Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Mad Men metacommentary: The Flood

I'll start with Hanna Rosin because she strikes me as a very good indicator. She is like a finally tuned instrument designed to measure the response of urban hipsters. The most notable thing about her recap yesterday was how long it took to get up. It hadn't appeared yet when I went to bed last night.

I am speculating here, but my guess is that she spent a lot of time worrying about exactly what to say; she worried because badly chosen words could be time bombs. Do you know why the intelligentsia reviled the song "Accidental Racist"? Because the two words of the title capture their fears exactly.

1. Anyway, when Rosin produced her words, this is how they began:
I would characterize Mad Men’s oblique way of handling the MLK assassination—what you called “small,” Seth—as pretty brave, mostly because it’s probably closer to the truth about how white people reacted. When they heard the news, most of the show’s characters felt unsettled and even devastated. But they were not so much upset about the assassination as about the general feeling of things falling apart. There was a sense of apocalypse in the air, but it was about the mood more than the event.
Well, that's got a sort of truthiness about it but not really.  The general feeling of things falling apart was there all right but it was driven by an immediate and very pragmatic fear that rioting would, as it did, break out.

And that is where the episode misrepresents. People are aware of the threat but they talk about it in impersonal terms. It just happens. None of the black characters who appear in the episode are angry. They are just resigned and sad.Teh white characters, meanwhile, talk about their feelings as if they were all 1990s male metrosexuals and post-feminist women.

I was on about the word "they" used to describe the assassins yesterday and how this was at odds with the "who" that actually would have been used. If white people discussing the assassination the night after it happened had used the word "they" it would have been used in reference to blacks; as in, "What do you suppose they will do now?"

And that question would have referred to the likelihood of violence. That was very much on people's minds. The division between Martin Luther King's strategy and those leaders who condoned (however evasively they put it) the possibility of violent tactics was well established in the white mind. MLK was, in fact, "the great white hope" for many; he was the guy who might get us through this. The new black leader who could stop a race riot remained the great white hope for a long time. Even in the early 1980s, you would hear such talk. (I remembers seeing a talk show in which James Brown came on as a guest and introduced Al Sharpton as the man who could get us through the long, hot summer ahead without violence.)

It would have referred to more than violence, however. It also would have referred to what many at the time would have called reasonableness. Change would not have happened over night and whites looked to figures like MLK to instill a certain patience in the black community.

2. Rosin notes that the show was very much about real estate. It doesn't occur to her that this is a problem with it. People who own real estate are, of course, very concerned with maintaining the value of assets into which they have sunk so much. But that fear is of what they might lose right now. You worry about your house being burnt down. All the worrying in the show is in the long term and it depends on people having knowledge that they couldn't have had in 1968 about how the real estate market would be affected by race. The real estate agent talks like someone from the 1970s. (And most of that worrying would be a consequence of integration not rioting.)

3. A lot of the commentary praises Pete for calling Harry a racist. Well, they would. The problem is that the word would not have been so loosely used at the time. It is now—when every liberal college grad losing and argument will resort to calling the person they are losing to a racist—but the word was pulled out far more carefully then. There were lots of unrepentant racists about who would have said, "so what". More importantly, though, someone like Pete, while he might have thought Harry callous and insensitive, simply would not have seen Harry's attitudes as racist.

4. To get back to Rosin. She ties Don to Noah in the Biblical story.
Everyone remembers Noah as the hero of the Flood. But he isn’t. That section of Genesis ends with Noah drunk, alone in his tent, and betrayed by his son on whom he, also, takes petty revenge with a few cutting words—a revenge that is interpreted to lead to slavery and the opening of the war with the Canaanites.
For those unfamiliar with the story, she is referring to events that took place after the flood had subsided. Here they are (Genesis 9: 20-25):
Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; and he drank the of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his brothers outside. Then Shem and Ja'pheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backwards and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father's nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what the youngest son had done to him, he said,
"Cursed be Canaan;
a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers."
What exactly all that means, nobody knows.  Seeing the father's nakedness is probably a euphemism for something else but we can only guess what. What ever it was, it was sexual. Ham either did something to Noah or, he did something to his mother.

I think Rosin may be on to something interesting here but I think she has the timeline wrong. If there is a Noah-like character and storyline, it has to be in the future. We should keep an eye out for this as the season goes along.

5. Which brings me to the Mad Men backlash feared by Rosin's colleague Seth Stevenson,
I’ve sensed brewing Mad Men backlash this season. Some whine that the plots are slow. Some argue that the advancing era doesn’t lend itself as well to stylish art direction. But the most common complaint I’ve heard is that Don Draper has failed to progress as a character and is congealing into a grim, awful man. I actually find that a fascinating development—I’m impressed by a show that, steadily over the course of several seasons, manages to turn a sexy pop culture heartthrob into a figure both reviled and pitied.
And there is a sort of impatience with many fans of the show. No matter how much they love Don, they want him done away with. Some want to see him superseded by Peggy or Ginsberg or some other new generation figure. Others want him to change and become the new sensitive man that Esquire will soon be writing about. The backlash that Seth feels brewing is driven by a feeling that the change isn't happening fast enough. Don just keeps being Don.

And I hope, although I suspect my hopes will be crushed, that he never changes. I hope he remians what even Rosin can see, although she doesn't like it:
By this crisis calculation, Don is the last honest man standing. Unlike in the earlier episodes, he is not stumbling around blindly. Unlike everyone else around him, he sees himself clearly and he understands what’s important to him. He does not care about a race vigil. He doesn’t care about Betty’s rules. He doesn’t even so much care about his children, as he confesses in that heartbreaking speech.
And all I can say is, good for him for being a man.

Monday, April 29, 2013


A nice reply to those who accuse those who fail to live up to the morality they preach of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy has long seemed to me to be a word that we use poorly and too often. The piece also makes an interesting connections between George Jones and Southern Gothic writer Flannery O'Connor.

Mad Men: The Flood or, what liberal racism looks like

As I indicated last week, I'm going to just do a short write up about the show itself today and focus more on the commentary tomorrow.

I haven't read any other commentary but I am curious whether anyone else saw this episode as racist. I ask because I sure did. Let me explain.

The actual #1 song the day Martin Luther King was shot was this one:

It had been number one for four weeks at that point and would be replaced by one of the most appalling number ones ever (Honey by Bobby Goldsboro) just a week later. (Whoops forgot to explain the significance of this. The show's fadeout tune was "Love is Blue" by Paul Mauriat, which had been number for four weeks before the event. Why did they go with "Love is Blue"? Well, quite possibly because it was cheaper. Then again, they may have thought it was "whiter". If so, that was a mistake. Otis Redding was the black artist for the white audience in those days.)

Why does that matter? It doesn't but, as someone who was just a little younger than  Sally and just a little older than Bobby, one thing I can tell you for sure is that the MLK assassination didn't matter to the lives of people alive at the time in the way that this episode gives you the impression it did. What you saw on Mad Men last night was an incredible distortion.

I suspect it comes from people studying this stuff at school. From an early age, they get told that this was the death of, as Jon Hamm puts it in the "Inside Mad Men" promo video that came with the episode. "this iconic figure". And that is the first hint. MLK wasn't an icon in April 1968. He was still a human being. A hero but a human hero. The icon painters hadn't done their work yet. They started the day he was shot, but it took a while to replace the actual man, with his very really flaws, with the icon.

For the staff at Mad Men, however, the icon is all they have ever had.

Combine that with memories of 9/11 and you have the sort of show they gave us last night.

If you didn't live it, the thing you need to know about the period between 1967 and 1970 is that it felt like it was all senseless killing all the time. You can tell people who lived through it because they all still flinch when they see an unscheduled news report on the television. MLK's assassination just didn't feel that strange sandwiched between the Detroit riots and RFK and the Tate-LaBianca as murders. Now we remember MLK as an iconic figure but he was something else at the time.

The revealing moment is the shows reference to "they" repeatedly as who did it. Everyone knows who "they" are although, in fact, no one does because "they" didn't exist. To get a grasp on how ridiculous this is, go back just a few days to the Boston Marathon and imagine someone responding within minutes of the event by referring to some "they" who had done this as if everyone knew who that meant.

King, like JFK and RFK, was killed by a disturbed and bizarre figure whose actions made no sense. This robbed the deaths of the three men of any meaning. Their lives made sense but there deaths did not. An immediate campaign began with all three men to make them into Christ-like figures whose death could serve as mythical foundation for the beginning of something.

But notice what happens with the show. With the exception of Roger, the event immediately becomes about them. It's their feelings, their reactions, their need to be with others that takes over. This is liberal racism at its most pernicious, the transformation of every important event in the history of the civil rights struggle into an excuse for white people to talk about their feelings.

What really hit me was the utter selfishness of Peggy—who had no trouble at all a few episode ago getting her boyfriend to bring two subs at the office because her ad campaign was more important than taking a break for dinner—interrupting poor Abe who is trying to do his job in a crisis to get him to talk about his feelings. Because that is what really matters. Men need to "open up" about their feelings and not keep them "all bottled up".

