Close Reading — April 12, 2013, 9:00 am

Mad Men’s Too-Visible Man

Don Draper, non-enigma


I confess that since I wrote about Mad Men for Harper’s in January 2012, I haven’t missed Don Draper and his colleagues, their spouses, or even Kiernan Shipka, the very good actor who plays Draper’s daughter. This isn’t because I avoid TV. The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones; I’ve watched or am watching them all. But I disliked Mad Men’s over-careful detail, its self-conscious puffing on cigarettes, its glossy fashion lust, its signal political moments too loudly signalled — all veneered into intellectual and dramatic respectability as serious social comment.

Endless articles are appearing as the show’s new season starts, earnestly discussing how and what Mad Men tells us about the Fifties and Sixties, the attitude to women and work, the sociology of the times. I remember the times quite well, and mostly what I saw in the series was puppetry, rather stiff in its groping for authenticity; a too-satisfied sense of the superiority of our own present; and an overriding  commitment to pleasing the eye.

But I am intrigued by the hold Mad Men has retained and the way excitement for the new season has been built. “The man on everyone’s lips is back,” states the knowing retro advertisement that aired here on Sky Atlantic. While his colleagues, wives, and mistresses mythologize the Don against a backdrop of 1960s Manhattan skyscrapers, a silhouette plummets, as it has done at the beginning of each episode. We know that by the end of the series, Don Draper will take a fall. The graphic is part homage to the opening titles of North By Northwest, and part cipher for a Madison Avenue that existed to spin the ordinary into the raging desire that capitalism needs in order to function. I imagine, too, that the the image was intended to be similar to the iconic photo of the 9/11 falling man. If you’re trying to tell a story to an early-twenty-first-century American audience about mid-twentieth-century American commercial optimism and political and social confusion, the rise and destruction of the Twin Towers will be part of it. 

But like the ad, everything about the series is too managed, too unsubtle. The other characters imposed on the towering facades describe Draper as a moody, unknowable mystery. They speak what is supposed to be our desire for and confusion about the man. “Who knows anything about that guy?” “What’s he like?” “He’s kind inside.” “He hates me.” “You love him. Everybody loves him.” “It’s just the way he is.” “Creative director.” “Fraud.” “Partner.” “Liar.” “Father.” “Criminal.” “Husband.” “Hey!” the advertisement fairly shouts, “Look, we’ve created an enigma!” And yet Don Draper’s story, foreshadowed by the silhouette’s trajectory, is so transparent you can see the empty sky through it.

“Are you alone?” a woman asks Draper in a bar. He turns slowly to look at her, to size her up and give us slowcoaches time to catch an existential undertone straining to lend weight to an airy romantic fiction.

Single Page
is a writer based in London. Her most recent book is What I Don’t Know About Animals.

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The Gatekeepers·

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Toward the end of the Obama presidency, the work of James Baldwin began to enjoy a renaissance that was both much overdue and comfortless. Baldwin stands as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, and any celebration of his work is more than welcome. But it was less a reveling than a panic. The eight years of the first black president were giving way to some of the most blatant and vitriolic displays of racism in decades, while the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others too numerous to list sparked a movement in defense of black lives. In Baldwin, people found a voice from the past so relevant that he seemed prophetic.

More than any other writer, Baldwin has become the model for black public-intellectual work. The role of the public intellectual is to proffer new ideas, encourage deep thinking, challenge norms, and model forms of debate that enrich our discourse. For black intellectuals, that work has revolved around the persistence of white supremacy. Black abolitionists, ministers, and poets theorized freedom and exposed the hypocrisy of American democracy throughout the period of slavery. After emancipation, black colleges began training generations of scholars, writers, and artists who broadened black intellectual life. They helped build movements toward racial justice during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether through pathbreaking journalism, research, or activism.

