You’re born alone, and you’ll die alone, and the world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one. – Don Draper, Mad Men.
I used to feel embarrassed to tell people that I watch television.
I’m not anymore.
I watch TV. A lot.
You see, when you hang around with philosophy types, the phrase you’ll most often hear is something like, “I don’t even own a TV” or “I only watch PBS”. Stuff like TV is a distraction or there’s better things to do with one’s brain.
Like reading Kant or Bertrand Russell.
Apparently philosophers aren’t too keen on the TV.
I guess that’s not a bad thing.
But I ain’t like that.
Let me say this clearly so that I‘m not misunderstood: I not only WATCH television, I ENJOY watching television.
I own a TV. Actually, more than one. I have cable. I watch Ridiculousness. I get bummed out when my favorite tattoo artist is eliminated on Ink Master. I take the judges’ critiques of my favorite drag queen personally when I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race.
I make sure to never miss an episode of Master Chef, Project Runway, The Walking Dead, Bar Rescue and Chopped.
I watch Cinemax After Dark.
I DVR Taxicab Confessions.
And yes, I know Taxicab Confessions airs on HBO not Cinemax.
Or, as it’s also known – Skinemax.
Let me tell you something: even though I am an unrepentant TV watcher, I still feel a bit dirty after spending an afternoon binge watching Firefly.
For the twentieth weekend in a row.
I think it has something to do with the fact that my excessive TV watching has afforded me enough time to occasionally chit chat with philosophers.
The deficit of philosophical chat time means my philosophical skills aren’t quite up to par.
Actually, my skills kind of suck.
This has not done well for my self-esteem.
You see, even if you don’t feel bad enough about yourself you’ll invariably end up feeling like a total flunkie once you talk to a philosopher.
Every time I talk to a philosopher, I inevitably leave the conversation feeling bad. Even when I’m engaged in small talk with a philosopher, his “trivial” conversation almost always involves
mind-numbing discussions of mind-body dualism or Hegel.
Philosophers really dig talking about Hegel.
This is how any conversation I have with a philosopher goes: I stand, eyes glazing over, while the (real) philosopher talks about something written by Frege or Leibniz- something that I have not a clue about. I stand there; looking at my feet, hoping that the philosopher will forget I’m there or move on to someone
smarter else after I attempt to evade the subject by telling a joke. But it never works. My philosophical ignorance is revealed.
This is what most of my trivial conversations are about:
I’d much rather talk about June Thompson’s “forklift foot” or about the lady with the dead chickens on Hoarders.
You know what episode I’m talking about.
I can never admit to a philosopher that I spend more time in front of a TV set than I spend with my nose deep in the pages of a major philosophical treatise.
I could tell you everything there is to know about RuPaul’s guest spot on Walker Texas Ranger or name the number of times Sheldon Cooper has said the word “Bazinga” on Big Bang Theory, but I know virtually nothing about John Locke or his philosophy.
When it comes to philosophy my mind is a tabula rasa – a blank slate.
Which is kind of appropriate considering Locke’s philosophy.
It’s all because I spend most of my waking hours watching television instead of reading philosophy.
I can’t tell you who this is
But I can certainly tell you who this is
Or what TV show made this guy famous
Well, somewhat famous.
By the way, that first picture is of the philosopher, Phillipa Foot.
I know that’s Phillipa Foot because Google told me that’s her.
My unfortunate reality is that no matter how much philosophy I read every conversation I’ve ever had with a philosopher is always accompanied by an overwhelming sense of dumb.
A special kind of dumb.
I always feel like at the end of every philosophical conversation that there’s going to be a test.
A test I’m going to fail.
There’s something that these philosophers don’t know, though. They don’t watch TV so they have no idea. This is what they don‘t know: TV can teach you things. Lots of things.
I’ve written this before and I’ll say it ‘til the day I die – television is one of the best places to learn philosophy. You don’t have to watch the high-brow stuff, either. You don’t have to spend your evenings watching PBS or some British something-rather starring Dame Maggie Smith.
You can watch anything. Anything.
The ideas – the philosophy – it’s in there.
I really mean that. You can watch Hobbes’ state of nature play out in an episode of Survivor. You can find Schopenhauer in an episode of Modern Family. Descartes in an episode of Star Trek.
There’s Socrates in The Walking Dead.
I’m kidding about that finding Schopenhauer in Modern Family thing. I wouldn’t know if that’s true or not. I’ve never seen the show.
And, as I discovered, if you watch enough episodes, you’ll find that there’s plenty philosophy to be found in Mad Men.
Fans of the show already know that Mad Men, created by Matthew Weiner, debuted in July 2007 on the basic cable network AMC (American Music Classics). The series, now going into its sixth and final season, averages 2.5 million viewers per episode.
