“Even if religion isn’t true can’t we enjoy the best bits?” So asks the glossy advertising campaign for Alain de Botton’s new book Religion for Atheists. His answer, if you’ll excuse the spoiler, is yes. The book is packed full of proposals for how this secular asset-stripping of religion might be achieved. One of which, at least, you will no doubt already have heard. De Botton’s canny wheeze of building a 46-metre atheist “temple to perspective” in the City of London got a big splash in the media, complete with quotes denouncing it from Richard Dawkins and the British Humanist Association’s Andrew Copson – atheists already have all the temples we need was the message – and welcoming noises from some quarters of the Church of England, glad that the godless were finally coming around to the need for spiritual symbolism.
But does he really mean it? In the days following the announcement of his godless tower, de Botton fired emails out to those who had criticised the idea, including Copson and the prominent sceptic Richard Wiseman, denying that he actually intended to build the temple and suggesting that theGuardian had concocted the story that he had already raised half the £1million it was going to cost. He had, he claims, no specific plans for a temple, he merely wanted to stimulate architects to copy what was best about religious architecture.
He’s done this before, reacting instantly, and sometime intemperately, to criticism. He famously told the author of a critical New York Times review “I will hate you till the day I die” – something he has publically regretted since – and got into a graceless spat with the blogger Nina Power when she criticised his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. He is consequently often depicted as thin-skinned, and certainly seems prone to temper tantrums. But looked at more kindly this is all part of his unique persona as a public philosopher, someone whose aim is to push ideas, both theoretical and practical, out into the world to stimulate debate and even (that thoroughly unphilosophical thing) action. “It’s okay for people to disagree,” he told me, when I met him in his writerly North London apartment, “to say, ‘This idea’s good but that one’s crap.’ I’d be very happy with that. I want the debate.”
The new book offers plenty to debate, and, as with his previous books about Proust, work and architecture (he’s working on one about sex), offers it in the form of somewhat self-helpy proposals. De Botton is an unabashed fan of psychotherapy and he sets himself, as few philosophers have dared to, the task of trying to make us all better, happier people and the world a nicer place. This instrumental, neo-therapeutic public philosophising has its origin in a crisis of conscience he suffered as a Cambridge graduate student, contemplating, without relish, a life as an academic philosopher. “My own intellectual trajectory had been a very elite education, in elite institutions. Then in my mid-20s I felt I wasn’t being honest. I was going to live a lie, faking interest, faking complexity, faking meaningfulness.” He turned away from the arcane language and technical concerns of academic philosophy toward “the vulgar” in an attempt “to speak to everyone in a language they could understand”.
He describes the series of books that started with Essays in Love (1993) as “doing public psychoanalysis on myself”, using his own problems – a bad love affair, status anxiety – as prisms through which to diagnose societal ills, and to promote practical solutions. “Of course,” he admits wryly, “now I’ve got half of Britain’s elite calling me an idiot, so the sacrifice has been big.” A sacrifice possibly cushioned by the fact that his books have sold briskly, and he has been able to launch two concrete initiatives: the School of Life, the Bloomsbury talking-shop that offers secular “Sunday Sermons” and a variety of lectures and courses – “How To Find a Job You Love”, “How to Have Better Conversations”, “Why We Lie” – to the well-heeled in search of meaning, and Living Architecture, which offers posh holiday rentals in exquisite contemporary buildings, a partnership with the German appliance manufacturer Miele. The School of Life’s courses are oversubscribed and hundreds attend de Botton’s lectures. There is clearly a market for what he does, and an appetite for intellectual self-improvement.
De Botton certainly has a knack for clarity, and making ideas seem simple. This is not especially hard when the ideas are as simple as those in Religion for Atheists. The first line of this piece pretty much sums it up. De Botton is an atheist, lifelong and committed. He never believed the supernatural claims of religion – his father was a staunch and, by his account, rather cruel non-believer, deriding his young sister’s spiritual yearnings. Faith, per se, doesn’t interest him. “The real issue,” he writes, “is not whether God exists or not, but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t.”
He thinks atheists have been too timid, fearing any contact with religion will leave them contaminated with unreason. This may have made sense when religion was a big beast, capable of inflicting huge harm. But for us in the UK “religion is a joke”, and we should feel no shame in mining it for useful ideas. He writes that the form of religion, with “its dogmatic aspects burned off”, can be repurposed in the service of our modern secular way of life, and we can separate what is “beautiful, touching and wise” from what “no longer seems true”. In a clever twist he calls this “re-appropriation”, reminding us how many of the apparent innovations of religion – Christmas, monasticism, sacred sites – were taken over from previous cultures by the rampant colonisers of the monotheistic religions. It’s time, he says, for us to take them back.
Hence the atheist temple, but also art with a moral message, education with a purpose, communal meals and regular rituals, including the odd orgy. “We should,” he writes, “be allowed to talk gibberish, fasten woollen penises to our coats and get out into the night to party and copulate randomly and joyfully with strangers, and then return the next morning to our partners, who will themselves have been off doing something similar.” We are prevented from realising this ideal, he argues, because our secular world offers too much freedom, is too individualistic and isolated, everything a matter of personal choice. So if you want to go carousing you have to do it on your own initiative and take the consequences yourself. If we take a leaf out of the religious book, he argues, and stick it in the calendar, schedule it like a bank holiday or a board meeting, then we can enjoy it guilt-free.
Other proposals include that we recognise, as religions always have, that art and our education have a purpose – art for art’s sake has been misunderstood, he says: it wasn’t about art having no moral message, but about freeing the artist from the yoke of the patron. We can keep the same books and pictures, but should reorganise the university around life themes, with Departments of Relationships or Centres for Dying. Art galleries would be similarly reshuffled into useful categories that would resonate with our life challenges and help guide us: “there would be galleries devoted to the beauty of simplicity, the curative powers of nature, the dignity of the outsider”, to make our experience more “life-enhancing”. If this all sounds a little moralistic, de Botton is unashamed: “Most great western artists have been moral, and that moral can be expressed very simply – it’s to make us good and frighten us with evil.” He thinks that artists need to step up in a world increasingly dominated by the instrumental message of consumer capitalism. “The world is full of messages telling us what to do, buy, think. Artists need to enter into the game of making moral meaning.”
