All the latest fashions

From The New Criterion

The London Independent’s i100 website recently dug up an old advertisement that appeared in Life magazine in February of 1962, and put it up under the shock headline: “This is a real advert.” Life’s double-page spread was a real advert, but the real advert in the present tense was the Indy’s web-page where we read: “It may seem difficult to believe, but this is a genuine advert from an oil company published in the 1960s.” This was followed by a photo of the mouth of a mighty glacier beneath which, in large type, are the words: “Each day Humble supplies enough energy to melt 7 million tons of glacier.” Beneath that, if your screen is big enough, you can just about make out the original ad copy:

This giant glacier has remained unmelted for centuries. Yet, the petroleum energy Humble supplies — if converted into heat — could melt it at the rate of 80 tons each second! To meet the nation’s growing needs for energy, Humble has applied science to nature’s resources to become America’s Leading Energy Company. Working wonders with oil through research, Humble provides energy in many forms — to help heat our homes, power our transportation and to furnish industry with a great variety of versatile chemicals. Stop at a Humble station for new Enco Extra gasoline and see why the “Happy Motoring” Sign is the World’s First Choice!

Nowadays, of course, such an “advert” would never do. It is far too wordy, taking nearly a hundred words before it gets to the pay-off about new Enco Extra gasoline — which, after all, nobody wanted to use to melt glaciers anyway.

Not that The Indy seems to understand that. Silently correcting that long-ago copy-writer’s verbosity, it provides a slightly garbled but larger-type version of the first two sentences only and thereby implies that Humble, the irony of whose name needs no comment, once pumped its oil for melting glaciers with, and was proud of it. The larger irony of its post, however, is that The Independent — whose name is at least as comically inappropriate as Humble’s — ridicules the commercial propaganda of half a century ago in sublime unconsciousness that its own appeal to the social and intellectual prestige of “science” puts it in the same business. The advertising business. There is nothing “difficult to believe” about the Life advertisement. Fashions change. But to The Independent as to the media culture in general, fashion has taken on a moral dimension.

The paper’s editorial comment reads: “Let’s just be glad we’ve come so far” — and beneath that there is a looped tape of Senator James Inhofe throwing a snowball above the single word: “Sigh.” Poor Senator Inhofe has been the butt of many such satirical attacks since taking the opportunity of a snowfall in Washington earlier this year to demonstrate his skepticism about what was lately called “global warming” and is now fashionably known as “climate change.” Fair enough. Fashions change, as we have already noticed, and The Independent is at least as proud as Life magazine or Humble Oil ever were about being au courant with the latest in intellectual fads. But why all the effort among the fashionable to portray those who don’t wish to be part of the latest trends as either very stupid or very wicked?

It is just worth mentioning, perhaps, that with the moralization of fashion comes the implied claim that it is not fashion at all. For morality, unlike fashion, doesn’t change. At least it used not to be thought to change. Nowadays, people are much more willing than they formerly were to believe (or at least to accept) that morality can and does change, and that what was universally regarded as wrong or absurd yesterday is today not only right but laudable and virtuous. I’ll come back to that curious feature of our times, and that which distinguishes them from almost all other times, in a moment, but first I want to look a little further into the matter of intellectual fashion which, thanks to advances in advertising that would have astonished whoever wrote that ad for Humble Oil half a century ago, is now all we have to take the place of the rational argument whose virtual disappearance from our public life can hardly be coincidental.

In April, the final seven episodes of Matthew Weiner’s long-running TV drama Mad Men began airing on the AMC network. AMC originally stood for “American Movie Classics” — “classics” being the word once applied to works of art thought to be less susceptible to changes in artistic fashion than the norm. Lately, however, the classics, too, have fallen out of fashion, at least to the extent that the cable channel is now known only by its initials, and its old movies, by no means all of them classics, have taken a decided back seat to highly ambitious original programming like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Indeed, Mad Men can and should be seen as the great national epic of progressive America, for it shares the progressive view of the social, political and artistic upheavals of the 1960s as a virtual re-foundation of the Republic.

