From Posts also found at Jacobin Magazine

The Intractability of Op-Ed Habits

The first paragraph of The New York Times‘s obituary for Vincent Harding, scholar and co-author of Martin Luther King’s brilliant and always-relevant anti-war speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” refers to that speech as “polarizing” and notes that it “touched off a firestorm,” condemned by Life Magazine and the NAACP.

Not mentioned is the Times’s own exquisitely condescending editorial, “Dr. King’s Error,” which is just awful in just the ways you’d expect. the war is a very complicated issue, you see, and calling for peace is just too simplistic. Yes, there have been some horrors, but calling them war crimes is just a bridge too far. And besides, civil rights is hard enough, anyways. (I’m sure King was grateful for that needed reminder.) The connection between Vietnam and the war on poverty is “too facile” – the real obstacles are “conservatives” and “the intractability of slum mores and habits.”

The obituary also describes the anti-war position in 1967 as “relatively unpopular.” As Penny Lewis outlines in her important study of the anti-war movement, support for immediate withdrawal was indeed low in the Spring of 1967, reaching a low point of six percent. But by the end of 1968, the majority supported and end to the war and by 1970 the majority had come to support immediate withdrawal. Yet  the the Times’ obituary, referring to the “furor” and “firestorm” the speech caused, finds it notable that “neither Dr. Harding nor Dr. King disavowed the address.” Given their success in convincing the American public in the face of ridicule from the elite, a better question might be if the Times has ever disavowed theirs.

The Rise of Peggy Olson, the Fall of Don Draper and the Affective Life of Capitalism

So the new season of Mad Men started last night. The official posters, with Don looking at a pyschadelic print, aren’t out and out historical gaffes like this Netflix ad, but they point to a lot of the problems the show had last season. Season six was, I think, one of false starts and frustrations.  A lot  them came from having to sustain a long-running show that’s worked through a lot of its premises, but others point to something interesting that’s been there since the start. Mad Men started out as fundamentally a show about hierarchies. (“It’s a hierarchy!” Ken cried desperately in last night’s premier.  Well, it was – and largely still is – but more on that later.) Peggy’s first day tour of the office showed us the lay of the land in all its beautiful horror. We knew part of the long arc would be about how the people at the top – whom we’d more or less been asked to identify with – had their positions challenged. But the show’s strength was always in showing the everyday cruelties of the old order.  Many of the best episodes, like “The Gold Violin” from season 2, or “Signal 30” from season 5, have the feel of a certain kind of old school New Yorker story. As Vivian Gornick described it in “The End of the Novel of Love”:

In the fifties John Cheever’s stories of marital disillusion seemed profound. That famous climatic moment in Cheever when the husband realizes holds him in contempt, or the wife knows husband is committing adultery, these moments delivered an electric charge. The knowledge encoded in them seemed literally stunning, leaving the characters riven, their lives destroyed. Who, after all, could go on after this? Then came the shocker – the thing that made the story large, awesome, terrible – they did go on like this. 

This describes the lives of many of Mad Men‘s characters throughout the early seasons. Then, of course, as Gornick recounts “within a generation . . there was divorce. And psychotherapy. And sex and feminism and drugs . . . ” Some of the suspense came in who would crack first, and how, and at what cost.  Betty seemed doomed if she was forced to live outside her illusions – this was true and not. Would it be Pete unable to live with his own contempt, or would Trudy beat him to it? Don and Roger, while threatened by certain aspects of social change, are poised to benefit from others – they trade in their spouses with little reprisal. Except, of course, that they discover nothing has really changed. For Roger, this works insofar as we can experience his semi-nihilistic questing as a comedy, but it’s left us impatient with Don.  The wonderful Emily Nussbaum pretty much nails  the corner into which Don had been painted by the end of last season. The aside about sneering and swingers is interesting too: in an odd way, our favorite horn dog is a bit of a prude: Roger might have the most depressing stoned group sex ever, but he’s still game and mildly amused. Don’s still caught up in the guilt and secrecy. (The show’s attempts to show him as kinky, like with the prostitute who smacks him, fall flat, the way so many shows still use mild kink as a shorthand for sad people having sad sex.) I remember reading somewhere about when the Diggers who set up a free store, they had to explain to people who tried to shoplift why that was impossible at a free store. There may be sex in the streets in 1968, but Don still prefers the neighbor and hotel rooms with heavy curtains. No one needs to tell Don there’s no such thing as free love. The scene when his daughter discovers him is devastating – but where can we go from there?

