Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Meta Meta: Virtue at last

I have heaped a fair amount of abuse on the recap crowd at Slate, particularly on Patrick Radden Keefe, but yesterday he came very close to the truth.

He did it with the help of two of the shows writers, who did a guest spot with the Slate crew. André and Marie Jacquemetton wrote a rather elusive little piece in which they answered questions without being very clear about which questions they were answering. One of their answers, which Radden Keefe, picked up on was this:
Matthew Weiner and the writers were very interested this season in the success of the business and how that becomes every man for himself. Playing out the voracious hunger that goes along with ambition, achievement, and getting what you want over the season arc and how that would manifest, particularly in characters like Ken Cosgrove, Lane, and even Don, who despite their sometimes questionable choices generally uphold a certain standard of morality and/or dignity. In this episode, the firm’s success in the light of Don’s “tainted” win of jaguar has left him ravenous for more success. (emphasis added)
I'll come back to that in a minute but first I want to go to what Radden Keefe takes from it.
But what about this notion of dignity, as distinct from morality?
How does dignity fit with morality? Is it morality or is it something outside or even opposed to morality?

Ever since beginning I have been saying that you need to think in terms of virtues if you want to get this show. That's a tough thing for us to do because we have been trained to think of morality in terms of rules and duty—the technical term is deontology—rather than virtues. Confronted by Donald Draper, rule and duty ethics can only condemn. Don literally does not do his duty as a soldier and he spends the whole of his life pretending to be someone he is not.

What is dignity? It's a virtue pure and simple. Dignity is not dependent on following the rules or doing your duty. Dignity is something that you can embody successfully or fail to embody. Other people can, although not always successfully, take away your dignity but no one can give you dignity. Even God will only co-operate with (or not co-operate and frustrate) you in your efforts to have dignity. (In strict terms, God could presumably give us dignity if he chose because he can do whatever he wants, but everything we experience tells us that he does not choose.)

As Radden Keefe goes on to say, dignity also seems to have some relationship with pride. And yet dignity is generally taken to be an admirable thing and pride often isn't. You might say that dignity is something we project whereas pride is something we have "inside". It is possible to do things out of pride that rob us of all dignity. Pete Campbell has lots of pride but rarely or never seems to project dignity. Don Draper, on the other hand, often seems moved by a kind of self-loathing and yet usually manages to project dignity.

We had a good example of that in this last episode and it is one that the Jacquemettons don't quite seem to get. They write:
In this episode, the firm’s success in the light of Don’s “tainted” win of jaguar [sic] has left him ravenous for more success.
But why the scare quotes? The win of Jaguar is tainted because Joan had sex with one of the big players to help secure it. This is part of Don's sense of virtue right from the beginning. In season one (The Wheel) he says,
Bringing in business is the key to your salary, your status and your self worth.
Pete promptly goes out and brings in the Clearasil account by taking advantage of a connection with his father and law. Don regards that as tainted. Pete gets two of three, he has salary and status but he doesn't have self worth.

Of course we have a hard time accepting the idea of dignity in work particularly work in advertising.  If there is one thing that makes us different from the immediate postwar era it's that we don't believe in that anymore.

We tend to believe in reinvention, or at least we say we do. We talk about David Bowie and Madonna and now Lady Gaga as reinventing themselves. The problem with that is that they don't. The keep redoing it because no one reinvention is ever good enough. Think of what Don says to Lane when Lane says he feels lightheaded,
That's relief. I've started over a lot Lane. This is the worst part.
Don doesn't reinvent himself, he starts over. There is something very American about that. It's something we have lost.

I'll leave it there.

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