Taking Advertising Seriously: On the Last Shot of MAD MEN

1. I hope that this is not a hot take. If any subject deserves cool, thoughtful consideration, it’s Matthew Weiner’s study of 1960s haute-bourgeois New Yorkers, Mad Men—a show far more cerebral than the cable dramas (Breaking BadThe Wire) to which it is often compared, if only for lack of competition.

2. One can read the final shot of last night’s final episode any number of ways. The most obvious is that Don, having abandoned his usual personality and habits so thoroughly as to find himself at an Esalen retreat, hugging strangers and meditating, finds himself, on the far side of his own self, suddenly inspired to write ad copy again: the classic “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign. (Some arguments that we are not meant to infer said authorship are ably examined here. Still, I think Aisha Harris’s argument that he did is pretty definitive.) When we adopt this reading, the next step in the argument, at least in the recaps I’ve seen, is some version of: Oh, Matthew Weiner, you twisted genius. You’ve shown us once again how the counterculture is always coopted, betrayed, and twisted by capitalism. Don’s beatific smile, his seeming escape from the cycle of ambition and self-hatred that drove him through seven seasons, will now be turned into more grist for capitalism’s dark, satanic mill. Mad Men has always examined the ways that bohemia, marginality, or wildness intersect with The System, and this finale just puts the exclamation point on that. “Flower Power protest, experimentation and consciousness-raising didn’t amount to much: In the end, all it wrought was a new way to sell products.” Or, put another way, “Yes, everything, even our personal moments of clarity, can be co-opted by industry and turned for profit.”

3. I think this reading gets the details right but the big picture wrong.

4. One of the things Mad Men has always done well is that it’s a great workplace show. It gets us interested in the process by which Peggy, Don, and the others develop a campaign: a subject in which I, for one, would have thought I had no interest whatsoever. The main way in which it does this is to apply many of the tropes of the tortured, suffering artist of kunstlerroman and literary biography to a field not generally considered one of the fine arts. To put it simply, this is a show about suits who often found themselves creatively blocked by suits. Again and again, we saw Don or Peggy’s brilliant pitches misunderstood by executives who lack vision. Or we saw Don or Peggy so ravaged by a creative block that we could have been watching a Beethoven biopic. In fact, Don’s most recent West Coast sojourn was exactly such a block: again and again since the first season we’ve seen him attempt, or propose (to poor Rachel Mencken, among others), or consider, a similar self-abandonment, and he always came back with a great new pitch, something better than his best previous work. (Like the credits: He always looks like he’s falling, and he always lands safe.) This show made us interested in ad copywriting, in other words, by proposing that good advertisers go through the same sort of drama in executing their work that the “fine artists,” generally understood to be operating somehow outside capitalism, are known to go through (the benders, the shouting, the rooms littered with false starts, etc.).

5. You could take this as Matthew Weiner clowning on the fine arts in the same way that Don’s final plot arc is supposed to be clowning the counterculture: You think you’re outside it, but capitalism gets you in the end. I think it’s more likely, though, that Weiner is arguing that we should take advertising seriously as an art. This doesn’t mean that I think the show is saying we must embrace advertising or admire it or treat it as the art form de nos jours, but keep in mind that Matthew Weiner himself is a television writer. In other words, he has pursued, with all the intelligence, perseverance, imagination, and sensitivity at his disposal, an art form that, like advertising, literally exists to sell products. (Public TV has always been marginal in America. The day advertisers give up on television is the day we stop having prestige cable dramas.) I don’t want to be reductive: ad money is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the Golden Age of Series TV that we’re living through. Ad money alone doesn’t give us Mad Men any more than DNA in a test tube gives us a person. But it is the foundation. And just as we have learned to take this art seriously, Matthew Weiner has spent seven seasons proposing to us that what Peggy does, what Don does, is at least some kind of art.

6. Further—and I say this as a fully-paid-up mass-culture skeptic—I think he’s right. One of the things you learn, if you watch John Berger’s classic documentary series Ways of Seeing, is that it’s frighteningly easy to make the argument that much classic Western art was, in its time, little more than advertising, or pornography: a thing for rich men to masturbate to, or a thing by which they showed off the sumptuousness of their lifestyles. I think Berger massively overstates this argument, but I also partly take his point. And yet as a result, one of the effects on me of watching Ways of Seeing—an effect that I think Berger never intended—was that I started to notice, and appreciate, the aesthetics of good advertisements, even as I continued to resent their attempts to manipulate me psychologically. If nothing else, a good ad is more honest about what it’s doing than is the entire post-Warhol tradition of gallery art that frames itself as a commentary on advertising. Just as I’d rather read a real comic book than look at a Roy Lichtenstein…

7. Environmentalists go back and forth over the notion of “wilderness.” Is it better to mark certain parts of the world as “wild places,” untouched by humanity, and fight to preserve them as such, or to admit that we’re well into the anthropocene, that humans have always been part of nature, and that we need to think about how to be a better part, rather than trying to keep ourselves aloof from some of it entirely? I tend toward the latter view. We can’t save nature by pretending we’re not in it or that it’s not in us.