The problem gets more complicated – but it still feels like a problem – when we think about the show’s broader historical and social canvas. Here too, the show was wonderful in its depiction of the repressive Before. But once that order is shaken, it has been largely unable or unwilling to present anyone who stands for this challenge in a serious way. African-American characters appear in the background, and occasionally make a telling comment. The counterculture mostly exists insofar as it embodies aspects of Don’s psychodrama. (Or, Betty’s, in the first and strongest episode of season six. Her implicit sympathy for the hippie kids was a fascinating thread that was unfortunately dropped.) And then there was the hippie punching throughout season six. Or, rather, hippie stabbing. When Abe and Peggy argued about civil rights and women’s rights a few seasons back, some of it was an easy gibe at Abe, but some of it actually got at the ways it’s easier for people to support justice from a distance, when it doesn’t bring their own position into question or even just make for an awkward conversation. But by the end of season six he was mostly shown as a fool. He becomes absurd the way the Beatniks Don smokes up with in the first season is absurd.

Now, it’s certainly true that in any time period, even one of mass political action, the majority of people are not activists, and mostly experience change through the mundane of their daily lives. The episode on King’s assassination was trying to show that in an interesting way. But there’s something perverse in the way that the show keeps suggesting that while the old ways were unjust, those who directly challenge them are fools. 
Which brings us to Peggy. Some of the publicity for this season – along with the shot late last season of her in Don’s characteristic pose – suggests this will be “her season.” It’s an intriguing possibility – perhaps the most radical and astute solution to the Don Draper problem would be if he simply fades away – like characters in The Wire, who are significant only for the ecological niche they inhabit. It also points to show’s ambivalence about social change, though. That awful Netflix ad isn’t just grotesquely historically ignorant. It also points to a certain reading of Peggy – she’s a feminist, kind of, but not part of feminism: she represents change and the struggle for respect through her story, but doesn’t have a relationship to the organized social movements of the time. Now, when you point things like this out, everyone rushes to explain to you, yet again, the difference between art and politics, or to complain you’re looking for agitprop. What is interesting to me about that is the idea that any portrayal of collective movements – or even of characters having some relationship to them – would automatically detract from complexity. Certainly it is easy to imagine a poorly executed story line where Betty or Peggy or Joan get their Consciousness Raised. But would it really be so impossible for some one in the Mad Men universe to have some real relationship to this movement, or the Civil Rights movement, or the anti-war movement, which captured the imagination of so many? And if we can’t imagine it doing so, what does that tell us? 
At the same time, though, I think Peggy’s story does reveal something interesting about contemporary feminism and its discontents. I cringed a bit at the end of last night’s episode, when she cries alone in her apartment after a bad day at the office, so lonely she wanted the plumber to hang out.  But the thing is, Peggy’s rise has always been more interesting precisely because it’s in advertising, a field that can’t possibly live up to the creative and personal energies she has put into it – as so many of our jobs cannot, not because we more properly should put them all into our home and family lives, but because of that little thing the show is actually largely about: capitalism. Much is made about Don and Peggy’s affinity for each other because they are both outsiders who struggled for respect. But that outsider status also gives them a certain take on what they are doing – they take advertising seriously and are good at it precisely because in some ways they aren’t taking it seriously – they know how to manipulate want and need, if often unconsciously, and they know it can always be manipulated because it can never be satisfied. We want Peggy to triumph, but we don’t have illusions about what triumph looks like in the venue she’s in. (Not, one should note, the venue she has ‘chosen’, simply the one she found herself in.) This doesn’t mean that Peggy is an unappealing, proto-Sheryl Sandberg or some such. It just means that when it comes to work, we are all still living in the Before. 

On Anger and “Meaning It”

So apparently there’s a new documentary about Morton Downey Junoir  out. People like to talk about how the great things they read when they were young stuck with them like nothing else but of course it’s also the crap that sticks to us. I don’t think I actually watched his show, though I certainly watched a lot of crap when I was in junior high and high school. But I have a clear image of him, in super close up, smoking, holding a noose, saying some one or other should be strung up by his testicles in it. I think maybe it was flag burners. Remember the flag burners?

Now if someone described someone with a noose on TV screaming about who should be killed in what manner for having the wrong beliefs or whatever, and you didn’t know the time or place, probably you might  say this is a dangerous person. We might say “fascist” without being accused of hyperbole. But from the description, it sounds like the documentary makers are more interested in him as a kind of media pioneer, paving the way for the Glen Becks who walk among us, “important” in some way, worthy of more than the expected liberal handwringing.  And while I’m all for avoiding the predictable liberal hand-wringing, there’s something equally tiresome about liberals bending over backwards to lend “complexity” to their discussions about the people who just plain hate them. I’ve been trying for a while to write something about how David Foster Wallace (not exactly a liberal but close enough) falls into this – how he was so much less smart about politics than he was about everything else. His profile of a B-list shock jock is typically brilliant in dissecting all the rhetorical and psychological tics of its subject, but in the end, you don’t really end up with something that different from: white dude pissed off that people are daring to speak back to white dudes.

