Tuesday, July 13, 2010


The virtues of mad men
My Old Kentucky Home (part 2)
Okay, having written an earlier post condemning him for being unaware, let me go the other way. For here we have one of those moments when you have to wonder if Matt Weiner isn't laughing at how easy we are to fool. Sally is reading to her grandfather from Gibbon. We get the quote she is reading in two parts. One at the beginning and the other at the close of the show. The bit that comes towards the end, when we are perhaps not fully aware of the implication, appears at the end of the show. I have added emphasis here so you can see it.
The warmth of the climate disposed the natives to the most intemperate enjoyment of tranquillity and opulence; and the lively licentiousness of the Greeks was blended with the hereditary softness of the Syrians. Fashion was the only law, pleasure the only pursuit, and the splendor of dress and furniture was the only distinction of the citizens of Antioch. The arts of luxury were honored; the serious and manly virtues were the subject of ridicule; and the contempt for female modesty and reverent age announced the universal corruption of the capital of the East. The love of spectacles was the taste, or rather passion, of the Syrians; the most skilful artists were procured from the adjacent cities;  a considerable share of the revenue was devoted to the public amusements; and the magnificence of the games of the theatre and circus was considered as the happiness and as the glory of Antioch. The rustic manners of a prince who disdained such glory, and was insensible of such happiness, soon disgusted the delicacy of his subjects; and the effeminate Orientals could neither imitate, nor admire, the severe simplicity which Julian always maintained, and sometimes affected. 
Julian here is Julian the Apostate and Gibbon is a fan of Julian. So we should not—as many other commentators have done—assume that the passage here is about the world of Roger Sterling and how it is all coming to an end. Gibbon is more complex than that. yes, Julian will shortly die but Gibbon's message is that the old values of Julian might have saved the empire. Antioch of this period is a Christian town and the effeminate Orientals who held manly virtues in ridicule and female modesty in contempt are Christians not pagans. If we pay attention, the message here is that things are not what they appear to be.

 Julian, by the way, also attempted to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Not because he believed in Judaism himself but because he objected to the way that all the ancient religions were being erased by Christianity. In modern terms, we might say he was a fan of diversity.

In any case, we are among the country club Republicans. There is even a new figure named "Henry Francis" introduced, the "Dupont" being left silent. That is significant because the country club Republicans are about to be swept away. Rockefeller will briefly rise as Nixon's VP but otherwise they are about to become a spent force in American politics. They will be replaced by a combination of western libertarianism, southern traditionalism and (this the part that everyone leaves out) a highly intellectual northeastern conservatism. The first of these to make it's impact felt in party politics is western libertarianism as represented by Goldwater, who gets mention here, and by a new character who turns out to be Conrad Hilton.

And that raises and interesting question: Is Matt Weiner something of a  libertarian? There is a fair amount of it in the entertainment business. Some because a lot more people read Ayn Rand in their teenage years than like to admit it. There are millions of closet Randians out there. They know better than to let it show because they know this stuff will get them sneered at but they believe it. And there are millions more who no longer hold a pure Randian view but a modified one. Weiner may fit into either group.

The other thing is that there is an increasing number of people who value moral privacy. They've seen both parties get more and more puritan in their desire to govern other people's moral choices. I don't get into much political argument here but this quote from Ann Althouse sums the issue up nicely:
Notice the big flip that's taken place in the last year or so. Liberals worry about constitutional rights getting in the way of legislation, and conservatives have cozied up to the notion of unwritten rights. For that to happen, everyone has to stop focusing on the right of privacy. Isn't it odd? 
And that is the rub. Put these people in power (no matter which party) and they suddenly get obsessed with their need to have unlimited power to control your life.  Privacy, the notion that there is a sphere or moral action where no one can tell you what to do—a sphere of action where you should be allowed to make the wrong choice if you want—is the missing ingredient. (PS: If you don't have Althouse bookmarked, you should. You'll love her sometimes, you'll hate her sometimes, you'll always find her worth reading.)

In the interests of disclosure, I should admit that I have libertarian tendencies and a strong belief in moral privacy. (Both of which are probably obvious to anyone reading me.)

Anyway, I keep reading critics who think the point of the show is to condemn Don's concern with privacy. I'm not so sure. I also think the show is far more pro- than anti-libertarian. Weiner often feints in the direction of criticizing both but the show ultimately comes down on the side of privacy and liberty.

Other things that are not as they appear to be
So what else is there that is not what it appers to be? Here is my list.

  1. Pete and Trudy's marriage. It's doing better than it has the last few seasons and here we see the first vague signs of positive character development on Pete's part. I'll be very intrigued to watch this play out as it is going to be very difficult to make Pete go too far in this direction without appearing absolutely bogus. Trudy must be the real strength in this marriage for this to be credible.
  2. Peggy Olson seems to be a character who needs to leave her little girl behind. And yet that little girl is also the source of her strength. Again, I think we see her starting to figure this out.
  3. There is an actual little girl here in Sally Draper and we see some classic  little girl conniving from her in her stealing her grandfather's money and then attempting to return it without confessing to her theft. Unfortunately, her father is too detached to do anything about it and her mother is a poster child for irresponsible parenthood. However, there is her grandfather and we see here that he understands her very well. He isn't fooled for a second by her games but he also sees the goodness in her. The show throws us off the trail a bit by also showing him doing things such as letting her drive the car that seem very wrong to us but he is a moral beacon. Sally sees something that is missing in her parents in the bygone values he represents (which, of course, is also what the rest of us do in Don and Roger). There is something religious about Sally's relationship to him.
  4. The other little-girl character, of course, is Betty Draper and we should note the growing disillusionment even her own father has with her. More on this tomorrow.
  5. Henry Francis seems like a good guy here but I think he is anything but. His attraction to Betty is creepy and weird. He falls deeply in love with her and proposes to marry her as this season plays out but for what. It is all something he projects on to her.
  6. Finally, despite the heavy handed and totally craptacular blackface scene, there is a bit of this show that handles race issues sensitively and well and that is the interaction between Carla and Gene. It's not perfect by any stretch. Carla is far too wise and Gene is far too dense. The interaction is more like a minstrel show parody of the interaction than the real thing but there is a lovely sensitivity here just as there sometimes was in the minstrel shows and it is worth applauding. 
Season three blogging begins here. The next post will be here .

Season two, if you are interested, begins here.

Season one begins here.

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