8. The way some people talk about capitalism has some of the same pitfalls, in my view, as does the concept of wilderness. Many intellectuals, on all sides of all sorts of culture wars, have described capitalism as if it were an alien imposition on humanity. Max Weber’s thesis is only one of the more famous versions of this argument—it was that narrow-faced race of Calvinists who made us all so hateful of the poor and obsessed with work! They put us in the iron cage! Traditionalist conservatives have their versions of this idea; so did the battier, more essentialist forms of second-wave feminism (which posited that women were too holistic, or pantheist, or goddess-identified, or whatever, to subordinate so much of human life to buying and selling), or the battier, more essentialist forms of cultural nationalism (Europeans are “ice people” and therefore like to reduce everything to transactions; the white man is intrinsically incapable of caring about anything but money; etc.). It’s ultimately, I think, what “Lizard People”-style conspiracy theories are about. Those of us who hate one or more or all aspects of life under capitalism don’t want to think that it could be an expression of anything indigenous to ourselves. It must have come from some group of irreparably bad people over there: WASPs, the rich, somebody. But I think we have to entertain the other option—that capitalism could have happened to anybody; that it’s an expression of some of the things that are in us. (Not all of them, thank God. But some.) We have to entertain that, or else posit some form of biological or spiritual essentialism that, at least, doesn’t correspond to my experience of human beings.

9. This is why I’m increasingly skeptical of any paradigm for thinking about culture in which we try, as Don Draper repeatedly tries, to find some aesthetic or sexual or psychological wild place, declare it off-limits to capitalism, and then, when it’s inevitably “coopted,” debate whether it was “always already” part of “the system” or whether it could have been protected better. If our test for whether something is real, or valid, or important is its uncooptability, we had better give up now. Anything human can be coopted by capitalism because capitalism is, however destructive, just another one of the things humans do.

10. This leads me to the other most-debated moment in the finale: Peggy and Stan hooking up. People have argued that Peggy finding love “undoes her character development” (I have never felt that marrying Ashley undid everything I’d learned up to that point, and we’re later given graphic evidence that Peggy doesn’t betray herself into some kind of seen-not-heard housewifedom, but whatever). But most of all, the critics of this scene were put off by the romantic-comedy dialogue, the meet-cutesiness, the goofy sweetness of it all: Peggy realizing she’s still talking on a dead line and, just as you start to wonder whether Weiner has cynically given Stan a heart attack, he appears in Peggy’s doorway. Their whole story, it turns out, has been a screwball comedy; it unfolds using conventions from the movies in which Hollywood is held to have coopted and corrupted romantic love. But for Weiner, cooptation isn’t the horror-laden process of the Evil Alien Intelligence taking over the Authentic Human Thing. It doesn’t have that finality. Goofy-sweet love affairs don’t stop happening just because Hollywood turns them into cliches. We all know couples whose stories really did unfold in a way that seems eerily like a movie. (I, for example, really did marry the one who got away.) If that weren’t the case, I don’t think those conventions would have half the power they do. Stories that get coopted by capitalism, whether in the form of Hollywood or Madison Avenue, don’t therefore become lies; they don’t curdle. What capitalism takes, it doesn’t take forever. A screwball comedy may only be a screwball comedy, but Peggy and Stan may really have a good thing here. An ad may be only an ad, but Don Draper still knows himself better than he once did (as his wretched phone call to Peggy shows). That moment of peace on the mountaintop isn’t undone simply because, like any artist, he plows it back into his art the best way he knows how.

The Top Ten Kids in the Hall Sketches: A Dissenting View

If you live long enough, everything comes back in fashion. The most popular street musician in my area is the guy who sings the worst of the post-grunge canon (“Mr. Jones”; “Sex and Candy”; “Push”) in a fuck-me-because-I’m-raspy voice that Adam Duritz himself would envy. My students love him, bless their hearts.

Myself, I wasn’t that enamored of the nineties the first time around. But when I think of things from that era that I was happy to see return, the sketch troupe Kids in the Hall outrank everything. 

The members of the troupe, on the eve of another tour, have offered up a list of their best work to Esquire. I hate to argue with men who helped form my sensibility, but those would not be my choices. With all due respect, these, my friends: these are the Daves I know.

10. “Darrill and the Flying Pig”

Some sketches are like Ravel’s “Bolero” in that fucking to them is overrated they explore a single premise in a linear, logical fashion, moving to an assured climax. A lot of the best sketches are more like good instrumental hip-hop, though: here’s a lovely oddity, and another, and another, all looped together into a kind of gentle surrealism that goes nowhere and never ceases to delight. With this one, you get the idea that Bruce’s silly, eager, desperate-to-please pig voice came first, secreted a personality and mythology, and got stapled to an everyday situation (the long ATM line). Then Mark’s inimitable Darill character got thrown in so that we wouldn’t be bored during the setup. Like bacon-flavored ice cream, it shouldn’t work and does.

