Monday, July 5, 2010

Stand it like a man

The virtues of mad men
My revolutionary manifesto
I want to step back and talk about modern morality a bit before getting into this season. I think the very best thing about Mad Men is that it is a very subversive show. It shreds modern morality in two senses of that word. First, it shreds like a surfer, cutting the clean surface of the wave into foam. In the process, I think it shows us how modern morality is just wrong.

It doesn't do this on purpose. I suspect Matt Weiner is a fan of modern morality and, did not intend the result he has produced.

The reason for the unintended effect is the character of Don Draper. People can't help watching him and liking him but anyone committed to modern morality is  going to be troubled by that. And thus we get thousands of people who desperately want to convince themselves and others that Don is really a failure.  See this piece for example:
I’ll accept that Draper (and more broadly Mad Men) has influenced modern American life in that Sunday evenings are locked up for many (I know mine are) and fashion lines are striving for that 60s look (not a bad thing). What I won’t accept, however, is that Draper’s behavior is influential for countless actual men across the U.S. I somehow doubt that men are contemplating how they can desert their former lives for a newly constructed identity (as Draper himself has), lying to everyone in their wake. Though Draper is firmly established in his career and family, he has a shadowy past which calls into question his honor, values, and motivations as a man. An extremely compelling aspect of the program? Yes. Influential? I hope not.
Or read any one of the ten thousand pieces on the web by women who say things like "Don Draper is a moral throwback but I get so aroused by him I can't think straight." Draper upsets our ideas of what we think is right. Even as Obama won the presidency, as it seems like all things post-1960s liberalism stood for were about to triumph, along came this fictional hero who subversively undermined the moral ideas of our time.

By modern morality, I mean the moral ideas that every good, modern person takes to be right—the morality we treasure and that we think makes us better than the people of the 1950s and early 1960s. We sit down and watch this television program that appears to reinforce all of our beliefs about how superior we are to the way people were back then but the show we are watching is actually joyfully subversive.

And you may want to sit down for this but I really do believe that the most important lesson to take from the show is that Don Draper is a moral exemplar worth emulating. No, he isn't perfect but he is good. In fact, he is (by a considerable margin) the most admirable example of moral virtue on the show. (Followed by Roger Sterling, Joan Harris and Peggy Olson. These are the people you want in your corner. ) The readers of Ask Men got it absolutely right:
What matters is that Draper's hardass 1960s persona represents something about male identity that is enduringly captivating but has nonetheless vanished. The man that Don Draper is -- value-driven and thoroughly masculine -- is the product of a bygone era; without him, there would be no contemporary figure to represent it. Yet, as removed as his persona may be, it is also contemporary and familiar. He's a postwar archetype, both a brilliant career man and a temptation-swayed philanderer who sincerely wants to be a family man. Like most men, us and our fathers both, Draper is permanently conflicted over how to reconcile his morals and his desires.
Draper illustrates old-school values even though he often fails to meet them himself. His human flaws are what make him so relevant to men today. He is by turns a chain-smoking, drinking-in-the-office emblem of a bygone age, and an unusually real, earnest human being who illustrates the struggles modern men know all too well.
This is not a show about textbook morality. It's a show about real morality; it's a show about the choosing between shades of grey. Don't believe me? Well, read what Matt Weiner himself says about one of the key moral moments in the opening episode of season 3. Sal and Don are flying back to New York and Don has seen Sal having sex with another man. Both men are aware of what has happened and we hit the scene where it looks like they will have to acknowledge it. Instead, Don talks about an ad campaign the key line of which is "limit your exposure". He refuses to bring the big thing out into the open but sends Sal a coded message. Here is the interview question and Weiner's response (note, I've fixed some punctuation from the original):

And then there's the great scene on the plane where he's bracing himself for Don to call him on it. And yet Don on the one hand is telling him to keep it quiet but also not condemning it.

I think Don is a private person. I think we've seen Don is open—we've seen Don judge people, I'm not saying that (he doesn't judge)—certainly, in the first scene in the pilot, he judges them for not treating the busboy like a human being. He has a moral center. It moves, depending on who he's with, but I think he's a virtuous person. In the end, I think he's giving him advice. I don't think he would judge him. I think he's saying, "Now that I know this, you better be careful."

The show is all about consequences, but sometimes the consequences are that nothing happens -- you get away with it.
Modern morality rests on two ideas more than anything else: "good will" and the belief that morality has to be founded on rules. The second might seem like a contradiction because so much of being modern has meant rejecting the rules of past eras. But it is really about replacing those rules with newer and better ones that are more rational.

And this rationality is very closely connected to authenticity or good will. It's very important for moderns that the rules that govern us be rules that we have judged and accepted for ourselves. Even if they are God's rules, we want to evaluate them ourselves before accepting them. The rules have to reflect our real being: to thine own self be true.

That last, by the way, tells us something about how old "modern" now is. These ideas go back to Immanuel Kant and even Kant was heavily influenced by Luther and Shakespeare. To get an idea of what I mean, think of an ancient hero like Odysseus; think of how unlike a modern hero he is. Odysseus has no trouble lying to people he meets and betraying others to reach his goals. He has no trouble traveling to places where he has extended extra-marital sexual relations and then going back home and setting back up with Penelope.  He has no trouble running away when running away suits his purposes. Odysseus never worries about whether he is being true to himself.

The only thing Odysseus wants to be true to is his role of hero. The difference between a hero and a villain in his world is all in execution. It is the finesse with which he carries off his role that makes Odysseus a hero.

