Here's a joke I made up just now: How do you make it appealing for a man on Halloween to leave the house dressed as a racist, sexist, homophobic, alcoholic liar with a history of sexually assaulting women? Give up? Call it a Don Draper costume.
If the guy's older, you can call it a Roger Sterling costume, I suppose, and if he's younger, a Pete Campbell costume. A chubby oddball with the right suspenders might even be able pull off a Bert Cooper costume. In the end, it doesn't really matter what Mad Man you go as, because here's the secret: They're all just assholes in tie clips anyway.
Ever since Mad Men captivated the consciousness of a particular subset of the American population a few years back, we—men in particular—have learned to ignore how deplorable most of the male characters on the show are. Among the qualities listed above, the guys in and around Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price are also rapists, cheats, thieves, pimps, layabouts, anti-Semites, and cowards. It's probably redundant to note that they're unflinching misogynists, but they are that, too, and to a degree so toxic many women flee them in tears or, more seldom, while sashaying to other jobs where they'll actually be appreciated.
And yet viewers continue to adore these guys, year after year, season after season, revolting indiscretion after revolting indiscretion. Perhaps it's the slim-cut suits, or the glossy, Brylcreemed hair. Perhaps it's because the Mad Men are handsome men, and thus harder to hate. Or perhaps it's the fact that, of late, everyone seems to be having a love affair with their own dreamy fantasies of mid-century America.
Besides the prolonged and continued adoration of Mad Men, there is also the latest telling quote from writer Aaron Sorkin, who on a press tour for his widely derided new show, The Newsroom, lamented that he wasn‘t alive in the 1940s. "I think I would have done very well, as a writer, in the forties," he told the Globe and Mail's Sarah Nicole Prickett. "I think the last time America was a great country was then, or not long after. It was before Vietnam, before Watergate."
Sorkin is a middle-aged rich white man, and his nostalgia for the greatness of the 1940s reminded me of Foster Friess, another rich white guy who also recently complained that things were better when he was younger. Speaking to MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell in February, Friess, a major backer of Rick Santorum's now dead presidential campaign, told Mitchell that he gets "such a chuckle" out of ongoing debates regarding women's rights to safe, secure, and inexpensive contraception. "Back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception," said Friess. "The gals put it between their knees." Mitchell stared at Friess in silence for a moment following his comment; she said she had to catch her breath.
That America is on a steady decline toward uselessness is a favorite canard of a lot of rich white men besides Sorkin and Friess, including Bill Maher, Thomas Friedman, and Mitt Romney, whose book, No Apology, is so named because he says he wants to make no apologies for the bad things America has done on its pursuit toward global dominance. It's very likely you yourself have heard this kind of thing spouted off in person, as well: at family barbecues where your uncle goes on about our "once great" nation, or a grandfather who remembers how wonderful America used to be, before it got sick and depraved and filled with sex. We've even started calling the people born during Sorkin et al.'s bygone era of milk and honey the "Greatest Generation," as if nobody before or since could even think of improving upon what they accomplished all those years ago.
My father was born in the 1940s, the decade Sorkin says was the last time the United States was great. Yet despite being a big fan of Sorkin's Sports Night, I don't think my dad shares his affinity for America's recent history. Though he doesn't remember a lot of his early childhood, my dad does remember the first time his mother told him to be careful about how he spoke to white men, lest his tone should provoke them. He remembers reading about Emmett Till, a black boy who was just a bit older than him, who was mutilated and murdered in the South for getting "uppity" with a white woman. He remembers seeing photos of Till and noticing a resemblance—they could have been brothers, he thought.
But those were the "before" photos. In the "after" photos, made famous because Till's mother requested an open-casket funeral to share the monstrosity of her son's attackers, Till is a bruised corpse. One of his eyes is gouged out and he's bloated by water because the men who killed him had tied a cotton-gin fan around his neck with barbed wire to sink him to the bottom of the Tallahatchie River. When asked why he killed Till, J.W. Milam, a decorated World War II vet, a member of the "Greatest Generation," said, "I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place."
This is the ugly side of the Greatest Generation. The time of Emmet Till‘s slaughter, and even before it, is the time in America for which Sorkin and Romney unthinkingly pine as being the best we can do, America at her pinnacle. They fetishize the old days as being some idyllic wonderland when everyone was strong, honest, and hardworking. They complain that they are too good and smart for the modern world, all while neglecting to notice that blacks or women or gay people never join them in their cheerleading for the 1940s and ‘50s. Rarely do you see black men stepping out to Halloween parties in their Mad Men costume, because that would be a janitor's coveralls.
The Mad Men era is a lot less sexy for today's people of color and other minorities than it is for white men. And what at least some people who say they miss post-war America seem to be forgetting is that a lot of America's early prosperity was created using racism, sexism, and oppression of all kinds as building blocks. Factories used to be able to pump out product at unprecedented rates because they employed expendable children who worked to total exhaustion. Governments, both local and federal, were able to avoid long and costly discussions about equality because it was barely illegal to kill a black person with whom you disagreed. Gays didn't speak out, because they, too, were in deep fear of being run out of town, at best, and murdered, at worst. An old straight white man saying he misses the days when things were simpler is tacitly saying that he misses the time when nobody could say or do anything but he and his golf buddies. And he's right: Things move much more smoothly when you're allowed to lock up or beat down whatever stands in your way. The real question is this: Is such simplicity "great"?
I try to give people like Sorkin the benefit of the doubt when they tell young people that things used to be better. I try to believe that what they intended to say was that cars looked cooler or that people dressed nicer or that great art hadn't yet been totally poisoned by commercialism. But very often they follow up their praise of Old America with some denigration of New America, as Sorkin did in his Globe and Mail interview. After saying he was made for the ‘40s, in a moment of irritation with his female interviewer, Sorkin told her, "Listen here, internet girl, it wouldn't kill you to watch a film or pick up a newspaper once in a while." Nevermind that the "internet girl," whose name, again, is Sarah Nicole Prickett, was reporting on Sorkin for a newspaper. To Sorkin and people like him, "internet" is shorthand for trashy things, stupid things, pointless things, the kind of pablum young idiots go for before getting older and appreciating Real Things, old things.
Despite writing a whole movie about the most famous internet company in history, Aaron Sorkin will probably die thinking that the internet and the young people creating it will never be as valuable as the people and inventions his age and older. And he is not alone. There are many wealthy white men throughout the world who believe things were better when the power sat solely in their soft, manicured hands. These are the men who laugh a little too long at the part when Don Draper asks Roger Sterling, "What do women want?" and Sterling replies, "Who cares?" But the good news is that the reason these people bitterly cling to the past so damn tightly is because they can see it slipping away. They're thrashing the way a man on a sinking ship might futilely thrash at land well out of his reach, kicking his legs until the very moment the water overtakes him. They are a dying breed, and they know it, which is why they take it out on people younger than them by calling our culture debased and calling us "internet girls." They'll be gone soon, but in the meantime it's up to us to ensure they know who they're talking to while they're still around: That's internet woman to you, motherfuckers.
Cord Jefferson is a writer in Los Angeles.