9. “Menstruation”

This alliterative ode to the “monthly miracle” points up both the silliness of the trying-too-hard male feminist and the odiousness of being weirded-out by periods: surely a message every junior-high boy could stand to hear. At least, I needed to hear it, because I come from the kinds of people who grunt their disgust whenever Tampax commercials play. I always giggle at this sketch, and when seventh-grade me first saw it, he stopped giggling—or gagging—at its subject.

8. “Boo”

With this one, even more than usual, it’s the timing: Dave takes just long enough to gasp at Boo!, Scott paces just long enough, the brakes squeal just in time. A lot of KITH fan-favorite sketches come from the first season, when the show was partly documenting already-road-tested live material; this sketch shows how quickly and brilliantly they adopted the resources unique to TV. (Scott’s anxiety-ridden writer may also suggest some of the behind-the-scenes anxiety that came with the transition.)

7. “Gavin and the Evangelists”

Bruce has two modes: belligerently insecure and winsomely insecure. He owns them both. Gavin is winsome, and he may well be my favorite recurring character.

6. “Running Faggot”

You don’t get a lot of straightforward political skits on this show. The indirect approach is so much more effective. “Running Faggot” is a parody of folk music and its earnest revivalists; of the wandering-teacher-of-wisdom character who shows up in so much American West folklore dispensing bromides in an oracular tone; of Clint Eastwood movies (“Well, I’ll let you have it straight”); of so many things. But by giving Scott Thompson the central role, and sending him sprinting through Texas as if (rightly) afeared for his life, they got the message through to even the mean little homophobe I was when this show first aired: hating gay people is even crazier than not knowing to feed your puppy puppy food.

5. “Headcrusher Vs. Facepincher”

This isn’t comedy. It’s ballet.

4. “Bass Player”

Someday Kevin’s awkwardness will cover the earth.

3. “Kathy and the Blues Guy”

I wish they hadn’t tinted Mark’s skin for this, but his imitation Delta idioms are so wonderfully zany (“shut my eyes fo’ me, I got the blues”), and when we find out who the “real professional” was who “hoit” him… Well. The Kids are often singled out for the high quality of their drag performances (unlike John Cleese or even Terry Jones, they aren’t afraid of being mistaken for feminine), but Bruce goes above and beyond here. He’s every woman my mom ever talked to at a church supper.

2. “Communism”

This early-90s bit anticipated Glenn Beck with such eerie accuracy that Keith Olbermann once invited Dave Foley on his show to explain how he predicted the future. (KITH fans know the answer already: “E-villll!”)

1. “Preacher Character”

Few things are inherently funnier than the sweaty eighties televangelist. In his very person, he offers the comedian a direct line to greed, sexual repression, Grundyism, and other worthy targets; his hypocrisy makes him incongruous, the quality that Chesterton thought central to humor; and he also offers the late-night, cable-affording audience a guilt-free snicker at the bad, obvious tastes of the lower orders. That we have all laughed so often at half-assed televangelism humor only makes it more astounding to watch Mark set about impersonating his preacher with such almost loving fineness of observation: these kinds of people are so easily stereotyped that they’re hard to see properly at all, but Mark misses nothing (note the way his lip curls when he says Bag-da-hava GI-ta, the resort to unsourced “worldly scholars and scientists” to establish a point that’s meaningless anyway, the scolding repetition of “That old preacher character don’t make me laugh anymore”), and each fugitive detail stands out as the superfluity of genius. That he then makes the whole thing a meta-joke, the preacher calling us back from worldly whoredom to a simpler time when a man could laugh at a preacher character, just makes the whole beautiful assemblage work on two levels. This is the greatest sketch, by the greatest sketch team. This is why we crawled out of the swamps.

On the Absurd, Wearying AMERICAN SNIPER/Umix Controversy

When your university makes national news, and your freshmen are asking you what you think about it all, you should probably go ahead and say something.

1. Universities are, first and foremost, places to learn, and learning hurts. It destabilizes. It can drive you insane. That’s just part of the ball game. If a film professor wants to show American Sniper and discuss its qualities as a work of art, she should do so. If a propaganda historian wants to show American Sniper and discuss its ideological implications, she should do so. If a support group for student-veterans wants to show the film for its cathartic and therapeutic qualities, they should do so. If a student wants to watch the film in his room, he should do so. All of that is Freedom of Speech 101 and I condemn any view that would water it down.

(PS: Insofar as a little-read Twitter account is “public,” I’ve already publicly opposed trigger exemptions on syllabi; scroll down).

2. Campuses are also social spaces. Umix is, my students tell me, the “dry” alternative to another bar-crawling Friday night. In addition to scheduling, canceling, and then rescheduling American Sniper, its recent activities include “Build-A-Bear, Massages, Bingo…Karaoke, Asian Food Buffet, DYO Picture Frames, Inflatable Laser Tag and more!” Umix is not a film society. Umix is not, from the sound of things, particularly educational. It’s the equivalent of the pool table in the dorm basement.

