In a recent video offering, I spoke about a Second City experiment from the mid-90's, where cast member Scott Adsit (now on "30 Rock") told the audience that President Clinton had been assassinated. A TV was wheeled out so the now-stunned crowd could watch the early news reports. When the screen filled with wacky sports bloopers, the audience became confused then angry, leaving the theater, doubtless feeling betrayed.
I commended that piece, and still think it inspired and telling. What is it that makes Americans feel a family connection to the presidency? Yes, we are indoctrinated from birth about our unique goodness, our special qualities; and yes, the president is viewed as the father figure of American righteousness. But how much intellectual or emotional energy does it take to step back from this scenario and see it for the fable it is? If history is any guide, apparently a lot.
Last night's "Mad Men" was set against the Kennedy assassination, which fans of the show knew was coming this season. I liked the way the shooting in Dealey Plaza was introduced. Harry Crane and Pete Campbell are solemnly discussing personnel moves at Sterling Cooper and what it might mean for both, when the TV to the side of them flashes a CBS News bulletin. The sound is low, but anyone who's seen this piece of video history knew exactly what it was.
The turbulent Sixties finally hit "Mad Men."
Naturally, the show's characters were shocked, saddened, pissed, Betty Draper most annoying of all. I was four-years-old when JFK got clipped, and remember nothing of it (my sister Laura died a week later, which I also don't recall). But my parents and older relatives told me of the paralysis they felt as I romped around the room, playing with Tonka trucks and plastic Army men. There was much anguish and fear, which deepened when Jack Ruby killed Oswald on live TV. Death, violence, chaos. What had become of God's chosen America?
"Mad Men" dealt with this national emotion rather well, mixing in a seeming indifference from Roger Sterling, who not only pushes ahead with his daughter's wedding the day after the assassination (the muted, awkward tone of the event nicely captured), but doesn't appear terribly troubled by JFK's death. A pro-business Republican, Sterling probably hated Kennedy (for the same mystical reasons why many contemporary right wingers hate Obama), and I'm sure there were those who cheered Camelot's collapse. But these people remain in history's margins. When the President of the United States is murdered, or when one dies out of office, we the spectators are supposed to show grief for his death, and gratitude for his service.
Why? Why should we, who have no real political or economic power, who must rent our lives from those who do, feel such familial ties to the imperial manager? Over ninety-nine percent of those Americans who wept for JFK didn't know the man, yet most behaved as if a loved one had been suddenly yanked from existence. This illustrates not only the strength of the national myth, but the eagerness of consumers to embrace it.
An independent, critical mind can, with enough practice and conditioning, resist such authoritarian impulses. But there is no reward for such thinking, and certainly no major market. Obedience to the master narrative is required to advance professionally, most especially in politics. For the rest of us, acceptance is expected but not really necessary. Our opinions matter only to the degree a demographic needs defining, or a voting bloc catered to. Beyond that, what we think or how we react to events like assassinations is our own miserable business. You might have cried for JFK, but he sure as fuck didn't cry for you.
REACTIONS: Here are some on-the-street opinions offered by Manhattanites just after the Dallas shooting. Wonder if any Sterling Cooper staffers happened to stroll by . . .