has fought the good fight against every kind of sex offender one could think of for 21 seasons.
An anguished sidebar here: in February 2000, SVU ran an episode called “Limitations,” much of which centered on Quakers. In it they had to confront issues of forgiveness, defying the law because of conscience, and having a Quaker rape victim pay dues for her victimizer with no remedy in sight.
That episode took me unawares, and its impact left me gasping. Later I managed to tape a rerun, and have shown it to groups of Friends as both gripping entertainment and a tough, deep digging conversation starter. I may still have that clunky VHS cassette somewhere; hope so.
Maybe that episode can be rescued from the coming media cleansing, perhaps on religious grounds, or otherwise for showing as samizdat, with the blinds drawn, in clandestine, invitation-only study sessions. Besides the drama, the episode delivers a load of weighty, tough theology so skillfully packaged it can evade the defenses of some of the most doctrinairely anti-doctrinal liberal Friends.
For those who missed it, here’s a partial summary: Benson and her SVU partner Detective Elliot Stabler [Chris Meloni} are put on a cold case of a serial rapist, who has gone into hiding and could soon escape punishment because the statute of limitations is about to expire:
“Benson and Stabler [Christopher Meloni] track down [several] victims, particularly Jennifer Neal [played by Jenny Bacon], who claims to know who the rapist is. However, as a devout Quaker, Neal has forgiven him and refuses to give him up. She states that he has paid for his crimes and does not deserve more punishment.
The detectives are forced to subpoena her, and a judge puts her in jail for contempt. All the detectives express disgust at trying to force a victim to testify, but their boss insists they need to get the dangerous rapist off the street.
The detectives then are forced to invade a [Quaker meetinghouse] with warrant in hand, as the rest of the Quakers refuse to give up critical case information.
[After prying the information from the Quakers’ [files] the detectives . . . .”
There the summary runs into spoilers which won’t be included here. But even this much leaves most Friends with plenty to wrestle with, inwardly and together.
Which is to say, how could we give it up? And why?
“On social media,” says Dickson, “where defunding and abolishing the police has become an omnipresent rallying cry, a similar sentiment also reigns. “The only cop I have any respect for is Olivia Benson,” one tweet reads. “nOt AlL cOpS…you’re right, Olivia Benson from SVU would NEVER,” reads another.
Even as fictional cops ranging from The Wire‘s Det. Bunk Moreland to Chase from Paw Patrol come under the microscope, Olivia Benson is in another class altogether. She is the minority, the exemption, the special case. She and she alone, it is generally agreed, is allowed to cloak herself in the mantle of Good Cop.
If there were a patron saint of liberal women, Olivia Benson would be it, to the degree that Taylor Swift (a totem for white femininity if ever there was one) named one of her cats after her.”
Dickson’s article, like so many revolutions, is pitiless, the more so as its momentum increases:
“[T]his trope has significant real-life implications: according to a report from Color of Change (which features a screen grab from SVU on the cover), crime series “make heroes out of people who violate our rights” and “do not depict the reality, causes, or consequences of [racial disparities in the criminal justice system] accurately.”
Instead, “The truth is that, if you agree that the system is broken and great changes need to be made on all levels to fix it, you can’t pick and choose what needs to be changed.
No matter how much you love Olivia Benson, you have to be willing to grapple with the fact that she plays a major role in perpetuating the idea that cops are inherently trustworthy and heroic, and that many viewers are unable to distinguish between the gossamer fantasy of how justice should be handled, and how it actually is.
If cops are canceled, that means all cops are canceled, up to and including the strong and pretty ones we like to watch break down pedophiles in interrogation rooms.. . .
It’s the simplest equation there is: if all cops are bastards, and Olivia Benson is a cop, that means she’s — kind of — a bastard. (Mariska is cool, though.)”
I read this, and much of me agrees. The real life system is so thoroughly depraved; and the endless stream of cop shows so concealing & myth-reinforcing (I spent much of my boyhood idolizing Jack Webb as Joe Friday on ”Dragnet” more than sixty years ago, on the radio before we had a TV; and those myth-making “tropes” were already hoary then.) This edifice of concealment should go. Lock, stock and bar—
— Except, well. Why would this iconoclastic, purifying wave stop with statues and cops? What about repressive religion and churches? I’ve argued for years that many of the roots of our social pathologies are nurtered there. Is there to be no place at all in this purified America for the exception?
Such a sweeping charge should, I contend, give Quakers (at least) cold chills. After all, most of the key features and moments of our history are about being different (aka “peculiar”), and exceptional. Consider:
George Fox et al insisted they were as Christian as any (& more so than many) — except, their version was shorn of outward sacraments & paid priests or bishops.
Then they also declared themselves as upright & respectable in deportment and family life as the stuffiest Anglican or Calvinist bourgeois— except, they perpetuated the previously unheard of scandal of having Quaker women preach in meeting, and even minister in the outside world.
And not least, while flaunting their fearlessness as missionaries and explorers (Fox, among other epic journeys walked and waded through the trackless and nearly endless Dismal Swamp of Carolina and Virginia enroute to visit Rhode Island Friends when he was almost fifty), yet most Quaker men for nearly two centuries said no to that quintessential male ritual of warmaking, not avoiding its dangers, but seeking and often gaining exemption from the killing part.
This list could be longer. As a group, Quakers don’t have big money, in worldly terms. Or big numbers. Or command of big seats of power. But we’ve got big exceptions. And the list of occasions, nearly as long, when Quakers went astray too often involved their allowing themselves to be swept along on tides of radical, revolutionary upheavals, often in the guise of reform.
It was a French anti-revolutionary who coined the phrase about revolutions habitually devouring their children. Perhaps this time the wheel of ironic history will spin in reverse, and make it the fate of us old onetime wannabe revolutionaries and our younger successors, and that of the good cops (fictional & real-life) to be on the other end of the rising generation’s kabob skewers.
Where would such a refusal of exception leave a group like Quakers? Or is this too intolerably privileged and self-indulgent a query even to ask in their hearing?
The article’s author knows where he stands:
“Revolution can’t be built on the backs of the exceptions, and those who perpetuate toxic systems can’t be deemed immune to critique just because we like them. . . .”
He personally likes Benson/Hargitay; but. Does he care a fig for Quakers? In the SVU “Limitations” plot, Officers Benson and Stabler banter with the refractory, principled Quakers, and seem to respect their scruples— but then roll over them just the same, on the way to a shocking twist ending that leaves us — general viewers and Friends alike, dangling on the ends of our respective dilemmas.
God, I’d hate to lose “entertainment” of such quality.
But as Lenin supposedly said, “You cannot make a revolution in white gloves.” Does that also mean there can be no space for those in broadbrims and bonnets, the specialists in scruples and exceptions? And if not, and we are obliged to let go of it, then what?