3. Throwing an all-ages, PG-rated, for-the-entire-student-body event, a dry event (which religion forbids alcohol again?), at a school located near Dearborn, and then showing a movie that praises the courage of those who fought in a war of choice against Arabs, is, at best, like inviting all your Japanese friends to go see Bataan with you. It’s a like using church funds to throw a Sunday school class party where everyone watches Irreversible followed by Cannibal Holocaust. It’s just a weird move.

4. Canceling all campus screenings of American Sniper would be censorship and no sensible person should stand for it. Canceling this screening, and replacing it with an inoffensive and surprisingly well-made kids’ movie, is effective event planning.

5. I am not sure how far I want to enter into the controversy around Chris Kyle himself. I certainly do not condemn him. Had he adopted any other attitude than “they were animals” toward the people he shot, he may not have survived deployment. That is no justification of the war itself, but since Chris Kyle is not the architect of the war—that distinction belongs not only to the Bush Administration, but to many, many liberals and even some leftists—it would be unfeeling to blame him for getting through it on whatever terms were available to him. Certainly Michael Moore’s comments regarding his “cowardice” were absurd; just about anyone who signs up to fight in an army is brave. (It is unfortunate that our culture celebrates this form of bravery so much more, and more officially, than other forms of bravery, but that doesn’t make soldiers less brave.) Of course courage is no guarantee of the rightness of one’s cause; I’m sure Confederate soldiers had brass balls, and they were fighting for slavocracy. Our soldiers in Iraq were fighting—on pain of imprisonment, or death, or the death of their fellow-soldiers—for the lies of our foreign-policy establishment, which those soldiers had no hand in creating. Ideally we’d find a way to honor their selfless courage while regretting the purposes to which it was put, but that doesn’t make a good bumper sticker.

6. But while I’m on the subject, there is one argument that I heard regarding American Sniper and Chris Kyle that I will go ahead and grump about. I heard again and again, when the film was first released, that critics of the film or Kyle are attacking someone who “fought for them.” This would be totally admissible if we were talking about the Revolutionary War. It would be totally admissible if we were talking about the Union side in the Civil War. (If you’re white and Southern, you could also apply it to the Confederate Army.) When we come to Vietnam and Iraq and Grenada it’s not admissible at all. Who seriously believes that the average American’s safety was protected, their rights advanced by those wars? And I have heard enough disgruntled talk about civilians from veterans—one of whom once said, in front of me, “`Thank you for your service,’ they say. I didn’t do it for your lazy ass,” thus implying that every non-veteran in the room was a bad, lazy person—that I feel pretty skeptical regarding the claim “Chris Kyle fought for you.”

7. This touches on the meaning of patriotism. Of course it does. Members of my own family have more than once called me “unpatriotic” for voicing opinions like this. But I believe in an America that Chris Kyle can live in, and where every veteran comes home to a safe job, decent pay, and all the help they need, at whatever expense. I believe in an America that asks him (and all able-bodied adult citizens, including me) to defend, but never to invade. Meanwhile, during the Iraq War, I heard proponents of the war say, again and again, without any qualification, that everyone who protested the war was committing treason. Treason is a capital offense. This doctrine was a more immediate threat to the liberties and lives of millions of actually existing Americans than any Iraqi. So is the national security state that that war helped bring into being (and that Obama has continued to nurture). So is the assumption that black men are inherently criminal. There’s more than one way to threaten American rights, and more than one way to fight for them.

8. You should go see Paddington, seriously. It’s way funnier than the trailers.

“I am Taking a Religious View of a Form That Is Very Earthly”: What Do These Words Mean to James Wood?

James Wood is a vexed subject. Like Jonathan Franzen, he inspires such polarized reactions that I can’t even begin to recognize the writer I read—who does some great work and some bad work, some beautiful pieces with dumb moments in them and some dumb pieces with the occasional sentence that brings you up short—in the reputation that billows around him. And again like Franzen, he seems to have gotten cast as the figurehead of various ideas and tendencies to a degree that completely overshadows anything I find on the page. In the mid-2000s, he was decried as a proponent of Biedermeier novels, a latter-day John Updike; the term “social realism” was, rather bizarrely, redefined from its original meaning (Soviet-era boy-meets-tractor stories) and used to describe the kind of fiction he was supposed to prefer. When he proved to have a larger and more flexible view of fiction than this stereotype allowed for, and championed writers outside his supposed bailiwick, this was taken as further evidence of his perfidy. When people hate you for being a way, and then also for being any other way, the problem is not you. This is prosecutor logic, or gameplaying.

All of this should not be taken to mean that I invariably agree with him, love him, or even read everything he writes. I am an adult with a job, and I have sat out at least a few Wood-related Twitter cycles. Yesterday this interview came to my attention, especially this bit:

Could there, I asked Wood, be such a thing as a religious novel– a book that is positively for God, not against him?

