The Mad Men Are Serious Downers

I’m only three episodes deep into Mad Men, and I’m already struck by how grim the show is. There’s misogyny, sexism, racial and ethnic prejudice, sexual prudery (of a kind), depressing suburban life, loveless marriages, loveless affairs, rigid gender roles, corporate language, the vapidity of advertising, and smoking indoors. And alcohol, lots of it. Mainly martinis and scotch, consumed at all hours of the day, in offices and homes, and during kids’ birthday parties. (I’m not sure if I’ve missed out on anything; I’m sure fans will correct me if I have.)

In using ‘grim’ as a description for the show–which I intend to keep watching for the time being just because it is morbidly fascinating–I do not mean to look past the stylish dressing, the carefully designed interiors, the loving caresses of the whisky and martini glasses, the nostalgia for a time when boys could be boys, white folk could be white folk, and women knew just how to be women, that apparently captivate so many of the show’s fans. Rather, I find that adjective appropriate because despite the apparent cheeriness and cleverness of the office banter, the endless drinking and dining in fashionable Manhattan restaurants, and the freedom to drink in one’s office, no one in the show seems to have had the most minuscule ration of any kind of happiness doled out to them. This is one serious downer of a show.

This should not be entirely surprising. Advertising consumer products requires the careful manufacture and sale of a fantasy, one underwritten by a corporate imperative. What Mad Men does quite well, whether deliberately or not, is to depict participation in that fantasy-mongering as an ultimately soulless, dispiriting enterprise. After all, if you’re shoveling it all day and all night, wouldn’t you find your life a serious drag? Once this is realized, the near-constant drinking suddenly becomes much more understandable; who wouldn’t need a few stiff ones to navigate through the lives these folks lead? Pour me a large one, please.

The dispiriting effect of Madison Avenue is not restricted to the office and the boardroom; it spreads out into homes and suburbs too.  As an advertising account executive, if you spend one-third of your life talking in platitudes, and spinning yards and yards of not particularly clever mumbo-jumbo, there is a good chance you’ll bring home that contagious emptiness with you and let it infect everyone and anyone around you. Resuming drinking at home seems like a good way to deal with these domestic blues.

The show’s writing is clever in parts, and the pretty displays of archaic behaviors and attitudes are certainly generative of the morbid fascination I mentioned above. For the time being, I will plough on, hoping that the Mad Folk don’t harsh my mellow too severely in the weeks to come.

Note: I read Daniel Mendelsohn‘s memorable review of Mad Men a while ago, long before I had seen a single episode of the show. I intend to reread it once I’m a couple of seasons deep.

O. Henry on the South (Mainly Nashville)

I’ve only read a couple of short stories by O. Henry but have long owned an omnibus collection of them (presented to me on my twenty-eighth birthday). I’ve finally taken a gander at it, and stumbled on his classic A Municipal ReportHenry was a Southerner transplanted to the East Coast, so I find the narrator’s voice–a supposed ‘outsider’ speaking of the South–of particular interest. This developing ‘attitude’ towards Nashville (and its people) leads to several memorable, witty descriptions. Here are a few of my favorites.

On Southern weather:

Take a London fog 30 parts; malaria 10 parts; gas leaks 20 parts; dewdrops gathered in a brick yard at sunrise, 25 parts; odor of honeysuckle 15 parts. Mix.

The mixture will give you an approximate conception of a Nashville drizzle. It is not so fragrant as a moth-ball nor as thick as pea-soup; but ’tis enough – ’twill serve.

On Southern hotels, hospitality, and history (race and the Civil War too!):

I went to a hotel in a tumbril. It required strong self-suppression for me to keep from climbing to the top of it and giving an imitation of Sidney Carton. The vehicle was drawn by beasts of a bygone era and driven by something dark and emancipated.

I was sleepy and tired, so when I got to the hotel I hurriedly paid it the fifty cents it demanded (with approximate lagniappe, I assure you). I knew its habits; and I did not want to hear it prate about its old “marster” or anything that happened “befo’ de wah.”

The hotel was one of the kind described as ‘renovated.” That means $20,000 worth of new marble pillars, tiling, electric lights and brass cuspidors in the lobby, and a new L. & N. time table and a lithograph of Lookout Mountain in each one of the great rooms above. The management was without reproach, the attention full of exquisite Southern courtesy, the service as slow as the progress of a snail and as good-humored as Rip Van Winkle.

