Mad Men #7: Human Resources Real and Fake


When it comes to Mad Men, people on the right of center increasingly grow leery at best. Supposedly the show knowingly yet reflexively relies on lazy liberal tropes, failing to challenge us with characters real enough to be worth caring about. I hope this bad rap has taken a big hit tonight.

In today’s corporate world — a world dominated by the emo-bureaucracy of Human Resources departments — the relationship that Don and Peggy have forged would be repulsive, cruel, unprofessional, and impossible. Nothing about that intimate relationship, which the show has patiently shown since the outset to be deeply natural, could be officially recognized or even comprehended by the HR culture that has done its best to conquer corporate life. For HR officialdom, the human resources Don and Peggy found in one another — and, I think, in themselves — must not exist in the workplace.

But we are stubbornly human and therefore stubbornly resourceful, too. Amid the worst artifices enforced under Communism, people still found a way to smuggle irony and humor back into the world. Few HR departments have the talent for enforcement of a Stalin. The mandatory happiness, the team-building exercises, the sensitivity training, the group retreats — it all becomes a charade that everyone knows is a charade, except perhaps the few people whose job it is to believe in it. Tonight Mad Men did a public service in doing its part to quietly blow up the fraudulent farce. It didn’t attack HR culture. It didn’t have to. In its absence, Don and Peggy hurt more at work. But they were also more human. And the relationships that are possible when we’re more fully human (even — perhaps especially — in the workplace) are things that some of our culture’s reigning therapists would like us to forget. But we won’t. Because we can’t. They can only pay us to pretend.

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    HR figures prominently in a short essay I wrote a while back The Real Reasons You Didn’t Get Hired:


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    Careful, now. HR happens to be my profession. And I have never, ever held a sensitivity-training or diversity seminar.

    About 20 years ago, however, I did attend a symposium on diversity, as I wanted to hear for myself how crazy it would be.

    The star of the farce was a Canadian academic, who was at the time, the guru of the diversity movement. As his presentation was directed at business people, he made extravagant claims about how diversity in the workforce confers competitive advantage by, er, positioning companies to better market themselves to an increasingly-diverse population.

    During the question period, I arose and asked him where audience members might go to read studies which provided empirical evidence that diverse companies had, in fact, posted better financial results than less-diverse companies within their industries.

    He was stunned. He literally stood there, mouth agape, for at least 20 seconds, before responding, “Well, of course, the discipline is still quite new, so I’m not aware that any such empirical evidence exists. But common sense tells us that it must be so.”

    The audience, so eager to believe, glared at me as though I had passed gas in church.

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    Thank you for continuing to appreciate Mad Men, Mr. Poulos, though I must admit that you usually pick up on something about it that doesn’t grab me. (Which I know is not a bad thing.)

    I have been job hunting since the beginning of July, so I am in a humor to knock “HR.” All I know about HR departments or about people hiring is that I am generally unable to make much impression on them. What they use to determine who to hire – when they’re not letting their computers pick resumes for them – I don’t know. I could go on (as could the rest of the 10%) but I won’t.

    Natasha Vargas-Cooper has a brilliant and brief article about Peggy and Don’s ideal work relationship. She describes Peggy as a “Promethean woman” who is best served by a father figure who knows to avoid sex and to demand excellence. (Well, something like that; you must read the original! V-C is very intelligent, usually concentrating on the forest and not the trees.)

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    As for conservatives watching Mad Men – well – the conservative film site Libertas is posting very nice commentaries on Mad Men by Jennifer Baldwin. For Episode 3, she wrote,

    “One of the things I love about Mad Men is the tone of the show. It’s dispassionate, restrained, observant. …Matthew Weiner…doesn’t flinch from showing the faults of these characters and their society, but he also doesn’t preach at us about how horrible these people and their world were. He just lets the world of the show play out, and it’s up to us how we judge things….

    “At its most basic, Mad Men is a character study. People who’ve tried just watching one episode here or there find they can’t get into the show, but that’s because it’s hard to jump in midstream when you’re watching the lives of fully developed people unfold before your eyes. It takes time to get to know someone, and the characters of Mad Men…are as multi-faceted and complex as fictional characters get. It takes time to get to know them.”

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    So, as for conservatives watching Mad Men, they mostly won’t. They may try and, like Rob Long, fall asleep or, like James Lileks, think it a “soap-opera with hats.” But most will think it’s an attack on conservative America. Which is true, if conservatism is mostly about keeping non-WASPs and non-men in their place.

    Don Draper’s affairs: They’re partly a result of his being an animal, programmed to screw all the females he can to keep his species going, and partly the failure of his ability as an intelligent, evolved animal to control the impulses left over from primitive times.

    But that explanation is impossible to a conservative Christian. To that type, the show is simply showing Don giving in to evil and not doing good, without obvious and immediate consequences. So most conservatives will be unable to appreciate the show.

    But it’s also hard because it is a new type of TV show, that requires a commitment and interest that wasn’t needed for shows in the past. Like Lileks etc, I loved the original Star Trek, but you could watch one without having seen the episodes leading up to it.

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