“Probably not,” he replied. “I can only think of bad Christian novels, like Graham Greene’s. There are mystical novels—To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway—and in The Brothers Karamazov you have something like the iconostasis in a Russian Orthodox cathedral: certain panels, like those about Father Zossima or the parable of the grand inquisitor, uphold the faith that Dostoevsky undermines elsewhere. Maybe Moby-Dick qualifies too, though at the cost of being undramatic or essayistic or poetic. Perhaps narrative is inherently secular. It corrugates things, bends them too much to stay religious, as Dostoevsky wisely feared. Among contemporaries, Marilynne Robinson comes closest in Gilead, which is about a Congregationalist pastor in Iowa who’s dying—though she has to sacrifice a lot of the novel’s innate comedy and dynamism on the altar of high thought. The novel is a comic form, because it’s about our absurdities and failings. We’re told that Jesus wept, but never that he laughed.”

My first thought is that, on this reading, the Bible itself is not good religious writing at all. The OT patriarchs are notoriously corrugated. (This was one of the French Enlightenment’s big problems with the OT.) Jesus’ disciples are corrugated; the New Testament goes out of its way to portray them as clueless and intermittently treacherous. (“Get thee behind me, Satan.”) Wood seems to think that a “properly” religious novel would call no attention to the fact that religious people have feet of clay. It seems to me that such a fiction, if it could even exist, would be incredibly dangerous, to that religion most of all. What an inducement to self-righteousness.

The more I think about it, the less I understand what Wood thinks a properly religious or, since that’s what he’s really talking about here, properly Christian fiction might be. Does he think The Brothers Karamazov, which actually kept me in the fold when I was eighteen, would be even more “Christian” of a novel if we edited out Father Ferapont, the sudden rotting of Zossima’s body, or the great confrontation between Ivan and Alyosha? These are what make the book work as a piece of fiction, and also as a work of Christian art. They allow the reader to entertain other possible ways of life seriously, and make it possible for Alyosha’s continued belief (and mine, the first time I read it) to demonstrate, not its Final Triumph over those alternatives, but its durability against them, and its ability to survive change. Since I take it that Final Triumph isn’t on the table right now, for anyone—nobody really knows what the hell is going on here, and we don’t find out till we’re dead—a book that shows how Christian faith can sustain, deepen, fortify, and provoke growth in the character of a thinking adult is doing all the work a Christian novel would need to do. Flaws and ridiculousness are very much to the point.

It occurs to me that Wood’s comments make sense if we swap out one word: wherever he says “religious,” read “fanatical.” And I’d agree that there are no good fanatic novels. Left Behind, Walden Two, Atlas Shrugged, The Celestine Prophecy: they all have their fans, but what those people love is the clarifying and simplifying power of having only one answer to every question. (Talk about lifehacking!) Truth in these novels is something suddenly announced to the world from without, rather than messily lived through, and with, and toward. If that’s Christianity, or religion more generally, or the novel, you can keep them all. I will keep attending to whatever it is that Robinson is doing in Gilead, or Dostoevsky in Karamazov, or for that matter what Al Green is doing in his music. And what James Wood does, intermittently, in the best of his criticism, when he’s not falsely pitting the two great, tortured loves of his life, God and the novel, against each other.

23 More People You Meet at a Christian College

Candace Lowry, a writer for Buzzfeed, just posted a list of “23 People You Meet at a Christian College.” I was impressed by her accuracy (I could still give you #19’s name and major, fourteen years after Calvin) but, on Twitter, found myself adding a bit to the record… and getting, toward the end, a little mushy in the process. 

1. The Professor Who Cannot Get Out of Bed Without Quoting Walker Percy About It

2. The Bros For Whom Bible Study, Accountability Partnership, and Powerlifting Fuse Into One XTreme Activity

3. The Guy Who Writes Into the Christian Feminism Listserv To Talk About “Modesty”

4. The Person Who Has a Weird Dream About Marrying a Near-Stranger and Figures It’s a Divine Message

5. The Worship Leader Who Clings Pathetically To Any Scrap of Evidence That Bono Still Believes

6. The Incredibly and Justifiably Frustrated Diversity Coordinator

7. The Chaplain Who You Can Tell Kinda Wants to Give Gay People a Break, Already, But Can’t Quite Manage

8. The Protestant Who Wants To Be Catholic So Bad It Hurts

9. The Horny, Guilty Demivierge

10. The Person Who Quotes Paul on Church Unity To Win Every Single Argument

11. The Person Who Quotes Marilynne Robinson Way Too Much (Oh, Shit, That’s Me)

12. The Person Who Just Came Back from Guatemala And Gets Mad When You Run the Hot Water

13. The Woman Who Kissed Dating Goodbye

14. The Couple That Reads Elizabeth Elliott Together

15. The Dormful of Guys Who Play Weirdly Homoerotic Tackling-Based Games At Night

16. The Biblical and Systematic Theologians Who Get Along Like the Jets and the Sharks

(…And, switching gears a bit):