For if there was a theme to this episode, that was it: men need to talk about their feelings more. Never mind what Martin Luther King did or didn't die for, he didn't live so that white advertising executives could talk to their wives about their feelings and then have a hug.

What MLK actually meant to white people at the time was perfectly expressed by Roger Sterling:
The man could talk. I don't know why but I thought that would save him. I thought it would solve the whole thing.*
And that is what white people hoped at the time.  Lynching was something that had happened in the lifetimes of most people alive in 1968, the Detroit riots were less than a year ago. My parents thought that maybe this guy could talk everyone's way out of a situation there seemed no way out of.

That was delusional but to transform it after the fact as an excuse to hang an excuse to talk about our feelings about is, as Roger describes something else in the episode, in really bad taste.

The only good moment in the episode was a lovely subplot about an insurance agent who has absurd notions about an ad campaign he claims was inspired by talking to Dr, King's ghost. The facial expressions on Stan Rizzo and Michael Ginsberg were magnificent. (By the way, Roger describes the insurance agent as someone who talked him off a roof once: is Roger dropping acid with this guy?)

Oh well, here is hoping this show was just the writers dealing with an event they felt they had to deal and not any indication of where the show is going.

*The same sort of magical thinking explains the election of Barrack Obama: the man can talk and lots of people convinced themselves that would make the problems go away.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Mad Men vs Breaking Bad: How sin gets started

When we don't want to understand sin, we inflate it. My church has a flyer up right now advertizing a "documentary" about the porn industry. It promises revelations about a huge and organized group of exploiters who crush the women who do porn. It's not unlike the various exposés we see from time to time of "the white slave trade".

Now the first thing to understand is that these things do happen. There are a few women working in porn and prostitution who have been manipulated into the job by vicious uncaring bastards (of both sexes). But those cases are a tiny minority. The overwhelming majority of women who go into porn and prostitution do so with their eyes wide open. Prostitution exists everywhere on the earth and has existed everywhere in history. That doesn't happen with activities that people don't do naturally. There is nature—human nature—at work here.

Prostitution and porn (and porn is really just a kind of prostitution) are just like games, families, tribal groups, leadership hierarchies and private property. Anywhere and everywhere you have human society, these things tend to follow.

And that is why it is so damaging to imagine that the porn industry must be this giant conspiracy to undermine civilization. Yes, exploitation of human beings finds porn the way flies find garbage but it never starts that way.

The other problem with this sort of inflation of sin is that it tends to put men in the drivers seat of the great bus to prostitution and porn and treats women as helpless passengers. In economic terms, it explains these things entirely in terms of the demand side. But it always takes two to tango and there are always women keen to supply these things.

All of which is a rather roundabout way of getting to what's wrong with Breaking Bad. The set up is completely artificial. Even fans of the show grasp this on some level for they will acknowledge that the the whole meth lab thing is too far over the top to be credible. And that is true but there is a much deeper problem and that is that it is also psychologically incredible.

Anyone old enough to remember the early days of the abortion will remember this argument:
Think of the poor woman with six children she can't afford to feed who finds herself pregnant with a seventh.
That's a close relative to the story to that of Walter White. A good person in a very tough place is faced with a a seemingly impossible new consequence chooses to do a bad thing. There are lots of others like them.

Here's the thing though, abortion has been legal a long time and we know quite a bit about who gets abortions and, guess what, it's not women who already have six children. By an overwhelming margin, the majority of women who get abortions are single women with jobs. No matter whether you believe abortion should be legal or not, you cannot seriously pretend that abortion is typically a choice made by women in desperate circumstances. The numbers alone tell us this: there are hundreds of thousands of abortions every single year.

To go back to the hypothetical woman who cannot afford to feed the six children she has: women in her place almost never choose abortion. Seeking an abortion is not in character of someone who has already had six. The same problem applies to Walter White. Yes, he is feeling trapped, helpless and (most importantly) unmanned but his whole life speaks against his making the choices he makes in the show. If he's put up with the humiliation he has put up with so far, he'll put up with more.

All of this is important because we don't sin the way Walter White sins. How do we actually sin? Well detraction is a good example. I call up a friend and suggest we meet for coffee. Over coffee I tell him about a third friend. "I'm really worried about Karen," I say. "she's having an affair with someone she met at work. I'm sure this is all very exciting about her but she's put her marriage and children at risk."

It all sounds soooooo concerned but it's absolutely vicious. Why am I talking about this? Or, rather, Why the ____ am I talking about this? That's the nature of sin. It's not someone in a situation so desperate that what would normally seem like an insane choice starts to feel reasonable. Sin always starts with someone in a very comfortable situation making a choice that is so easy that they can just do it, like snapping their fingers. David sees Bathsheba and thinks, "I could have her." Bathsheba thinks, "Wow, the king called for me and my husband is away at battle." The choice to sin is so easy, it feels like an idle choice.

Next week, if Breaking Bad isn't about sin, what is it about?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Mad Men: The sin of detraction and other honour-related issues

The post on the moral stance towards male agency in Mad Men and Breaking Bad that I promised yesterday will have to wait until tomorrow.

Meanwhile, some thoughts about Joan and the difficulty she faces. I noted yesterday that people are very harsh in their moral assessment of Don but tend to be forgiving of every else on the show for moral faults that are every bit as significant as his. We all do this, we explain away as "understandable" the moral failings of people while hating the failings of those we want to dishonour. The bottom line lesson is this: The fact that some moral failing is true of X is never good enough reason to publicly denigrate them nor is it good enough reason to judge them privately (judge not lest ...).

Here is an interesting example from a site that produces some of the best, and quite possibly the very best, Mad Men commentary out there:
At the same time, she’s dealing with a pissed-off Harry who, being Harry, can’t express a thought without offending someone; usually a woman. Again, this will be debated wildly, but we think Harry had a point about everything except how Joan got her partnership.
That is very, very close to right but not quite. Harry definitely should not have said it. He should, in fact, have said nothing at all. But Harry is absolutely correct about how Joan got her partnership. You could argue, and you would be right to do so, that Joan had more than earned her partnership in other ways but she actually got it by whoring herself out.

By analogy, image that Lisa owns a highly valued harpsichord and she has two nieces. There is Christina who wants the harpsichord because she wants the status that comes with having an instrument that famous musicians like to borrow to perform on. She doesn't play the instrument herself nor has done a thing to help her aunt care for it. Meanwhile, Lucy loves the instrument itself and played it regularly and oversaw the care of the instrument for the last thirty years while her Aunt Lisa was unable to adequately do so because of her old age. Lucy has even covered a lot of the maintenance and insurance costs out of her own pocket. By all rights, the harpsichord should go to Lucy.

Aunt Lisa, however, has made no provision in her will for passing on the harpsichord. Lucy realizing this and foreseeing a bitter fight with Lucy over it, takes advantage of her Aunt Lisa in her dotage and has her write up a codicil specifying that Lucy get the harpsichord. It's perfectly true that Lucy deserves the harpsichord but she still obtains it in a  way that is both immoral and illegal. The same is true of Joan's partnership.

Harry's moral failure was not in that what he said but the fact that he did say it. And this is wrong even if it is true. In Catholic terms, Harry commits the sin of detraction. Detraction is saying something true about someone that will hurt their reputation. It's a sin.

It's a sin that a lot of people find hard to grasp. Suppose I see Michael shoplifting. If I confront him directly and privately, tell him I know what he has done and insist that he fix the situation, that is no sin. If I alert the store detective that is no sin either for the store has a legitimate interest in stopping shoplifting and so do I as a consumer. If, however, I tell a bunch of people about it over drinks it is a sin. It makes no nevermind  if I do it to lower Michael's status and raise my own in their eyes or I if do it just because it's fun to gossip. It's a sin. A serious, mortal sin.

And that is where Harry goes wrong. Actually, it's where he goes really wrong. He was already going seriously wrong just by barging into the meeting and blurting out his frustration. He should have had a quiet meeting with Roger, Don or Bert in which he expressed his hopes and frustrations without mentioning Joan at all.

We've seen this before in Mad Men. For example, it is detraction when Peggy's sister goes to a priest and, under the guise of confessing her "concern", tries to lower Peggy in the priest's eyes by telling him about Peggy's pregnancy. Everything she says is true but that doesn't reduce the sin one tiny bit.

It's worth noting that moral self righteousness is always a component of detraction. To commit this sin is to believe in our own moral rightness.

There is a flip side to it all, by the way, and that is that there is a positive requirement as well as a negative prohibition when it comes to honour. I'm morally obliged to protect my own and other people's honour unless there is a very good reason not to. Honour means "high respect" and my caring about the honour of people I don't like is a way of loving them. And I am obliged to love people I don't like. It's not an option.

