Mad Men: musings on character and capitalism

Dear Hannah,

People say that with great power comes great responsibility, but I've never heard anyone say that with great responsibility comes great power.  If you want an example of the former, I recommend watching Spider Man and paying attention to Peter Parker.  If you want an example of the latter, I recommend watching Mad Men and paying attention to Donald Draper.

Watching Donald Draper will prove two things.  The first is he's a big jackass, and the second is that people want him anyway -- a combination that's downright confusing.   He's boorish and hypocritical and people still woo him like a woman and can't wait to work in his company.  They don't want to work for him because he's a good man.  They want to work for him because he's useful.  As he becomes responsible for their paychecks, he becomes capable of treating them like garbage.

His behavior gets worse as he realizes his importance.  Employees get abused and then fired.  Lovers are picked up and abandoned without kindness.   He speaks down to people without any good reason, and he even dares to bite the hand that feeds him.  He always has a life of possibility because he's cocksure and handsome and delivers.  And what's shocking isn't that he fires off his mouth and insults the people who help him win: it's that the people who help him win are willing to take it.  Substantial paychecks aside, Draper gives them prestige in a Madison Avenue advertising firm.  As Solomon says, the poor man useth intreaties, but the rich man answers roughly.  The moment he loses his value is the moment he loses his power.

Donald isn't the only abusive cad in the show, and it's clear from the portrayal of powerful businessmen that the writers equate great power with great abuses.  There's only one kind of person who gets serious respect in the world of Mad Men, and it is most usually the client.  Wives are possibly the least respected characters in the series, because wives have already signed a contract and the husbands feel there isn't anything left to win -- or apparently anything to lose.  Employees are treated poorly, because (in a very real sense) the boss is nothing more than a client, which means he can behave like an ass.  Our hope for things to come cements even our unlikely alliances in civility.  Self-interest, contrary to the popular opinion, is the drive that forces us to be unselfish.  The question is what we're interested in.  Mad Men shows us what life is like when the answers are mostly pride and sex and money.

We can't really deny that Mad Men leaves a distaste for capitalism, but beyond this it leaves us wondering if there was really ever a better option.  We realize that the creators of Mad Men believe there is because of their over-emphasis on behaviors currently prohibited by law; and they imply the better option is a slew of regulations not to protect the businessman from the government, but to protect the proletariat from the businessman.  In other words, the overwhelming emphasis on political-incorrectness almost insists that we trade a tyranny of our bosses for a tyranny of our coworkers; an exchange of men who can fire us for any reason for men who don't even have the potential to hire us for any reason.

But every decision comes at a price.  We may live in a world where women are safer from sexual harassment and where brown employees (and I stress: brown) can live without slurs; but we also live in a society where the worst of us are promoted for our race and our gender alone; in which great and useful men are brought to poverty by layabouts with false and frivolous accusations; in which the discussion of politics and religion have not only become rude, but dangerous to the existence of our incomes.  We've chosen safety in one area and lost it in five others.   We have fired back at our ungrateful superiors, and made it dangerous to speak honestly with our equals.

There are of course other options to capitalism.  The alternative to living in a world where everyone follows his rational self-interest is tyranny, and if Mad Men is a testament to the awful reality of selfish capitalism, then Game of Thrones is a testament to the awful reality of selfish despotism.  The great virtue of even the terrible world of Mad Men is that anyone at any point, if he should choose poverty to dishonor, could brave the temporary hardship of unemployment and then work for someone with any semblance of decency.  In Game of Thrones, the leaders are not only unconcerned with the paychecks and feelings of their subjects, but also with their property and their lives.  Where self-interest doesn't entice, force must ensnare.  Where people aren't free to choose which paths they'll take and who they'll work with, someone else will make the decision for them.    

Mad Men may be immoral, but it isn't murderously immoral.  The bosses may be selfish; but they couldn't rob and rape our wives and our children.  Capitalism at its worst is always better than Westeros or Soviet Russia, because with capitalism your boss must offer you enough to abuse you.  Without it, he must offer you nothing.  With capitalism, only the men with the best ideas and methods own successful companies -- and only the people with the best ideas and methods will retain them.  Without capitalism, your boss is whoever's most capable of killing.

So much can be said for Man Men and liberty.  But it's worth asking towards the end of the series whether Mad Men is a moral show or not.  Nothing can be clearer than that its sermons, if they're intended, are almost always unspoken (which is a hallmark of good drama).  But whatever the moralists cry about the excessive portrayals of horrible behavior, there are really two sides to moral teaching.  The first is that we need good examples of how to do things right so that we can follow in the footsteps of our champions.  The second is that we need good examples of how to mess things up, so that we can learn how to avoid being like the people we hate.

Donald Draper is proof that moral instruction doesn't even have to be moralizing; we hate Don's lifestyle because we can't stand Don.  The show is filmed so that we loathe his sins and dread their consequences.  With every mistress we feel even the more innocent kinds of romance turn into sleaze; with every neglected kindness we see relationships grow cold; and with every act of hypocrisy we feel ourselves cringe with shame.  He's a better teacher than most pastors, because Don doesn't even have to try to teach us why the world desperately needs a Jesus.  Our hearts will tell us for him.  The solution to heartless capitalism isn't regulations and socialism; it's the tempering influence of the Christian religion and an extreme prejudice of practical manners.  Donald Draper is a picture of physical liberty without spiritual dignity.  Mad Men is a moral show because it shows us how mankind never ought to be.

Your father,