Does it all feel a little patronising? That’s because you have fallen for the modern secular myth of the autonomous rational being with free will, which a Buddhist or Freudian approach – two of de Botton’s favourites – reveals to be illusory: “In the modern world there is an assumption that once you are an adult you do not need guidance. So if you are offered help you are being treated like a child. Whereas my starting point is that we are all children, our maturity is incredibly fragile and vulnerable, so it doesn’t hurt to have some guidance around.” And de Botton wants it all around. He thinks we should colonise advertising hoardings to promote kindness and legislate that any television set visible to the public should broadcast awesome images of the stars to give us a sense of perspective. We need “agape restaurants” where we should sup with strangers, and we should nominate secular saints who embody the virtues to which we aspire: “Courage, Patience, Fidelity, Scepticism”.
Underpinning all these practical interventions would be the ultimate heist: he wants to steal back the notions of the soul and original sin. The first is merely a question of pragmatism: “I think that the effectiveness of words is associated with its common currency. Soul has good common currency and is not strictly associated with the supernatural. Ever since the Romantics it’s been stripped of its religious overtones.” But can the same be said for original sin? Surely that’s one the Catholic Church could claim intellectual property rights over? “I think it’s a tremendously helpful concept. Most human dilemmas and arguments are because people think they are right and the other person doesn’t have access to the truth. That’s why it’s so hard to apologise, to stand down from positions adopted. It leads to self-righteousness. What original sin is saying is: we are all nuts, we’re all flawed, we’re all crazy. It’s got nothing to do with religion; it’s just a useful metaphysical starting point.” But what of the damage done, to children especially, in the service of this concept? “Properly understood, the way I understand it, it’s a way of making the child feel that its own sense of being a naughty horrid child is not unique, because Daddy is a bit horrid too, and so is Mummy and we’re all quite horrid but in a quite nice way.”
De Botton is fond of the concept of original sin because it helps guard against what he feel is the underlying optimistic cast of contemporary secular society: “A lot of the problems in the world,” he asserts, “can be traced back to a kind of obsessive technological perfectionism. We are living in a very optimistic age; for all the problems, we believe that science and technology and capitalism will crack it. Even though I don’t agree with the grounds for Christian pessimism I find it fascinating when they say life is fundamentally imperfect, not incidentally because you broke your iPhone or there is a war on, but fundamentally because of human nature, there is always a serpent in the garden.” Though those who have suffered at the hands of cane-happy nuns and monstrous monsignors might find this complacent, de Botton is not the first secularist to want to reclaim a pessimistic view of life.
There is a continuing tension in secular thought between the optimistic humanist faith in human creativity, ingenuity and goodness, and the rather grimmer perspective suggested by the rationalist Darwinian idea that we are merely higher animals, children of nature as red in tooth and claw as any other, and do not occupy some kind of blessed niche in a random universe which will undoubtedly outlive us. Here de Botton is quite close to the neo-nihilism of philosophers like John Gray, and reveals his debt to his hero, the gloomy German secular pessimist Schopenhauer. However, as the book reveals, he is more sanguine than either that we can ameliorate our human condition.
Of course De Botton’s attempt to squat religion’s house without taking on the mortgage will outrage believers, who would deny absolutely that religion makes any sense without the belief in God, in fact God himself, at the centre. You can feel this outrage in Terry Eagleton’s splenetic dismissal of Religion for Atheists in the Guardian, where he called it the book “banal”, and de Botton “impudent”. An interesting choice of words, as it suggests that de Botton, like a naughty school boy scrumping apples from the vicarage orchard, wants to have the benefits of religion without making any of the sacrifices. He wants, Eagleton implies, grace on the cheap. He has a point. De Botton’s emphasis throughout is in taking what is useful, good and fun from religion without much emphasis on what requires hard work or sacrifice. His version of religion is all carrot – guilt-free sex, improving art, community – no stick.
In place, for example, of Christianity’s focus on the poor and the needy, and of the responsibility to care for the stranger and the small chance of heavenly reward for the rich (notwithstanding the blithe hypocrisy the Christian churches generally display about these precepts), we get a level of relaxation about riches that would make even Lord Mandelson blush: “Religion is the ultimate advertisement for the unity between worldy and spiritual power. The modern left view is that the guy in the castle is a monster and if I shake his hand or have lunch with him I will be contaminated. But Christianity has the idea that the knight in the castle is not evil, but his soul is lost, and I will knock on his door and get him to contribute to the church to save his soul.”
He expresses admiration for the Jesuits, those soul-stealers of the Vatican, and admits to being fascinated by their ambition to place a priest with every rich and powerful family in Europe, so they could dine with the parents and evangelise their children. At one point he compares his own public profile with that of an old-style academic philosopher who might be able to write a book about the need for more elegant public buildings “but they are not going to meet Stuart Lipton, the chairman of Chelsfield property developers who might be able to make it happen.”
De Botton has every reason to be relaxed about wealth, of course. He is himself a wealthy man (in another of his trigger-happy rebukes to a critic who accused him of bankrolling his writing career with the £200 million left to him by his father, he responded that he had nothing of the sort and, in fact, he was checking his bank account right then and it registered not even £8 million, and much of this had come from book sales). Not that being rich invalidates your arguments, but it might have the tendency to orient your thinking toward issues like how to find a job you love or improving dinner party conversation, or building temples to perspective, which might be considered marginal by people whose own perspective is that they can’t afford dinner and can’t find a job.
This combination of Jesuitical zeal, the 19th-century do-goodery implied by his emphasis on morality and self-improvement, his belief that secularism needs to be institutionalised and scheduled and his pally-ness with money men conjures a vision of a kind of global secular conglomerate – GodlessGloboCorp, a counter-Catholic Church, overseen by a hybrid of Dr Pangloss and Rupert Murdoch. I didn’t just pluck this name out of the air. On 22 January Murdoch sent the following message to his Twitter followers: “Just read Religion for Atheists. Great writing, thoughtful, disturbing. Highly recommend.”
Alain de Botton is not a dislikeable man. He is charming and has good manners. His clothes are clean, as is his apartment (so clean in fact, with no sign of the usual detritus associated with small children – he has two – that it leads you to suspect that it is a spacious office, masquerading as a flat). His book is not dislikeable either. It’s full of good ideas, clearly expressed. Certainly universities and art galleries could do with a shake-up and his emphasis on a hopeful pessimism as a starting point is a useful corrective to techno utopian boosterism.
