Lessons Gleaned from The Wire

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22 Responses

  1. This is an excellent review. The Wire is high up on my list of shows to watch from beginning to end. I’ve seen only a few scattered episodes.

    “While David Simon definitely has liberal political leanings (he has said the 2nd season is “a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy; that, on its own, without a social compact, raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many”), the series primarily preaches about the power of institutions over individuals, the failure of the war on drugs, the lost hope of chronically impoverished communities, and the corruption of ideals that goes hand in hand with these forces. Simon and company also take a Diane Ravitch-esque view of education: that no amount of policy reform can change the underlying realities of broken families, a drug culture, and a lack of visible economic opportunity.”

    I’m wondering how this squares ideologically with liberalism. I’d consider Simon, from what interviews of his I’ve read, to be of a pragmatic liberal bent, but I do see some elements of conservatism and Marxism there (can’t separate politics from culture; culture is the root of social problems, etc.) It seems to me though that he’s more focused on description of problems than offering solutions, which may be what gives rise to the assumption that The Wire is a cynical work.Report

    • Anderson in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      Definitely strong shades of Marxist theory. The show really does not offer solutions, because to offer a solution would be to assume you have the knowledge of the how to fix things, and a big idea of the show is how institutions have a way of morphing “great ideas” into something else. Plus, the show would come off as having too strong an agenda, in my opinion, if they tried to say do x, y, and z, and things will be better. These are journalists, not think-tankers. So I too can see how cynicism comes to define the Wire.Report

  2. Mike Schilling says:

    I’ve seen only a few scattered episodes.

    That really is like saying “War and Peace? I’ve only read a few scattered chapters.” Not criticizing; just encouraging you to get the whole thing (or at least the first season), and set time aside to watch and reflect on the episodes. I’d also recommend Alan Sepinwall’s episode reviews at http://sepinwall.blogspot.com/.Report

  3. James K says:

    The thing that struck me about The Wire is how well it captured bureaucracy (though happily the bureaucracy I work for is orders of magnitude more functional than the Baltimore PD). Particularly that you get all kinds of people that work in an organisation and most of the time when things go wrong it’s systemic.Report

  4. very well done. it’s hard to pin the show’s politics, though for sure it’s highly skeptical of a “post-industrial” economy as well as, by implication, globalization. everything i’ve read from simon would indicate he sees neoliberalism (the whole movement, starting with the austrian school types; not the DLC-sub group) with a highly jaundiced if not outright hostile eye.

    but more concretely he has often called the war on drugs a de facto war on the poor. there’s at least one area where a clear policy preference is expressed.

    anyway, i’d say the wire is one of the major achievements in american pop culture. it’s in that rarefied air with the sopranos and deadwood, imo.Report

    • Can you elaborate on that? I’m not quite seeing the connection between The Wire and Hayek, unless you’re talking about the “Hayek” that leading Republicans use to score PR points with libertarians who aren’t really paying attention.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Christopher Carr says:

        Simon comes across to me as a small s socialist (or at least labor leftist), but with a strong skepticism of institutions. So perhaps a politics & worldview that align closely with Kevin Carson’s.Report

        • There’s a strange confluence which I can’t really work out of Hayek-loving, left-leaning libertarians and Hayek-hating, labor-supporting leftists. Simon probably occupies some position there, along with Kevin Carson, Noam Chomsky, et al.

          I still can’t figure out for the life of me how Hayek’s insight, that orders emerge from individuals responding to incentives (traffic patterns, markets, etc.), has drawn so much hatred from the left.Report

    • Anderson in reply to Elias Isquith says:

      Agreed, the war on drugs is one of the only areas that Simon and co. express an obvious policy opinion, though they aren’t terribly specific about what they mean by “end the war.” I guess putting a stop to prosecuting addicts, three strikes, mandatory minimum sentencing, etc? Not sure if they are for all-out legalization, except for maybe marijuana?

      Anyway, David Simon’s response to Eric Holder’s request for another season of the Wire: “The Attorney-General’s kind remarks are noted and appreciated. I’ve spoken to Ed Burns and we are prepared to go to work on season six of The Wire if the Department of Justice is equally ready to reconsider and address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive and dehumanising drug prohibition.”

      Also, glad you mentioned deadwood. I’m watching that now, wonderful commentary on the making of society.Report

  5. Sam MacDonald says:

    You might not be ambitious enough here. You mention that it might interest people who follow urban policy and cities. I think the issues that The Wire addresses have a more universal appeal. I am from a small town, and the problems with drugs, the war on drugs, authority, bureaucracy and all the rest still resonate.Report

    • Anderson in reply to Sam MacDonald says:

      Very interesting. I, of course, am not from a small town, so the thought never occurred to me. Though I feel like small towns lack the race relations and scale of bureaucracy that define the Wire, not to mention the obvious gap between poverty and wealth that permeates Baltimore (to quote Bubbles, “thin line ‘tween heaven and hell”). Regardless, I’d love to hear more about how the Wire can be related to different settings.Report

  6. Kolohe says:

    A quibble with an otherwise excellent post because I’m a middle ground guy.

    “In contrast, Marlo Stanfield, a rival to the powerful Barksdale drug family, makes upward movement in the crime world by disavowing absolute power, keeping a low profile, and, in true Machiavellian fashion, taking advantage of events as they occur.”