It applies, as I say, to my own honour and it is worth noting that Joan fails herself badly here. Tom and Lorenzo, whom I quoted above, bring this out nicely in their analysis of Joan's character. They note that Joan is, in many ways, an unpleasant person but that she has always had good sense about preserving her own honour. And that makes her even accepting the Jaguar deal very much out of character.
This, by the way, was why we had such a hard time believing last season that Joan would sleep with a client to get a partnership; not because she was morally opposed to it, but because everyone in the office would know and she’d be exposed in a way she never had before. Remember, people at SCDP still gossip about whether or not she and Roger had an affair, 14 years after it started; 2 years after it produced a baby. She’s good about keeping her cards close to her chest.
I'd add to that that it is also very unlike Joan to be a whore for money. We saw in her dalliance with Roger that Joan had no trouble being a secret whore for the sheer pleasure of being a secret whore. (Note to women: this is what most men want their partner to be: a woman who is willing to let herself go entirely for sexual pleasure without moral qualms when she is with him while being absolutely proper in the self she presents to the rest of the world. Most men don't have a Madonna-whore complex because they want both-and and not either-or as Freud worried.) Roger doesn't get over Joan because she was the perfect example of both-and right up until the Jaguar moment. That is what amde Joan morally superior to Jane Sterling and Megan Calvet, both of who use their sexual connections for personal gain.

(And notice how Roger seems less interested since then. If these two are going to get together, they both have something big to forgive the other for.)

This is where our modern concern about hypocrisy gets things deeply wrong and where the morality of people like Don, Roger and Joan is superior to that  of the 1960s. Everyone has things they do in the dark, as Harry distinguishes things. But it is precisely for that reason that it is less of a sin. That's just human weakness. The sin comes from not having the sense to allow what happens in Vegas to remain in Vegas.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Mad Men: Let's change the conversation cont'd

Picking from yesterday, I want to continue with a new conversation. I'd like to suggest that what is going in the current conversation about Mad Men is missing something. And the something that it is missing is really important. It is, in fact, the reason the show is loved and that is that this show is really about something we have all lost and want back: assertive, masterful men.

We all know this of course. Noel Murray, writing at the AV Club, for example gets it:
Even as late as 1968, Don Draper remains a man that other men want to be.
But, in Noel Murray's view anyway, lack of authenticity takes this away:
Even as late as 1968, Don Draper remains a man that other men want to be. Yet Don Draper doesn’t exist—not really. Mad Men hasn’t dealt too much with “Don Draper” as Dick Whitman’s fictional construct since Betty learned the truth about her first husband back in season three; but it’s still one of the major themes that animates the show. ... But while Don can be petty and impulsive, with overt signs of physical weakness, in the main he remains iconic. He’s that hunk of man who comes with the picture frame. He’s not just in advertising, he’s of advertising.
That remains his unforgiveable sin

And yet, this show would flop in three seconds without Don Draper. And before you get too excited about the idea that he is a fictional character of his own creation, do remember that every single other person in the show is a fictional character from the point of view of the TV viewer.

But he's an "identity thief". So what? Yes, yes, in terms of criminal law he has done this very bad thing but how much does it matter teally?

You don't like that? Well let me point out the odd double standard by which he gets judged. Someone over at the Vulture site is fond of the theory that Don really wants to be every woman he seduces. For a while anyway. On the way to expounding her theory, she discusses the stolen identity.
We've seen Don's romantic transitive property from the get-go. "I don't make plans, and I don't make breakfast," Midge told him in the pilot. Neither did Don; when we were introduced to him, he was flying by the seat of his pants, trying to conceal his identity without any real strategy. (Lucky for him and unlucky for the scheming Pete, Bert Cooper didn't care.) 
It's the bit in parentheses that jumped out at me. Pete isn't just scheming, he steals Don's mail, knowingly opens mail that isn't addressed to him and then uses the information he illegally obtained to commit blackmail. Every single one of those things is a serious, go-to-jail offense. And yet, Don's offenses get taken more seriously.

Here is another example from the Matt Zoller Seitz, also writing at the Vulture:
What a rotten catch-22: the whip-smart Joan lets herself be whored out for one night for the greater good of the company and her child’s financial security, then can’t reap the full rewards of her sacrifice because that same company now thinks of her as an opportunist who slept her way to the top. 
But she did whore her way to the top! You can see Harry's point. I'm not averse to rationalizing what Joan did but if we are going to do it for her, we should be able to do it for Don too. It's not hard to understand how Dick, serving in Korea, might make a desperate move to escape from a life he hated.

And note that he was going home anyway. He didn't assume the new identity to get out of the army but in order to stop being Dick Whitman. I've often wondered if 9/11 wasn't the inspiration for this. As always is the case after traumatic events of that sort, some people elected to disappear because they didn't want to go back to their ordinary lives. Dick Whitman does more or less that. He wants, as the Hobo points out in Season one, to be someone else and he takes the opportunity to do so when it is presented him. Morally, it's no better and no worse than what Joan does, than what Pete does, than what Peggy does or than what Megan does.

But here is the thing, is Jon Hamm a better actor than any of the people playing those other roles? Or is more appealing simply because he has a better part?

Put it another way, if you could assume any role you wanted what would it be? Ghandi? Stop lying! The "real" Don Draper was an engineer. Dick Whitman doesn't in any way steal another man's identity because he doesn't even try to be that Don. No, what he does is to run away from who he was and become someone new and better.

And so I ask you again, who do you want to be? Do you want to be Ghandi or a guy who drives an Aston Martin, has a license to kill and is always travelling towards sex no matter what he is doing?

Tomorrow I'll look at Breaking Bad  to make some of the same points from another perspective.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Mad Men: Let's change the conversation

The commentary on Mad Men is often more fruitful for analysis than the show itself.

Notice for example, how Hanna Rosin saw the exact same show that I reported seeing yesterday:
The broader theme (and it’s a little Phyllis Schlafly for my tastes) is that free love isn’t really free. If you dive into the late 1960s sex scene, then you either come out with a huge hangover (like Joan’s friend Kate) or you’re a total lascivious buffoon (like Megan’s swinger bosses). In the meantime, Don’s brand of adultery is so old-timey it’s biblical, freighted with crucifixes and prayer and long meaningful looks. In fact Don is the peeping Tom of the episode, spying on Peggy, spying on Megan, a spectator to the action going on around him but not really able to participate.
The difference between us is moral. I like the moral point here and she doesn't. Aesthetically speaking, however, we are on the same page.

Two preliminary points, the first of which is going to seem a little pedantic: there are no crucifixes in the Bible. (To be even more pedantic, Sylvia is wearing a cross not a crucifix.) There were, in fact, no crucifixes anywhere until at least the tenth century. It's not Biblical but medieval. And that is tremendously important. The theme here is renunciation. Don says, "I want to stop doing this." (But not yet as Augustine would finish it.)

The second point is the notion of freedom inherent in Rosin's view. She doesn't just want people, especially women, to be free to make their own choices in sexual matters, she wants them to be able to make these choices and have good consequences follow from them. She and I agree that Megan's swinging boss come off looking like idiots. The difference is that Rosin seems to think that is some sort of manipulative twist by the show's producers; she thinks there is a possible dramatization that would be equally, if not more credible, in which these characters come across as fun-loving, well-adjusted people.

The problem, as anyone who ever had the bad luck to interact with them can tell you, is that swingers are lascivious buffoons. This isn't some sort of distortion of reality. It's dramatically credible because that is what people who drain sex of all the things that make it human are like.

The medieval sex that Don engages in is not without its moral pitfalls of course and he certainly isn't without moral failings but it's miles more interesting than anything the swinging sixties had to offer. And it is that because it is human.

Choose your character and then become him or her

The other thing that strikes me as interesting about Rosin's commentary is the narrative arc she wants to see. The show tends to tell the same stories over and over again only with slight variations so you don't actually get anything that looks like the sort of narrative arc you'd get in a novel. Notice, for example, that we already had this Don goes to an exotic land seeking peace in Season 2 and in Season 4. He even walks into the ocean seeking to be made clean at the end of Season 2. That's the way it tends to be in television when the show drags on for season after season and then suddenly stops.

And before you condemn that, ask yourself what is more like real life: the arc with a sense of an ending you find in a novel or the repetition with variations you find in television?

Anyway, what is the narrative arc that Hanna Rosin looks for amongst all this debris? Not surprisingly, it concerns a woman trying to change her life. The woman is Megan:
It struck me that by acting, Peggy allows herself to feel a little less, which is precisely what Megan does in her love scene. That play within a play unfolded beautifully. The first shot showed Megan dressed up in her maid’s uniform lounging on a couch, and because we’d never seen her on set, it wasn’t clear if this was “Zou Bisou Bisou,” Downstairs edition, or what exactly was going on. Then pretty soon Megan (as the maid) was on her back on the bed, with “Rafe” all over her. Her acting dilemma is a real one for the era. I recently  saw the movie Hitchcock, which is about the making of Psycho. It takes place a few years earlier than this episode, but one of its main themes is Hitchcock’s rage about his leading ladies always betraying him because their husbands insisted they quit, or lay off on the love scenes, or button up their shirts. That doesn’t excuse Don’s despicable behavior, of course. But it does create the interesting dynamic that Megan, the youngest of all the adults and the best placed to let loose in the late ‘60s, is practically the only character on this show whose moral compass seems to point true north.
I quote this lengthy bit because I want you to see how much Rosin is on Megan's side.  And why not?