17. The Lit Professor Who Has Tons of Work To Do But Instead Spends the Whole Afternoon Saving Your Life

18. The Missionary Kid Who Patiently Explains To You Why American Hegemony Sucks

19. The Math Prof Who Starts Every Class With Prayer, and It’s Actually Really Sweet

20. The Philosophy Prof Who is Smarter Than Every Snarky Atheist On the Internet

21. The Econ Prof Who Lives On Sixty Percent of His Income and Gives the Rest to Charity

22. The Lone Feminist In Every Department Who Patiently Endures in Well Doing

23. The Professoriate That Views You as a Whole Person and Not an “Education Consumer”

“I Have Been the Witch and I Have Been the Hunted”: My Time in an Internet Mob

Jon Ronson has written a very powerful story for the New York Times on what happens to non-famous people whose moments of shame go viral. In particular, he focuses on Justine Sacco, who tweeted an offensive joke about AIDS in Africa, became internationally notorious, and got fired, within a matter of hours.

The article is powerful and alarming, and you should read it. Equally, you should read Tressie’s thoughts on the same issue, which are rather good even by her standards:

Once, I applied for a crappy job. Despite my credentials and experience, the owner of the company told me that he had hired “a black” before and she quit without giving two weeks notice. The owner was “understandably” anxious about hiring another black. Understandably. When you have “a race” you are always standing in the gap for all the people with a race. 

But since white people do not think of ourselves as belonging to a “race” in the same sense—when a white guy cuts you off in traffic you think “What an asshole that individual is,” while when a black guy does it, you think, “What assholes those people are”—and since we have the numbers and power to impose our delusive race categories on others while rarely being forced into one ourselves, we are rarely forced to stand in for all white people in this manner. (Nor should we be.) The public shaming of a Justine Sacco, or an Elizabeth Lauten, represents a rare opportunity for people of color to turn this particular table. “Being stripped of your personhood to stand in the gap for a group of people against your will is rage inducing. It simmers through your veins,” Tressie writes (and she would know, since this is her daily and hourly experience). “It is horrible to lose a job for that. It is a privilege to have never before lost a job for that.”

I love many things about Tressie’s piece. For one thing, I’m glad to see a prominent thinker who’s out on the farther-left-than-“The Daily Show” end of the spectrum actually acknowledge that there may be something wrong with treating people in this fashion even if they are racist. (In Justine Sacco’s case, even that much isn’t clear—the point of her joke may have been, as she insists, misunderstood due to its sloppy construction, and her South African family does have a history of support for Nelson Mandela.) On Left Twitter, it often seems as if decisions about whether mere common decency or sense or proportionality even apply are debated solely in terms of a) what’s strategically effective and b) who’s on what end of a power differential. “There is no good or evil, only power,” said Voldemort to Harry Potter, and there will always be a slice of both the left and right that agrees.

But Tressie’s piece is, far more importantly, a reminder to those of us who feel sorry for Justine Sacco that we’d better not stop there. The internet’s power to humiliate is rarely levied against so privileged and resilient a target. More often it’s used against white women who say the wrong thing about a video game, or black women who argue for explicit-verbal-consent laws and always-believe-the-accuser-in-a-rape-case policies. (Note: I have serious reservations about that whole movement. For reasons. But I do think you should get to make the argument without having your fucking life ruined. Also, obviously, I think men should stop committing rape, threatening rape, and treating rape as a joke.) More often the internet’s shaming power is used against poor people whose crime was looking funny and poor and shopping at Wal-Mart. (Haw! It’s funny because human frailty!) More often it’s used against black people who are guilty of just standing around. Quite often it’s used against black people who are guilty of having just had something horrible done to them. Within hours of his death, we had all seen the photos of Michael Brown smoking pot. Meanwhile, his killer, Darren Wilson, a man who shot a child, a man who would later tell the grand jury a hilariously melodramatic story about his fears that Brown (who had already taken multiple shots) would “bulk up” and charge through a hail of bullets like goddamn Juggernaut, a man whose main supporting witness was almost certainly a fraud—that man went on enjoying his anonymity for considerably longer.

So, yeah. It’s not that you shouldn’t feel sorry for Justine Sacco, or even mad on her behalf. But please don’t stop there.

One time, a few years ago, I found myself closer than usual to the heart of one of these incidents. The victim was not a powerless person of color, but a relatively powerful white woman, a tenured professor, a well-regarded novelist. In fact she was my thesis advisor. I had had a good experience at the MFA program at University of South Carolina-Columbia, on the whole, and I had had a friendly relationship with Janette Turner Hospital, my adviser. I also mostly liked or loved my colleagues, and I liked the other faculty. Nothing I’m about to say should be taken as critical of any of them. I intend to criticize me, and Gawker, but mostly me.