For nearly eight years the show has presented, as it were in time-lapse photography, a picture of moral enlightenment gradually dawning upon what it sees as the inchoate moral darkness of the 1950s and before. Best of all, this process of moral growth and development can be observed taking place in the very nerve-center of the WASP, male establishment of the day, metonymically known as Madison Avenue. In other words, it is a show about changing fashions set in the contemporary world of fashion, broadly considered, which is the advertising industry. The show presumes, as so many of us now do, that the old, bad America — the America, as we are supposed to think it, of racism and sexism, homophobia and hypocrisy, greed and excess — must be continually warned against, presumably lest we find ourselves unexpectedly and scandalously attracted to it.

All these vices appear in a sophisticated urban milieu where today we would not expect to find them, and they bring those indulging in them nothing but unhappiness and moral desolation. Cleverly, however, Mr Weiner and his enormous team of writers do not deny the audience any of its nostalgic satisfaction in this historical retrospective. They do not play down what many are still likely to think the more attractive aspects of life in the 1960s — the drinking, the smoking, the drug-taking, the sexual promiscuity — but emphasize them, along with the still-popular art and music of the period. The principal characters are all attractive people, impeccably dressed in the most attractive fashions of the day, many of which have become fashionable again as a result. It presents them as they would have wished to be presented.

This is a rather troubling feature of the show for certain progressives who would presumably have preferred the political satisfactions of straight propaganda unadorned by Mr Weiner’s artfulness. James Meek in the London Review of Books, for example, greets the final phase of the show with an article headed “The Shock of the Pretty” which begins by noticing its representation of an image of the allegedly perfect American nuclear family of circa 1964, buying a Christmas tree as the snow falls gently, in the opening of the second episode of Mad Men’s fourth season.

We don’t need to have watched the previous forty episodes of the series (out of 85 aired so far, with another seven still to go) to guess that this tableau must be undermined by some horrid sinkhole of reality. Peace, prosperity, health, the nuclear family, fulfilment through consumption and a white, white Christmas: even if you’ve never read Yates or Cheever or Salter, generations of cinematic art, from Hitchcock to Lynch, have prepared you for the nastiness below the surface of stuff like this. You assume there’s a dark underbelly, and there is.

Of course, Mr Meek recognizes that what TV today wants us to remember about the past is that it was false, hypocritical, oppressive and repressed, not to mention racist, sexist etc. — in short, the very opposite of what the TV of the period itself wanted us to believe in. Hence the cliché of the hollowness or falseness lurking behind the appearance of happiness in the perfect Sixties family. Only he doesn’t believe that it is a cliché at all. To him, only the ideal family of 1964 is a cliché; the miserable one introduced to us by Yates or Cheever or Salter and carried on by Mad Men is mere “reality.”

But what, here, is undermining what? What if, with or against our will, we aren’t shocked by the darkness beneath the surface, but childishly delighted by the prettiness of the surface shimmering over the darkness? What if the vintage fashion-shoot perfection of the Christmas scene leaves a more powerful impression on us than our awareness of the suffering of Betty [one of the show’s heroines] and her children?

At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I think I detect a certain lack of self-irony here, a failure to grasp the extent to which the writer is not really in the position he thinks he is to look down with such contempt upon the self-deceived happy family of 1964 but every bit as much in thrall as they are to a socially-constructed model of “reality.”

Mr Weiner and company wisely do not allow themselves the luxury of that contempt. On the contrary, they do their heroes the honor of seeing the world as they themselves are supposed to have seen it, which makes their (and our) constant disillusionment all the more powerful when it comes, as of course (Mr Meek is right about this) we know it must. They know they can trust their audience to see things their way even if, or especially if, they are also given a pleasant dose of nostalgia for all the more charming elements of the Swinging Sixties. The characters’ very physical perfection, looking as soigné and well turned out as the glossy ads they were producing, alerts us to their fakery, which stands for the much greater fakery of the culture of which they are seen as the leading figures.