The Hebrew Bible gives us other examples. Think of how Jacob cheats Esau out of his birthright. In the Bible this is presented to us not as an enormous injustice that needs to be corrected but as Jacob helping further God's purpose. That's  a staggering thing for us to accept.

Don Draper is more like an ancient hero than a modern one. He is not true to himself. He is true to the role he wants to play. And while moral rules are not irrelevant to him, any time he has to choose between the rules and his chosen role, the rules get pushed aside. He has no trouble lying or being a hypocrite if that is what he needs to do to fulfill his role. He has no trouble running away but, and this is crucial, he never runs away from the heroic role he has set out to live.

As I said way back at the beginning of my blogging of Season 1, the thing that matters in the end is what actually happens. As good moderns we want to believe that good intentions, having a good will, is what really matters. Don Draper shows us how shaky that is.

Back when I used to teach this stuff to first year students, I used an analogy. Think of rock climbing. You're going up the face of the cliff and there is someone on top who is holding the line and is the only thing standing between you and horrible suffering if you slip. Who do you want holding that rope? It's not just a matter of physical strength. You want a serious person who knows that in being a virtuous person, the ability to deliver matters more than anything else.

If you had to pick from the characters on Mad Men to hold the line for you, you'd pick (in this order)  Don, Roger, Joan, Peggy maybe Ken Cosgrove.

Which brings me back to the staggering thing  I am going to argue about Mad Men. Are you ready? Ask Men did on online poll of the most influential men of 2009. Readers chose Don Draper. They even put him two notches above Obama. My thesis: The men who contributed to that poll got it absolutely right. Don Draper is a moral hero for men of our time.

And it's not just him. We've seen a series of characters like him lately. Men who look your modern, enlightened male in the face and sneer. Below, I'm going to embed a bit of Al Swearengen. It's crude and NSFW just like Al himself. WARNING: That means rough language of the sort I don't use in my posting here and lots of it. But as you watch, consider this: Saint Augustine agrees with every word of advice Al gives here. And I think he'd approve of the way Al gives it too:

It's all about being a man.

This is the first post on Season Three. The next one is here.

Season two, if you are interested, begins here.

Season one begins here.


  1. "The show is all about consequences, but sometimes the consequences are that nothing happens -- you get away with it."

    I'm reminded of Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors" which I watched a few weeks ago for the umpteenth time. Judah Rosenthal apparently gets away with what he's done, but the flashbacks to his Jewish upbringing and the references to Hitler and the Holocaust leave the lingering doubt or suspicion that one day he will be held accountable. This begs the question is Judah a hero, anti-hero, or tragic hero, or just a schmuck? Are Judah and Don Draper alike?

    This post is so well-written and thought out, and you get into some heavy philosophical arguments. I basically agree with everything you're saying, primarily about being a man and that the rules can and should get pushed aside to accomplish a greater good. Your reference to Odysseus is right on point. I don't remember how Sister Mary Bernard handled his indiscretions when we read it freshman year in Catholic high school, but I know she didn't condemn him nor did she attempt to judge him from a Catholic perspective, in her eyes (and ours) he was a hero. But how would you respond to people who have historically argued that the ends don't justify the means,i.e., theologians, or Kant who said that every person is an end unto himself and not a means to acheiving one's own ends? One argument I would make is that the Church--mistakenly--considered obstruction of justice a means to acheiving what it considered a greater good, i.e., avoiding scandal, thereby invalidating its own teaching in this regard, but that's probably a subject for another discussion.

    Perhaps from some of my earlier posts I might have given the impression that I don't like Don Draper, that is not the case. On one level I respect what he tried to do with his life, rise above the circumstances of his birth and his miserable upbringing, to make something of himself. He consciously refused to accept what his father and others told him about himself when he was a kid, and I admire and respect him for that. But he's still ashamed of his past, because on some deep level subconsciously he still thinks his father was right. How could he not tell his wife before they got married? He was afraid she would reject him if she knew, and perhaps he was right. We don't know if Betty leaves him because of his past or because he lied about it. And I still can't get past his treatment of Adam, who clearly adored him and was thrilled that Dick was still alive and that they were living in the same city. Only the hardest of hearts could not have been moved by Adam. Don responds by saying "my life only moves in one direction: forward" and pays him off to get out of town. Don got it wrong big time, he thought he could pay Adam to keep quiet but that's not what Adam was looking for at all, he just wanted his brother back. What greater good could possibly justify hurting someone like that? Don never stopped to think that growing up in the same house Adam might have been hurting as much as he was because Don is still stuck in his own pain. You realize that Don understood he had screwed up with Adam when he and the hippie schoolteacher's brother are en route to Massachusetts and the brother says he doesn't want to go. Don lets him out and gives him money and says something to the effect "maybe this time I'll get it right." But I don't think Don understands why he screwed up with Adam. So, is Don a hero, anti-hero, or tragic hero?

  2. I just had a thought. Maybe we've missed something about Draper or there's a sub-text going on here. What if Don Draper is a metaphor for the generic Gay Man? What if you substitue "the closet" for "Dick Whitman" and then carry that theme out? Don Draper is essentially living the life of a closeted gay man, the only difference is that his sexual dalliances are with females rather than males, and he's hiding a different secret. He doesn't tell Betty about Dick Whitman the same way that a closeted gay man wouldn't tell a prospective wife about his attraction to men. Pete's discovery that Don is really Dick Whitman was the equivalent of Don finding out about Sal, and Sal's fear of the repercussions which, in those days, could have caused him to be fired because of "moral turpitude." And maybe that's why he doesn't condemn Sal when he finds out about him, he can identify with him or at least the life he has to lead. Does that cause us to look at Don Draper in a new light?