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Don Draper and the Illusion of Influence

Mad Men is coming to an end, concluding a luminescent seven-season run that began in 2007.  But the show was into its third season before I first heard the name Don Draper.

I guess that proves hopelessly I’m out of touch with contemporary culture — a term that has increasingly become an oxymoron.

imgresNonetheless, I can’t say that I was embarrassed in 2009 to have never heard of the personality voted Most Influential Man in America. What mortified me far more was to find myself living in a society that could consider a fictional character to be its most significant public figure.

I had to strain my memory to place that year’s first runner-up, track star Usain Bolt. I’m still straining my powers of reason to comprehend why a Jamaican sprinter should have been considered the most influential real person in United States.

Number three on the list was President Barack Obama. I had heard of him, and it’s hard to argue that the president is not supremely influential in his own country, no matter what one may think of his policies.

The rankings lay in the hands of readers polled annually by AskMen.com, a website (of which I had also never heard) devoted to men and their lifestyles. Topping the list as well were, in order: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, American Idol judge Simon Cowell, late pop star Michael Jackson, Apple CEO Steve Jobs, tennis champion Roger Federer, quarterback Peyton Manning, and Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White.

But grabbing the most votes was Don Draper, lead character in the Emmy-winning drama Mad Men. And for the first time in the poll’s history, the most influential man in American does not actually exist.

According to Reuters, AskMen.com editor-in-chief James Bassil explained the vote this way: “One of the big themes this year was that men really want to take on these traditional roles — as fathers, working men, provider at home, leader at the office. I think they are yearning for what is a solid past.”

That would be a comforting thought … if it were actually true. Indeed, one wonders if Mr. Bassil has watched the show or read his own magazine.

The AskMen.com website had this to say: “[Draper is] a postwar archetype, both a brilliant career man and a temptation-swayed philanderer who sincerely wants to be a family man… permanently conflicted over how to reconcile his morals and his desires.” The website for Mad Men describes the show as a “sexy, stylized and provocative drama [that] follows the lives of the ruthlessly competitive men and women of Madison Avenue advertising, an ego-driven world where key players make an art of the sell.”

Were that not enough to debunk Mr. Bassil’s rose-colored analysis, the list of the top ten winners is more than enough. Celebrities, athletes, billionaire businessmen, and an ideologically far-left president hardly reflect a trend back toward traditional values.

imgresIn truth, the evidence suggests just the opposite, that Americans are increasingly obsessed with glitz and glamour, with power and wealth, with conquest and ego-gratification. The sad moral of the story was that the poll-winners are genuinely influential in steering our society toward superficial hopes and unrealistic dreams. How fitting that the most influential man was not only a fictional character, but a profoundly flawed and ambivalent one at that.

The bright side of the story, however, is that the poll revealed the attitudes and aspirations not of Americans as a whole but of AskMen.com readers. If the publication is anything like its forerunners, Playboy and GQ, it is hardly a fair representation of the country. Indeed, it would seem to say more about the inner conflict of testosterone-driven alpha males than those typical family men who may already be living — not merely yearning for — traditional values.

I never have watched the show, so I can’t comment on where the main character’s ambivalence has led him over the years.  But it seems a good bet that those acolytes of Don Draper (and his real-world alter-egos) are likely to end up leading similarly conflicted lives, following him into the oblivion of the world of illusion.

Whereas those who live their lives according to traditional values understand that it is those very values that teach us the difference between good and evil, between truth and falsehood, between reality and illusion.  Without the fantasy of Hollywood or the glamour of Madison Avenue, theirs are the lives of real substance and enduring reward.


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