Monday, September 21, 2015

Don Draper's Emmy

They've finally given an Emmy to Jon Hamm. With it comes an "explanation" of why it took so long, "explanation" here meaning "theory".
The Emmys’ revised rules permit a broader, less informed voting pool, and whispers of it being “Hamm’s time” likely secured his victory. The result was an award that felt more like an apology than an ode to craft. Which prompts the question: Why did it take this long to recognize the star of the decade’s most praised series? And what is it that made Hamm’s performance as Draper so antithetical to awards?
I'm not sure it feels like an apology so much as if feels like fan service.

And is Jon Hamm such a good actor? I don't know and I suspect you don't either. I've never heard of him doing any other roles terribly well. Perhaps he has. Perhaps he hasn't. I can't help but wonder at the "broader, less informed voting pool". Perhaps professional actors aren't so impressed at Hamm as we fans are at Don Draper. Or, to put it another way, was it Jon Hamm's acting that made the show or was it the role he had to play?

There is a big clue hidden in the Slate article I quote above. The article makes passing mention of a "notorious pan" of the show by Daniel Mendelsohn. You can read it here but, if, like me, you're a big fan of the show, you won't like it much. You won't like it because so much of what Mendelsohn has to say is right on the mark. There is a lot about Mad Men that was simply awful. There are entire episodes that are so badly conceived and written that they should never have been filmed never mind inflicted on the public.

But it's even worse than that. Mendelsohn sums up the shows appeal towards the end of the article and comes very close to getting it right.
This, more than anything, explains why the greatest part of the audience for Mad Menis made up not, as you might have imagined at one point, by people of the generation it depicts—people who were in their twenties and thirties and forties in the 1960s, and are now in their sixties and seventies and eighties—but by viewers in their forties and early fifties today, which is to say of an age with those characters’ children. The point of identification is, in the end, not Don but Sally, not Betty but Glen: the watching, hopeful, and so often disillusioned children who would grow up to be this program’s audience, watching their younger selves watch their parents screw up.
That's what the show tried to be. But it failed. Much like The Preppy Handbook, of decades ago, the unintended effect of the show was to make the culture it meant to criticize seem like something to emulate.

In creating Don Draper, Jon Hamm and the shows writers created a sort of character that we don't see any more; they created a character of the sort that John Wayne, Cary Grant, James Stewart and Gary Cooper used to play. Those actors always played a sort of ideal male and they always played the same ideal role.

And that sort of acting is not currently in style, which is what makes it so hard to say whether or not it good enough for an Emmy. You apply a completely different set of criteria when judging such acting and a big part of that judgment is of the character himself.

That, by the way, may have a lot to do with why it took so long for Hamm to win. Awarding him the Emmy while the series was still running would have amounted to an endorsement of the character. We could all see that Weiner et al were trying very hard to deconstruct Don Draper but the fan reaction showed it wasn't working. It never did but the show being over has dispelled the magic. Don can't come back now. Not as Don Draper anyway.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Mother figures in fiction for boys

"We're a generation of men raised by women. I'm wondering iof another woman is really the answer we need."
One place you can get a glimpse of how feminized our society has become is in the way mothers are presented in children's fiction today as compared to a century ago. Mothers have very rarely been criticized in children's fiction; they have always been almost sacred figures for reasons that ought to be obvious. But there are ways to criticize mothers in fiction without tackling them directly and it used to be much more common than it is today. The most famous example of this is the evil stepmother.

For boys and girls adoption fantasies, and that the evil stepmother is just one of variety of adoption fantasies, are very powerful because they help prepare us to break up with our mother. Despite a lot of talk about patriarchy, our mother is the person we come out of and she holds a powerful sway over us. She is often the one who gives us most of our earliest moral lessons. If it is not our mother, it is typically other women, such as nannies or daycare workers, who give us these lessons.