As I say, I had no particular reason to complain about JTH, but I heard some stories from colleagues—people I found credible (and a few I didn’t)—whom she’d treated rudely, and I’d even witnessed one or two interactions where it seemed to me that she was unnecessarily harsh. In particular, students in the cohort behind me were hurt and alarmed to learn that she had accepted a visiting professorship at Columbia University, which, as any graduate student knows, is a serious disruption to a person’s life. It wasn’t entirely surprising when, a few months after I left and a few weeks after she did, she sent our listserv an email back from Columbia, “a very different MFA planet,” that came off airily condescending. “[T]here’s only one other place I’ve ever taught where there was a comparable atmosphere, and that was MIT, where I taught for 3 years,” ran one typical passage. It was hard not to see the omission of USC as a rather cruelly pointed one.

That wasn’t surprising, and it wasn’t surprising when my old colleagues were livid. To the (unavoidable) injury of having to find a new thesis advisor or committee member, she had certainly added some insult. I felt they had valid grounds for anger.

It was a little more surprising when the thing got picked up by Gawker. (You can do the googling yourself.)

It seems to me that Gawker could serve, and occasionally has served, a real social function. I like some of the writers. The site has begun to move into genuine journalism, with occasionally brilliant results. And they used to sign the paychecks of one of the country’s most necessary political commentators, Maureen Tkacik. But, I mean, the site is literally called Gawker. It feasts on the private shames and embarrassments (or even the mere misfortunes) of people unlucky enough to have names that generate pageviews. It is a Murdoch tabloid for people who wear black-plastic-framed glasses. No one should be surprised that the site is owned and run by a rich Tory snob; Gawker’s entire M.O. is Tory. It appeals to the part of us that likes a good public flogging. No matter how often its writers attack homophobes, sexists, Republicans, et cetera, the basic workings of the site are as conservative as the Coliseum.

I don’t think anybody deserves the kind of massive humiliation and free indirect scorn they dish out.

That’s not strictly true. I think war criminals deserve it. I think Henry Kissinger deserves it. I think the people who wrecked our economy deserve it. I think Jamie Dimon deserves it. I think in the case of people so powerful and so corrupt that they can’t be gotten by any other means, it’s probably OK to go ahead and tell the world about their weird private problems. RT their weirdly worded household Post-It missives till they’re confined to bed with a panic attack. JTH? Even her worst enemies wouldn’t put her in that category. And she was not my enemy at all.

But, as the shaming unfolded, I didn’t venture even the mildest word in her defense. Worse, I followed the entire mini-scandal with the kind of, well, gawking avidity that I usually consider myself above. There were a couple of reasons for my silence. One is that her apparent attitude toward her old students had made me question our relationship. Were her kind comments on my thesis just a case of damning with fake praise, like the things you say in a recommendation letter for an employee you’re dying to be rid of? Another is that, as I’ve said, I saw genuine anguish in my colleagues’ reactions to her behavior, particularly the email, and I didn’t want to risk sounding even mildly critical of people in pain. I can defend both of those reactions. What I can’t defend is that the whole painful spectacle entertained me.

Most of the people who tweeted their “shock” and “anger” about Justine Sacco were of course feeling neither emotion. They were deeply amused. Ronson touches on this in his story.

The anger soon turned to excitement: “All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail” and “Oh man, @JustineSacco is going to have the most painful phone-turning-on moment ever when her plane lands” and “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”

The furor over Sacco’s tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment. Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc. As Sacco’s flight traversed the length of Africa, a hashtag began to trend worldwide: #HasJustineLandedYet. “Seriously. I just want to go home to go to bed, but everyone at the bar is SO into #HasJustineLandedYet. Can’t look away. Can’t leave” and “Right, is there no one in Cape Town going to the airport to tweet her arrival? Come on, Twitter! I’d like pictures #HasJustineLandedYet.”

It’s often remarked that the Internet is making it harder for our society to find a way to ensure that artists and writers are paid for their work. Usually this conversation has to do with the ease with which we can steal and pirate intellectual property, but it’s also true that novelists, songwriters, and filmmakers must struggle to compete with the free spectacle offered by other peoples’ Googleable misjudgments. It is so easy to watch; it requires even less emotional and intellectual commitment than does TV (which has gone serialized and insists on being enjoyed in rigid sequence, like a prix-fixe dinner.) It takes willpower not to join in, especially if the victim seems racist, or cluelessly privileged, or (as in my old advisor’s case) unaware of the rule of American life that says we must hate a condescender even more than we hate a site that professionally traffics in gossip. To the obvious reasons any moralist might present for exerting that bit of willpower—because it’s not fair; because, with that measure ye mete …; because hearsay and rumor could make criminals of any of us; because any abuse we condone in our dealings with the powerful will be used tenfold on those without power—I can make one small addition: because you’ll feel like such an asshole later.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s Novels, Ranked

9. The Golden Child (1976)
The last person I ranked in this manner was Muriel Spark, whose first novel is so freakishly well-realized that it just made me want to subside into nonexistence, like that book’s villain, Mrs. Hogg. Accordingly, then, I must thank Fitzgerald from the bottom of my heart for writing an OK first book that does not read as if it descended from heaven on a throw pillow made of angel pubes. It’s really discouraging when people do that, and the ho-hum quality of this mock-mystery novel about a fake museum exhibit gives the struggling would-be writer some hope.