That acknowledged, I think Rosin is missing some serious problems with Megan's moral compass. For Rosin misses the point completely here. The drama is indeed telling us to recall scenes from last year but not the ones that made Rosin feel good.

I apologize for the horrible image quality but Apple won't let you take screen captures in iTunes anymore. You can see enough, however, to catch that the connection the shwo makes is not with the Zou Bisou Bisou moment at the opening of last season but with the fantasy she ad Megan shoots at the end:

I'm pretty sure that is the same sound stage that they shot last years final episode on. It's vertainly the same set up: girl with unrealistic dreams in a bedroom with a fairytale bed.

And do you remember how Megan got there? Not by earning it but by asking her husband to get her the job and, not incidentally, betraying a friend in the process. And then the camera pans back to reveal Don watching just as he watched the set up for the shoot of the shoe commercial. 

The similarity doesn't end there. In last year's finale, a woman walks up and asks Don a question and that signals pretty clearly that he is now bored with Megan. Her childish routine has reduced her in his eyes. This year, a woman Don hates, a woman who represents the kind of sexuality he hates, walks up and whispers, "You like watch, do you?" It may be that, more than anything else that puts him off.

Don likes to do sexual things in the dark by subterfuge and seduction and not by mutual consent that has been carefully negotiated in the light of day. That shouldn't be a surprise, my bet is that Hanna Rosin much prefers the same thing no matter what she might say or even think differently.  In any case, I'm pretty sure Don got some pleasure out of watching in the dark until that damn woman came along and ruined it with her pandering.

Either way, Megan has lost something by trading a business partnership with her husband to pursue fantasy dreams. And that matters because ... continued tomorrow.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Mad Men: Even in adultery there are rules

Any time you see a nice little social order that you want to overthrow, you have to remember that there is a price to be paid for doing that. I say that that 'cause it's so easy to forget. You can say, "Well, the order we're going to overthrow is full of hypocrisy." And that's easy to say because it's true. But do you also think that what you are going to put in its place won't also be full of hypocrisy?

Okay, you say, but the hypocrisy in the old world was heavily loaded in men's favour; Don can cheat on Megan but she can't cheat on him. But what about Kate? She cheats on her husband. She uses her Avon interview as an excuse to come to New York City and cheat. And what about Sylvia?

I thought it was telling that the most awkward moment in the whole show was the one in which Megan's two colleagues broach the subject of swinging with Megan and Don over dinner. That felt awkward and wrong. The various affairs didn't feel awkward and wrong. They followed rules that made sense. And that is important. It's not enough to have rules, you have to have rules that make sense.

But hypocrisy!!!

No I'm not saying it's all okay, go ahead and do whatever you want. But remember who did say that. That was the way the sexual revolution talked. Think of some 19-year-old student being approached by a creepy Political Science professor in the 1970s and he says, "Do you have an open mind?"It's a guilt trip. It means that if she won't consider sex with him she is closed minded. Is that new hypocrisy better than the old hypocrisy? Ketchup, catsup, it's all the same thing?

Catch the style hints by the way. Everyone hates the style of 1970s because it's safe to do so. You can do that without casting aspersions on "the revolution". But it was all there in the late 1960s. The clothes that Megan and Harry wear are ugly. Don and Sylvia and Roger and even Bob Benson look better than anyone else because they all dress and behave classically. It's the up-to-date stylish types who look ridiculous.

And they are the ones who provoke the squeamish reactions. Harry's outburst, for example, is perfectly justified but why do it in front of everyone? How does that help him?

Beyond that, the show used the conventions of daytime television beautifully. The episode moved very quickly. We were in the last five minutes before I knew it. But sometimes less is more, so I'm going to stop right here.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Augustine's Confessions: Vice, sin or weakness?

For to love and to be loved was more sweet to me if I could enjoy the body of the person who loved me.
Thus I defiled the spring of friendship with the filth of concupiscence, and darkened its sparkling waters with clouds of lust, And yet, filthy and nasty as I was, with my excessive vanity I pretended to be elegant and well-bred. And I fell head-long into love, whose prisoner I desired to be.
The troublesome word in that excerpt from near the beginning of Book 3 is "friendship". We have no idea what Augustine is talking about here but whatever it is, it seems sexual in nature. For writers in antiquity, "friendship" usually meant something between two men. It might also refer to two women but women's friendship was not taken as seriously. Men and women, however, were not taken to be friends very often. If Augustine meant to write about a relationship between himself and woman, he would have written differently.

No, I am not saying Augustine was gay or that he had a same-sex love affair a la Charles Ryder.

The thing to notice here is that any kind of sin that comes up in Augustine tends to get described in sexual terms. "Lust", "flesh", "concupiscence", and lots of other such terms could end up meaning gossip or gambling as easily as sex. Actually, that is understating the case for Augustine has used the language of sexual desire a lot so far in the book, he has not used it even once in reference to any actual sex act. We don't get any mention of an actual sex relationship until Book 4, Chapter 2, which contains a passing mention of his living with a woman he is not married to and that is described in mostly positive terms.

Two chapters after that we get a reference to a friendship that Augustine claims he "perverted" but that perversion was astrology and not sex.

A big part of the problem is us. We have eroticized sin to such an incredible degree that the language of sin and seduction have become synonymous.

But another big part of the problem is the culture of antiquity that didn't have much place for love in marriage. Saint Paul's statement that it is better to marry than to burn with passion strikes us as an overly pragmatic, if not outright exploitative, attitude towards marriage. It says, get married and you'll have a sanctioned outlet for your sex drive. And yet Saint Paul was a screaming romantic compared to most in antiquity who saw marriage as a contractual arrangement driven by a concern over community and property interests. It never would have occurred to Augustine to see marriage as a special kind of loving relationship because it tended not to be. There must have been some marriages that were but it simply wasn't the expectation.

That means that love as we mean the word to describe a special kind of bond between people who are in a sexual relationship, had no place in his culture. To talk about sex as a special bonding force between husbands and wives would have made no sense to them.

I don't think a writer like Augustine could think of sex as anything but a vice or, at best, as a weakness.You could have sanctioned sex in marriage but sex was never going to be a positive thing for him.

We might distinguish between sin, vice and weakness as follows:
  • A sin is to break a rule in a blameworthy way. It could be a conscious choice to break a rule or it could be a failure to try hard enough or any one of a myriad of possibilities but it would be blameworthy; it would be something you could be convicted of.
  • A vice is a kind of character trait that will lead you to do bad or fail to do good but not necessarily to break rules. I might be the worst sort of coward but never face any situation where it makes any difference. (The vast majority of men alive today will never find out whether or not they are cowards.) But the flaw is blameworthy in that I should be making efforts to train myself not to be a coward.
    A weakness is a trait that I couldn't eliminate even if I wanted to.
Augustine describes sexual desire sometimes as if it were vice and sometimes as if it were a weakness.

In any case, he always seems to describe sin of any sort, even sins that have little or nothing to do with sex such as astrology—using language we would use to describe somebody who pursues illicit sexual pleasure.

A note to anyone kind enough to follow my blogging of Augustine: I have decided not to blog the book in any systematic way. I'm doing this mostly because I don't want to block my enjoyment of the book, and I am enjoying it immensely. That said, I also don't know the book nearly well enough to write about it in any thorough-going way. This series of posts  is just a bit of hits here and there based on things that strike me.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The worst thing about Obama's rant

"The gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill,” Mr. Obama said in the White House rose garden about 90 minutes after the vote. “It came down to politics.” …

"This pattern of spreading untruths … served a purpose. A minority in the U.S. Senate decided it wasn’t worth it. They blocked common-sense gun reforms, even while these families looked on from the Senate gallery. It’s not going to happen because 90 percent of Republicans just voted against that idea. …
Actually, it's not going to happen because five Democrats broke away and voted against it and that cancelled out the four Republicans who voted for it ... but that doesn't really matter that much. The bad logic and dishonesty of this has been well analyzed elsewhere. And "so what?" because Obama's bad logic and lying aren't any worse than lots of things that politicians of all persuasions say. The real problem is not the sloppy thinking, the dishonest portrayal of opponents or even the self deception at work here.

No, the real problem is that Obama himself doesn't believe a word of it. When necessary he gets up and spouts these words and he is very good at it. But it's all a lie and he knows it.

