Thursday, December 18, 2014

Why do all these great TV series end badly? (part 1)

We're coming up on the finale of the finale of Mad Men and it's going to be disappointing. Most probably. They might pull it out and ...

Except they won't.

Why am I so certain?

Short answer: Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Hamlet (whoops, not a TV show) all end unconvincingly.

The obvious counter to that is that Mad Men could be different. But it won't and the reason it won't is because it started badly.

You can already see this in the way the show has wallowed since the end of Season three. It doesn't know where to go. The initial tension points—nostalgia, Dick Whitman, Peggy's child, Betty—have just gone away. If, in the final episode, Don either dealt satisfactorily with the Dick Whitman issue or the MPs showed up and arrested him for desertion, we would feel cheated. We would feel cheated because that issue has disappeared from the narrative.

We might be tempted to argue that Don has merely repressed the problems that go with Dick and that they are waiting to explode onto the surface. But it's not just Don who has made the problem go away. It's the narrative that has dispensed with Dick.

Another way to ask the question might be: What's wrong with Don Draper? And the answer to that would have to be more than a list of normal human failings. There has to be some deep problem that requires resolution for a happy ending or leads to a sad end if it is not resolved.

And we can't beg the question. That is to say, when we ask "What's wrong with Don Draper?" we have to be open to the possibility that the answer might be "nothing is fundamentally wrong with Don; he has the same ordinary faults the rest of us do."

I think I know the form the answer must take. It must be about manliness. The thing that Don Draper, Mr. Big, Tony Soprano, Walter White and Hamlet (I put him in here for a reason) have in common is that none of them have grown up and assumed the responsibilities of manhood.

They all have obvious character, but not story, precedents:
  • Don Draper descends from Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith in Hail the Conquering Hero
  • Tony Soprano descends from Michael Corleone
  • Mr Big descends from Mr. B in Pamela
  • Walter White descends from Goethe's Faust
I'll take them backwards.

Walter White is the easiest. He sells his soul and that has consequences but, like Goethe, Vince Gilligan wants Walter to be a redeemable character despite his selling his soul. The interesting new detail is that he doesn't sell his soul in pursuit of a romantic ideal but simply acquire some manly dignity.

Mr. Big withholds himself from the heroine and, just like in the original, eventually marries her, turning from cad into knight in white armor. The story is told from the heroine's perspective and she too, has challenges, but no essential flaws she needs to overcome; she just has to persistently be herself until he stops trying to just bang her and swoops down and picks her up. The interesting new detail is that ... oh yeah, there isn't one.

Tony Soprano is sort of the story of Michael Corleone dragged out of its manly trappings. It asks the question: What would it be like to follow the story of this man and see how he deals with all of the ordinary domestic challenges and not just the big, manly drama of assuming responsibility for the mob family.

Don Draper in a desperate, crazy moment participates in a deception that puts him in another man's uniform. Unlike Truesmith, he doesn't get off the train, but the hero's role gets hrust on him anyaway. He is passively swept up by others eager to believe that he is a hero but lives with the knowledge that he isn't really the person others believe he is; that, at heart, he is still the Dick who runs away.

Okay, let me add another twist. Mad Men is really the story of "I'm Peggy Olson, the new girl", which is obviously intended to make us think of Jimmy Olsen, the newsboy. It's really the story of Peggy the same way that Dawson's Creek was really the story of Joey Potter or, if you prefer a more exalted precedent, The Great Gatsby is really the story of Nick Carraway.

Peggy, like Jimmy, is thrust into a world populated by giants. Don is her Superman, Joan is her Lois Lane and Roger is her Perry White. She, and not Don, is the real nostalgia-driven character for she knows that none of these people really fits the legendary roles assigned to them. And she is the one who will have to go on living after the superheroes have left the earth.

But she embraces the legends and the legend. Think of the way she responds to Peter outing Freddy Rumsen after he gets so drunk he blanks out and wets his pants. Peggy thinks that Pete should have covered for Freddy and then he could have been a legend. She can see the problems with this legendary era but she still wants it and perhaps needs it.