If I were to sum it up I’d say it was a quintessentially humanist book. Many of these ideas are familiar from the ongoing debate within humanism about what can be taken from religious traditions, for example in the work of Richard Norman and Julian Baggini. In this respect, despite the attention-grabbing tower and orgy proposals, there is nothing very new here.
Where he gets it wrong, in my view, is that he both overestimates and underestimates religion. In terms of building community, encouraging contemplation, shared mealtimes and useful hints for living life he concedes too much ground to religion, and overlooks all the ways these things happen every day, in schools and universities, museums and community centres, online and down the pub. He seems to take as read the ancient canard that atheist life lacks meaning, community or joy. Likewise our secular shelves are groaning with “guidance”, only it’s wrapped up in the sugar coating of plot and character and excitement, and disguised as a novel or a film or a book of poetry. For those who like their life lessons complex and find them in art that is rich and ambivalent and disturbing, the literalism of Religion for Atheists will be welcomed with as much enthusiasm as any other self-help manual promising to heal your life, find your soul mate or help you drop two dress sizes.
Where de Botton underestimates religion is in its power as narrative. Religions have almost unlimited resources of drama; the Holy Books are a huge repository of conflict and nastiness – a vengeful, capricious God, hubristic kings, duplicitous apostles, poor, innocent, suffering Job. They’ve got the devil, hell and apocalypse. De Botton thinks these all function as simple lessons, in how to be good and avoid evil, but they are far more subtle and variegated and fascinating than that. The idea of divinity itself, while we may reject it as a fact, is a hugely rich area for exploring what it is to be mortal. Which is to say that the philosophical ideas of religion are powerful – they continue to hold sway over a majority of the world’s population, after all – and we cannot strip them so easily from the material forms in which religion has manifested itself.
Nor should we want to. To try and remake religion with the bad bits taken out is like trying to remake Star Wars with no Darth Vader and Tom Hanks as Emperor Palatine. And, anyway, hasn’t that already been tried by the Church of England? The world of de Botton’s Religion for Atheists is a very polite, ordered, wholesome sort of world but it’s a bloodless book, muesli for the mind. He wants a kind of Health and Safety heathenism that transcends conflict. But religion represents something bigger, darker, with which those of us who are non-believers need to struggle. It’s a dialectic, and a necessary and productive disagreement.
Interestingly, the book makes no mention at all of Islam. De Botton justifies this by saying that it was such a political hot potato that he left it out. “There has been a lot of intolerance from Islam and then a lot of intolerance from people attacking it. I thought the best response was to ignore it.” But to try and reach a grand synthesis of religious form and secular content by ignoring where they clash, surely, is no way to heal the world.
I very seldom compose anything in my head which later finds its way into text, except character names sometimes – I’m often very much inspired by things that I misunderstand. Have you ever seen Brian Eno’s deck of Oblique Strategies? One of them is “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.” That’s my favorite. [At a] hotel in New York a couple of days ago, the young woman who checked me in said what sounded to me like, “Thank you, sir; my name is Tyranny. If there’s anything you need …” I’m not enough of an extrovert to go, “Your name’s what?” … For the rest of the day, I was thinking of young, benevolent female characters with the first name “Tyranny.” Possibly an Asian character, where it’s kind of an ESL issue. Those things inspire me, but what you’re talking about is a result of the process of composition having spun itself up to a certain wonderfully flaky level, where it says something that I transcribe without quite being able to understand it. I’ve learned to trust that, and it seldom lets me down. Occasionally if I look back at something I’ve written I’ll find one of those that I don’t understand, but that’s a bad thing – the unconscious has dealt me a bad hand.
Last night [fellow science fiction author] Rob Sawyer pointed out how opposite his idea of creativity was to what I describe in the introduction to this book. He said that he had to be able to decide beforehand what [a book] was about, how he was going to do it, and then as he went along, he would compare what he was composing to this directive that he had arrived at prior to the work. To me, that’s absolutely incomprehensible; the part of me that sits here having this conversation with you is incapable of doing any very original literary work. The part of me that creates stuff is right now largely offline and unavailable, and I couldn’t summon it if my life depended on it. I have to make myself available and hope it turns up. To me, that’s where the good stuff comes from.
As William Burroughs liked to say, “A writer always gets his pound of flesh.” No matter what I’m going through, I can always step back and go, “This is material.” [He pulls out his iPad, encased in a black sleeve, and calls up a picture he took of a house in Key West with strange curved shutters that open out into awning-like structures.] I could get a whole novel out of that house. That’s got some mojo going on! Not just the window, but the front door has got at least one layer of inch-thick plywood, no hinges.
I’m a fairly visual writer; I can get an awful lot out of really closely examining a photograph like that. It’s a very interesting exercise that I would recommend to anyone. Take any photograph – preferably a photograph that contains relatively little information (no humans or animals in it) – and catalog everything visible. It usually can’t be done in less than a thousand words, and it can’t be done well in less than about two [thousand]. It always leaves me thinking that pictures really are worth a thousand words, at least, that the visual matrix is so incredibly rich with stuff and meaning, that there’s actually no place to stop. People who have tried it find they stop because they just get exhausted.
To do something well you have to like it. That idea is not exactly novel. We’ve got it down to four words: “Do what you love.” But it’s not enough just to tell people that. Doing what you love is complicated.
The very idea is foreign to what most of us learn as kids. When I was a kid, it seemed as if work and fun were opposites by definition. Life had two states: some of the time adults were making you do things, and that was called work; the rest of the time you could do what you wanted, and that was called playing. Occasionally the things adults made you do were fun, just as, occasionally, playing wasn’t—for example, if you fell and hurt yourself. But except for these few anomalous cases, work was pretty much defined as not-fun.
And it did not seem to be an accident. School, it was implied, was tedious because it was preparation for grownup work.
The world then was divided into two groups, grownups and kids. Grownups, like some kind of cursed race, had to work. Kids didn’t, but they did have to go to school, which was a dilute version of work meant to prepare us for the real thing. Much as we disliked school, the grownups all agreed that grownup work was worse, and that we had it easy.
