What I learned from Barney Miller

When I was a kid, there used to be a show on TV  during the evenings called “Barney Miller”.  Some of you who are older than I am might remember the show.  It was a comedy about a bunch of cops in New York.  It was pretty damn funny (kickin’ base at 4:30).  We don’t get too many shows like that today, of course.  The quality of today’s TV programming can’t really hold a candle to those 70s shows.  The 70s weren’t all bad.

Anyhow, there was one episode that stuck in my mind to this day.  It involved a well-educated African who found himself at the Precinct after being mugged.  As one of the cops (Harris, the black cop in the show) took down the details of the mugging, some of the details of his visit were divulged, including the fact that he was a slave of another man.  Needless to say, this came as a shock to Harris who tried to explain how it was illegal to be owned by another man.  Our African friend looked very perplexed at the alarm Harris was showing at his relationship with his master.  Over the next couple of minutes, and with great exasperation, Harris attempted to explain how such a thing is beneath human dignity.  Our friend wasn’t buying it.  He was well treated.  He had security.  He liked his state of life.  His owner appeared to be a fine man.  Why would he want to change a good thing?  As this conversation went back and forth, eventually Harris was able to convince him that he needed to break free of being owned.

What is the moral of this story?  Well, it shows the emphasis our depraved culture puts on “consent” when determining our ethical principles (Exhibit A & B).  Consent, by itself, does not determine whether an act is moral or not, as the above episode of Barney Miller shows.  How many liberals, for instance, would see no problem with our African friend remaining in his former state?  Not many.  And why is that?  Because, they will rightly say that our African friend had no knowledge of his self-worth and human dignity; that slavery is human degradation.  And they would be right, of course. And yet, when conservatives ask liberals to apply the same rationale to issues like sodomy or abortion or any other sexual issue, a liberal will invariably shirk back to the “consent is absolute” principle in determining the ethics of the issue at hand.  In other words, they will abandon the ethical pardigm that they used to condemn “consensual slavery” because if they did not, it would encroach on their sexual utopia.  For some reason, when it concerns sex, the blinders go up and “knowing one’s dignity” is no longer relevant in our ethical exercise.

This is why the Catholic Church teaches that true freedom is not an artificial legal or sophist philosophy which can be reduced to relativism.  (In the episode above, Harris wasn’t buying this relativism canard either since he, himself, was Black.  He wasn’t buying the slave’s “it’s right for me but not for you” philosophy.) Nor can freedom be reduced to consent in isolation from truth because, as we are seeing in our society, human beings can consent to the most debased and wicked things, and they can even rationalize children engaging in those things (with or without consent) because of the “medical need” for “sexual health“.   An authentic freedom must know the truth of who we are as human beings, first.  This must be understood before the ethics of any act is considered or even the consent of the parties even comes into play.  When we abandon the truth of our human nature and our dignity as created in the image of God, then even the most trusted and respected of our public officials can descend into base depravity.  There’s no point in talking about “freedom” when “freedom” is wrenched away from any frame of reference other than our own basest passions which, sooner or later, do not simply affect the “consenting” parties, but also end up destroying those who do not consent.

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