The real point of his speech is revealed in the following:
“You’ve got to send the right people to Washington,” he told voters. “That requires strength and it requires persistence. I see this as just Round One. Sooner or later, we are going to get this right. The memories of these children demand it.”
Yup, it's a campaign speech.  That's what he does. Obama campaigns all the time. Nothing else actually means anything to him. Whether he is talking about jobs, the economy generally, race, peace, the environment or gun control it's always really about the pursuit of power. That's the only thing he really cares about.

He doesn't believe a word he is saying. That's what our modern political elite has come to, people standing up and making speeches that they don't believe a word of in order to stir up crowds to keep voting and writing cheques. And this emotion has to be kept hurtling around this  network all the time because if anyone stepped back they'd notice that it doesn't really have anything to do with anything.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Augustine's Confessions book 2

Any time you read any book at all about ethics, you want to pay very close attention to the opening moves.

Most of us read the other way: we want to get to the end and see what we are supposed to do and not supposed to do. That temptation is very strong with a writer like Augustine who casts one very long shadow in ethics. Even if you're reading him only to reject him, you will care a whole lot about what he requires and prohibits.

But that is kind of dumb if you think about it. Any moral system has some flexibility built into it. It would be really exceptional if every single conclusion was rock solid. There is far more to learn from considering the premises. You can learn a lot from reading moral writers with interesting moral premises even if you don't want to accept their conclusions.

Anyway, here in Book 2, Augustine actually begins to outline what sin means to him. And, as is becoming a bit of a theme for this blogging of the book, it isn't what I thought I remembered.

Augustine begins with sex. You expected that. Right? But he doesn't end up there. He ends up with what seems like a rather trivial sin—an account of stealing pears off a tree—as his paradigmatic example of a sin. How does that work?

Well, for starters, Augustine doesn't talk about sex as way of describing sin but as a way of describing human weakness. Sex in itself is not a sin. The sin arises when we start thinking and caring about how others see us as sexual beings.

Augustine is not, as the modern term would have it, sex positive. He argues that it is better to be celibate than to have sex. This, as odd as it may seem to us, was not an uncommon attitude in the ancient world. Sex was what imprudent people, people with poor risk assessment skills, did and it was understood by not a few to be a danger to your virtue in the sense that it prevented you from being all you could be.

When Saint Paul, says, for example, that a married man is focused on pleasing his wife and a single man is focused on pleasing God (a line that Augustine approvingly quotes) he is not saying anything that would have shocked ancient readers. They could easily imagine a military leader saying the same of his troops; saying that their loyalty and devotion as soldiers would be greater if they weren't married.

But we should not imagine that Augustine imagines sex to be a sin. He sees it as a weakness. And one of the profound outcomes of this is that he he uses terms like concupiscence and lust to describe all human craving after base things. Sex is a base thing in his eyes to be sure but it isn't evil. The sin comes when our desire for sex trumps our desire for higher things.

Dangerous friendships

When it comes time to confess the sexual sins of his sixteenth year, a year he spent in idleness, Augustine shocks us by not mentioning any of the things you might expect. He doesn't mention Suzie whom he met in the back pantry way or Pauline on the beach. No, the thing that drives him to sin is not Suzie's bodacious ta tas or Pauline's awesome posterior but his desire to seem like a player in the eyes of his friends:
... I rushed ahead with so much blindness that in the presence of my companions I was ashamed of being less filthy than they were. And when I heard them bragging of their wicked actions and boasting how much more beastly they were, I was determined to emulate their life, not merely for the pleasure of it, but in order that I might be praised for it. (Book 2, chapter 3)
In fact, as he goes on to tell us, when he couldn't match his friends' exploits, he bragged as if he had.  Well, you don't need to be a psychologist to recognize that behaviour trait.

The really important thing, here, however, is that he does do what some who claim to be his disciples would do and focus on particular acts as sins. WHat matters to Augustine (so far anyway) is the thing we aim at. The good we think we'll get of it.

And that is why the stolen pears are such a perfect paradigm example of sin for Augustine. He didn't particularly want the pears. He had better pears already accessible to him. He would not have taken the pears if he had been alone. No, the good he sought in stealing the pears is the shared joy that came from doing evil with others.

The joy we should really want is union with God. That's the basis of Augustine's morality. Does that mean that I have to give up everything else? No.

Marriage and Augustine's concubine

Augustine lets show a few interesting things about marriage. Like Paul, he argues that marriage is a way not to burn with lust. That's not a very exalted view of the sacrament. That said, you wonder what's going on between the lines.

Augustine loved his mother and speaks highly of her in most places so it really jumps out at us when he is critical of Monica. And he is on the subject of marriage. His mother, seeing that he has reached puberty, worries about his sexual behaviour but she doesn't worry enough to suggest he get married so as to not to sin. In fact, she discourages marriage and the rare moment of criticism Augustine allows himself towards his mother is on this subject. He clearly thinks she was only concerned about his success in this world when she ... well what did she do? We don't really know. We only know that Augustine says she didn't want him to marry.

This is all between the lines but I wonder iof Augustine didn't later come to resent his mother's (and father's but the mother matters most here) attidtude towards marriage.

And the primary evidence for this, it seems to me, is his concubine. Augustine kept a concubine and did so for years ultimately giving her up with regret. He had a child with her and he seems to have cared for her and the boy she gave birth to. And what we have to wonder is whether there wasn't a serious regret here regarding the life he might have had. I think there was and that has to affect how we read what Augustine says about sex here and elsewhere. It implies a much softer take on what men and women do in intimate situations both inside and outside marriage than what someone like Alice von Hildebrand would have us take to be Augustine's attitude.

Now, softer doesn't necessarily mean that the rules change, it does not imply that he believed that adultery was just fine in some cases, for example. Adultery is always going to be wrong. But it should be more understandable, and less worthy of contempt that von Hildebrand would have it.

To loop around to the beginning, if the stealing of pears is the paradigmatic example of sin, then lust is the paradigmatic example of human weakness.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Here is a fun little controversey

Former volleyball star and model Gabrielle Recce has written a book about how she saved her marriage. She has provoked a spittle-flecked nutty among the usual suspects for saying things like this:
“To truly be feminine means being soft, receptive, and –- look out, here it comes –- submissive.”
and this:
"If you want to have that dynamic where your guy isn’t like, your chick — guess what?  You better give him some love.”
Well, the criticisms practically write themselves.

Except that I think there is some real gold there, especially in the second of the two quotes. "If you want to have that dynamic where your guy isn’t like, your chick ..." That's it exactly. Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. That's not a legal point, but a practical one. It, as Recce admits, is an old-fashioned dynamic. That's why it works: "The fundamental things apply as time goes by." You each have to have to take responsibility to play your part but you also have to create the sort of environment where the man in your life can be the man in your life.

One of the really damaging feminism has done is to encourage women in the fantasy that marriage is something like a really, really good friendship. It isn't and if you treat it like a friendship it will cease to be a marriage.

Before going, a comment on the word "submissive". I don't like it here but not for the reason you might guess. It's too easy to use submissive as an excuse to be lazy and irresponsible. If Wendy is submissive to Terry, then all the responsibility to make things go right becomes his.

(The words "soft" and "receptive" on the other had are perfect, especially "receptive")

Recce does better in this elaboration:
“I think the idea of living with a partner is ‘How can I make their life better?’  So if I’m the woman and he’s the man, then yes, that’s the dynamic.  I’m willing and I choose to serve my family and my husband, because it creates a dynamic where he is then in fact acting more like a man and masculine, and treating me the way I want to be treated.  Which is — I’d like to be cherished, and I’d like someone to look after me in that role.


“I think because women have the ability to set the tone, that the ultimate strength and showing real power…is creating that environment.  I think it’s a sign of strength.’’
That's really good. Set the tone wherein he can be a man and you can be a woman. That's hard work, it means developing real feminine strength and virtue. And yes, this includes being sexy and sexual! For him and not just for yourself! That's not all of it, of course, but it is an absolutely essential part of it.
"If you want to have that dynamic where your guy isn’t like, your chick — guess what?  You better give him some love.”
Some women, of course, will respond by saying that they don't want to be cherished. They're lying to themselves and others.

Mad Men: Mary Magdalen made him do it

Following up on yesterday, what are we to make of the implied explanation of Don's womanizing? It was very clearly implied: when Don knocks on the door, it is the hard, calculating look on Sylvia's face that sparks the flashback to a similar look on the face of one of the women working for "Uncle Mack".

And then there is  his stepmother Abigail who thanks "the Lord" that they are accepted with Uncle Mack and Ernestine but then Uncle Mack makes the remark about "Of course Ernestine told you that we could always use a little help around here." Abigail's facial expression in response to that coupled with later events make it very clear that Abigail is under no illusions as to how she is going to be paying for her room and board.

The rest of the story comes right out of Freud. A boy raised by a cold and distant mother looks for a wife who can deliver the kind of love his mother never gave him and looks for sex with women he can see as whores and, therefore, not need to have any sort of emotional relationship with.