Teachers in particular all seemed to believe implicitly that work was not fun. Which is not surprising: work wasn’t fun for most of them. Why did we have to memorize state capitals instead of playing dodgeball? For the same reason they had to watch over a bunch of kids instead of lying on a beach. You couldn’t just do what you wanted.
I’m not saying we should let little kids do whatever they want. They may have to be made to work on certain things. But if we make kids work on dull stuff, it might be wise to tell them that tediousness is not the defining quality of work, and indeed that the reason they have to work on dull stuff now is so they can work on more interesting stuff later.
Once, when I was about 9 or 10, my father told me I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up, so long as I enjoyed it. I remember that precisely because it seemed so anomalous. It was like being told to use dry water. Whatever I thought he meant, I didn’t think he meant work could literally be fun—fun like playing. It took me years to grasp that.
By high school, the prospect of an actual job was on the horizon. Adults would sometimes come to speak to us about their work, or we would go to see them at work. It was always understood that they enjoyed what they did. In retrospect I think one may have: the private jet pilot. But I don’t think the bank manager really did.
The main reason they all acted as if they enjoyed their work was presumably the upper-middle class convention that you’re supposed to. It would not merely be bad for your career to say that you despised your job, but a social faux-pas.
Why is it conventional to pretend to like what you do? The first sentence of this essay explains that. If you have to like something to do it well, then the most successful people will all like what they do. That’s where the upper-middle class tradition comes from. Just as houses all over America are full of chairs that are, without the owners even knowing it, nth-degree imitations of chairs designed 250 years ago for French kings, conventional attitudes about work are, without the owners even knowing it, nth-degree imitations of the attitudes of people who’ve done great things.
What a recipe for alienation. By the time they reach an age to think about what they’d like to do, most kids have been thoroughly misled about the idea of loving one’s work. School has trained them to regard work as an unpleasant duty. Having a job is said to be even more onerous than schoolwork. And yet all the adults claim to like what they do. You can’t blame kids for thinking “I am not like these people; I am not suited to this world.”
Actually they’ve been told three lies: the stuff they’ve been taught to regard as work in school is not real work; grownup work is not (necessarily) worse than schoolwork; and many of the adults around them are lying when they say they like what they do.
The most dangerous liars can be the kids’ own parents. If you take a boring job to give your family a high standard of living, as so many people do, you risk infecting your kids with the idea that work is boring. Maybe it would be better for kids in this one case if parents were not so unselfish. A parent who set an example of loving their work might help their kids more than an expensive house.
It was not till I was in college that the idea of work finally broke free from the idea of making a living. Then the important question became not how to make money, but what to work on. Ideally these coincided, but some spectacular boundary cases (like Einstein in the patent office) proved they weren’t identical.
The definition of work was now to make some original contribution to the world, and in the process not to starve. But after the habit of so many years my idea of work still included a large component of pain. Work still seemed to require discipline, because only hard problems yielded grand results, and hard problems couldn’t literally be fun. Surely one had to force oneself to work on them.
If you think something’s supposed to hurt, you’re less likely to notice if you’re doing it wrong. That about sums up my experience of graduate school.
How much are you supposed to like what you do? Unless you know that, you don’t know when to stop searching. And if, like most people, you underestimate it, you’ll tend to stop searching too early. You’ll end up doing something chosen for you by your parents, or the desire to make money, or prestige—or sheer inertia.
Here’s an upper bound: Do what you love doesn’t mean, do what you would like to do most this second. Even Einstein probably had moments when he wanted to have a cup of coffee, but told himself he ought to finish what he was working on first.
It used to perplex me when I read about people who liked what they did so much that there was nothing they’d rather do. There didn’t seem to be any sort of work I liked that much. If I had a choice of (a) spending the next hour working on something or (b) be teleported to Rome and spend the next hour wandering about, was there any sort of work I’d prefer? Honestly, no.
But the fact is, almost anyone would rather, at any given moment, float about in the Carribbean, or have sex, or eat some delicious food, than work on hard problems. The rule about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn’t mean, do what will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period, like a week or a month.
Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something.
As a lower bound, you have to like your work more than any unproductive pleasure. You have to like what you do enough that the concept of “spare time” seems mistaken. Which is not to say you have to spend all your time working. You can only work so much before you get tired and start to screw up. Then you want to do something else—even something mindless. But you don’t regard this time as the prize and the time you spend working as the pain you endure to earn it.
I put the lower bound there for practical reasons. If your work is not your favorite thing to do, you’ll have terrible problems with procrastination. You’ll have to force yourself to work, and when you resort to that the results are distinctly inferior.
To be happy I think you have to be doing something you not only enjoy, but admire. You have to be able to say, at the end, wow, that’s pretty cool. This doesn’t mean you have to make something. If you learn how to hang glide, or to speak a foreign language fluently, that will be enough to make you say, for a while at least, wow, that’s pretty cool. What there has to be is a test.
So one thing that falls just short of the standard, I think, is reading books. Except for some books in math and the hard sciences, there’s no test of how well you’ve read a book, and that’s why merely reading books doesn’t quite feel like work. You have to do something with what you’ve read to feel productive.
I think the best test is one Gino Lee taught me: to try to do things that would make your friends say wow. But it probably wouldn’t start to work properly till about age 22, because most people haven’t had a big enough sample to pick friends from before then.
What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. When you can ask the opinions of people whose judgement you respect, what does it add to consider the opinions of people you don’t even know?
This is easy advice to give. It’s hard to follow, especially when you’re young. Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.
That’s what leads people to try to write novels, for example. They like reading novels. They notice that people who write them win Nobel prizes. What could be more wonderful, they think, than to be a novelist? But liking the idea of being a novelist is not enough; you have to like the actual work of novel-writing if you’re going to be good at it; you have to like making up elaborate lies.
Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.
Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.
Similarly, if you admire two kinds of work equally, but one is more prestigious, you should probably choose the other. Your opinions about what’s admirable are always going to be slightly influenced by prestige, so if the two seem equal to you, you probably have more genuine admiration for the less prestigious one.
The other big force leading people astray is money. Money by itself is not that dangerous. When something pays well but is regarded with contempt, like telemarketing, or prostitution, or personal injury litigation, ambitious people aren’t tempted by it. That kind of work ends up being done by people who are “just trying to make a living.” (Tip: avoid any field whose practitioners say this.) The danger is when money is combined with prestige, as in, say, corporate law, or medicine. A comparatively safe and prosperous career with some automatic baseline prestige is dangerously tempting to someone young, who hasn’t thought much about what they really like.
