What ‘Mad Men’ And The New Pope Have In Common
For the past several weeks, my girlfriend and I have been busy pouring over the slightest detail we might gain about the sixth season of Mad Men. The show itself begs of speculation. Thanks in large part to showrunner Matthew Weiner’s career history on The Sopranos, it presents a litany of vague and Freudian analysis for any armchair psychologist, filled with shredded detail of every plotline and any slight mention by an actor or writer of the direction the show might take. The most recently revealed poster, photos, and promos are just vague enough to hold onto our wildest expectations, the excitement that comes with loving a show that has rarely fit your predictions or even your wildest dreams.
But at the same time AMC saw it fit to release a litany of possible clues and frustrating speculation, the Vatican had closed the doors to the Sistine Chapel and started the legendary political process that leads the one billion Catholics on the globe to a new pope. For the last month — since the announcement of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI — we all have seen the bracketeering of educated journalists around who will hold the seat as Bishop of Rome. However, the papal conclave is both a journalist’s favorite dream and its worst nightmare. While the election of a pope holds massive room for useless speculation and analysis from historians which rarely see time on camera, the secretive nature also halts the drips of information which fuel the modern media machine.
Back in the 2008 Democratic primary, much of the punditocracy was obsessed over the maneuvers of several hundred Democratic “superdelegates.” Due to some primary policy initiatives after the disastrous 1968 DNC, a selected few of the Democratic elite would hold superdelegate votes to help close immensely undecidable primaries. Over the dramatic and razor-thin primary, cable news kept the story interesting by following the very close race to capture these superdelegates, an advantage it lacks through a papal conclave.
The comparison is not as drastic as it seems. A relatively small collection of superdelegates can easily decide a close primary, forcing the Democratic Party to resemble the closed-door nature of the Vatican. However, while politicians of the United States fully realize the importance of staying within the positive media narrative (and therefore purposefully leaking information all the time), the outdated — if not medieval — nature of the Vatican is seemingly immune to such expectations.
Watching cable news attempt to predict the next pope was almost harmful to ones’ dreams of what our culture should be. Even Wednesday, as I listened to NPR fill airtime as they awaited the announcement of Pope Francis, I began to hear the same notions the last month of Roman news had utilized to death. Would they pick a young pope? A progressive pope? An American pope? While most of the dreams were surrounded by hope that the last true monarchy in the world would finally confront modernism, it had begun to feel pathetic. I get it. You need to fill airtime. One can only discuss the Syrian crisis or the revelation of the “47% Tape” filmographer for so long. But why bother giving us analysis on information you can’t even imagine?
Drastically similar to the fanboyism surrounding the premiere of Mad Men, the predictions over the next pope reveal a symptom of the digital age. We have become sickly comfortable with knowing all we can know about any event, real or fictional. The internet has fueled an age whereby any voice is as worthy as another. Read enough articles out of Longform or listen to enough Radiolab and you can quickly become an expert on any subject of your choosing. We, the citizens of WWWville, are confronted with a basic nature of web design format. Our voice can easily seem as important as Sylvia Poggioli or Matthew Weiner, simply because our Twitter feed is just as limited to 140 characters as theirs.
And so it is the mainstream media’s position to help us fulfill this dream. John Steinbeck once said that no one in America sees themselves as poor, merely “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” In the same vein — in a culture where everyone is an expert deserving of acknowledgement and fame — we feel our opinion is quite underrated. The mainstream media is busy furnishing this ideal, teaching us which positions we should take on each issue. This is why every pundit on television appears immensely smug; they need to put on the airs of being absolutely correct so that the viewer feels stupid upon disagreeing with them. However, when confronted with an issue like the papal election or the next season of Mad Men, we begin to see this formula unravel.
The future is quite famously unknown, and yet even the oracles of our age cannot answer important questions about the Syrian revolution, the fallout from Fukushima, or the danger of a North Korean nuclear strike. In an age where any breaking news event is confronted by a million or more witty responses on Twitter or Tumblr, no one is ready to admit they do not know the actual answer. And while the election of Pope Francis shows this problem amongst both world media and world government, we are too busy debating the meaning of Don Draper’s facial expression, even though we all will one day have our questions answered.
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