Matt Weiner describes his new show, Mad Men, as "science fiction" -- but in the past. [J]ust as science fiction often uses a future world to say things about the present you can't say directly, his show uses the overtly sexist and racist atmosphere of a 1960 New York advertising office to talk about issues that persist today but that we are too "polite" to talk about openly.
There you have it. Mad Men is a voice out of the 1960s telling us we are still racist. It’s a serious charge, seriously offered, and conservatives don’t like hearing it one bit. As the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger writes,
That times change and society can adapt to those changes for the better is an admired habit of the United States. But in the matter [of] racism—some segments of American liberalism won't let it go. In this liberal reading, there can be no forgiveness. Only the possibility of legal retribution. Forever. Yes, a civil war was fought. It ended in 1865. The Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. Because this is the United States, it is time to move on.Still, there it is. Look at how reaction to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder split along partisan lines. The court held Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, meaning that 48 years later, 9 southern states no longer need advance federal approval before changing their election procedures. Jeff Jacoby, in the Boston Globe, says:
The defeat of Jim Crow is one of the great progressive triumphs of American history. But to hear the outraged critics, you’d think the court had just thrown the door open to a revival of poll taxes and literacy tests. . . an emotional John Lewis, who was on the front lines of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s and is now a congressman from Georgia, blast[ed] the court for plunging “a dagger” into black political emancipation. . . The gains made by freed slaves during Reconstruction “were erased in a few short years.” Lewis is sure it could happen again.The return of Reconstruction? Really? What we do know is that part of America wants to prolong the Civil War well into the 21st century.
And Mad Men is making its contribution. Listen to NPR’s Lisa Chow:
Mad Men depicts the 1960s advertising world of Madison Avenue in a way that is pretty close to reality: very white and very male.And the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about Mad Men’s lead character that Donald Draper was “racist. Indeed, it would be inaccurate to the period to present him as not having racist views, yet achieving that level of success."
Racist and sexist. The civil rights revolution of the 1960s folded into the drive for women’s equality. To relive the terible-wonderful, heady days of America’s fight for black and female equal treatment, immerse yourself in Mad Men, a television series filled with stark examples of what we were up against then. As the Los Angeles Times said of the show:
the sexism, in particular, is almost suffocating, and not in the least fun to watch. But it's the force against which the most compelling female characters struggle, and the opposition that defines them. The interaction with everyday misogyny and condescension – the housewife whose shrink reports to her husband, the ad woman who's cut out of the after-hours wheeling and dealing – gives the characters purpose and shape.Mad Men’s ‘60s were the last time America had truly great social causes, and truly monstrous villains. In those days, the left was pushing a moral cause, and it lived on the leading edge. Today, our problems overwhelmingly relate to economics.
Nostalgia for the 1960s is best explained by this stark fact: traditional liberalism has run out of gas. It's the status quo, big government, Democrats wanting to continue fighting the Civil War with a coalition of minorities, unmarried women, and youth hungering for a cause, their cause being a war on Republicans and “states rights.”
Republicans based in the South, tied into religion (see previous post), ideally will fall to liberals who view religion as backward, passé. Labor-left Theo Anderson, who explicitly links Republicans, the South, racism, and religion, educates us on the rise of the progressive movement, pushing America forward. It began
at Harvard in the decades between the Civil War and the turn of the century, when the university’s president, Charles Eliot, initiated a series of reforms that transformed the paradigm of higher education in the United States. . . Harvard’s intellectual life [previously] revolved around the Bible. . . Eliot moved Harvard away from [Bible study] and toward the model of a modern research university. Expanding the boundaries of knowledge through research became the institution’s focus. Most universities followed the lead of Harvard . . .
This new mission for universities created a spectacular fragmentation of knowledge. By the early 20th century, the old-school generalist who taught everything from Latin to literature and history was a relic. The new university required scholars to specialize in defined fields. This rise of experts within the academy reflected the increasing importance of expertise in American society, as careers in the professions came to require specialized training.There’s no going back. Progressives have given us institutions dominated by credentialed specialists. But taking away our culture’s religious underpinnings leaves society with an emptiness that Mad Men’s Weiner seems to feel personally, and carries into his show:
My insight into Madison Avenue and copywriting in particular is because I'm a television writer. I think the businesses are very parallel to each other. Creative people like to think of themselves as artists. And when there is money at stake it becomes for both, "What is the most entertaining?" I've always looked at advertising as a form of entertainment. And if it's entertaining, you think it will sell things, but that's not always true. The Taco Bell dog was so funny, but I don't know if it produced business.
Whenever we talk about other people's moral issues, it's very clear to us. But I think for ourselves there's a lot of wavering, a lot of relative morality. Anybody who has a clear picture of what's right and wrong uses it to judge other people. And a lot of times when we come to our personal situations we're pretty loose. Or we just feel guilty and horrible about what we do. Peggy gave that baby away because she had to, she had to, she had to. But how do you judge her? I don't know. That's what I'm interested in: Here's the objective standard of what's good and bad, and here's the way we behave.Moral relativity is the logical outcome of progressives helping retire religion and replacing it with science. Prolonging the war against sexists and Southern bigots is a way to hold onto a defined moral center, but 150 years after the good guys won the Civil War, 50 years after “I have a dream” and The Feminine Mystique, it may be losing its punch.
Astronomer Carl Sagan, a self-described agnostic, wrote in Contact (1985), “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” Sagan also said,
Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.The scientist searches for the spiritual. And so searches Mad Men. As “Gawker” wrote:
Don Draper, is built on a lie. Just like one of his campaigns, his whole identity is a sweet fabrication, a kind of candy floss spun out of opportunity, innuendo, and straight-up falsehood.Weiner himself has a more complex view of Draper, seeing within his chief character a continuing struggle between the ideal and the real:
When [Megan] said she wanted to be an actress ... I thought it was this great dichotomy, because she really has an idealistic idea of being an artist, which is a real rejection of Don's advertising career. ... It's like she's going to reject the part of him that is him. . . Don and Megan are soul mates, and they're one person — and that one person is Don. Megan rejects Don's way of life, and Don doesn't even know how painful it's going to be. . .Another time, Weiner says,
Don Draper [is] Marilyn Monroe, [the] false self — . . . a persona that is so different from where you came from ... there can be a sense of shame, of “You don't know me. You will never know me. I'm a fraud.”And earlier, Weiner revealed:
I [write] about Don Draper [because] it's about admitting the most negative qualities in yourself and how you overcome them. . . I was definitely struck with the idea of the confusion that sets in about feelings that you have from when you're single and ambiguous feelings about family and all these institutions that you're craving. . . I've always identified with Don and Peggy . . . multiple sides of my personality, and I'm thrilled there's an audience out there that's not threatened by investigating what's wrong with us. And that's why there's no judgment. A lot of entertainment is about making you feel that you're OK. That's what Don says in the Pilot. But life is more complicated than that.Life in Mad Men is more complicated. It’s more complicated than thinking the “good guys,” the progressive cause, can hold itself together in a post-religious world by fighting against racism and sexism for another 50 years.
The Civil War is over. And so, soon, will be Mad Men.