The test of whether people love what they do is whether they’d do it even if they weren’t paid for it—even if they had to work at another job to make a living. How many corporate lawyers would do their current work if they had to do it for free, in their spare time, and take day jobs as waiters to support themselves?
This test is especially helpful in deciding between different kinds of academic work, because fields vary greatly in this respect. Most good mathematicians would work on math even if there were no jobs as math professors, whereas in the departments at the other end of the spectrum, the availability of teaching jobs is the driver: people would rather be English professors than work in ad agencies, and publishing papers is the way you compete for such jobs. Math would happen without math departments, but it is the existence of English majors, and therefore jobs teaching them, that calls into being all those thousands of dreary papers about gender and identity in the novels of Conrad. No one does that kind of thing for fun.
The advice of parents will tend to err on the side of money. It seems safe to say there are more undergrads who want to be novelists and whose parents want them to be doctors than who want to be doctors and whose parents want them to be novelists. The kids think their parents are “materialistic.” Not necessarily. All parents tend to be more conservative for their kids than they would for themselves, simply because, as parents, they share risks more than rewards. If your eight year old son decides to climb a tall tree, or your teenage daughter decides to date the local bad boy, you won’t get a share in the excitement, but if your son falls, or your daughter gets pregnant, you’ll have to deal with the consequences.
With such powerful forces leading us astray, it’s not surprising we find it so hard to discover what we like to work on. Most people are doomed in childhood by accepting the axiom that work = pain. Those who escape this are nearly all lured onto the rocks by prestige or money. How many even discover something they love to work on? A few hundred thousand, perhaps, out of billions.
It’s hard to find work you love; it must be, if so few do. So don’t underestimate this task. And don’t feel bad if you haven’t succeeded yet. In fact, if you admit to yourself that you’re discontented, you’re a step ahead of most people, who are still in denial. If you’re surrounded by colleagues who claim to enjoy work that you find contemptible, odds are they’re lying to themselves. Not necessarily, but probably.
Although doing great work takes less discipline than people think—because the way to do great work is to find something you like so much that you don’t have to force yourself to do it—finding work you love does usually require discipline. Some people are lucky enough to know what they want to do when they’re 12, and just glide along as if they were on railroad tracks. But this seems the exception. More often people who do great things have careers with the trajectory of a ping-pong ball. They go to school to study A, drop out and get a job doing B, and then become famous for C after taking it up on the side.
Sometimes jumping from one sort of work to another is a sign of energy, and sometimes it’s a sign of laziness. Are you dropping out, or boldly carving a new path? You often can’t tell yourself. Plenty of people who will later do great things seem to be disappointments early on, when they’re trying to find their niche.
Is there some test you can use to keep yourself honest? One is to try to do a good job at whatever you’re doing, even if you don’t like it. Then at least you’ll know you’re not using dissatisfaction as an excuse for being lazy. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll get into the habit of doing things well.
Another test you can use is: always produce. For example, if you have a day job you don’t take seriously because you plan to be a novelist, are you producing? Are you writing pages of fiction, however bad? As long as you’re producing, you’ll know you’re not merely using the hazy vision of the grand novel you plan to write one day as an opiate. The view of it will be obstructed by the all too palpably flawed one you’re actually writing.
"Always produce" is also a heuristic for finding the work you love. If you subject yourself to that constraint, it will automatically push you away from things you think you’re supposed to work on, toward things you actually like. "Always produce" will discover your life’s work the way water, with the aid of gravity, finds the hole in your roof.
Of course, figuring out what you like to work on doesn’t mean you get to work on it. That’s a separate question. And if you’re ambitious you have to keep them separate: you have to make a conscious effort to keep your ideas about what you want from being contaminated by what seems possible.
It’s painful to keep them apart, because it’s painful to observe the gap between them. So most people pre-emptively lower their expectations. For example, if you asked random people on the street if they’d like to be able to draw like Leonardo, you’d find most would say something like “Oh, I can’t draw.” This is more a statement of intention than fact; it means, I’m not going to try. Because the fact is, if you took a random person off the street and somehow got them to work as hard as they possibly could at drawing for the next twenty years, they’d get surprisingly far. But it would require a great moral effort; it would mean staring failure in the eye every day for years. And so to protect themselves people say “I can’t.”
Another related line you often hear is that not everyone can do work they love—that someone has to do the unpleasant jobs. Really? How do you make them? In the US the only mechanism for forcing people to do unpleasant jobs is the draft, and that hasn’t been invoked for over 30 years. All we can do is encourage people to do unpleasant work, with money and prestige.
If there’s something people still won’t do, it seems as if society just has to make do without. That’s what happened with domestic servants. For millennia that was the canonical example of a job “someone had to do.” And yet in the mid twentieth century servants practically disappeared in rich countries, and the rich have just had to do without.
So while there may be some things someone has to do, there’s a good chance anyone saying that about any particular job is mistaken. Most unpleasant jobs would either get automated or go undone if no one were willing to do them.
There’s another sense of “not everyone can do work they love” that’s all too true, however. One has to make a living, and it’s hard to get paid for doing work you love. There are two routes to that destination:
The organic route: as you become more eminent, gradually to increase the parts of your job that you like at the expense of those you don’t.
The two-job route: to work at things you don’t like to get money to work on things you do.
The organic route is more common. It happens naturally to anyone who does good work. A young architect has to take whatever work he can get, but if he does well he’ll gradually be in a position to pick and choose among projects. The disadvantage of this route is that it’s slow and uncertain. Even tenure is not real freedom.
The two-job route has several variants depending on how long you work for money at a time. At one extreme is the “day job,” where you work regular hours at one job to make money, and work on what you love in your spare time. At the other extreme you work at something till you make enough not to have to work for money again.
The two-job route is less common than the organic route, because it requires a deliberate choice. It’s also more dangerous. Life tends to get more expensive as you get older, so it’s easy to get sucked into working longer than you expected at the money job. Worse still, anything you work on changes you. If you work too long on tedious stuff, it will rot your brain. And the best paying jobs are most dangerous, because they require your full attention.