Tobacco chewing:

All my life I have heard of, admired, and witnessed the fine marksmanship of the South in its peaceful conflicts in the tobacco-chewing regions. But in my hotel a surprise awaited me. There were twelve bright, new, imposing, capacious brass cuspidors in the great lobby, tall enough to be called urns and so wide-mouthed that the crack pitcher of a lady baseball team should have been able to throw a ball into one of them at five paces distant. But, although a terrible battle had raged and was still raging, the enemy had not suffered. Bright, new, imposing, capacious, untouched, they stood. But, shades of Jefferson Brick! the tile floor – the beautiful tile floor! I could not avoid thinking of the battle of Nashville, and trying to draw, as is my foolish habit, some deductions about hereditary marksmanship. [links added]

The Southern gentleman, Major Wentworth Carswell:

I happened to be standing within five feet of a cuspidor when Major Caswell opened fire upon it. I had been observant enough to percieve that the attacking force was using Gatlings instead of squirrel rifles; so I side-stepped so promptly that the major seized the opportunity to apologize to a noncombatant. He had the blabbing lip. In four minutes he had become my friend and had dragged me to the bar.

I desire to interpolate here that I am a Southerner. But I am not one by profession or trade. I eschew the string tie, the slouch hat, the Prince Albert, the number of bales of cotton destroyed by Sherman, and plug chewing. When the orchestra plays Dixie I do not cheer….Major Caswell banged the bar with his fist, and the first gun at Fort Sumter re-echoed. When he fired the last one at Appomattox I began to hope.

The Nightmare of the Lost Semester

It has just come to my notice that the New York Review of Books has been running a series on dreams. Thus far, entries include Georges Perec’s “Fifty Kilos of Quality Meat,” Charles Simic’s “Dreams I’ve Had (and Some I Haven’t),”Michael Chabon’s “Why I Hate Dreams” and Nicholson Baker’s ‘On the Stovetop of Sleep.’ Inspired by this, and remembering my recounting of an anxious dream related to copy-editing in the face of a publisher’s deadline, I thought I’d put down a brief note about my dreams.

Like most people that dream, some of mine are repeats, variations on whose themes occur repeatedly in my sleeping hours. These in turn are made up of some of familiar types: anxiety-laden nightmares about heights and wild rivers that threaten to drown me being especially prominent ones. Some of these have their own escape hatches built into them. For instance, when stuck on a threatening height, a surefire tactic for ending the dream is to, wait for it, jump. But some dreams are more stubborn than others; they offer no easy way out.

A classic entry in this list is the Dream of the Lost Semester. In this dream, I find myself late in a semester, staring at my teaching schedule, horror-struck by the realization that I have failed to attend even a single meeting of a class assigned to me. I have not given my students their syllabus; no readings have been assigned. As I realize this, I panic. If I start attending classes now, my students will heap scorn on me: where have I been all this while? They will jeer me, mock me, as I walk in.  I would have to stand there, the target of their derision, the man who had kept them waiting in such utter futility for so many weeks now. The shame of such a public humiliation would be too much to bear. In the construction of the dream, no complaints have been tendered to my department, students have not dropped the class, or anything like that. Instead, somehow, I believe that attendance has taken place as usual, the students patiently waiting for their Godot-like professor to show up, sometime. The absurdity of this, somehow, bubbles through, and slowly I convince myself the college has found a substitute for me, even as I continue to teach my other classes. The relief from this ‘realization’ does not last; wouldn’t someone have contacted me about such a replacement by now? Perhaps my class is just as orphaned as I imagine it to be. So, again, I consider starting up the semester, even if a few weeks late. This courage lasts only a few seconds; I return to seeking refuge in the hope that the university has found out about the abandoned class and arranged for a substitute. And so it goes.

The Dream of the Lost Semester finds its roots, quite obviously I think, in the anxiety that precedes the start of every semester, as I finalize reading lists and syllabi, order books, check bookstore inventories and so on. And no matter how long I teach, I still suffer from stage-fright, those little jitters that afflict me just before I step into a new classroom for the first time each semester. Add those two up and you get this creepy little insidious entry into my subconscious, one that bubbles up every now and then to remind me of the centrality of teaching to my life.

Ethnocentricity, Moral Beliefs and Moral Truth

Adam Etinson writes in The Stone on ethnocentrism (defined as ‘our culture’s tendency to twist our judgment in favor of homegrown beliefs and practices and against foreign alternatives’), skepticism about universal morality and the existence of moral facts as  a response to it, and finally, on whether such skepticism is warranted. To wit, concern about ethnocentrism in the domain of morality finds its grounding in universally acknowledged datum: that disagreements are extensive, intractable (and disagreeable), that ‘culture and upbringing’ play a significant role in such clashes. Is moral relativism or skepticism about the existence of objective moral facts an appropriate response?

Etinson thinks not:

For one, however obvious it may be that culture plays an important role in our moral education, it is nevertheless very hard to prove that our moral beliefs are entirely determined by our culture, or to rule out the possibility that cultures themselves take some direction from objective moral facts….Second, moral relativism, for its part, seems like an odd and unwarranted response to ethnocentrism. For it’s not at all clear why the influence of culture on our moral beliefs should be taken as evidence that cultures influence the moral truth itself  — so that, for instance, child sacrifice would be morally permissible in any community with enough members that believe it to be so. Not only does that conclusion seem unmotivated by the phenomenon under discussion, it would also paradoxically convert ethnocentrism into a kind of virtue (since assimilating the views of one’s culture would be a way of tapping into the moral truth), which is at odds with the generally pejorative understanding of the term.