Don’t bother with The Golden Child unless you’re crazily devoted, is what I’m saying.

8. Innocence (1986)
Don’t be fooled by the low ranking; from here on, pretty much the entire Fitzgerald canon is indispensable. This one is famous for a) initiating her “historical novels” phase and b) containing a beautifully-felt cameo by Antonio Gramsci. It is an utterly fresh romantic comedy with shadows around the edges. But every writer has that weapon she or he is prone to overusing, and for Fitzgerald, funnily enough, it’s understatement. The description of an episode in the (fictitious) history of the Ridolfi family at the beginning, which casts a symbolic shadow over the whole book, is always mentioned by critics as an example of Fitzgerald’s cleverness and subtlety; I think they actually talk about it because they’re proud they figured it out.

7-6. At Freddie’s (1982) and Human Voices (1980)
A toss-up, I love them both so much. They’re both among Fitzgerald’s early “autobiographical” novels (the others are The Bookshop and Offshore) and they’re both notable for not reading anything at all like novels involving “autobiographical material” are supposed to read. The narrator is almost inhumanly impartial to the characters most similar to the author, and wonderfully generous to everyone else. (Penelope Fitzgerald must have been a hell of a fun officemate, at least before life wore her down.) The happy endings are deeply equivocal, as earthly happiness must always be.

At Freddie‘s builds a wonderfully satisfying conflict between a woman of the theatre, running a perpetually down-at-the-heels acting school in London, all of whose personal power and influence come from her immense and classically theatrical denial of all the actual circumstances of her life, and her employee, a guy so morbidly honest that he makes Samuel Johnson look evasive. Dreams, meet Reality. This is a beautiful “Nobody gets what they want” novel, and finds its place this low on the list because it’s outshone, not because it isn’t, on its own terms, awfully bright.

Human Voices (and the title alone gives it a slight edge over At Freddie’s: at once an Eliotic allusion just right for the characters and mood, a description of the BBC Radio milieu in which the characters work, and a reference to the rumor-heavy hubbub of wartime) is perhaps the novel of Fitzgerald’s that pushes furthest her notion of erotic love as a beautiful and necessary catastrophe. You root for this book’s central couple, knowing that they’re going to bring each other misery. It’s the theme Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind wanted to have, but the characters weren’t fully realized enough to embody it the way this book does. (Fitzgerald’s Innocence also treats of this sort of relationship, in a way that looks a little broad only when you compare it to the infinite subtlety of Human Voices.)  To bring Eliot back into the conversation, Fitzgerald writes about love the way Eliot’s Magi speak of the birth of Christ. And I think she writes truly.

5. The Beginning of Spring (1988)
Bears in the dining room. Prerevolutionary Russian mystics. A sexy au pair. And an image so spooky and lovely that I won’t say a word about it, even though one of Fitzgerald’s stupider paperback publishers has chosen to spoil the whole thing with a cover illustration.

4. The Gate of Angels (1990)
Readers of Hermione Lee’s Fitzgerald biography are oppressed by the knowledge that Fitzgerald began a book about the Inklings that she didn’t live to finish. It’s a foregone conclusion that this would have been the greatest novel of all time. On the day of its publication, bells would have rung, Lycidas would have returned from the sea’s bosom, ISIS would melt down their guns and declare war on frowning, the snow would have mounted on its frozen feet and commenced shoveling itself with a “Terribly sorry for the mess,” and “Hey Ya” would have sounded fresh again. However, if I had to pick any other period in the history of Oxbridge life for Fitzgerald to finish her book about, as consolation, it would be Cambridge at the dawn of modern physics, among handwringing men with apologetic faces and eccentric social habits who, half unmeaning (Eliot again!), disturbed the Newtonian universe. Anyone paying attention at this point could have seen that Fitzgerald had long since gathered to a greatness.

3. The Bookshop (1978)
(But what is “greatness,” anyway? Are we more in need of small portraits perfectly realized or large, difficult things brought off right? B: Yes. A: This book.)

2. The Blue Flower (1995)
And having gathered to a greatness, Fitzgerald flames out, like shining from shook foil.

I am tempted to accede to consensus here and put Blue Flower at number one. It is certainly the book that forced even the most dismissive old sexists in the British bookchat industry to admit that the dowdy lady comedian-of-manners was a genius. It is the most obviously innovative of her books, Cubist in its use of point of view (you often have no idea who is narrating or from where). It is, at least, a great choice to read if you don’t plan to read any other Fitzgerald. You’ll be moved (as much by the delicate beauty of the book’s structure, the sense it constantly creates of sudden affinities between widely-separated details, as by the pitiable lives narrated), and you’ll get why German Romanticism is a major literature ill-served by the English language.

1. Offshore (1979)
If there’s a distinction to be made between “early” and “late” Fitzgerald, it is radically not one of quality. Nor does it have to do with emotional force. I am not sure a novel has ever left me sadder.