LIFE LESSONS No. 1: Power Corrupts, Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.

The Committee
Iron Mike
Murder Ward

In these three episodes, and the series as a whole, murderers, rapists and con men are not the most rotten of criminals, no matter how destructive: rather, beware the influence-peddling, politically astute, wealthy and influential pillars of society who have lost their humanity through greed and ambition. In this series, corruption is everywhere. In your political representatives, your mortgage broker, your lawyer, the police officer you run to for help. I learned this early on as I watched, and actual real life has not proven this wrong.

The political cynicism of the series is seen vividly in “The Committee”, a brutal story of Starsky and Hutch seeking justice for the victims of two rapists while being hindered by their own people. Atypically, in this episode they are attacked from both sides, above and below, accused by a uniformed officer of being too lenient, and implicated by the brass in a series of vigilante killings. Vigilantism is not only tolerated by the system but actively encouraged by its most senior members, as in police veteran Lt. Fargo, head of Internal Affairs. Fargo is identical to any board member of any institution, commercial or political, with influence and leverage (even the name of his murderous thugs – “The Committee” – is a cynical take on business as usual). Fargo not only undermines the justice system, he seeks to destroy Starsky and Hutch by setting them up to take the fall for complicated reasons of his own (he could have his pick of “deserving” criminals, but he chooses those who are directly being investigated by Starsky and Hutch).

The opposite of Fargo is Mike Ferguson, whose stellar career is due to a cozy relationship with gangster Matt Coyle. In return for looking the other way, Ferguson gets the goods on hundreds of small-time crooks. Like Matwick and Fargo, Ferguson is proud of himself and refuses to acknowledge he’s part of any systemic problem. “I may not always go by the books, but I get results,” he says. Again, iniquity is compounded because it comes from both sides of the equation: Coyle also believes he is making the world a better place, insisting no one “was never bought or bribed.”

All this I watched avidly, learning. And by far the element remaining foremost in my mind is the fact that all these guys had one thing in common: all fervently believed the suffering of the individual is necessary for the rectification of a larger problem. In other words, it’s okay to inflict pain if you want to preserve order. It’s a mantra repeated by results-driven social architects throughout history. It’s why police shoot demonstrators. It’s why internment camps were invented. It’s why chimpanzees languish in cages in laboratories, awaiting death. And it’s turned me into a life-long skeptic of fanaticism of any sort. Fargo, standing before a whimpering, helpless Garner, says, “(shooting Garner) is … righting a wrong. Look upon it as a necessary evil. A greater good. This man’s life to save all the lives that would be forfeited if he were to continue to twist the law to protect the guilty scum he calls clients.” This rationale implies justice is in the hands of the individual rather than a system of law. It negates mercy, and it negates empathy. Matt Coyle insists he turned over “animals and hard cases” thus making the world a better place. In Murder Ward, Dr. Matwick delivers a passionate, self-serving speech explaining his psycho-chemical experiments. “My conscience is quite clear. The work I’m doing is of utmost importance … a few lives is a small price to pay.” He then says, “Criminal psychotics, all of them. They were quite invaluable to my research. Their lives were their only contribution to this world.”

Directly or indirectly, all three men flourished through the willful ignorance of those around them. Responsible for the death of two patients at another hospital, Matwick’s deeds were hushed up by government agencies; he was moved to the west coast and allowed to continue his work preying on the most vulnerable people. This would mean, if he published papers, hired staff, was investigated and then exonerated, that hundreds of people knew what he was doing. We see examples of this everywhere we look, from Jerry Sandusky to Wall Street investment firms. The only difference between life and television, as Nellie disgustedly remarks in “The Committee”, is that on television the bad guys get caught and in real life most evils go unchecked. And yes, here too: in all three episodes, Starsky and Hutch are triumphant in taking down the bad guys, and are helped in the crucial final moments by the right-hand man (and woman) the corrupt official has used, abused, and takes for granted. In “The Committee”, it’s Ginger, Fargo’s sometime girlfriend who turns against him. In “Iron Mike” Starsky and Hutch very cleverly enlist the help of Coyle’s lieutenant Johnny Lonigan by arousing his wounded pride. In “Murder Ward” Nurse Bycroft finally has enough of her boss’s cruel ways when she allows herself to see the anguish in Starsky’s eyes. I can still recall the thrill of sedition as each one of these characters breaks the chain of servitude and does the right thing, and vowed to myself that I too, in a similar situation, would act. I suppose this is the final part of the lesson in morality: evil exists and always will, but it is fed not by the fire of its host, but by the indifference of those around him.

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7 Responses to “LIFE LESSONS No. 1: Power Corrupts, Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.”