That’s pretty good numbers for a basic cable TV show.
Until you consider AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead.
That show averages 13 million viewers an episode.
Ok. I admit it, I’m a little late to this Mad Men thing. I started watching the show mid-way during season four.
By then, Peggy had already had her baby.
Roger was on marriage number two.
The Lucky Strike guy had gotten Sal fired.
Don was already divorced from Betty and had his eye on Megan.
Who the hell is Anna Draper???
But it’s not because I hadn’t heard of the show.
I didn’t watch it on principle.
You see, Mad Men was on every TV critic’s top ten list.
It was the one show whose poop didn’t stink.
So naturally, now that I’m a fan, I was obligated to do this:
hater pop culture dismissing-philosopher inside me immediately disliked (without watching) the show and would not spend a moment of my time watching a show loved by the non-philosophically-inclined masses.
As it turns out I was wrong.
But then …..
Sometimes enjoying TV makes you change your mind about things.
From Sterling Cooper boss Bert Cooper’s love of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism to Betty Draper’s philosophy of femininity, the entire show is soaking in philosophy.
Fortunately for us, we’re not required to watch all seven seasons of Mad Men or contemplate the philosophical doings of the entire cast of characters to get a grasp of the philosophy in Mad Men. You really need only to look at the first season of the show and specifically at only one character: the power-drinking, cigarette smoking, philandering, identity-stealing, Army-deserting, bad dad, anti-hero, Don Draper.
I guess you could spend a little bit of time watching Peggy Olsen.
That whole hidden pregnancy thing was mildly interesting.
In the season 1 (one) episode titled “Hobo Code”, Don Draper awakens his young son Bobby from a sound sleep and tells the boy to ask him anything. The boy asks his father why lightning bugs light up. Don tells his son that he doesn’t know.
Don doesn’t know the answer and does not pretend to know.
Don vows that he will never lie to his son.
We all know that’s a lie.
This is not Don Draper’s first lie. It won’t be Don Draper’s last.
At this point the audience realizes that Don Draper may be the worst
man TV dad in television history.
You see, Don Draper’s entire existence is a lie.
Don Draper isn’t really Don Draper at all. Don Draper is really Dick Whitman, the self-described “whore child” who stole the identity of fellow soldier, Don Draper, by switching dog tags with Draper after (the real) Don Draper is mortally wounded in an explosion in Korea.
An explosion totally caused by Dick Whitman, by the way.
This is all morally reprehensible enough, but, as we all know, there’s a moral theory that will justify just about anything we do. Luckily for the man formerly known as Richard Whitman, the man currently known as Don Draper finds employment with an adherent of one such theory.
The man is Bert Cooper. The theory is OBJECTIVISM.
The creator of objectivism, like Don Draper, also changed her name.
Her parents knew her as Alisa Z. Rosenbaum.
The world knows her as Ayn Rand.
Ayn Rand is mentioned no fewer than three times in season one.
Draper’s boss, Ayn Rand-loving Bert Cooper, has a bookshelf in his office that looks like this:
THIS IS BERT COOPER TALKING ABOUT AYN RAND
When Cooper is informed of Draper’s deception, Bert Cooper’s reaction is not moral outrage that Draper is a deserter and identity thief, but “who cares?”
(Ok, this may need explaining: Dick Whitman’s long-lost (or is it abandoned?) kid brother, Adam, discovers that Dick has been living in New York as Don Draper. Adam sends a package of old photographs to Dick/Don that is intercepted by Peter (“Humps”) Campbell, a particularly devious and overly ambitious fellow who works with Don and who very much wants Don’s job. Campbell decides that the best way to Draper’s job is through blackmail and so Campbell threatens to reveal Draper’s secret if Draper does not appoint him to head of accounts. When Peter tells Bert Cooper that Don Draper is not who he says that he is but is actually Dick Whitman, Cooper responds to Campbell’s revelation with “who cares?”)
What Pete Campbell doesn’t realize is that Bert Cooper’s failure to gin up a sense of moral disgust at Don Draper’s behavior has everything to do with his fondness for the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
What Pete Campbell fails to realize is that he would have saved himself from embarrassment if he had just made himself aware of Rand’s philosophy, based on the virtue of selfishness.
This doesn’t turn out too well for Pete.
You see, long before Dick Whitman had become Don Draper or had met Bert Cooper or heard of Ayn Rand, Dick Whitman/Don Draper was already a well-seasoned adherent of Rand’s virtue of selfishness. Dick Whitman didn’t consider what effect his actions in Korea would have on his brother Adam, or about the family of Don Draper or about Draper himself, with whom Dick swaps ID tags when Draper is mortally wounded.