These are curious responses to make.

The first is made in the face of the acknowledged data (about disagreement over moral beliefs and the existence of cultural variance in moral practices). If ‘cultures themselves take some direction from objective moral facts’ then surely there should be greater agreement over our moral beliefs? Perhaps Etinson takes our existing moral agreements to be the evidence of such influence, no matter how attenuated?

The second response, contra moral relativism, assumes that there is a ‘moral truth’ out there, one influenced by cultures. But the skepticism about moral facts that goes by the name of ‘moral relativism’ is not committed to any such truth; it takes all its cues from its claim that the empirical particulars of cultures generate moral beliefs, which vary by time and place. That kind of relativism does not think that a ‘moral truth’ is the product of a culture’s influences; rather, the culture merely generates a set of permissible actions. There is no commitment here to the notion of a moral truth that would be made accessible by ‘assimilating the views of one’s culture’; rather one brings oneself into line with one’s culture and what it deems permissible by assimilating its views. (Note that Etinson himself, in writing of ‘moral truth’ in connection with moral relativism adds the caveat, ‘for any given people.’) This would ensure that ethnocentrism retains its non-virtuous standing, a concern important to Etinson, for presumably it leaves open the possibility that these sets of permissible actions could remain the subject of moral critique.  But having made this concession, a further question is almost immediately prompted: isn’t the assumption of objective moral truth and facts our primary, if not sole, reason for imagining ethnocentrism to be non-virtuous in the domain of morality? If so, then is Etinson’s skepticism about moral relativism warranted?

The Sidewalk Book Disposal Scheme

New York has lots of books: in stores, libraries, shelves in private collections, sidewalk sales, and sometimes, in boxes on sidewalks, being given away, with or without a sign that says ‘help yourself.’ These books have been abandoned; their former owners do not have the space (or time) for them any more.  Perhaps a move is in the offing and a ruthless culling is called for, perhaps tastes have changed. They have not earned the privilege of a yard sale; rather, they are to be consigned quickly into the custody of a stranger for free. Take my book(s), please. I have never walked past such an offering without stopping. Who knows what goodies might lurk there? Human nature being what it is, my initial reaction is also invariably tinged with the slightest touch of suspicion: exactly why are these tomes being given away for free? But then I remember this city’s brutal space crunch, and my attitude softens just a bit: they’ve just happened to lose out in the relentless competition, the nonstop jostling for a home in a New York apartment. That battle for space has caused relationships to come apart, small wonder that books sometimes bear the brunt of the space manager’s machinations.

So, I stop, and look, and search. Many books are old and tattered; the reasons for their disposal are all too apparent. (I have disposed of many well-worn veterans too, though I have always handed them over to my neighborhood used bookseller, unable to leave them exposed to the elements.) Some are textbooks; their owner has presumably graduated or dropped out. Some are bestsellers; perhaps flavors of the day unlikely to endure as classics. Some are well-worn classics, perhaps easily replaceable because they will never go out of print. (My battered copy of War and Peace, a book I rather stupidly bought as a paperback will meet this fate someday; I will replace it with a hardcover at that point.) Sometimes, it is apparent an academic has cleansed his shelves; monographs bought in a rash moment of excessive ambition, never read, now face the prospect of tantalizing someone else with their promise of the esoteric. (Some of the books on the shelves in my university office will go out this way.) A special category all by itself is the cookbook and the self-help book; these show up with interesting regularity in sidewalk disposals; tastes change and so do one’s aspirations, I suppose.

Over the past couple of years most of my pickups have taken place on the same three-block stretch in Park Slope in Brooklyn, as I walk to and from my gym. (Some of my procurements have been real scores, yet others have made it home with me because the price has been right.) There doesn’t seem to have been any significant slowing of the pace of disposals, a clear indication that life in that part of Brooklyn is proceeding normally.

But as the digital book becomes ever more ubiquitous, it might displace the sidewalk disposal as well. Then, a mere drag to the Recycle Bin will do, with no need for a display of old-fashioned generosity. No more sidewalk pickups then.

Ten Years After: The Anti-War March of Feb 15, 2003

Exactly ten years ago, I gathered with hundreds of thousands of others, on a freezing cold day in New York City, to take part in an anti-war march. I was still hungover from a friend’s book party the previous night. We marched, got corralled into pens, felt our extremities freeze, jousted with policemen, lost friends, made new ones, read angry, witty, colorful banners, shouted slogans, marched some more, and then finally, late in the evening, exhausted, numb, hungry, finally stumbled off the streets. (In my case, straight into a bar, to drink a couple of large whiskies. Yes, the hangover had worn off by then, and my rapidly dropping blood circulation seemed to call for rather vigorous stimulation.)