For much of human history, we got handed off from women to men beyond a certain point in our upbringing. That, as Tyler Durden observes in the quote I put at the top of this post, is no longer the case. Nowadays, a boy can go from one female teacher to another all the way to adulthood and, even then, choose a lover who is really just another teacher.

It didn't used to be that way and one way that fiction prepared us for that was by belittling our mothers. That shocks us, of course, but we should ask ourselves why it bothers us so little that fathers are constantly belittled by the modern entertainment industry.

The novel Jim Davis by John Masefield provides an interesting example of this. The eponymous hero of the novel is an orphan. He ends up in the care of not one but two women: his aunt and a Mrs. Cottier who is deserted by her drunken husband and comes to live with Jim's aunt and uncle. The uncle, like many fathers, is a distant authority figure.

Before going on, I want to pause and tell you how this novel was understood by the wider culture when it was published in 1911. The copy I have was part of a collection authorized by the Boy Scouts and called Every Boy's Library. Here is how the foreword describes it:
Tempting boys to be what they should be—giving them in wholesome form what they want—that is the purpose and power of Scouting. To help parents and leaders of youth secure books that boys like best that are also best for boys, the Boy Scouts of America organized Every Boy's Library.
The word I want you to notice more than any other in that paragraph is "wholesome". I want you to notice it because the way Jim learns all the important lessons of life is by falling in with outlaws.

And then there is the way the novel deals with mother figures. In one early adventure with the outlaw who befriends them, Jim and his friend Hugh are hiding in the woods when Jim's aunt and Mrs. Cottier coming looking for them. They ignore the women's calls. Later, they confess to having done this and the following ensues:
My aunt said something about 'giving a lot of trouble' and 'being very thoughtless for others', but we had heard similar lectures many times before and did not mind them much.
Think about that for a while. Here is a book representing the establishment views of the era that told boys to just ignore their mothers when they went on about some kinds of moral responsibilities that women might want to impose on boys. You could not do that today, even though it is very good advice.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Critical thinking

I keep thinking about our reaction to this Syrian boy drowning. Tragedies happen everyday. Why does this one seize our collective imagination? And why do facts matter so little? We now know, or should know, that most of the "facts" originally reported were not terribly factual. The answer to both questions seems painfully obvious: presented with a compelling photo, we stopped thinking.

But did we? I think we did think about it. The problem was not that our judgment was turned off by the photo but rather that it was turned on.  We suddenly started reaching conclusion and deciding that action had to be taken about things we already knew about before we saw the photo. The problem is not that our brains were turned off by a photo but that they were turned on and we started making judgments we didn't need to be making.

I have started putting together a list of critical thinking questions to ask myself in cases like this. It's nothing new, I've been informally using some of these for years now. I want to become more disciplined about asking them though. This list is not final.

  1. Is my reaction based on a photograph or video? If yes, turn off judgment and just gather experience. The moment we make a judgment, we stop paying attention to our experience and focus instead on our judgment.
  2. How did the camera get there? The other day, someone shared a post with me about the pope's surprise visit to an Italian slum. The video at the post showed news footage of the event. It was a tripod shot over the heads of thousands of people who were already standing there when the pope's vehicle pulled up. How can this be a surprise event if a news team had time to get assigned to drive across town and set up a camera before the pope arrived? Likewise, how did the crowd get there? Nothing against the pope, all politicians use orchestrated media events but the rest of us need to be more critical.
  3. Why was this shot selected? The Syrian boy can't have been the first refugee to die trying to get out of that hellhole of a country. Is there good reason to believe that a news editor chose this shot for its emotional impact. If yes, see question 1.
  4. Does this photograph change my understanding? I already knew before I saw it that there are desperate refugees all over the world trying to get out of their countries. I already knew that some of them die making the attempt. I do not have a single new fact as a result of seeing this photo. Actually, it's worse than that: an explosion of false information accompanied this photo.
  5. Are the things I am tempted to say after seeing this photograph or video new? Am I saying or thinking anything I wouldn't have said or thought yesterday? If the only thing that is different is the intensity that I feel them—"Something must be done!"— I should just stop talking and see how I feel 48 hours from now. (Actually, this is true of most news stories. It's reasonable to act immediately to a storm warning but just about everything else can wait until the day after tomorrow and then the decision will most likely be to do nothing new.)
  6. Are my judgments really about the situation or are they about me? Photos like this trigger massive public response and the temptation to engage in virtue signalling—that is narcissistically demonstrating my virtue by showing everyone how outraged I can get about something.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Good advice: extract the greatest experience