Don Draper’s interest in maintaining his new identity (and his secret) means Don has to not care. Don can’t be concerned with the affairs of others (particularly those who potentially can reveal Don’s true identity) because to do so would interfere with his mission to live life as far away from the life of Dick Whitman as possible.
Don Draper, formerly known as Dick Whitman, acts according to his own self-interests.
Don Draper’s motivation is pure selfishness.
This is why Don offers his brother Adam five thousand dollars in exchange for Adam‘s silence and a promise to never return to New York City.
Don Draper isn’t morally invested in the effect of his adulterous affairs on his wife Betty or for Betty’s feelings (in general) when he talks to her therapist without her knowledge or consent.
Because he’s selfish.
…or it could be because Don is an alcoholic.
When Dick/Don propositions his mistress to run away with him ( actually mistresses, Don carries on with with as many as two women in season one), he does not consider the effect that abandoning his family will have on his children.
In fact, Don doesn’t think about that until he is reminded that leaving would be devastating to the children.
By one of his mistresses, no less.
Hint: it’s because Don is selfish.
Without ever having read it, Don Draper personal morality runs pretty much according to the philosophy of this book:
Whoops. I meant this book:
And this is what happens after you’ve divorced someone who lives life according to the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Don Draper’s utter lack of regard for the consequences of his actions on others (aka his selfishness) leads Bert Cooper to observe:
Bert Cooper (To Don):By that I mean you are a productive and reasonable man, and in the end completely self-interested. It’s strength. We are different – unsentimental about all the people who depend on our hard work.
Cooper even recommends that Draper pick up a copy of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and tells Don that he must introduce him to his “friend” Miss Ayn Rand.
One can only imagine what Ayn Rand would with/to Don Draper.
For those of you who have never heard of Ayn Rand or read any of Rand’s novels, Rand’s ethical philosophy, called Objectivism, is based on the principle of self interest; what Rand calls the “virtue of selfishness”.
If you’ve never heard of Rand or her work, all I can say is
But I digress…
Don Draper is an example of the kind of man that Rand describes as one who lives fir his own sake “neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself”. This type of is a man completely devoted to the pursuit of his own happiness. Rand says of the Objectivist man:
He is not even militant or defiant about his utter selfishness… He
has a quiet, irrevocable calm of an iron conviction. No
dramatics, no hysteria, no sensitiveness about it —
because there are no doubts… A quick, sharp mind,
courageousness and not afraid to be hurt… He will be himself
at any cost — the only thing he really wants of life. And,
deep inside if him, he knows that he has the ability to
win the fight to be himself.*
In other words….
Don Draper is the kind of self-made Randian type (like Rand’s Howard Roark and John Galt) that owes nothing to anyone and does things on his own terms. He isn’t (terribly) concerned with what he has to do to get ahead.
Like the true Randian Objectivist, Don Draper’ pursuit of personal happiness is the reason why we alternately admire and hate him. It is the reason why Don’s fellow ad men envy his life and want to follow in his footsteps.
It’s the reason why women find him irresistible.
It’s also the reason why:
Don Draper is a man cut from the Randian mold, but there’s something that makes Don not quite the Objectivist that Bert Cooper thinks that he is.
Don Draper (seemingly) pulls the very existentialist move of self invention.
Existentialism assumes that there is a real you despite the role society imposes on us. We alone choose who we are and what role we want to fulfill. Dick Whitman sheds the confining identity that he was doomed to lead – he runs away from who he was possibly doomed to become – a poor farm boy, raised in a whorehouse – and transforms himself into Don Draper.
Following existentialist philosophy allows poor farm boy Dick Whitman transforms himself from this:
Unlike the true existentialist, Dick Whitman doesn’t become who he is, rather, he assumes the identity of someone else. The move doesn’t make the former Dick Whitman any more authentic than he was. If anything, Don Draper is another mask, just another layer Dick Whitman puts on to hide himself. Don repeatedly evades questions about his past because he does not want who he truly is to be revealed.
According to existentialists, failure to be who we truly are means we live our lives inauthenticly.
An inauthentic life, says the existentialist, is a life without meaning.
Fortunately for Don Draper, Rand’s highest moral goal isn’t authenticity; it is fulfilling one’s own self interest.
And as Bert Cooper observed, Don Draper does this in spades.
Sure, Don Draper occasionally says something vaguely existentialist like this:
And he hung out with some beatniks who probably read Camus and Sartre.
But after awhile one eventually figures out that it’s highly unlikely that Don Draper is an existentialist.
At least not in the strict sense of the word.