You simply could not, having watched Mad Men all the way through, ever imagine going back to the world it depicts or anything like it. Being over with forever — always assuming, of course, that it ever existed in the first place — is of that world’s very essence, which is what makes it so valuable to the progressive as a stand-in for the America that non-progressives continue, so unfashionably, to venerate. The show’s creators know they can depend on the support of the media and the educational establishment in portraying their country’s past, up until the 60s revolution, as Mr Meek’s “horrid sinkhole of reality” whose destruction by the social forces unleashed in that decade was a necessary and inevitable preliminary to the reconstruction begun then and still underway today.

Perhaps, then, it was not entirely coincidental that the final installments of Mad Men began to air just as the country was gripped by the latest skirmishes in what, since the original Mad Men strode the earth, have come to be known as the “culture wars.” So much has been written about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and its recent enactment in Indiana that I cannot hope to add anything much to the discussion here. It is worth noticing, however, that those who argue against religious freedom tend to be so far without other intellectual resource as to be reduced to the pitchman’s claim that what they are pleased to call the “bigotry” of Brand X moralism is clean out of fashion and no longer regarded as the dernier cri among the best people.

Frank Bruni of The New York Times, for example, thinks that it behoves Christians to recant any such traditional beliefs, particularly as they relate to homosexuality, because they have become outmoded by “advances of science and knowledge”

So our debate about religious freedom should include a conversation about freeing religions and religious people from prejudices that they needn’t cling to and can indeed jettison, much as they’ve jettisoned other aspects of their faith’s history, rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity.

There is, once again, no slightest hint of self-irony on the part of the man who takes it upon himself to speak for “the enlightenments of modernity.” But then we don’t expect that from the Mad Men who have new fashions to sell.

Yet we must remember the fundamental contradiction here. On the one hand, the fashionable folk tell us that the morality of the past is out of fashion and out of date — that, being past, it belongs in the past — while on the other hand they are telling us that the new morality, the fashion of times present, is to be regarded as permanent and unchanging. In other words it’s not like fashion at all but like, er, morality. Or like morality once was supposed to be but wasn’t. But, surely, both things cannot be true? Either morality, like everything else, is subject to the whims of fashion or it is not. If it is, so is the New Morality, a phrase that I seem to remember was fashionable back in the Mad Men era. If not, if the New Morality (but not the old) is echt morality and not subject to change, what makes it thus different from the unfashionable and therefore disposable kind?

If you are as philosophically naive as Frank Bruni your answer is likely to be “science.” So, too, the editors of The Independent would doubtless to be quick to claim that “science” is what makes the current fashion for “climate change” and the policy consequences thought to follow from it into the sort of permanent truth that the former fashion for energy and growth and the domestication of nature were not. Neither claim, however, can stand up to scrutiny. “Science” can’t tell us what is right and wrong today any more than it could in the 1960s. Even if we grant that the alleged science in both cases is 100 per cent accurate, it does not imply any particular moral attitude either to homosexuality or to climate change. The former might be as natural as it is now said to be —or as the latter is said not to be — and yet still be (like many other natural things) wrong. So, too, global warming might be 100 per cent anthropogenic, and yet it might still not be right to cripple the world economy, which is currently lifting so many out of poverty, by raising energy prices enough to stop or reverse it.

At some level the media’s shils for the new progressive utopia may even know this, but a lifetime in thrall to the ad man’s obsession not with what is true but with what is hip and fashionable has left them without a moral compass or any understanding of the need for one. Like everything else belonging to the pre-Mad Men era, that kind of unchanging morality has gone out of fashion — which, to their credit, would have come as a shock to the Mad Men themselves.

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