Don Draper and The Pursuit of Loneliness

May 26, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston
Mr. Draper, I don’t know what it is you really believe in but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. There’s something about you that tells me you know it too.       (Mad Men, Season 1, Episode 1)
The ending of Mad Men was brilliant. It was like a good mystery novel: once you know the solution – Don Draper creating one of the greatest ads in Madison Avenue history – you see that the clues were there all along.  You just didn’t realize what was important and what wasn’t. Neither did the characters. This was a game played between Matt Weiner and the audience.

The ending, like the entire series, was also a sociological commentary on American culture. Or rather, it was an illustration of such a commentary. The particular sociological commentary I have in mind is Philip Slater’s Pursuit of Loneliness, published in 1970, the same year that this episode takes place. It’s almost as if Slater had Don Draper in mind when he wrote the book, or as if Matt Weiner had the book in mind when he wrote this episode.

In the first chapter, “I Only Work Here,” Slater outlines

three human desires that are deeply and uniquely frustrated by American culture
(1) the desire for community – the wish to live in trust, cooperation, and friendship with those around one.
(2) the desire for engagement – the wish to come to grips directly with one’s social and physical environment.
(3) the desire for dependence – the wish to share responsibility for the control of one’s impulses and the direction of one’s life.
The fundamental principle that gives rise to these frustrations is, of course, individualism.

Individualism is rooted in the attempt to deny the reality of human interdependence. One of the major goals of technology in America is to “free” us from the necessity of relating to, submitting to, depending upon, or controlling other people. Unfortunately, the more we have succeeded in doing this, the more we have felt disconnected, bored, lonely, unprotected, unnecessary, and unsafe.

Most of those adjectives could apply to Don Draper at this point. In earlier episodes, we have seen Don, without explanation, walk out of an important meeting at work and, like other American heroes, light out for the territory, albeit in a new Cadillac. He is estranged from his family. He is searching for something – at first a woman, who turns out to be unattainable, and then for . . . he doesn’t really know what. He winds up at Esalen, where revelation comes from an unlikely source, a nebbishy man named Leonard. In a group session, Leonard says:

I've never been interesting to anybody. I, um –  I work in an office. People walk right by me. I know they don’t see me. And I go home and I watch my wife and my kids. They don’t look up when I sit down. . . .
I had a dream. I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off. And I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling. They’re happy to see you but maybe they don’t look right at you and maybe they don’t pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off.

People are silent, but Don gets up, slowly moves towards Leonard and tearfully, silently, embraces him.

On the surface, the two men could not be more different. Don is interesting. And successful. People  notice him. But he shares Leonard’s sense that his pursuit – of a new identity, of career success, of unattainable women - has left him feeling inauthentic, disconnected, and alone. “I’ve messed everything up,” he tells his sometime co-worker Peggy in a phone conversation. “I’m not the man you think I am.”

The next time we see him, he is watching from a distance as people do tai-chi on a hilltop.

And then he himself is sitting on a hilltop, chanting “om” in unison with a group of people. At last he is sharing something with others rather than searching for ego gratifications.

And then the punch line. We cut to the Coke hilltop ad with its steadily expanding group of happy people singing in perfect harmony.

A simple product brings universal community (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company”). It also brings authenticity. “It’s the real thing.”

Esalen and Coca-Cola. Both are offering solutions to the frustrated needs Slater identifies. But both solutions suffer from the same flaw – they are personal rather than social. A few days of spiritual healing and hot springs bring no more social change than does a bottle of sugar water.

It’s not that real change is impossible, Slater says, and in the final chapter of the book, he hopes that the strands in the fabric of American culture can be rewoven.  But optimism is difficult.

So many healthy new growths in our society are at some point blocked by the overwhelming force and rigidity of economic inequality. . . . There’s a . . . ceiling of concentrated economic power that holds us back, frustrates change, locks in flexibility.

The Mad Men finale makes the same point, though with greater irony (the episode title is “Person to Person”). When we see the Coke mountaintop ad, we realize that Don Draper has bundled up his Esalen epiphany, brought it back to a huge ad agency in New York, and turned it into a commercial for one of the largest corporations in the world.

Privilege (Twice!), Class, and Collectivism

May 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Privilege* is the title of Shamus Khan’s 2011 study of St. Paul’s, an elite New England prep school where he had been a student. The difference between the new elite and the old is the difference between “entitlement” and “privilege.”

Whereas elites of the past were entitled – building their worlds around the “right” breeding, connection, and culture – new elites develop privilege: a sense of self and a mode of interaction that advantage them. The old entitled elites constituted a class that worked to construct moats and walls around the resources that advantaged them. The new elite think of themselves as far more individualized, supposing that their position is a product of what they have done.

Privilege** is also the title of Ross Douthat’s 2005 memoir of Harvard, an elite New England university where he had been a student. He sees the same evolution from the old entitlement (the “right to rule”) to the new privilege.