Which is to say that he really isn’t an existentialist at all.
But to suggest that one can easily figure out Don Draper because he is the kind of man Ayn Rand talks about in Atlas Shrugged or that he’s a French-style existentialist is to ignore a basic truth about human nature.
The truth is this: Like many people in the real world, the characters of Mad Men are a mix of ideologies. They, like people in the real world, are not philosophically just one thing.
More often than not, Don Draper is just like everyone else – that is to say, Don Draper, ideologically speaking, is a mix of everything and of nothing in particular.
One might say the Don Draper is a “pastiche” of identities and ideologies.
That’s a very postmodern thing to be.*
It’s not surprising that Don Draper is a bit on the postmodern side. Don works in advertising, an occupation where selling the image is the most important commodity.
In advertising, it doesn’t matter what the product actually is, what’s important is how the ad makes you feel. Advertising sells an idea – or rather, the feeling associated with an idea. Don Draper says:
Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing, it’s ok. You are ok.
The postmodernist idea is that we shop for identities.
And not necessarily authentic ones.
Becoming who we are is not unlike trying on different hats. During a life time we may try on many hats. Different kinds of hats may look good on us. The hat we wear at any given time may reflect who we are
Or say nothing about us at all.
For the postmodernist, changing one’s hat is like reinventing ourselves. We do it not to get at who we really are, but to play a role or to manifest a particular style.
Or to wear something that matches our outfit.
The image is what matters.
According to postmodernism, there is no real. Nothing or no one is (or can be) authentic. We’re not concerned with finding who anyone truly is. We’re not concerned because there is no real you that we must find to live existentially real lives. Who we are is nothing more than a veneer; the image we portray to others. As crafted as the image we see in advertising.
Dick Whitman is a genuine fake Don Draper.
Don Draper’s identity is the embodiment of postmodern advertising. The primary concern in advertising is not authenticity. Life is a fashion statement. And Don Draper doesn’t seem terribly concerned with being authentic, either.
What Dick Whitman does best is sell the idea of Don Draper.
The idea of the attractive image of an American success story.
When it comes down to it, I
know assume think the reason why television audiences like TV shows like Mad Men and are attracted to characters like Don Draper has to do with the fact that we are intrigued by the mix of ideologies. As we watch the chaotic philosophical lives of unreal people, we can not only vicariously experience their philosophical struggles but (hopefully) gain insight and understand our own real world philosophical conundrums.
We tune in to Mad Men to watch the characters as they struggle with ethical dilemmas and exhibit the moral contradictions that, if we did the same thing in the real world, would alienate us from our friends, co-workers, and family.
We see, while watching the unreal lives of those who inhabit the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Price (Cutler, Chaough….whoever) that these characters, though fictional, are like us in the real world – we are all a mix of different, often conflicting, ideologies.
The philosophical principles by which we live our lives and our moral choices are often inconsistent; sometimes even incoherent.
The fact that these characters are able to do thins that we can not do and get away with doing it is why we praise Don Draper’s Randian self-centered rugged individualism
and condemn him for his inability to keep his zipper closed around any woman within his immediate vicinity (except for Peggy Olsen).
What’s up with the Don-not-doing-Peggy thing?
We see Don’s existentialist tendencies yet we also see that Don is a product of society where authenticity is as real as the happy, smiling family in a Coca-Cola ad.
I’m sure the second half of the final season will give me more to think about.
We’ll have to wait until Spring 2015 to see how Don Draper’s philosophical struggle ultimately plays out.
Unfortunately, with Mad Men drawing to a close I’ll have to move on to other philosophical thought-inspiring television. Luckily, I’ve just been turned on to another TV show that I hear is not only philosophical, but is also pretty popular.
I think it’s called Breaking Bad.
It’s all about a high school chemistry teacher who gets into selling meth.
I haven’t seen it yet, but from what I’ve heard, I’m sure it’s gonna be philosophically compelling
Hey, maybe you should watch it, too!
* Ayn Rand is most often associated with Libertarianism. Don is mum about his political preferences, besides remarking that he preferred Nixon over Kennedy (Nixon was a man who built himself from the ground up, as opposed to JFK who was born with a silver spoon). Draper’s politics tend to be apolitical. We can assume, given Don’s actions, that it is highly unlikely that he is a liberal Democrat.
* It is worth noting that the term “postmodernism” applies to a broad range of subjects, including art, architecture, literature, and philosophy. (For more info on postmodernism in philosophy check out the SEP entry on Postmodernism:http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/)
1. Leonard Peikoff. “Afterword”. 1992. In The Fountainhead. Ayn Rand. [orig. published 1943]. NY: Signet. p. 698.