Which makes her a stand in for us. We also need that world. Mad Men is a lot like Downton Abbey. Both shows are re-examinations of how the world changed. That the world had changed for the UK was driven home by the 1920s.  That the world had changed for the US was driven home by the 1960s. The weird straddle the show is faced with is that everyone loves that era that preceded the new world.

You might sum it up in a very short dialogue:
"You can't be Don Draper and he couldn't either."
"Sorry, could you repeat that. I was picking out cufflinks to go with my new shirt and gray suit. You should see them. I  actually bought them from Brooks Brothers."
No matter how plucky and determined little Peggy is, she will always be little Peggy in a world of giants. Which is especially odd when you consider how very hot Elisabeth Moss is in real life. Like Betty versus Wilma or Mary-Ann versus Ginger, no boy would have to think longer than two seconds to decide who he really wanted.

And yet, there is something about that era that is more compelling than our own.

It's not the actors playing the roles but the roles themselves. It's not just that Jon Hamm, John Slattery and Christina Hendricks are all disappointing when compared to the role they play in the series, it's that January Jones is! Betty, who sums up everything that was supposed to be wrong about pre-feminist womanhood, is so much more interesting than the actor who plays her that it is embarrassing.

The consequence of that is that, even if this is really a show about Peggy, and it is, we still need a satisfactory end for Don Draper. He has to have some problem with his character and that problem has to be faced and dealt with for a convincingly happy ending or not dealt with for a compellingly sad ending. And the sow just can't do that. It hasn't done the ground work.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A scout's virtues: bravery

A scout is brave: He has the courage to face danger in spite of fear and has to stand up for the right against the coaxings of friends or the jeers or threats of enemies, and defeat does not down him.
You can see Alasdair MacIntyre both affirmed and refuted in that. 

On the one hand, you can see, even in this scout handbook, evidence that the tradition of virtue ethics is deep and that it runs along lines that only superficially resemble the way academic ethics operate. Academic ethics would look right past "face danger in spite of fear", "coaxings of friends", "jeers or threats of enemies" and "feat" that "does not down him" and say, "All these things are good but how do we define bravery?"The scout outlook is that we already know what bravery is. We might worry about refining our definition to deal with weird cases at the margins but the simple fact that the word exists and is commonly used in our language says that we have a good grasp on the concept. The problem, as I have said many times before, is training ourselves to actually be brave. (Academics have degraded ethics by making it entirely about making moral decisions.)

The refutation lies in the very existence of this text. Here is a tradition of passing along virtue ethics in a meaningful way that continued long after the collapse that McIntyre wrote about. 

You might be inclined to sneer at that. You might be inclined to say that it is so commonplace and light as to be insignificant.

That sort of move has a long history in philosophy. The Greco-Roman moralists—figures such as Cicero and Seneca—were similarly brushed off. In more modern terms, people study Kant's ethics at university, even though Kant has virtually nothing to teach us about how to actually live our lives, while regarding his contemporary Jane Austen, who can teach us a lot, as merely a source of entertainment.

There isn't much more that needs to be said. We know what bravery is and we have a list of small things that we need to train ourselves to overcome. Once we have mastered those small things, we will be ready to deal with bigger ones.

That—the realization that being trustworthy in small things means we could be assigned bigger ones—requires bravery all by itself.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A scout's virtues: thrift

A scout is thrifty. He does not wantonly destroy property. He works faithfully, wastes nothing, and makes the best use of his opportunities. He saves his money so that he may pay his own way, be generous to those in need, and helpful to worthy objects. 
He may work for pay but must not receive tips for courtesies or good turns.
That is a manly virtue. You might miss that because thrift, as it used to be described when I was a boy, can be pretty girly. I say "when I was a boy" because nobody talks about thrift anymore.  Probably because it became such a girly virtue.

It became girly because thrift came to mean crap like saving wrapping paper, finding new uses for elastic bands and being the sort of busybody who makes everybody wait while they get out a pen and paper or a calculator out to work everyone's exact share when it's time to pay the bill at a restaurant.

But look at that text and see this: "He saves his money so that he may pay his own way, be generous to those in need, and helpful to worthy objects." That's old-fashioned manliness.