The march ‘didn’t work’: it was perhaps the visible zenith of the anti-war moment; an illegal, unjust and cruel war kicked off five days later. (I joined another protest march on the night news of the first bombings came in; it was pure unadulterated misery in cold, freezing rain, one only made barely palatable thanks to the running induced by attempted escapes from over-enthusiastic baton-wielding policemen.) Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans would die, and the next stage of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld nightmare began. Whatever its ramifications for the US, those for the Iraqi people were much worse: sectarian warfare would be the least of them.

I learned several important things that February 15th, ten years ago: massive mobilization of anti-war sentiment was possible some seventeen months after 9/11; a government committed to war is perhaps the most intransigent of all; policing of demonstrations was entering a new restrictive phase, one in which the First Amendment would be merely paid lip service and in which protest was to be as attenuated as possible. The first one was heartening and awe-inspiring; I learned later of the massive amount of organizing that the march required. The latter two were harbingers of further atrocities to come. (I also learned protective clothing for winters needs to be considerably enhanced if sustained, long-term exposure  lies ahead; I had worn long-johns, a heavy coat, gloves, and a hat, and I was still frozen after merely thirty minutes outside.)

Ten years on, war continues. The spectacular shock-and-awe bombing raids, the rumbling tanks, are gone, replaced by special forces operations and silent drone attacks, conducted from the US and felt far away. But non-combatants continue to die. The motivation for the war remains mysterious; the expenses for it steadily pile up, bankrupting budgets and national priorities. Two presidents got themselves elected to second terms using as a central campaign prop, the promise that they would pursue war as vigorously as possible. The Constitution took a battering; torture was defended; ‘rendition’ entered our vocabulary; war criminals were let off, and we were urged to move on. Veterans came home, sometimes in body bags, sometimes in wheelchairs; some committed suicide, others went off to try to adjust to ‘normal life.’ In their case, as with the dead children and civilians, we were urged to look away.

All war, all the time. Ten years of it. I’ve seen better decades.

Michelle Rhee Shoulda Gotten An Education

Late last night, I stumbled across an ‘interview’ with Michelle Rhee (linked to by John Protevi on Facebook). (‘Michelle Rhee Gets an Education,’ New York Times Magazine, 2 February 2013). The comments section is absolutely priceless, and well worth a read. Here, I want to address a couple of her responses, because they offer us excellent insights into an extremely alarming person’s mind, one that has been appointed ‘reformer’ of ‘America’s schools’ but who instead, comes across as more of a destroyer than anything else.

Exhibit Numero Uno:

You write that you were offended by a sign in a Washington public school that read, “Teachers cannot make up for what parents and students will not do.” That didn’t make sense to you? 

As educators, we have to approach our job believing that anything is possible. It is incredibly important that we constantly communicate to kids that they can accomplish anything when they put their minds to it.

Translation: To me, that sign looked like an excuse made by lazy teachers.

Rhee does not like teachers, that much is clear. What she also revealed by her taking offense at the sign is that she lacks an understanding of the circumstances that may impinge on a student’s education. She forgets that schools are placed in very particular social and economic circumstances, as are their classrooms, and what takes place in them is not impervious to what happens outside. Her ‘anything is possible’ affirmation isn’t one; it’s an ostrich-like responses to material factors that affect school success. Unsurprisingly, she is fixated on test scores.

Exhibit Numero Dos:

You offered thousands of dollars to teachers and principals who brought up their schools’ test scores. Did you ever consider that it would encourage some to cheat? 

Teachers have integrity. And if money was the motivating factor, they wouldn’t be in education.

But money is enough of a motivating factor to get them to work toward your objectives? There is something more insidious at play here: Rhee wants to insist that teachers should work for the ‘love of it’ and shut up and put up about wages and working conditions. All those unions, asking for raises and better working hours. Shouldn’t you guys be working instead? As I’ve noted here before, the only Americans allowed to do the best for themselves are CEOs. The rest of us have to work for the love of it.

Exhibit Numero Tres:

Your reputation has been partly informed by the fact that you allowed a PBS news crew to film you firing a principal. Was that a terrible idea in retrospect? 

When I became chancellor, for the first two years of the job I was incredibly naïve about the press. I thought that my job was to run the school district, and that was what I was focused on. Now in retrospect I know how naïve it was.

At least Rhee is unapologetic. What she really wanted to say: ‘I quite enjoyed firing a principal on television; it let me show the teachers who’s boss.’

My sniping at Rhee here is inadequate; the real treat for the reader lies in the comments section of the interview. And in reading the always-wonderful Diane Ravitch on her.