The advantage of the two-job route is that it lets you jump over obstacles. The landscape of possible jobs isn’t flat; there are walls of varying heights between different kinds of work. The trick of maximizing the parts of your job that you like can get you from architecture to product design, but not, probably, to music. If you make money doing one thing and then work on another, you have more freedom of choice.
Which route should you take? That depends on how sure you are of what you want to do, how good you are at taking orders, how much risk you can stand, and the odds that anyone will pay (in your lifetime) for what you want to do. If you’re sure of the general area you want to work in and it’s something people are likely to pay you for, then you should probably take the organic route. But if you don’t know what you want to work on, or don’t like to take orders, you may want to take the two-job route, if you can stand the risk.
Don’t decide too soon. Kids who know early what they want to do seem impressive, as if they got the answer to some math question before the other kids. They have an answer, certainly, but odds are it’s wrong.
A friend of mine who is a quite successful doctor complains constantly about her job. When people applying to medical school ask her for advice, she wants to shake them and yell “Don’t do it!” (But she never does.) How did she get into this fix? In high school she already wanted to be a doctor. And she is so ambitious and determined that she overcame every obstacle along the way—including, unfortunately, not liking it.
Now she has a life chosen for her by a high-school kid.
When you’re young, you’re given the impression that you’ll get enough information to make each choice before you need to make it. But this is certainly not so with work. When you’re deciding what to do, you have to operate on ridiculously incomplete information. Even in college you get little idea what various types of work are like. At best you may have a couple internships, but not all jobs offer internships, and those that do don’t teach you much more about the work than being a batboy teaches you about playing baseball.
In the design of lives, as in the design of most other things, you get better results if you use flexible media. So unless you’re fairly sure what you want to do, your best bet may be to choose a type of work that could turn into either an organic or two-job career. That was probably part of the reason I chose computers. You can be a professor, or make a lot of money, or morph it into any number of other kinds of work.
It’s also wise, early on, to seek jobs that let you do many different things, so you can learn faster what various kinds of work are like. Conversely, the extreme version of the two-job route is dangerous because it teaches you so little about what you like. If you work hard at being a bond trader for ten years, thinking that you’ll quit and write novels when you have enough money, what happens when you quit and then discover that you don’t actually like writing novels?
Most people would say, I’d take that problem. Give me a million dollars and I’ll figure out what to do. But it’s harder than it looks. Constraints give your life shape. Remove them and most people have no idea what to do: look at what happens to those who win lotteries or inherit money. Much as everyone thinks they want financial security, the happiest people are not those who have it, but those who like what they do. So a plan that promises freedom at the expense of knowing what to do with it may not be as good as it seems.
Whichever route you take, expect a struggle. Finding work you love is very difficult. Most people fail. Even if you succeed, it’s rare to be free to work on what you want till your thirties or forties. But if you have the destination in sight you’ll be more likely to arrive at it. If you know you can love work, you’re in the home stretch, and if you know what work you love, you’re practically there.
The more we look at the brain, the less it looks like a device for creating consciousness. Perhaps philosophers will never be able to solve the mystery.
The philosophy of mind is concerned with fundamental questions about consciousness - about its existence and nature. The science of psychology is concerned with its empirical workings - how one mental thing leads to another, basically. The former is a branch of metaphysics, the latter of dynamics. The central defining property of the mind is consciousness, so philosophy of mind is concerned with the existence and nature of consciousness: what is consciousness, why does it exist, how is it related to the body and brain, and how did it come into existence?
These are big, difficult questions. Focus on your current state of consciousness - your experience of seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, willing, and so on - and ask yourself what kind of being this consciousness is, what its function might be, how it is related to the activity of cells in your brain, what could have brought it about in the course of evolution. Allow yourself to feel the attendant puzzlement, the sense of bafflement: now you are doing philosophy of mind.
Try to imagine a world with no consciousness in it, just clashing quanta in the void and clumps of dead, insensate matter (the way our universe used to be); now add consciousness to it. What difference do you make to things, what is the point of the addition and how can you add consciousness to a world without it? Do you somehow reassemble the material particles? I predict it will seem to you that you have made an enormous difference to your imagined world but you will not understand how the unconscious world and the conscious world fit intelligibly together. It will seem to you that you have performed a miracle (contrast adding planets to a world containing only gaseous clouds). But does our world really consist of miracles?
We can distinguish five positions on consciousness: eliminativist, dualist, idealist, panpsychist and mysterianist. The eliminativist position attempts to dissolve the problem of explaining consciousness simply by declaring that there isn’t any: there is no such thing - no seeing, hearing, thinking, and so on. There is just blank matter; the impression that we are conscious is an illusion. This view is clearly absurd, a form of madness even, and anyway refutes itself since even an illusion is the presence of an experience (it certainly seems to me that I am conscious). There are some who purport to hold this view but they are a tiny (and tinny) minority: they are sentient beings loudly claiming to be mindless zombies.
More subtly, there are many who insist that consciousness just reduces to brain states - a pang of regret, say, is just a surge of chemicals across a synapse. They are collapsers rather than deniers. Though not avowedly eliminative, this kind of view is tacitly a rejection of the very existence of consciousness, because the brain processes held to constitute conscious experience consist of physical events that can exist in the absence of consciousness. Electricity in the brain correlates with mental activity but electricity in your TV presumably does not - so how can electrical processes be the essence of conscious experience? If there is nothing happening but electrochemical activity when I say, “My finger hurts,” or, “I love her so,” then there is nothing experiential going on when I say those things. So reduction is tantamount to elimination, despite the reductionist’s intentions (it’s like maintaining that people called “witches” are nothing but harmless old ladies – which is tantamount to saying that there are no witches).
The dualist, by contrast, freely admits that consciousness exists, as well as matter, holding that reality falls into two giant spheres. There is the physical brain, on the one hand, and the conscious mind, on the other: the twain may meet at some point but they remain distinct entities. Dualism may be of substances, properties, or even whole universes, but its thrust is that the conscious mind is a thing apart from, and irreducible to, anything that goes on in the body. When I think, my brain indeed whirs but the thinking stands apart from the whirring, as clouds stand aloft from the earth or magnetism exists separately from gravity.
