Saturday, November 15, 2008

This biting commentary is in the current issue of the Jesuit magazine America:

(Arthur Millers play Death of a Salesman) was a critique of the American Dream. Willy Loman was the perfect representative Everyman to appear in the middle of the American Century, when the United States was flush with confidence and swagger after winning World War II. And he was a salesman.

It didn’t matter what he sold: he was selling happiness, domestic bliss, reaching for the golden ring on the carousel of life—and nabbing it. Think of all those smiling faces in magazine ads and TV sitcoms from the 1950s. Arthur Miller’s genius was to realize that America’s number one product was the idea of America itself—Happyland. If Walt Disney had thought of it, he would have included it alongside Frontierland and Tomorrowland, but then again, Disneyland itself was a perfect distillation of the idea.

But Happyland doesn’t exist, at least not this side of paradise. It’s a myth cooked up by slick ad men to sell whatever it is that they’re selling, whether it’s popcorn, iPods or politicians. The trouble with our constant exposure to this myth is that we begin to believe it, and this was Willy Loman’s undoing. When he could no longer deny that his “happy life” was a facade, he didn’t know what to do, how he could continue to live, and so he chose not to.

Miller’s cultural critique of America has undergone a brilliant updating in the television series “Mad Men,” which recently concluded its second season on the cable network AMC. Set in the early 1960s, the show follows the stylish comings and goings of a group of Madison Avenue ad men and the women they love—or use. Personified by the dapper Don Draper and his rakish boss, Roger Sterling, these men are early versions of the “Masters of the Universe,” whom Tom Wolfe so bitingly satirized in The Bonfire of the Vanities. They’re attractive, confident, and rich—much like America itself before JFK’s assassination. These men and their colleagues do whatever they want. They smoke, they swill gin, they take time off in the middle of the day to have sex with their secretaries or their mistresses (who often enough are their secretaries). They blithely lie about their infidelities to their wives. And they do all this while selling assorted versions of the American Dream—and trying to maintain the appearance of this Happyland fantasy at home.

As with Willy Loman, their lives are mirages built on sand (to borrow an image from Jesus). This is cleverly signaled in the
opening title sequence that begins every episode. Done in an animation style reminiscent of Saul Bass (whose work was at its height during the same time period), it features a flat, black silhouette of a man whose high-rise office crumbles beneath his feet. As he tumbles to the ground, he falls past cascading ads for the good life, past gigantic smiling models, glasses of scotch and seductive legs in pantyhose. Just before he hits the ground, his black silhouette fills the screen, only to reveal that he’s magically back in his office, his arm jauntily thrown over the back of a chair, cigarette in hand.

This sequence perfectly illustrates both the cardboard-thin morals and dark lives of the show’s main characters and the stylish, Rat Pack-era production design that dazzles the eye even as it obscures cynical manipulations of the heart. Much of the appeal of the first season focuses on the ironic dichotomy between the picture-perfect lives of the ad men—which flawlessly mirror the cheerful fantasies they sell for a living—and the deceit and unhappiness that lie just below the surface.

I just posted this comment to the above article:

Historian and writer James Truslow Adams coined the phrase "American Dream" in his 1931 book Epic of America:

"The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."

This was the True American Dream of our founding fathers and Teddy Roosevelt with his massive reforms intended to strengthen the voice of the common person in business and politics.
It is what still attracts so many to this country even today and what caused so many to work for the election Barrack Obama.

Will he now instead go the way of Willie Loman and the Mad Men?

Will you and I?

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