Presumably the filmmakers, like Wallace, would find the position of righteous indignation towards Downey tiresome and predictable. He’s a buffoon, an entertainer, representative of something or other about relentless American self-invention and so forth. He’s an entertainer, and  presumably “he didn’t really mean it.” But of course we’re quick when it’s other places and times to say those who seem like buffoons can be the most dangerous. In any case, at 14, I didn’t know I was supposed to make those distinctions. I thought he was completely terrifying.

As a kid in the eighties and a teenager in the late eighties and early nineties, AIDS had far more of a  impact on me than anything else that was roughly construed as a “political issue.”  I remember watching The Day After – or maybe I just remember people talking about it – and I remember asking my mother why there was this strange commercial on TV about a bear.  But this fear was abstract, philosophical. AIDS was visceral. I remember my parents recording the 5:30 NBC news every night on the VCR and the sound of Robert Bazell’s voice signing off his dispatches from the NIH, the graphics of the cells that would come and invade your body and turn it against itself. I remember my parents watching the McLaughlin Group and Pat Buchanan shouting about quarantines. I remember our “health” class, where the proto-absitence education of choice was mostly touch-feely stuff about 50 ways you could be intimate without sex, laced with strong doses of gender essentialism. (I remember “Guys give love to get sex, girls give sex to get love” being not just something that was discussed but presented as a clear fact about the world. It may have even been an answer on a test. “There’s no condom for the heart” was also a popular one.) I remember a guest “motivational” speaker saying that Magic Johnson would be condemning his wife to death if he slept with her again even once. I remember people saying that 1 out of 50 – or was it 1 out of 10 – kids in college had AIDS and if you slept with anyone it was only a matter of time until you got it. 
No one was out in my high school that I was aware of. The only time gay people were mentioned was when someone said “It’s not just gay people who get it” (implication: therefore it matters) or when a certain teacher/coach would tell gay jokes to get the kids on his side. There was a substitute teacher who I guess was effeminate in some way – I only remember the way people talked about him – and he got it even worse than the other substitutes, including from the other teachers. There was nothing about gay rights in our very short history section on Civil Rights. Even though I thought of myself as “political” because I’d gotten interested in Civil Rights and feminism and even tried to organize a little “teach-in” when the first Gulf War happened, I’d never heard of Stonewall or Harvey Milk or ACT-UP. This was at a well-regarded, public suburban high school where people did well on the SATs and everyone went to college. And it wasn’t the South. I got into a lot of political arguments with people that ended with them telling me I shouldn’t take things so seriously. I didn’t know what I was angry about yet, but I knew there was something wrong with a world where the “good schools” expected a loud mouth girl to “do well” and “be smart” but found any actually application of curiosity to the outside world embarrassing and a liability. 

Reading about this film made me think about AIDS in those years because of an essay I came across when I was teaching composition in graduate school by Randy Shilts called “Talking AIDS to Death,” a follow up to And The Band Played On, where he talks about the horrible irony of being “successful” with his book while people kept dying.  (I can’t seem to find a copy online but there are lots of student essays for sale that quote it and a link to a database that has an abstract and warns that the information in it was accurate in 1989 but “standards may have changed.” To plagiarize Jamaica Kincaid: there’s a world of something in that, but I can’t get into it now.) In the piece he talks about going on Downey’s show, reluctantly after being assured Downey had a brother with AIDS and would be respectful. Once they’re on the air, it’s all quarantines and fuming. Shilts threatens to walk off, only to be told not to worry, Downey had “a fall back position.” Everyone was in on the act, it seems, but the audience.

Shilts didn’t get tested when he was writing And The Band Played On, reportedly because he was afraid it would affect the “objectivity” and reception of the book.  It’s an old story: feminists who write about gender, African-Americans who write about race are “not objective” or “angry.” Those with less at stake, who wield their real or faked or real but amped up anger for ratings don’t have to worry about such things. The righteous anger of outsiders and people fighting for their lives frightens us: it challenges us. Why aren’t we fighting too, why aren’t we angry?  But reactionary anger we’re meant to take in stride: it’s just how people blow off steam. It’s just good TV.  

Maybe so. But poking around in the much the way these filmmakers seem to have done or the way David Foster Wallace does never makes good on its promise. It never unmasks some legitimate grievance at the root of all the ugliness. It never says anything useful about some populist way for progressives to talk to “the people.” There’s just one layer of ugliness after another. It’s not without its fascinations. But better to rewatch How to Survive a Plague, reread Shilts or Larry Kramer, and imagine how ridiculous the question of whether they “really meant it” would seem.