Ruling classes have always believed in their own right to rule, but it once was understood ... that their place in the social order was arbitrary, an accident of birth and breeding, rather than a matter of cosmic justice. Ideals of noblesse oblige grew from just this sense: the knowledge that God (or blind chance) had given the elite much that was not necessarily deserved.

The modern elite’s rule is regarded not as arbitrary but as just and right and true, at least if one follows the logic of meritocracy to its unspoken conclusion. For today’s Harvard students ... there is nothing accidental or random about their position in society. They belong exactly where they are – the standardized tests and the college admissions officers have spoken, and their word is final.

At Harvard, and at similar schools around the country, a privileged class of talented students sits atop the world, flush with pride in their own accomplishments, secure in the knowledge that they rule because they deserve to rule, because they are the best

For both authors, the new elite see themselves and the world through the lens of individualism. The old elite saw themselves as a class. For Khan, the crucial function of that class was to protect its economic and political advantages (“walls around the resources that advantaged them”). Douthat, though he uses the old Marxist term “ruling class,” emphasizes their sense of humility and social obligation (“ideals of noblesse oblige”).

The irony is that Douthat, the conservative, dislikes a system based on individual merit; he seems to prefer the more collectivist elites of the past.  (That picture of the past is necessarily romanticized and heavily edited).  This is quite a contrast with an older conservative, William F. Buckley, Jr., one of Douthat’s heroes and early benefactors. Buckley’s first book was about Yale. Like Douthat’s book about Harvard, it could have been called That Really Famous College I Just Graduated From – Here’s Why It Sucks. For Buckley, the big problem was godless atheism. The actual title was God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom.”  

I believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.

That was then – 1951.  Three generations later, at Harvard (and presumably Yale) individualism is the only view left standing. That ascendance didn’t go the way Buckley would have wanted it. These campuses are largely liberal and godless, politically correct and feminist. But the young elites there see themselves as individuals, not as members of some class or collectivity.  To quote once more from Shamus Khan:

[The elite] have gone from seeing themselves as a coherent group, a class with particular histories and tastes, to a collection of the most talented and hardest working of our nation. They look more diverse, by which I mean that they now include members formerly excluded. They have rejected moat and fence building around particular resources and qualities that might identify then as a class and have accepted the fundamentally American story of “work hard, get ahead.” They think in terms of their individual traits, capacities, skills, talents, and qualities.    

* The full title is Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.

** The full title is Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.

No, No, a Thousand Times No

May 21, 2015 
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Financial Times wants me to tweet this quote from Martin Wolf, “widely considered to be one of the world's most influential writers on economics” (Wikipedia).

I admit, there is tweet temptation. But not for the reason the FT thinks.  No, what strikes me in this quote is the multiple negatives. They leave me utterly confused as to what the passage means. Here’s a simplified version.

It is impossible to believe that the government cannot find investments . . . that do not earn more than the real cost of funds. If that were not true, the UK would be finished.

The first sentence has three negatives. The next sentence not only has another negative, but it throws in a mysterious pronoun – that. If you can figure out what that is referring to, you’re a better reader than I am.

I have posted before (here most recently) about the confusion of negatives that carom about, reversing and re-reversing the direction of the sentence. Yet here we have one of the word’s most influential writers tossing one negative on top of another, and another. Personally, I find it impossible not to believe that writers can’t learn not to avoid simplifying their prose by using positive constructions.

Don Draper Meets the Chicago School

May 20, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the next-to-last episode of “Mad Men,” Don Draper has walked out of an important meeting at work and driven to Wisconsin searching for a waitress he had a brief affair with. Not finding her, he now continues to Kansas and Oklahoma. He is on the road.  The reference point though is not Kerouac but a much earlier book. The title of the episode is “The Milk and Honey Route.”

Nels Anderson was a “Chicago school” sociologist, a student of Park and Burgess in the 1920s. That school produced what we would now call urban ethnographies – Harvey Zorbaugh’s The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago’s Near North Side (1929) or Paul Cressey’s The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life (1932).  Perhaps the first of these ethnographies was Anderson’s The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man (1923).

In 1931,Anderson also published a more popular treatment of the same material. He used a pen name, Dean Stiff. The book was The Milk and Honey Route.

(Older readers: if the cover art looks vaguely familiar, that’s because the illustrator,
Ernie Bushmiller, was the creator of the comic strip “Nancy,” which began in 1938.)

The road the real hobo follows is never ending. It is always heading into the sunset of promise but it never fully keeps its promise. Thus the road the hobo roams always beckons him on, much as does the undealt card in a game of stud. Every new bend of the road is disillusioning but never disappointing, so that once you get the spirit of the hobo you never reach the stone wall of utter disillusionment. You follow on hopefully from one bend of the road to another, until in the end you step off the cliff.

Substitute “Don Draper” for “hobo” in that paragraph, and you get something you might have read this week in one of the many appreciations of “Mad Men.”