A school of cultural criticism follows. According to it, not only do men have a hard time in individual relationships because of this complex, it also effects the way women are portrayed in art and media. The poor things are forced to be one or the other. You can't be both.

There are all sorts of problems with this: first and foremost, there is nothing that even looks like empirical evidence for it. That hasn't stopped several generations of novelists and screenwriters from using it to explain male behaviours. Again, though, there is an appalling shortage of evidence for the cultural criticism. Just stop and think about it and you will see what I mean. When was the last time heard an actual man complaining that the woman he loves shocked and dismayed him by being too enthusiastic about sex? You do hear an awful lot of complaining about the opposite.

In fact, the Madonna-Whore complex is more of a problem for women than it is for men in that they struggle at being both for the same man at the same time.

Yeah, I'm sorry to be so rude about it, but it's a fact. Once you grasp that, you can see that the cultural criticism that grows out of Freud gets everything exactly backwards. And Freud is always more about cultural criticism than curing people; Freudian psychology is more or less useless at curing people.

But let's take a step back and consider another way we might handle the story.

Don meets Megan at the office. That's the context he knows her in. She is both a loving, nurturing woman and good in bed. They have a great affair and they really connect emotionally. He encourages her in her work.

Then one day her father shows up and reminds her of a childhood dream to be an actress. This dream is pure Cinderella-becomes-a-princess, one-hundred percent on the Madonna side of the equation. Suddenly, Don's fun and exciting work, life and sex partner is into a silly girl's fantasy that is, as Megan's mother grasps, perfectly fine in an eight-year-old but something a woman of Megan's age should have grown out of by now.

(By the way, why is that feminist fantasies about women pursuing the independent career always seem to involve fantasy jobs—newspaper columnist, environmental lawyer, activist, actress, fashion business and so forth?)

And Megan doesn't make it on her own. She needs to turn to Don, now a Daddy figure who can dispense favours, who gets her the commercial job that gets her TV career going. And notice how much of a hurry most people writing Mad Men recaps are to forget that Megan stabbed a friend in the back when she did this.

Now we can see a whole other way to see the story. Don thought he had a found a whole human being in Megan rather than the child-woman Betty but he sees that Megan is slowly transforming into something like what Betty had become. When, at the end of last season, the woman in the bar asks him he is alone she is asking after sex but there is a sense other than the existential one in which Don can say yes to that question. He can say, "I thought I wasn't when I married Megan but it turns out that I am.

I have no idea which way the show's writers will go with this, although I am not holding out a lot of hope.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Mad Men: Collaborators

Well, that was awkward. And that, of course, was the point. It's a modernist story-telling technqiue, very popular with The Beats among others. You deliberately create awkwardness.

Of course, it's commonplace nowadays, every situation comedy and soap opera trades on it. The show used a sort of subtle awkwardness. You kept waiting for the moment when someone would blunder into the truth and the fireworks would start. In the end, the only particular firecrackers to actually explode were Pete's. he was the one who had the most interest in keeping up appearances, so he had the most to lose.

But he doesn't lose in a big, soap-opera like bang. Instead, he loses, in classic Pete fashion, with a pathetic whimper.

There was also retroactive context all over the place. That's another soap opera technique. It consists of taking some known event from the past and completely changing its meaning by giving us some new details that wrench it out of the context it has been comfortably sitting in and drops it into a new context. For example, last season, Trudy proposed that Pete should get an apartment in the city after he lied to her and claimed he had gotten facial injuries as a result of a car crash. In fact, he got them when a neighbour punched him in the face after finding that he'd had sex with his wife. Well, in this episode, it is the neighbour's wife who gets punched in the face after she tells her husband that she'd had an affair with Pete. But that's not all that gets changed. When Trudy finds out the truth, she tells Pete that she agreed to let him have an apartment in the city on the condition he be discreet about his affairs. That sense was completely absent in the past.

The other big bit of retroactive context was Uncle Mack. Up until now, we have known him only as the man that was good to little Dick after his father dies and he and his step mother go to live with him. Today we learn, with quite a jolt that Uncle Mack's rooming house was, in fact, a whorehouse and that he is a pimp ("rooster" is the term he uses to explain it to little Dick). What's more that his stepmother went to the place in the full expectation that she would become one of Uncle Max's stable. We watch, along with Dick, as he stares through a keyhole and sees Mack breaking in the new talent.

That is another complete reversal of meaning as we have seen the step mother only as a woman of strict Christian morality until now. Until now, we've thought of Dick as being born to a prostitute who dies in labour and then raised by a strict Christian. We now learn he was born to one prostitute and then raised by another. And the show goes to great lengths to make us understand that there is a connection between this and Don's womanizing.

Does that sound familiar? It will if you are a François Truffault fan.

The French connections

There were French cultural references all over this show.

Can I take a brief break to note how utterly shallow most of the commentary  on this show is? If you go around reading "recaps" of episode one, you'll notice that a lot of people made a big thing of Don quoting from the Inferno in episode one. What's wrong with that? Well, here is the line Don quotes:
Nel mezzo del cammin
di nostra vita,
mi ritrovai per
una selva oscura...
"Half way through life's journey, I found myself in a dark wood".  That's my rough "translation"; translation being a bit of an overstatement as these are very familiar lines so I can hardly claim to have figured anything out about it. They are familiar lines because they are, I'm going to raise my voice and pound on the table here, THEY ARE THE FIRST EFFING LINES IN THE PIECE! The point being that there is not a scrap of evidence that Don, Matt Weiner or anyone else, real or fictional, associated with the show has actually read the Inferno. So if you read a recap that made a big thing of that reference last week, the person who wrote that recap is a fraud.

This episode, on the other hand, is full of references to bits of French history. There is the title, "Collaborators", which suggests France during the occupation. At the other bookend, there is the outro with with der Bingle singing "Just a Gigolo", which, for those of you who only know Diamond Dave's rip off of Louis Prima's version, is a song about a French World War 1 veretan reduced to being a gigolo.

In the middle, we have the wholesale rip off of subtle homage to François Truffault's L'homme qui aimait les femmes (The Man Who Loved Women) wherein the hero's compulsive womanizing is explained by his having been the neglected child of a prostitute now desperately seeking connection but unable to have a satisfying love connection with a woman because this past has damaged him.

The story arc

Somewhere in the past, I quoted an interview in which Matt Weiner said he threw everything he had at the first season because he didn't know there would be a second one. That came up at lunch when the Lemon Girl said, "How much do you think Mad Men is like Dawson's Creek?"

Let me explain that question before I answer it. Dawson's Creek, like a lot of TV shows had a concept that set out the first season: a guy and a girl are best friends and he, a perpetual child, misses the implications of their having grown up and doesn't realize he loves her until after his best friend steals her away. Okay, but once you've done that, where do you go for the second season? and the third? and ...?

And Mad Men is a lot like that. It keeps circling back to the big concept from the first season. This sort of television often gets compared to novel reading because it uses similar story-telling techniques. But that is only true to a point. The difference is that novels tend to know where they are going. Even a novel that goes nowhere, the most famous example being Tristram Shandy, goes nowhere by design. The author has a plan, a story arc, in mind when he or she starts out. This sort of television doesn't because the writers never know whether this season will be the last one. And so the story circles and circles around the big concept.

(That's the real significance of the Dante reference in episode one of this season: it's an excuse to go back to the beginning. It's as if the producers were saying, "Okay, we've entertained you with a lot of filler to stretch what is really a one season show but now we are going to start the same story all over again only it's now a few years past the original start.")

We need a story arc for each season, of course. But that arc can't drive the original concept off stage. It can't up stage it either. Thus, the odd sort of limbo the story is in and the odd way it has of returning to the various wars US has fought and how those wars serve as cultural and moral markers for the generations who fought them.

That's entertainment

The fascinating thing is how much more entertaining the show gets whenever it goes back to these fundamentals. When Roger, Don, Peggy and Joan dominate the plot, as they did at the best moments of this episode, it gets to be much more fun. There was a magnificent scene where Don and Sylvia end up in the restaurant and she is being difficult and Don solves the problem by dominating her sexually. The female audience at home were all squirming in their seats, and not from embarrassment, for that scene.

The show shines when those for characters—each of which is a throwback to an another era—get to be themselves for a while.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Little Heavy Culture: Sonnerie de Ste Geneviève du Mont

For my money, this is the most erotic piece of music ever written.

PS: Sonnerie means the ringing of the bells and Sainte-Genevieve is a church in Paris. The bells are very nicely suggested by the Viola de Gamba in the opening.

That's your setting. It's morning in Paris and it's a cool day. You are in a hotel room in one of those little three-star Paris hotels and your bed almost fills the tiny room. There are two floor-to-ceiling casement windows in your room and one of these is open because it was so hot when you got into bed last night. The curtains are opaque and they shut out all the light except for what escapes around them. You are not alone but you have been the only one awake. You've been listening to the street sounds hoping your partner will awake and now the bells start.