All of that "thrift" is about spending or giving away money! This may see contradictory if you're used to girly thrift, but manly thrift is a big, generous, overflowing virtue.

I'll continue this by going somewhere that might seem weird. A while ago we had a crazed, wanna-be terrorist shoot one of the soldiers standing guard at the national war memorial. Here's how an article in the latest issue of Anglican Journal starts:
As Canadians grappled with how to respond to the unprecedented violence that rocked Ottawa and the rest of Canada Oct. 22, the Anglican Journal asked leadership within the Anglican Church of Canada to reflect on the role of the church in troubled times.
I have a crazy suggestion. How about we respond by doing nothing at all?

Nothing happened to us! A good man, who'd dedicated his career to serving his country was killed. His family are devastated. But we suffered nothing. We should do nothing.

That is very unthrifty and very umanly writing. It's full of empty words. For starters, what was "unprecedented" about this violence? And was Ottawa, indeed the whole country, "rocked" by a senseless killing? Yeah, I wish that these things didn't happen but do you know what, they do happen. They happen all the time. If you were rocked by it, you're worthless bit of jello masquerading as  a man. Get over yourself. This wasn't about you.

We think of thrift as an economic concept but it's an emotional thing at base. An impulse buy is an emotional response. On strictly economic grounds, we already know it's a bad idea to make the impulse buy. We do it anyway because we haven't learned to manage our emotions.

Manage doesn't mean to suppress. It means to have the right kind of emotions, at the right time, in the right way.

Think about big gestures. What's the difference between a big gesture that comes of as manly, magnanimous or meaningful and one that comes off as trying to prove something, defensive or empty?

He works faithfully, wastes nothing, and makes the best use of his opportunities.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A scout's virtues: cheerfulness

Sentimentality is sentiment that is inappropriate for the object or situation or a sentiment that is not directed at anything at all.

Isn't "cheerfulness", then, nothing but sentimentality?

In this instance, those who turn to the 1911 Boy Scout's Handbook hoping to find an account of virtue from before the rot set in are going to be disappointed. This is the rank sentimentality:
He must always be bright and smiling, and as the humorist says, "Must always see the donut and not the hole." A bright face and a cheery word spread like sunshine from one to another, It is the scout's duty to be a sunshine-maker to the world. (p. 9)
Yes, it's a book for boys and not men but a boy is a man in the making and that sounds more like a Grade 1 teacher in the making. Once we've all finished vomiting, let's see if we can save the scouts from themselves.

The key to extracting something good from all that claptrap is to consider the placement of cheerfulness in the list immediately below duty. What is our duty to others as regards our emotions? Of course, I can be sad at a funeral but how much right do I have to impose my sadness on others outside of special occasions?

Consider the routine question, "How are you?" and the equally routine answer, "Fine!" The transaction was mocked as meaningless in the 1960s and 1970s. But what conditions justify answering that you are not fine? Because the second you do that, the other person has to stop and pay attention to you. It's not hard to imagine situations in which you might not feel fine but wouldn't bother the other person with your troubles.

It's also easy to imagine people whose job requires them to be cheerful. The server at the counter may be feeling lousy but his job requires him to be cheerful. He might be in such a tough situation that he cannot be cheerful. But what is that? If someone really close to him died, he should get leave.

There are people who, as the Lemon Girl says, "are the sort of people things happen to". Live long enough and you will end up with an employee like that. Every week he comes in with another personal problem and bogs you and everyone else, including customers, down with his sadness or anger. You shouldn't feel bad about firing him but you do because, and this is what is wrong with this sort of person, their whole life is about being the centre of attention and they don't care that this makes them a burden to others.

Here is how I'd save cheerfulness. Cheerfulness isn't an emotion. Like empathy, it is a propensity to feel a certain kind of emotion in response to others. These emotions include judgment—judgments than can be sound or unsound. An empathetic person can respond supportively to your fears or, if they think those fears silly and unwarranted, tell you to get over yourself. To show empathy is to have a habit of charitably erring on the side of thinking others negative emotions are warranted. Cheerfulness is to have the habit of charitably erring on the side of responding to life's difficulties optimism and enthusiasm.