Bloom, acrylic, ink, wood, and fabric on canvas, by David Shrobe © The artist. Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco
The Vanishing·

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On a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2017, a few months after the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State, a group of neighbors gathered at Mar Mattai, a monastery founded in the fourth century. They unloaded baskets of food, and arranged themselves around a long table in a courtyard. A woman named Niser spread out a tablecloth and put down a plate of dolmas. “It’s a way of celebrating that we still exist,” she told me. More people were arriving—children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and distant relations—members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world who had not seen one another for three years.

Overlooking the village of Mergey from the old section of the Mar Mattai Monastery, Mount Maqlub, Iraq. All photographs from Iraq (October 2017) and Jerusalem (March 2018) by Nicole Tung (Detail)
Investigating Hate·

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Around three in the morning on a cold December Sunday, brothers José and Romel Sucuzhañay began to walk home from a bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a cloudy night, only a few degrees above freezing, and the houses and stores lining their route wore impassive, nighttime guises—shades drawn, metal grates locked down. Romel had only recently arrived from Ecuador. José, a thirty-­one-year-old father of two, ran a successful real estate agency in the neighborhood. The two had spent the evening eating and drinking at a quinceañera at St. Brigid Church, and afterward, they stopped at a local bar called Christopher’s Palace. They were feeling the alcohol as they headed back to José’s apartment. When they realized that José had left his coat behind in the bar, Romel took off his jacket and draped it around his younger brother’s shoulders. They continued to walk up Bushwick Avenue, swaying a bit, arms around each other for warmth and ballast.

As they approached the corner of Kossuth Place and Bushwick Avenue, a red SUV stopped at the traffic light. “Check out those faggots!” the driver yelled out the window. José may have said something in reply. Very rapidly, a man jumped out of the passenger side door and smashed José on the head with a bottle, dropping him to the ground. He then turned to attack Romel. As Romel fled from the man down Kossuth, the driver exited the car, grabbed an aluminum baseball bat out of the vehicle, and began to beat José until someone emerged from the back seat and called him off. The driver was walking away when he saw some movement from José, a twitch of his hand or his leg sliding across the pavement—trying to rise, perhaps—and he strode back, straddled him, and raised the bat high in the air. He brought it down on José’s head, again and again, as if he were chopping wood.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae (Detail)
Preservation Acts·

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After eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Bergis Jules found himself worrying not only over the horrors of the present, but also over how little of the present was likely to be preserved for the future. The best reporting on the aftermath in Ferguson was being produced by activists on Twitter, a notoriously ephemeral medium. Jules, then an archivist at the University of California, Riverside, had the impulse to start saving tweets, but wasn’t sure how. “That whole weekend, watching things unfold, I thought, ‘This is a really amazing historical moment; we should think about capturing it,’ but I was just talking to myself,” he says. The following week, attending a Society of American Archivists conference in Washington, D.C., he voiced his fears en route to drinks at the hotel bar. He caught the ear of Ed Summers, a developer who just so happened to be the author of a Twitter archiving tool—and who promptly programmed it to va­cuum up #Ferguson tweets. Within two weeks, he had amassed more than 13 million.

Three weeks after the shooting, Summers blogged about the archive, which he and Jules were considering making public. Shortly thereafter, they received an inquiry from a data-mining company. When they pulled up the firm’s website, they read that its clients included the Department of Defense and, ominously, “the intelligence community.” What did the company want with the data? And what were the ethical implications of handing it over—perhaps indirectly to law enforcement—when the protesters’ tweets would otherwise evade collection? Using Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API), the code that developers use to call up Twitter data, anyone can sift through tweets that were posted in the past week, but older posts disappear from the API’s search function, even if they still exist out on the web. The data-mining company was too late to nab a swath of the #Ferguson tweets. (Twitter has since unveiled a “premium” API that allows access to older data, for a substantial fee.) Newly mindful of the risks, Jules and Summers waited almost a year to publish their cache.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:


French researchers reported that 52 percent of young women exposed to Francis Cabrel’s ballad “Je l’aime à mourir” gave their phone numbers to an average-looking young man who hit on them, whereas only 28 percent of those exposed to Vincent Delerm’s “L’heure du thé” did so.

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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