Dualism proposes to give the mind its ontological due but the problem is that it has difficulties organising a rendezvous between the two spheres: how does the mind affect the brain and the brain the mind? Whence the systematic correlation and interaction? And how did the mind come to exist, if not by dint of cerebral upsurges? Dualism makes the mind too separate, thereby precluding intelligible interaction and dependence.
At this point the idealist swooshes in: ladies and gentlemen, there is nothing but mind! There is no problem of interaction with matter because matter is mere illusion - we merely hallucinate brains. The universe is just one vast spirit, or perhaps a population of the same, consisting of nothing but free-floating consciousness, unencumbered and serene. Stars and planets are just perturbations in this cosmic sensorium.
As an imaginative fancy, idealism has its charms but taking it seriously requires an antipathy to matter bordering on the maniacal. Are we to suppose that material reality is just a dream, a baseless fantasy, and that the Big Bang was nothing but the cosmic spirit having a mental sneezing fit? Where did consciousness come from, if not from pre-existing matter? Did God just create centres of consciousness ab initio, with nothing material in the vicinity? Is my body just a figment of my imagination?
Perhaps we would do better to dial idealism back a bit: it is not that everything real is mental but that there is more mentality out there than meets the introspective eye. Perhaps all matter has its mental aspects or moments, its local injection of consciousness. Thus we have panpsychism: even the lowliest of material things has a streak of sentience running through it, like veins in marble. Not just parcels of organic matter, such as lizards and worms, but also plants and bacteria and water molecules and even electrons. Everything has its primitive feelings and minute allotment of sensation.
The cool thing about panpsychism is that it offers a seductively silky explanation of emergence. How does mind emerge from matter? Why - by virtue of the pre-existence of mind in matter. Mind is all around, so we don’t need a magic mechanism to spirit it into existence from nowhere - it was already present at the time of the Big Bang, simmering away. (What did the hydrogen atom say to the carbon atom at the time of the Big Bang? My ears are ringing.)
The trouble with panpsychism is that there just isn’t any evidence of the universal distribution of consciousness in the material world. Atoms don’t act conscious; they act unconscious. And also, what precisely is on their microscopic minds - little atomic concerns? What does it mean to say that atoms have consciousness in some primitive form (often called “proto-consciousness”)? They either have real sensations and thoughts or they don’t. What is a tiny quantity of consciousness like, exactly? Panpsychism looks a lot like preformationism in biology: we try to explain the emergence of organic life by supposing that it already exists in microscopic form in the pre-life world - as if the just-fertilised egg has a little, fully formed baby curled up in it waiting to expand during gestation.
So where does this leave us? The available options all seem to encounter fairly bone-crushing objections. Here is where I entered the picture, 25 years ago. I could see the problems with the standard theories but I couldn’t accept that nature adores a miracle, or that it is simply unintelligible. Consciousness must have evolved from matter somehow but nothing we could contrive or imagine seemed to offer the faintest hope for explanation. Hence, it occurred to me that the problem might lie not in nature but in ourselves: we just don’t have the faculties of comprehension that would enable us to remove the sense of mystery. Ontologically, matter and consciousness are woven intelligibly together but epistemologically we are precluded from seeing how. I used Noam Chomsky’s notion of “mysteries of nature” to describe the situation as I saw it. Soon, I was being labelled (by Owen Flanagan) a “mysterian”, the name of a defunct pop group, and the name stuck.
I am not against the label, understood correctly, but like all labels it suggests an overly simple view of a complex position. At first the view was regarded as eccentric and vaguely disreputable but now it is a standard option - though one with very few adherents. Its primary attraction lies in the lack of appeal of all the other options, to which supporters of those options are curiously oblivious. People sometimes ask me if I am still a mysterian, as if perhaps the growth of neuroscience has given me pause; they fail to grasp the depth of mystery I sense in the problem. The more we know of the brain, the less it looks like a device for creating consciousness: it’s just a big collection of biological cells and a blur of electrical activity - all machine and no ghost.
Latterly, I have come to think that mystery is quite pervasive, even in the hardest of sciences. Physics is a hotbed of mystery: space, time, matter and motion - none of it is free of mysterious elements. The puzzles of quantum theory are just a symptom of this widespread lack of understanding (I discuss this in my latest book, Basic Structures of Reality). The human intellect grasps the natural world obliquely and glancingly, using mathematics to construct abstract representations of concrete phenomena, but what the ultimate nature of things really is remains obscure and hidden. How everything fits together is particularly elusive, perhaps reflecting the disparate cognitive faculties we bring to bear on the world (the senses, introspection, mathematical description). We are far from obtaining a unified theory of all being and there is no guarantee that such a theory is accessible by finite human intelligence.
Some modern philosophers pride themselves on their “naturalism” but real naturalism begins with a proper perspective on our specifically human intelligence. Palaeoanthropologists have taught us that the human brain gradually evolved from ancestral brains, particularly in concert with practical toolmaking, centring on the anatomy of the human hand. This history shaped and constrained the form of intelligence now housed in our skulls (as the lifestyle of other species form their set of cognitive skills). What chance is there that an intelligence geared to making stone tools and grounded in the contingent peculiarities of the human hand can aspire to uncover all the mysteries of the universe? Can omniscience spring from an opposable thumb? It seems unlikely, so why presume that the mysteries of consciousness will be revealed to a thumb-shaped brain like ours?
The “mysterianism” I advocate is really nothing more than the acknowledgment that human intelligence is a local, contingent, temporal, practical and expendable feature of life on earth - an incremental adaptation based on earlier forms of intelligence that no one would regard as faintly omniscient. The current state of the philosophy of mind, from my point of view, is just a reflection of one evolutionary time-slice of a particular bipedal species on a particular humid planet at this fleeting moment in cosmic history - as is everything else about the human animal. There is more ignorance in it than knowledge.
A growing body of psychology research shows that incompetence deprives people of the ability to recognize their own incompetence. To put it bluntly, dumb people are too dumb to know it. Similarly, unfunny people don’t have a good enough sense of humor to tell.
This disconnect may be responsible for many of society’s problems.
With more than a decade’s worth of research, David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, has demonstrated that humans find it “intrinsically difficult to get a sense of what we don’t know.” Whether an individual lacks competence in logical reasoning, emotional intelligence, humor or even chess abilities, the person still tends to rate his or her skills in that area as being above average.