Your goal is to extract the greatest experience of flavor from the rum, so don't be in a rush to decide whether you "like" a particular rum or not. Suspend judgment for as long as you can. The minute you decide that you "like" the rum (or not) you stop noticing the rum and start paying attention to your judgment. Your evaluation gets in the way of your perception and tasting is a game of sharpening perception. (from A Short Course in Rum by Lynn Hoffman)
That advice can be applied to a far-wider range of experiences than just tasting rum. I don't think you'd quite want to generalize it for reasons that most adults should be able to figure out for themselves.

But one thing I think we should do is to apply it to a lot of moral judgments about experiences. There is a tendency to make judgments about the moral worth of some activities very early in the game and, when we do that, we stop noticing the activity and pay attention to our moral judgment to our detriment.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Good Advice: peace or chaos?

I got this one from Waller Newell in his book The Code of Man.

It's really a question but it's a very important question to ask yourself: What is the natural state of human life? Is it peace or is it chaos?

If you think it's peace, then you'll be inclined to blame all evil on human action. You'll be inclined to believe that things would be just fine if people didn't keep messing them up. If you think it's chaos, you'll be inclined to think that it is only constant human effort that creates and maintains order.

These two views are not moral outputs. That is to say, they don't come about because of moral reasoning. They are, instead, assumptions that moral arguments are built on.

Many of us start of believing in the former. I'm not entirely sure why. Part of the answer is our mothers. Our mothers want us to behave so they convince us that our peace and happiness depend on our cooperating with them. If we don't upset mummy, we can have a trouble-free life.  Eventually, this gets expanded to include the belief that we can have a trouble-free life only if other people don't upset mummy either.

We also get a lot of it from popular culture. Star Trek's prime directive being a classic example. You'd also see it in the cynicism of M*A*S*H which had us believe that a couple on uncommitted layabouts could do more good by doing less evil. Both shows reveal that it doesn't really work by cheating all over the place. On Star Trek the prime directive is little more than a plot complication hauled forth when useful much like Captain Renault shutting down Rick's place for gambling. On M*A*S*H, the cheat was that the two cynical layabouts just happen to be brilliant surgeons who can rush in and save lives whenever it might otherwise become obvious that the whole show is a fantasy for men who never want to grow up. (If you read the books it was based on, BTW, you'll see that is exactly what it was to begin with.)

By now, you're probably thinking that you can guess how I'd answer the question and you're right. But go ahead and answer it for yourself—I'm sure you're mature enough not to be influenced by my thinking. (Once you have your answer, think about political theories and ask yourself which side they fit on. Some are obvious: Locke, Marx and Rawls are obviously on the peace side. Plato, Aristotle and Machiavelli are obviously on the chaos side. But what of Hobbes? At first he seems obviously to be on the chaos side but his solution to his own problem seems so easy that I suspect he really was a peace man.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Good advice: Blow up your relationship with your mother

The word "idolatry" conjures up images of funny little carvings of misshapen gods from distant, exotic places like Africa, India or the Pacific Islands. In truth, idolatry is something far closer to home. It looks like this:

Okay, Suzanne Somers is a twinkie who believes some utterly crazy shit so who cares that she decided to share this sentimental crap? Well, a lot of people apparently. Someone I know shared that on Facebook on the anniversary of her mother's death. She's in her eighties and she thinks of her mother as some sort of pantheistic presence.