Your partner rolls over at the sounds of the bells starting but then just lays there, not-quite-awake. You have been waiting for them to wake up a long time and your desire is so intense you can barely hold it back. But you do hold it back because you have to gently ease and urge them into a little morning lovemaking.

Or, if you prefer, turn it around and imagine you are the one just barely awake and your partner desperately wants you.

And ...

Take your time. Imagine the feel of the crisp sheets. Think of what it feels like to lie under warm covers in a cool room. Imagine the smell of the Café au lait the hotel staff have brought up. Think of the relentless pounding of the distant bells.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A few more thoughts about marriage

Just marriage this time and not same-sex marriage as last time.

A woman named Julia Shaw, about whom I know nothing, wrote an article about getting married young last week. A fierce rebuttal followed and, because the rebuttal came from Amanda Marcotte, the rebuttal was stupid. Fortunately, some more thoughtful people also chimed in.

Before I go on, I should say that I know a few couples who married young and the women, but not necessarily the men, all report that they received a hostile response from other women for having married young.

For that, and other reasons, I suspect that the trend towards getting married older is being driven by women. Not that they have had to drive very hard for men typically have not wanted to get married early. The natural trajectory most men imagine for their lives is a few years adventure followed by "settling down". Young men I meet today still talk in these terms. You might say that later marriage is what men have always tended to want and it has lately become what women want as well. (And a cynic might wonder who is really being served by this social change.)

But women have never seen marriage as settling down. It's always been a goal to shoot for. You can see this if you go to Pinterest: young women still sit around dreaming about their wedding. Men don't. The difference is that they now see marriage as something that follows a few years of getting settled in a career and a maybe a "starter relationship" that is serious but not marriage.

So let's get back to Amanda Marcotte. The easiest pick of a lot of low-lying fruit in her piece was this sentence:
If he's good enough to marry, he'll still be around when you're ready to make that leap.
It's with the "he" singular that Marcotte slips into the narcissism for which she is famous, although hardly unique. And she got slagged, deservedly, for that. Yeah sure, I'll just hang around six years until you're ready to get married. That is assuming you ever will be or that you don't pick someone different when the time comes.

But even if we try to save Marcotte by rewording her imbecilic argument more intelligently there are huge problems. Suppose she had said this:
There will still be lots of good men around when you're ready to make that leap.
Others have already pointed out that life will indeed be different in a few years. I thought Ann Althouse put it best: "You're free to absorb the risk that the right man at the wrong time will be in the wrong place when it's the right time." But that doesn't go far enough. Because the other consequence of getting married older is that you will change over time. Marrying a twenty-seven year old is a very different proposition from marrying a twenty-three year old and marrying a thirty-five year old is a different proposition altogether. To paraphrase Althtouse: You're also free to absorb the risk that if you're the right woman for Mr. Right at the wrong time for you, you might be in the wrong woman for  Mr. Right when it's the right time for you.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Amity Shlaes nails the triviality of Lean In:
Which brings us to the largest obstacle to today’s Iron Ladies: the emphasis on corporate or government process. As Sandberg laboriously notes, Harvard Business School, which already famously focused on teamwork and consensus, has lately emphasized teamwork even more. It’s hard to imagine Thatcher (“Defeat? I do not recognize the word”) thriving at HBS. 

The result of the collaborative culture is that corporations or government institutions focus intensely on internal culture and pour their energy into achieving minuscule policy changes relating to workplace efficiency, gender or race. The great victory with which future Thatcher biographers are likely to open their accounts is her winning back the Falkland Islands from the Argentine junta. The great victory with which Sandberg opens her book was getting Google Inc. (GOOG) to establish reserved parking for pregnant women. 

 PS: A similar, but longer, diagnosis here.

Shame is not enough

Shame is a good thing. It helps hold us in check. There is a story up today about a former politician who was arrested for driving around waving his erection at women driving other cars. At one point he apparently got it up to 90 miles an hour with said erection poking out the window. No, I don't know how he did it either but, and this is the important thing, that is where we'd all end up if you had no shame.

By the way, if you go to the original story, you'll notice it says the guy was exposing his "genitals". That's another interesting aspect of shame, that it leads people to say "genitals" when they mean "erection". Shame tends to lead us to not do things that will make people laugh at us to be sure but it also tends to make us squeamish about things we all know and understand but would rather not admit we know and understand. That is why newspaper editors go to great lengths to mask the primary motive of some guy driving around to expose himself. What primary motive? If you read case studies of exhibitionist behaviour, you will quickly learn that the vast majority of male exhibitionists don't just strive to show themselves to others, they aim to get an erection from the arousal that comes from exposing themselves.

And we all co-operate in keeping these secrets. Why? If I asked you directly, you'd most likely say, "Because I don't want to know!" Yeah sure. But suppose I left you alone in a room with video of some celebrity's shameful behaviour and then I came back in quietly twenty minutes later to catch you watching. What would you say then? You've never pried into or been curious about someone else's shameful secret? Ah, but you say, "Sure, I'm intrigued but I resist." Okay, but the first time around you said you didn't want to know and that is different. It was also a lie.

(We do the same thing with women by the way. Exhibitionism from women is far more acceptable in our society than from men but we still go to great lengths to conceal the sexual motive women have for this. We tell ourselves it is from peer pressure or a need to be popular or the bad influence of Hollywood, we tell ourselves just about anything rather than admit that women and girls get a sexual charge from doing this.)

You may say, but I would never get a thrill out of exposing myself that way. No, of course not, but when you have sex, does it matter that your lover  is there to experience you having sex? That's a big part of the experience isn't it? Yeah, something has gone a bit crazy if you are driving around exposing yourself but doing it with another human being is big part of the thing. That's part of the shame: we don't do these things ourselves but we understand perfectly well how they got where they are. 

I digress on this because I want to tease something important out. When you claim that you don't want to know shameful secrets that you, in fact, do want to know, that is shame at work. There are websites that mock celebrities for their behaviour and dress. Have you ever been to one of them? Are you ashamed of what you have done? Of course you are. But what do you want to do about it? Well, nothing because ... well, because nobody is being hurt (consequentalism) or because there is no law against it (deontology).

If your reaction is to say, "I'm never going to TMZ or Go Fug Yourself again!" let me assure you that you are wasting your time. You can't stop playing the shame game. It's part of being human. You can play it at more exalted levels if that makes you feel good. You can read Jane Austen or Shakespeare, for example. They both use shame as a dramatic technique over and over again. Willoughby is shamed and then he comes crawling to Elinor and tells her all about it and we feel good for justice has been restored through shame. (Exam question: Why does it matter so much that Willoughby actually confess his shame at his own behaviour instead of just feeling it? 20 marks. This isn't a exam for English literature but for Virtue Ethics 101.)

One problem, of course, is that we all do things that would shame us if others knew. You may feel perfectly comfortable having your spouse see you reach orgasm but you'd probably not want your mother to know too much about it. Your mother loves you and all and she wants you to be happy in an abstract sense but there is stuff you'd rather not have to explain to her. And even less so to your neighbours. (Oddly enough, you might not have problems fantasizing about some random stranger whom you'll never have to see again seeing something by "accident". )

That's not a problem because there is nothing wrong with having sex and orgasms or having fantasies to help you reach orgasm. There is a lot good about it. But it is and should be an intimate act. If you and your spouse like to dress up in medieval costume as part of your sex play, go to it but close the curtains first. And shame helps here.

The other problem, and this is the really big problem, is that shame is a self-oriented emotion. It leads us to protect our honour or, if we can't do that, at least minimize dishonour. It doesn't lead us to care much about others as others. Think back to age five when you were caught doing something and you immediately responded by claiming others had done likewise. Why did you do that? That Joey did it first doesn't absolve you of one ounce of guilt. But it does reduce your shame.

Every mother in the history of the world misses the point of this exercise and promptly says, "If little Joey jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?" That's because your mother cared about guilt more than shame. You had done something wrong and she wants you to apologize and, much more importantly, not do it again in the future. She was disappointed in you and wanted you to try harder to please her by being a better girl or boy. Because she is focused on this, she thinks that you invoke Joey as the reason why you did it. Your real goal was to reduce your shame by cutting all the other poppies in the room down to your level.

And if you had been able to lie with a reasonable chance of getting away with it, you would have tried that instead.

As it is, your mother played right into your hands by treating your excuse as a reason and you meekly agreed that you wouldn't do what Joey did in the future. And it felt good to meekly do that because you'd dodged the bullet because you knew full well that Joey doing it or not doing it had nothing at all with your doing it. You knew it was wrong and you were damn glad to have the excuse of Joey doing it first. (assuming he did and it is just as likely that you made the whole Joey thing up.) And if you ever got a chance of doing it again without getting caught, you were going to jump at it.

But, we are tempted to say, our mothers won in the long run. Why do we say that? Well, because we learned how to behave. And the proof of that is what? That you don't do anything shameful anymore? You might be tempted to say (I'm certainly tempted), "But I'm better than I used to be and that should count for something".