  1. Dona Says:

    By reading your post, I was thinking that we were probably attending the same classes. Where were you sitting?? …
    You made a right selection of three episodes connected by the same statement: individuals, supposed to hold moral principles for the defense of weak people, arbitrarily go beyond their duties to assume unethical missions under the belief that “the suffering of the individual is necessary for the rectification of a larger problem” and with the connivance of people who look away … or … the end justifies the means.
    Starsky would reply to go and ask the victims what they think about it.
    Starsky and Hutch carry the uprightness of good people loyal to moral principles, and follow the light of empathy towards all sort of victims. And, as you said, they succeed also because we don’t leave them alone in the fight. This was indeed, at the time of my childhood, my promise to them.
    Many years later I found this, by M.L.King: “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends” … and this silence is what we should fear most.
    Thanks for your post.

    • merltheearl Says:

      Ha, I’m sure I was two rows behind and one to the left of you.

      I enjoyed your comment very much, and am glad you are engaged with these ideas. I can’t help but imagine how confused and possibly hostile the average cultural critic in 1978 would be, reading this last post.

  2. Dona Says:

    If you look back at “Bloodbath” and change perspective, you can see even in Gail a blind follower who suddenly opens her eyes just in time to avoid another murder, as Nurse Bycroft did.
    Obviously, Gail’s leader is not exactly the good guy we’d commit our life to, but she does. And she finally shakes it off in the morning Starsky was condemned to be slaughtered.
    … what a relief in that lovely puzzle of clutching hands and arms seeking and offering protection!

    • merltheearl Says:

      Very true. I have made this point before, but it’s interesting how often the series gives women characters the chance subvert the powers that be, often while at the very bottom rung of the social ladder.

  3. Dianna Says:

    Oh Merl, reading your posts is sometimes as gratifying as watching the show, because of the connections you pull together. [And while I’m waiting for my 3rd season DVD’s to arrive, I’ve got no new shows to watch, much to my sorrow.]

    I think your insight about Starsky and Hutch working against the idea that “the suffering of the individual is necessary for the rectification of a larger problem” is right on the money.

    I would add The Specialist to your list, because of the way Arthur Cole uses Alex Drew as a tool for his larger purpose. Note that Hutch comforts Drew as he is handcuffing him, and that Starsky laments that they can’t arrest the really guilty party. Regrettably, they do not manage to articulate to Cole what they find wrong with his approach, but we understand.

    Your insight is also reflected on a smaller scale in Jojo, where they are willing sacrifice an important bust in order to protect a woman from rape, and in Tap Dancing, where they are willing to blow their cover in order to stop a robbery — and in their general habit of ignoring or even sympathizing with the criminal activities of victims (e.g. prostitutes and addicts and revenge-driven husbands Alex Drew and Zack Tyler) in order to go after the people who cause their suffering (e.g. pimps and pushers and cold bureaucrats).

    (I know Huggy is referred to as a pimp one time, but I think that is either sloppy writing or a figure of speech, because Huggy is too compassionate for that line of business, and the guys’ reaction to pimps is consistently very cold.)

    These sympathies are sometimes inexplicable to their superiors, as when Dobey asks how Matt Coyle is substantially different from Huggy, and when the guys feel a need to justify their priorities to Chief Ryan.

    Speaking of Chief Ryan, Starsky and Hutch Are Guilty is an interesting twist on the theme. Starsky jumps to the conclusion that a cold bureaucrat is out to get them, perhaps because he doesn’t approve of their care for the little victims, but it turns out he is an upstanding citizen, and that it is Sharon Freemont who is promoting her own agenda regardless of who gets hurt along the way. She doesn’t even have the justification of a “larger problem,” but is simply trying to advance her own career. Maybe this is how Arthur Cole got his start.

    • merltheearl Says:

      Thank you Dianna. And yes, I agree with your observations about other episodes conforming to this thesis, although I admit I do wonder about Huggy’s extra-curricular activities. While I don’t believe for a second he’s an actual pimp, I figure he not only turns a blind eye to women using The Pits (in all its incarnations) as a place of business, but in fact ensures that business is done in a safe and orderly manner. I can easily imagine Huggy is quite typically 70s male in his (erroneous, dangerous) attitude that prostitution is not only inevitable, it’s acceptable, and not that big a deal. This is conjecture of course. I can’t believe I’m hesitant about impugning the morals of a fictional character, but I am.

      • Dianna Says:

        Of course you are hesitant about impugning his morals, because he is real to you — to us! It is not unlike the way I flinch every time someone says Hutch is mean. We would not be here writing about these people if we did not care about them!

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