That isn't healthy. It's a refusal to grow up.

I've spent a lot of time on this blog castigating those who give bad moral advice and not enough on the good advice. Today, I'm going to begin what I hope will be an ongoing series highlighting some of the good advice I've found out there. Beginning with this gem: Blow up your relationship with your and get one step closer to being the man you want to be.

That's good advice even if your mother is dead.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

TOMS shoes, virtue and virtue signalling

I want to be very clear here: A desire to help people in need is a good thing. Paying a little more for a pair of shoes or a messenger bag because you want your purchase to help people is commendable. If that’s you, well done! 
But TOMS and the many other companies like it are the charitable equivalents of yes men. They’re telling you what they think you want to hear in order to get what they want (for you to purchase trendy, pricey accessories), not what you need to hear in order to do what you want (to have your purchase to do as much good in the world as it can) 
TOMS tells you that you that making the world a better place is all about you: that you know best how to help poor people, and that you are so powerful that it will take barely any effort on your part to make a huge difference in the world. 
This is hardly a message that’s limited to TOMS.
Why don't you donate both your kidneys? Sure, you'd die, but you'd help two other people live; perhaps you'd even save two other lives. You'd be dying for a good cause!

As I've said before, we tend to evaluate moral arguments entirely in terms of outputs. That's what, Amanda Taub, the writer of the Vox piece above is doing. She asks, quite reasonably, how much does buying a pair of TOMS shoes really do to help poor people, especially when compared to other things you might do, and figures out that the answer is "not much". That's a good thing I suppose, although I'd be more inclined to wonder why Vox readers get university educations if they still need to have this explained to them after graduating. No one should need more than thirty seconds to figure out that these campaigns are all relatively ineffective. That includes, by the way, the food banks you give to at the checkout of your local grocery store.

But what if we're asking the wrong questions. We start with a simplistic assumption that being good is selfless (that's the input end of a type of moral argument). We move from that to an assessment that says a morally good action is the one that has nothing in it for me while helping others in the most effective way possible. Therefore, don't buy any shoes at all and donate the money you'd spend to a real charity.

It seems to me that TOMS are playing on two things.

  1. TOMS shoes aren't exactly practical. The number of pairs of shoes you really need is probably one. The number of TOMS shoes you really need is zero. If you could only afford one pair of shoes, you'd never buy TOMS. There's a guy who is always outside the local liquor store whose figured this out. You feel guilty about the self indulgence when you by booze instead of simply staying home and drinking water so you're an easy mark.
  2. They are selling you a way of virtue signalling—buying the shoes is a way of telling everyone that you stand for what is good, never mind that what is "good" here shows a kindergarten-level understanding of morality. Adult: What did you learn at school today little boy? Little boy: Sharing is good! The little boy isn't stupid. He knows what answer is going to get him approval. But the little boy also knows that it's all a con. Do you? 
Let's be honest with ourselves and ask what would happen if TOMS shoes weren't doing this charity giveaway? Then we'd just be buying a pair of shoes for ourselves. Be honest, not only do you not consider not buying shoes and giving the money to charity, you don't even go looking for bargains so you'll have more left over for charity when shoe shopping. Sure, there are better ways to help but what if the most likely alternative is doing nothing at all?

The real problem here is not on the doing good end. Sure, there are lots of things you might do to help the poor but you're not going to quit your job, get medical training and go to work in an African hospital—you've already determined to keep leading your life pretty much as it is.

Here's an alternative: be honest about the inputs and your moral decision making will improve. You have no intention of being selfless. Every good and meaningful moral decision you have ever made was driven by your desire to improve yourself. Yes, you care about others but you do so because you want to make something beautiful and good of yourself. Be honest enough to admit that and you should be able to see that buying TOMS shoes is a pretty poor investment not only for the people who need help but they are also a poor investment for your project of making yourself into something beautiful and good when compared to simply living a good life and being a good friend, a good spouse, a good man or woman and a good citizen.