It's not a matter of simply suppressing or hiding your emotions. In some cases that may be called for but the real challenge is much harder; it is to actually direct yourself to have the more positive emotions. How is that different from sentimentality? It's different because it has a worthy object: charity towards others.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

And now a word from our cynics

We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics. And they will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks and months to come.
Actually, the cynics have been considerably quieter and more respectful than the idealists. And, six years and a bit later, I think the cynics can now take a victory lap on this one and say, "I told you so!"

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Are the Ferguson riots "understandable"?

Some readers will think it typical of me to think of everything in terms of sexual behaviours. And you'll be absolutely right to do so. I'd add that every analogy is somewhat obscene, and this one perhaps particularly so. All that acknowledged, I still think there is a valid point here. It's a point you'll have to dig for but I think you're up to it.

Some acquaintances of mine have a daughter. I've known her since she was two. I think she is thirteen, fourteen, fifteen now. I don't know and I shouldn't care enough to actually find out.

The other day, I saw her in a grey, V-necked T-shirt. That may have been all she was wearing. If she was actually wearing anything else, it was nothing but underwear and rather abbreviated underwear at that. It was accidental on my part that I saw her but I'm pretty sure that it wasn't accidental on her part. I don't know and, again, I shouldn't care enough to find out. Nevertheless, I wanted to know.  I had to force myself to suppress the thought.

And I still think it would be nice to know; in other words, I'm still working on repressing these thoughts some three days later. And, even though I saw her only for the briefest of moments, I would have liked to have seen her longer. And, go ahead and hate me for this if you want, but I also thought about what it would be like to see her in even less clothing than that. She is a very athletic girl and ... well, wow!!!!

I had other thoughts that I'm sure anyone, man or woman, can figure out without my help.

I think that all of those thoughts are "understandable". Meaning, I know why it happens that I, and most other adult men (and, judging from what I read in the news, a surprising number of adult women) , will have these thoughts faced with a hot girl in her early teens and I know that it is pretty much inevitable that it will happen even if we wish it wouldn't happen.

At the same time, I think it would be vile and reprehensible to act on any of these thoughts. Anyone who did should go to jail and have their reputations ruined forever. Not only that, I think it would be vile and reprehensible to expand on what my thoughts were. OTOH, I don't have to, because you already know what they were.

I think the rioting in Ferguson is somewhat analogous. I understand and appreciate that people imagined horror and violence when the grand jury's decision was announced. What I will not countenance or forgive is that they actually acted on those thoughts. And I think that President Obama should have said as much.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A scout's virtues: obedience

It's Saturday night at about nine o'clock and I have not posted on a scout's virtues all week and I promised myself that I would do at least one of these per week. It's only a promise I made to myself and no one would know any better if I didn't. So ... why not just skip it and go to bed? No one will know.


Is obedience a virtue? Or is it a duty? Deontology, post-enlightenment, rule-based ethics, is often described as duty ethics. It says that you have a duty and that duty is determined by rationally derived rules and it is your duty to obey the rules that reason gives you, whether you are capable of doing so or not.

Aristotle, on the other hand, said that rules always run out. Rules are good and perhaps even necessary but rules alone are not enough to guide behaviour. In this, he agrees with Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein never read Aristotle. But the point remains, the ability to follow a rule depends on an agreement, not just in definitions, but an agreement in judgment: an agreement that this counts as following a rule. Aristotle said that the right action is the thing that a virtuous person would do in a given situation. That is agreement in judgment. That will apply when there is a rule that covers the action. It will also apply when there is no rule. The two positions don't line up exactly (amongst other things, Wittgenstein had little to say about ethics) but it isn't hard to see how they could be made to line up.

Back to the subject at hand.

Obedience to "duly constituted authorities", an important qualification, is indeed a duty but learning to fulfill that duty teaches us virtue. Look at this language from the virtue section (pp 8-11) of the 1911 Handbook and you'll see what I mean:
To be a good scout a boy must learn to obey ... He must learn to obey, before he is able to command. He should so learn to discipline and control himself that he will have no thought but to obey the orders of his officers. He should keep such a strong grip on his own life that he will not allow himself to do anything which is ignoble, or which will harm his life or weaken his powers of endurance.
There is a lot there. Much of what is there will inspire resistance in anyone who  has gone through the modern education system.

