May 05 2013
This past week’s New York Times “Sunday Review” gives a maddening example of one of the subtlest of propaganda techniques: a half comparison, which is what occurs when a writer or speaker compares the apples of one group to the oranges of another group, even though both groups have both apples and oranges. The logical mistake comes in the suppression of inconvenient facts related to one or both sides of the comparison.
The article in question titled “Pity The Men On Top” by Susan Jacoby compares the glamorous life portrayed on the chattering class’s current favorite TV show, “Mad Men” to the drudgery that most professionals experienced during the 1950s and early 1960s.
Here’s the passage in question, and it’s the opening of the article:
“WHEN I dream about my father, as I do even though he has been dead for more than a quarter of a century, I always wake up when I hear the crunch of tires rolling over rock salt — an unmistakable sound evoking the winters of my Michigan childhood in the 1950s and early ’60s. Dad, an accountant, would pull his car out of our icy driveway and head for his office long before first light. This was tax season, and he could keep his business and our family financially afloat only by working 80-hour weeks.
You won’t find Bob Jacoby or his unglamorous middle-class, middle-income contemporaries in “Mad Men,” the AMC series beginning its sixth season on Sunday. If we are to believe the message of popular culture, the last men on top — who came of age during World War II or in the decade after it — ran the show at work, at home and in bed.”
Let’s take a look at the comparison between the glorified fictional image and reality, which is represented by the single anecdote of a single real white male. What we read about in the real example are the facts of work: getting up early, working overtime, worrying about finances. In contrast, all we read about in the details of the “Mad Men” myth is status related: “ran the show at work, at home and in bed.” It’s a false comparison, because the author tells us her dad ran the business, so he was just as much in charge as the Mad Men, and more in charge than those in the TV series who don’t have ownership interests in the fictional ad agency at the center of the action. We can only imagine that he was also in charge at home, at least when it came to finances.
Later on, Jacoby writes that most blue or white collar jobs didn’t provide the income or freedom to allow for “hotel rooms for trysts with girlfriends.” Her example, though, is not a blue collar or white collar working male, but her father (again), a business owner of a professional service firm. She claims that he didn’t have time for an affair, he worked so hard. Let’s give her and her dad the benefit of the doubt and merely point out that he doesn’t represent the entire class of upper middle class professional white males in the post-World War II era.
I’m not saying that “Mad Men” is a realistic depiction; in fact it is not. Nor am I saying that the life of most upper middle class white professional males in the ’50s and early ’60s was not drudgery, although I suspect it had more joy in it than was in the lives of repressed and suppressed educated upper-middle class women, poor minorities or unskilled nonunionized laborers of that period.
What I’m saying is that to advance her argument—whatever merit it has—author Susan Jacoby makes a false comparison as a means to argue by anecdote. The polite term for this kind of illogical reasoning is to call it propaganda.