The meme is now the message. So I learned from Monday’s New York Times profile of Kalle Lasn, the Adbusters editor who can be dubiously credited with creating the Occupy Wall Street movement. My dubiousness has nothing to do with the qualities of the movement itself, which, whatever else can be said about its tactics or its political direction, has sparked an important national conversation about income inequality. It’s the word “create” that I’m not sure about. Lasn did not issue a call to action, or write a position paper, or build an encampment. He started a Twitter hashtag (#OccupyWallStreet) and designed a tantalizingly opaque poster depicting a ballerina poised atop a bull in front of a group of protesters, who are veiled in a cloud of tear gas. “For some people they were just words and images,” the Times’s William Yardley writes of the hashtag and the poster. “For Mr. Lasn, they were tools to begin remodeling the ‘mental environment,’ to create a new ‘meme,’ the term coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins for a kind of transcendent cultural message.”
Twitter is easily the most absorbing new form of entertainment to arise in the last decade, but transcendent it is not. (Case in point: The teenage girl in Kansas who this week became famous for being told to apologize for tweeting that she had told off Governor Sam Brownback while on a field trip to the state capitol. Though it turned out that her tweet was a lie—she hadn’t criticized the governor—she was nonetheless celebrated as some kind of heroine of free speech.) The message no longer needs to be illuminating; it just needs to be out there, transmissible, repeatable, retweetable. Content is less relevant than style, or what author Christopher Johnson has termed “microstyle”: the art of self-expression in 140 characters or less. Lasn, for his part, has been exquisitely vague about what exactly he was trying to communicate. “If you’re able to come up with a very sexy sounding hash tag like we did for Occupy Wall Street, and you come up with a very magical looking poster that seems to have something very profound about it, these devices push these memes, these meta memes, into the public imagination in a very powerful way,” he told Yardley with a hint of self-congratulation. “That’s what it’s all about: may the best memes win.”
Lasn, whose magazine is dedicated to skewering the ad industry, is himself a former ad man: How could it be otherwise? As Mattathias Schwartz reports in The New Yorker, he started a market research company in Tokyo in the 1960s, focusing on alcohol and tobacco products. “It’s easy to generate cool if you have the bucks, the celebrities, the right ideas, the right slogans,” Lasn told Schwartz, sounding like no one so much as Don Draper, that other 1960s ad man who has captivated our culture at the moment. Draper, of course, is the cipher at the center of “Mad Men,” the stunningly popular television show that has made the advertising executive an improbable object of adulation while simultaneously revealing the emptiness behind the bedazzlement that characterized the industry in its heyday. The show has been accused of fostering a kind of condescending nostalgia: We smile patronizingly at the pregnant women who smoke or the executives who toss back glasses of whiskey all day as if they were Diet Coke, all the while congratulating ourselves on the superiority of our ways. But nostalgia alone cannot explain its success.
In its simultaneous celebration and condemnation of consumer culture—and, worse, in its suggestion that America, beneath the glitz, might be hollow at its core—“Mad Men” plays to our deepest cultural fears in a way that is strikingly similar to Occupy Wall Street. The show’s method is to take us behind the scenes of the branding of American icons—Lucky Strike cigarettes, Hilton hotels, Life cereal—to show us not how the products themselves were created, but how their “very sexy … very magical” images were dreamed up. In the show’s most brilliant scene, Draper renames what Kodak executives were calling the “wheel” as the “carousel,” the familiar revolving device used to change slides in a projector. For his sales pitch, he stocks it with his own family slides, which play in the background as Draper delivers one of his signature brilliant riffs on nostalgia, of all subjects. (The show presents Draper unironically as a creative “genius,” a word reserved these days for Steve Jobs.) The executives are predictably bowled over. May the best memes win, indeed.
But what the executives don’t know, and what the family photos don’t reveal, is that Draper’s life is a kaleidoscope of lies. His compulsive philandering is destroying his Kodak-perfect marriage. More darkly, his very identity is based on a lie that rises to choke him at various points in both his professional and personal life. Deception is the foundational theme of the series: It repeats in multiple forms, from a partner’s run-of-the-mill adultery with a secretary to pervasive issues surrounding pregnancy and paternity. The world of “Mad Men” is a fallen world, a world of corruption lightened with rare moments of beauty. It’s no accident that the show more than once invokes Babylon as a symbolic touchstone.
In his New Yorker piece, Schwartz writes that Lasn views “the developed world as a nightmare of environmental collapse and spiritual hollowness, driven to the brink of destruction by its consumer appetites.” Take away the environmental collapse—they didn’t know about global warming back then—and this is precisely the vision of “Mad Men.” What is the current wave of protests about, if not rage at the idea that American life as we know it is founded on lies promulgated by the powerful: the lie that we went to war in Iraq because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction; the lie that our economic policies would somehow ultimately benefit anyone other than the rich; even the lie that the Democrats triumphantly elected to office three years ago, including our president, would take political risks to level the economic playing field. The microcosmic deceptions of “Mad Men” are a stylized reflection of the macro deceptions that over the last decades have infected the American atmosphere.
There is another reason, too, why “Mad Men” has so powerfully touched a cultural nerve. William Deresiewicz, who contributes frequently to this magazine, put his finger on it a few weeks ago in a New York Times op-ed piece headlined “Generation Sell,” in which he argued that social media isn’t so much a form of communication as a tool “to create a product—to create a brand—and the product is us. We treat ourselves like little businesses … to be managed and promoted.” We carefully curate our Facebook photos and tailor our status updates in the service of the brand. As a result, the millennial generation—the kids raised on social networking—are a generation of salesmen, “self-deprecating, post-ironic, eco-friendly.”
In this way, we are all Don Drapers, obsessed with selling an image rather than tending to what lies underneath. Draper’s fatal flaw is his lack of psychological awareness: He is at once perfectly tuned in to the desires of America and entirely out of touch with his own character. The Occupy Wall Street movement, as well, shows a disturbing lack of interest in formulating a coherent identity, without which it cannot be a force for positive political change. The meme can provide the message, but not the meaning. And yet the disorganized anger expressed by the mad men of the revolution—and so far many of these voices have been male, from this random blogger to Keith Gessen describing his arrest in The New Yorker—is mining a national vein of emotion, like that famous scene in Network when citizens around the country open their windows to yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Outside, meanwhile, the madness continues.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. You can follow her on twitter @ruth_franklin.