Dunning and his colleague, Justin Kruger, formerly of Cornell and now at New York University, “have done a number of studies where we will give people a test of some area of knowledge like logical reasoning, knowledge about STDs and how to avoid them, emotional intelligence, etcetera. Then we determine their scores, and basically just ask them how well they think they’ve done,” Dunning said. “We ask, ‘what percentile will your performance fall in?’”
The results are uniform across all the knowledge domains: People who actually did well on the test tend to feel more confident about their performance than people who didn’t do well, but only slightly. Almost everyone thinks they did better than average. “For people at the bottom who are really doing badly — those in the bottom 10th or 15th percentile — they think their work falls in the 60th or 55th percentile, so, above average,” Dunning told Life’s Little Mysteries. The same pattern emerges in tests of people’s ability to rate the funniness of jokes, the correctness of grammar, or even their own performance in a game of chess. “People at the bottom still think they’re outperforming other people.” [Graph]
It’s not merely optimism, but rather that their total lack of expertise renders them unable to recognize their deficiency. Even when Dunning and his colleagues offer study participants a $100 reward if they can rate themselves accurately, they cannot. “They’re really trying to be honest and impartial,” he said.
If only we knew ourselves better. Dunning believes people’s inability to assess their own knowledge is the cause of many of society’s ills, including climate change denialism. “Many people don’t have training in science, and so they may very well misunderstand the science. But because they don’t have the knowledge to evaluate it, they don’t realize how off their evaluations might be,” he said.
Moreover, even if a person has come to a very logical conclusion about whether climate change is real or not based on their evaluation of the science, “they’re really not in a position to evaluate the science.”
Along the same lines, people who aren’t talented in a given area tend not to be able to recognize the talents or good ideas of others, from co-workers to politicians. This may impede the democratic process, which relies on citizens having the capacity to identify and support the best candidate or policy.
The ultimate takeaway of the research is the reminder that you really may not be as great as you think you are. And you might not be right about the things you believe you’re right about. And if you try to joke about all this, you might not come off as funny as you think.
(Editor’s note:“[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” -Donald Rumsfeld)
Various Provocations: One discussion about Mad Men which has cropped up recently is race: people are wondering just where all the minority characters are. Or, rather, where the significant minority characters are: by and large, minority characters are set aside—they are waiters or elevator operators or (barely-seen) girlfriends. One side of the debate argues that the lack of minority characters is historically accurate: there aren’t many minority characters around Sterling Cooper (Draper Pryce) because there weren’t many in advertising as a whole, and less so at Sterling Cooper, which is generally portrayed as being a bunch of lumbering dinosaurs waiting for the asteroid strike. The other side of the debate—as an example, this The Root article about the history of blacks on Madison Avenue—argues that in fact there were significant black people in the advertising industry and that they should be portrayed. I’m no expert on the history of Madison Avenue so I’ll refrain from comment—except to note that in many ways The Root article is less than convincing: it cites important figures but doesn’t cite any statistics; remember that while several important figures were black that Sterling Cooper is very much a doddering institution—but I think the argument is missing the point a little bit.
Start with the observation that Mad Men is frequently less than historically accurate. It’s fine that it’s not; it’s fine that it promotes the impression that it is supremely accurate as this helps the audience get lost in the story, always a welcome effect. But we shouldn’t confuse its seeming penchant for historical accuracy for its actual goals: that is, I think the dearth of significant black characters (so far) has a specific purpose in mind that’s something of a commentary on the characters as a whole.
Black characters in Mad Men are generally off-to-the-side, and by and large when they are interacted with by various characters, they’re more bemused than anything else. (The Drapers’ housekeeper, Carla, becomes more bemused as the show goes on.) They’re generally bemused by whatever neuroses the white characters have, and they’re bemused because the white people live in a bubble.
Last episode, Malcolm X died…very much off-screen. The next day Peggy asks her friend, “Did you hear Malcolm X died? Did you know who Malcolm X was?” Peggy, the naïf, either didn’t know or thinks her friend might not know who Malcolm X is, despite his evident fame and notability. That’s because Peggy, like the rest of the characters, lives in a bubble, a personal bubble, that doesn’t acknowledge things that have been put outside of it. And those things include black people, among other things. They simply aren’t part of the mental makeup of the characters.
Hence most of the black characters (or, similarly, black-related material) appear to demonstrate various character’s bubbleworld. So Roger Sterling signing “My Old Kentucky Home” in blackface…well, Roger, like everyone else, is smart, witty, but very much in the bubble. Kinsey is dating a black woman to show off how smart he is? Well, he’s not smart—he’s pretentious—but he’s also walled off, guarded.
The theme is so prevalent they’ve designed their seasons’ promotional art around the idea: take a look at season three’s.
Don Draper: determined to pretend he’s in charge. Of course he’s not. Events are in the course of proving him wrong, just as events are in the course of proving the mind-my-own-business attitude wrong also. It’s poignant, perhaps, that last episode’s Malcolm X-ignorance coincided with reminders of Peggy’s pregnancy in season one. Draper told Peggy, “It never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” This repression is par for the course for Draper, and Peggy comes to adopt his attitude—but just as black people steadily become more prominent, so too are these attitudes untenable…
Now, if there is a question here, it’s this: why, exactly, is it the black characters who must be used as a prop? It’s clumsy writing to insert characters mostly to prove a point or to contrast with the flaws and foibles of another; characters, after all, are an imitation of life and no real person’s sole role in life is to act as a mirror to one’s own. You might term this racially suspect writing, and there’s a grain of truth to it. But the chauvinist attitudes of the day, held by the kinds of white people who would be in Mad Men’s position, were often about these kinds of views, of black people as bystanders, and hence I think there’s some truth on that side also. Fortunately, the show isn’t over, and the subject, just like the uncomfortable subjects for Mad Men’s characters, will prove unavoidable, and the treatment of future black characters will certainly be very interesting. In light of the past—it’s always about the past in Mad Men.
(Editor’s note: My friends brought up Mad Men this weekend and asked if I watched it and I said “not really” and I wondered out loud why. I think it’s because there is nothing I can relate to, part of the reason being is that there are no minorities. This is New York City, it isn’t science fiction. Minorities existed. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s intentionally racist, but it paints a picture askew.)