Okay, but to whom and why? And we still have to figure out why we got better.

It seems like the answer should be something like this. Even though you fully intended to keep doing the fun thing in the future if you could get away with it, you now realized that there were consequences to getting caught. Now all you need is a little prudence, that is the realization that the risks of getting caught outweigh the gains that come from occasionally getting away with it, and you're home.

It's odd though that we don't often make that argument when teaching children, or even adults, how to behave morally. And it has limitations. Would you do the bad thing if the chances of your getting away with it looked really good? The answer to that will be yes in some cases and no in others. "Depends on what the thing is,"  you will say. If it is glancing at the breasts of a woman you know when she bends down to get something out of her purse, you might do it (relevant disclosure: I definitely would) if it is having an affair with the same woman even though she is married, I would hope you wouldn't do it. But everyone should see that one act is in a different moral class than the other. At the very least, you should see that if we keep moving the needle down the scale it will reach a point where no shame-based rationalization would be acceptable; even if you could talk yourself into having affair on the grounds that you won't get caught, you wouldn't use the same argument to rationalize rape. If you have to think about that, something has gone deeply wrong in your moral development.

But shame isn't what makes the difference when you do this. If anything, the act of voyeurism carries more shame than sexual infidelity. In our society we laugh at the man who is cuckolded more than the one who cheated on him. Heck, not just in our society. Having an affair come to light might cause some people to get angry at you but you won't be the one feeling shame.

Shame and honour are essential to any morality but they aren't enough.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Confessions: How much of a platonist is Augustine?

(Conclusion of Book One)

The more I read of this thing, the more dismayed I get with myself for having read so shallowly thirty years ago.

Rereading it now, I can see that again and again, I simply assumed I knew where Augustine was going instead of paying attention to what was really going on. Augustine, for example, says that plays that had him weeping for fictional characters led him astray. When I first read this, I read it as simply saying what Plato says in The Republic, that these texts are poor for teaching. I think now that Augustine's point is more subtle and more positive. It's easy to miss this because he goes on and on about his failings in being so enthralled in all this drama when he should have been studying more practical stuff.

At the end, however, there is a flip where Augustine suddenly talks about how, despite all his failings, God's grace was with him and helped him do things he never could have done of his own accord.

Where Plato sees a epistemological problem, Augustine always and everywhere sees sin first and epistemology second. It isn't just the texts he loved but also the teachers who taught him who were sinners. I think Augustine would say that no matter how far astray you go, God's grace is reaching out to you and is there to lead you home.

The second big thing that I missed all those years ago was idolatry. Under the influence of popular culture, I tended to assume the danger of idols and superstitions was the idols and superstitions themselves. I see now that to do that is to treat these things as if they had real powers. Even thought I knew that idols were empty, I thought that superstition itself could get a hold of you to such an extent that the idols you were superstitious about may as well have power.

I have come to see in the ensuing years that the real problem with idols is that they and our thoughts about them are nothing at all. The primary danger they pose is that you will simply waste your time worshiping or being fearful of what is just clay. Any real power or psychological effect is a distant second by comparison to this waste of time and opportunity.

It matters a whole lot to Augustine that the fictional character whose words he declaimed was Juno as opposed to mere a fictional character created for the purposes of entertaining. And it also matters to him that even when he declaimed the words he knew that Juno had never actually spoken them. The whole exercise was, thus, a waste of time and effort.

The biggest shift between my earlier and present readings is one of tone. I now see that this section of the Confessions is full of hope. When I first read it, I projected a vision of the "dark ages" wherein people saw this world as a vale of tears to be endured solely for the purpose of getting to a better life in the next world. I see now that Augustine saw this world as full of God's grace. Those years he spent weeping tears for Juno were years he might have spent better but, given human sinfulness, it is unlikely that he would have done. Wonderfully, however, he sees that even though he did not do better, God's grace was still with him. It's a wonderful life after all—let's wonder at it.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Mad Men: romanticizing modernism

Well, we always knew Mad Men might go bad, we just didn't know how. I think we may now have some idea how it's all could to go to ruin.

It looks like maybe Matthew Weiner has been listening to the critics. They all wanted to have Don see that his life was a fraud and begin to look for authenticity. The critics want to do this because they look at modernism in a romantic way. Modernism isn't their thing. It died long ago. But things like Ikea and shows like Mad Men brought it back. As nostalgia that, as nostalgia tends to be, is actually for experiences that the person feeling nostalgia didn't actually experience themselves.

The thing about this sort of romantic perspective is that the person experiencing it wants to use the past for self validation. They want to see the past as leading to them and justifying them or at least explaining why they can't be any better than they are. This has been part of the critical view of the show from the beginning; as we saw in the first season hope that the show would "explain why the sixties had to happen". This view admits that, sure, the guys in the early 1960s seem more interesting and more manly than today's men but insists that their lives really a hollow sham. We may be less interesting today but we're more real.

If Weiner succumbs to temptation to give those critics what they want, and it sure looks like he is about to, he will ruin everything good about the show. The people who love the show, love Don. The "fakeness" of his life doesn't bother us. We want him to get away with transforming himself into something new.

There were two three good things-three reasons for hope. The first was the way Megan's character developed from the ad scene at the end of last season. She has become a trivial woman you cannot, and Don does not, take seriously. She is to Don what Mia Farrow was to Sinatra. That Don would cheat on a beautiful young woman with an amazing body with an older, but more substantial, woman was completely believable. The second was the Tom Wolfesque trick of having the summer of love be followed by winter. (Mind you it would have been better yet to go to the autumn because that would have been more ambiguous.)

What really jumped out at me was the cultural tragedy that is the late 1960s and early 1970s and how it, like cold weather, is creeping in and killing off the incredible cultural growth that followed the war. You can see it in the shots of the village to be sure but you can see it even more clearly in what are supposed to be comfort. The new fashions, the fabrics, the haircuts—it's all so irredeemably awful. Just the shots of Don and Roger and even Ken and Peter against that cultural disaster was powerful. That's how cultural degradation drags down everyone.

And that brings the third good thing. There is a beautiful moment when an ad campaign pushes the word "love". Don delivers a beautiful and devastating critique of everything that was wrong with the summer of love and how it trivialized the word. It was  solid kick in the teeth to John Lennon and Paul McCartney and it was as good as anything we have ever seen on the show.

Unfortunately, the scene had an evil twin of a horribly melodramatic scene with Roger breaking down in tears over a  shoe shine kit. An utterly unbelievable scene because Roger gets the shoe shine kit because the family of the man who used to shine his shoes sends it over because the man has died and Roger was the only one who still used his services. Yeah, that could happen.

Monroe Stahr sets out what is going here in Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon:
Broaca, on the surface, was an engineer—large and without nerves, quietly resolute, popular. He was an ignoramus and Stahr often caught him making the same scenes over and over—one scene about a rich young girl occurred in all his pictures with the same action, the same business. A bunch of large dogs. entered the room and jumped around the girl. Later the girl went to a stable and slapped a horse on the rump. The explanation was probably not Freudian; more likely that at a drab moment in youth he had looked through a fence and seen a beautiful girl with dogs and horses. As a trademark for glamor it was stamped on his brain forever. 
And thus it is with the shoe shine kit. Weiner used it before with Don Draper. Somewhere deep in his brain, Matt Weiner has linked shoe shine kits with men struggling to hold themselves together. When his brain is on cruise control, when it's not really working but only pretending to work, out the image comes. It doesn't do any real dramatic work for anyone else. For Weiner himself it doesn't have to work. Like the girl on the horse for Broaca, he associates it with something so the connection is instantly made the second it shows up.

There is, of course, a way to do it right. To do that, Weiner would have had to use the image in a recurring way, slowly building it up until it meant something for all of us and not just for him. he would show us a man turning to care for his shoes every time he couldn't get others things to work. He doesn't do that because he doesn't think he has to.

Unfortunately that was only one example of  lazy writing and the episode was full of lazy, sloppy writing. The trick of having people suddenly being able to bond with complete strangers when they can't do it with those closest to them. The trick of using big life events such as weddings and funerals to make it seem like dramatic changes the "drama" itself fails to deliver.

The worst example of this was a scene where Betty turns to one of her daughter's friends and suddenly becomes the in control adult she can't manage to be with anyone she has an actual connection to. It's like Glen all over again. And yet it's played like progress. Why is it that Betty can only really bond with children? And did it bother anyone else that she calls out her husband for looking at a teenager by making jokes about raping the girl and then goes downstiars and dispenses motherly advice to the girl? That was really, really creepy.

Oh well, it can only get better from here on in. I hope so anyway. That is what happened last season. Of course, one of these times it won't.

The episode ends with Elvis singing the Hawaiian Wedding Song and it says a lot that that cheesy bit of tacky fluff felt like a cultural high point compared to what we saw going on in the late 1960s.  Perhaps that was the point? We can only hope so.