Nowadays, we encourage independence of thought and authenticity. Well, we  say we do. Meanwhile, teacher thinks you should see a specialist and maybe be given Ritalin, little boy, because you're not as docile and pliable as the girls are.

A virtue is a strength. Virtue means manliness in Latin. In Greek the word arete means excellence. It's one of history's many ironies that the word has morphed from meaning someone who is good at doing things to someone who doesn't cause trouble for teacher.

Here's the thing: if you're a boy, being obedient is difficult. Maybe if you're a girl as well but boys struggle more with obedience. You naturally resist it. You are always trying to break free. To learn to be obedient to your parents, your teacher, your scoutmaster, does not come naturally. Girls thrive on the approval of others. Boys do not. To master obedience, we need to master ourselves.
He must learn to obey, before he is able to command.
And that remains true even if the only one we ever really command is ourselves.

Reread this part carefully:
He should keep such a strong grip on his own life that he will not allow himself to do anything which is ignoble, or which will harm his life or weaken his powers of endurance.
Why is it important not to harm your life or weaken your powers of endurance?
The motto, "Be Prepared," means that the scout is always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do his duty. To be prepared in mind, by having disciplined himself to be obedient, and also by having thought out beforehand, any accident or situation that may occur, so that he may know the right thing to do at the right moment, and be willing to do it. To be prepared in body, by making himself strong and active and able to do the right thing at the right moment, and then do it.

Can virtues exist in isolation? "I'm brave but lack other virtues.". It's fine to be brave in battle but that virtue is no virtue at all unless you have the good sense to know enough not to be brave in battle fighting for the Nazis or the confederacy. For Aristotle, bravery is impossible without the virtue of justice. For Aristotle, the men who flew the two jets into the World Trade Center were not brave. An attack on innocent people is the worst sort of cowardice no matter how much this might, as Bill Maher thought, seem to resemble bravery.

In addition to justice, you also need prudence, or practical reason, which Aristotle rates the most important intellectual virtue.

Look at the paragraph about "be prepared" again. You'll notice that the virtue of prudence is hiding in it:
... and also by having thought out beforehand, any accident or situation that may occur ...

Which leaves justice. Where is justice? Obedience takes the part of justice. And, however inclined we might be to resist, that makes sense for a boy. Wouldn't you agree? A boy should respect authority because a boy is too young to be deciding what is right and wrong.

I know, you're with Huck Finn.

What has Huck to do with this? Let me remind you. Huck has just written a letter that would turn Jim over to the authorities that Huck feels he should be obedient to. And he feels good for having done so. And then, he suddenly rejects it all. He looks at the letter but then he ...

... got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. 
Do you see the trick Mark Twain has pulled on us here? He is using language inspired by the Psalms:
" I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices, my body dwells secure." (Pslam 16 beginning at verse 8)
Only Jim stands in for the LORD here. Everything Huck has ever been taught about morality—and we should remember that Huck has not been good at morality, he has been awful at it—tells him that he should turn Jim over to the authorities. He does not do this not, as we might guess, because he loves Jim but because Jim has loved him. This is good Christian morality. Huck, without realizing what he is doing, sees Jesus in the poor and suffering of this world as embodied by Jim who is unjustly kept a slave and he decides that he will reject all the authorities who have ever taught him in the name of this higher and truer justice he has learned from Jim. Jim is Huck's new father, a superior father to his natural father.

That's all very nice and good but how do you learn? Do you, as a boy, have access to this higher authority of love and, because it is love, God?

Twain may or may not have thought so. He may just be using Christian morality against the Christians Saul Alinsky style.

When Bob Dylan said,
You're going to have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the LORD, but you're going to have to serve somebody.
We all instinctively rejected that on the grounds that there was some third option. And that third option is what?

I'll just leave that there for now. I'll come back to it when I discuss Rudyard Kipling's Kim later.

I'll only say this: this is the most important part. If we can't make sense of this, then we have to give up on virtue as a guide to morality.