Mad Men: season 5, episode 6

Orange sherbet, purple candy, LSD.

"Far Away Places" did not stray us all that far from Madison Avenue, though two journeys were at the centre of the episode. On a literal trip, Don and Megan head to a Howard Johnson's hotel in upstate New York, an orange roofed “destination spot” says Don; to Megan, “a place you go to on the way to somewhere else”. At the end of "Far Away Places", their relationship has indeed moved onwards; whether to more disarray or solidarity, we can’t yet tell. But if at the end this couple lie on their apartment floor distraught and breaking apart, earlier Roger and Jane, lying similarly together, are calm - their relationship decisively broken. For the viewer it does feel (as to Roger) like some kind of epiphany: a rare Mad Men moment where resignation flows from an untapped mouth, honest and clear: “Because it’s over. It’s dead. All I think about is having an affair.”

Perhaps here - in Season 5, Episode 6 - we’ve truly entered the Sixties, that Sixties, the decade we think we know.  Who would ever have guessed (even with his Bridget Riley-inspired office artwork) that Roger Sterling’s LSD trip - of all characters' - would welcome us to the decade? Here's the episode's second journey: we’re taken along on Roger's ride (not exactly seeing the World Series in his bathroom, though feeling unnerved by the "PLEASE HELP ME" note), into the recesses of his mind, among his playful thoughts (hearing glorious music sound when a liquor bottle opens!), and even sharing in the drug's sensorial weirdness. When an illusory Don - who himself has made a young, second wife of his former secretary - tells Roger in the mirror, “You are ok,” we believe him - for the moment. But is it Roger who we really want to share 1966 with? Even The Beach Boys sing out, in the psychologist's living room, “I just wasn’t made for these times”. 

How starkly his psychedelic trip contrasts with Don and Megan’s geographical one, so like that of a late-1950s nuclear family: in Don’s memory of them driving home Sally sleeps in the back seat, Megan wears the outfit of a kept and genial wife. Thinking about this generational gulf (compare the new Mrs Draper to Betty of Season One) may bring us close to the crux of Don and Megan’s troubles. How could she possibly care a damn for orange sherbet? Megan should be dropping acid! And his horror as she wolfs down the dessert reminds us how traditional (Midwestern and conservative) Don can be. Second-wave feminism is being explored here, though not overtly - not what's happening on the streets - but inside family cars, the domestic setting and in the workplace. Megan wants to be Don's employee as much as his wife.

In this episode Peggy, of course, is very straightfowardly a victim of sexism. In various ways her actions are typically masculine (remember that fear of hers in episode 4?): take her Draper Jr. sequence involving a drink, the cinema, a sex act, and falling asleep on the office couch (note the clean symmetry, so typical of Mad Men, of Dawn waking up Peggy), or Abe telling her she says things his dad would. But Peggy equally plays, or is expected to play, the female child: to Burt Cooper she's a "little girl", to the Heinz man she can be condescended to as he would his daughter. Where does Don's purple candy fit into this? Is it merely a good luck charm or something more convulted? And what of Don's anxious search for Megan: is it not more like a parent's panic for his lost child than a man's for his wife? Worrying she's gone off, as the waitress suggests, with "those kids"? Here again is this generational antagonism which Peggy expresses so powerfully that beans are the last thing on our minds: "You have to run with this," she demands of the grey-suited, middle aged man. "It's young and it's beautiful." 

Possibly the shortest and most beautiful scene is another on missing parents/missing children. In it we learn, as Ginsberg addresses Peggy through a mirrored window, that he was born in a concentration camp and found at age five in a Swedish orphanage. So earlier we find Peggy watching Born Free about an adopted lion cub; Peggy, herself, who gave up a baby. This is more than likely one of the reasons she's so touched by his Martian riff: “We’re a big secret, they even tried to hide it from me . . . And then I get this one communcation, a simple order: stay where you are.” Possibly this, his Mars, is the (titular) farthest away place. Not another planet, not a drug-trip destination, but the nightmare of the past.

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"It's going to be very expensive." Roger and Jane Stirling, re-becoming Siegel. Photo: AMC

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era