    Agree on 2 & 3, but does he really disavow absolute power? Or is he just really good at delegating? Malvo’s reaction to that one store security guard who took objection to Malvo pilfering some candy (worth maybe a buck or two) shows that Malvo perceives a need to demonstrate his authority even for petty slights.Report

    • FridayNext in reply to Kolohe says:

      I agree, also too, recall Marlo’s final moments on screen (minor spoiler, but I ain’t saying which season or episode) where he puts a beat down on a corner boy for no good reason other than he can and then prances around like Rocky on museum steps.

      Contrasting the motivations of Stringer, Avon, Marlo, and even Prop Joe is an interesting exercise and among those I would suggest Marlo’s motivations are more about power for power’s sake than any of the others with Avon a close second.Report

  7. Anderson says:

    Good point, the idea of personal honor and respect/ fear from the community are very important to Marlo and his compatriots (the end of season 5 after the fancy dinner party immediately comes to mind)…I mean disavow absolute power in the sense that he knows he can’t change “the game” and does not make a spectacle of his power, unlike Stringer Bell with his Holiday Inn conferences and “reforms.”

    To again quote Sophie Fuggle, “Then there are those characters such as Marlo Stanfield and his lieutenants Snoop and Chris who recognise that power is something transitory and illusory which one never possesses absolutely and which must be negotiated carefully since the strategies used to get to the top will also be used by others against you.”Report

  8. Koz says:

    The greatest part of The Wire is it’s narrative immensity. To that end, I think it pretty much explodes what we’ve seen on television before. In particular, one of the lessons of The Wire is that there are no lessons. Lessons or not, what goes on in The Wire is completely compelling on its own terms.

    That notwithstanding, here’s what I got from The Wire:

    1. There’s always hope, precisely because we’re not going to sugarcoat bleakness of the drug trade. You’d think that dealers, criminals and users are all destined to end up dead or in jail, and most of them are, but not all of them. There’s always a way out, though not everyone will find it.

    As an aside, that’s a large part of the motivation behind some of my political comments, and my frustration at President Obama. For those who have sometimes clashed with me over this or that, it’s important to emphasize that it’s the mainstream conservatives in America and the GOP politically associated with them who have real hope to offer America, and neither one of us should ever forget it.

    2. At a more concrete level, the beneficiaries of the quasi-racialist stop-snitching criminal culture are very very narrow. It’s funny to contrast with what we read about here that the profits of capitalism goes to the richest 10% of Americans or whatever.

    Unless you get to the level of say, Cheese or Slim Charles, you’re never even in the game, let alone winning it. The people above you will cash you out without a second thought, for reasons that might be irrational or stupid. Not only was this a profound eye-opener for a bourgeois white American such as myself, but it’s also the source of a lot of the dramatic intensity of the series as well. The Bodie’s, D’Angelo’s, and Poot’s of the world come and go and nobody ever remembers them, even if they’ve climbed a decent way up their corporate ladder. The scene where McNulty tells D’Angelo’s mother that he explained himself to his girlfriend first because he thought she was the one who cared, it was fkkkin’ intense.

    3. Maybe ancillary to that, there’s a layer of anonymity to the whole thing, especially relative to bourgeois America. The Wire is way better than The Sopranos, and especially relative to The Sopranos. There’s strong comic undertones to The Sopranos that become apparent in context. Next to The Wire, it’s hard to see how anybody takes The Sopranos seriously. But even if the people of The Wire are Not Us, they are completely compelling nonetheless.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Koz says:

      “it’s important to emphasize that it’s the mainstream conservatives in America and the GOP politically associated with them who have real hope to offer America, and neither one of us should ever forget it.”

      Ok, I’ll bite. What do mainstream conservatives and the GOP associated with them have to offer Frank Sobtka in that one scene when he sees the future of the shipping industry? I’m as big a fan of globalization and free trade as they come, and I don’t have an answer for him. Not with our existing institutions and any plausible changes to them (and even some implausible ones)Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Kolohe says:

        Frank should be pushing Ziggy into a career in computers (which he seems to have a knack for) and Nicky into some non-dying industry. But Frank is screwed, like anyone who’s spent a lifetime gaining expertise that’s no longer valued. Creative destruction works for the system as a whole, but it sheds individuals like so much industrial waste.Report

      • Koz in reply to Kolohe says:

        We offer hope to America collectively. America individually has got too many interests for the government address.

        That said, I think Frank Sobotka might be the most compelling television character ever. In a weird way, I’ve actually thought of Frank Sobotka as a proxy for liberal America (in a way that doesn’t speak well of the libs, frankly).

        Just before he died, Frank Sobotka told Beadie that he had to get clean, a realization that the libs haven’t made yet, but need to. And, his understanding of what the threats posed by the local cops and the Feds was more or less accurate. But his biggest problem wasn’t law enforcement. He didn’t realize till much too late that it was his partners, the people he chose to associate with, that were his real problem.Report

  9. tarylcabot says:

    The Wire was a very fine show, but I’m (always) hesitant to proclaim any show the best ever until some time has passed. Personally, i would choose I’ll Fly Away as the best ever, but it would be interesting to watch both shows say 10 years from now & then decide.Report

  10. curious says:

    I’m watching this show now – on dvd. I live in a big city in the N.E. and I can see this is not far from reality at all. It makes me wish that things would be much different. It’s not romanticizing anything. My brother lives in a smaller city, surrounded by drugs every day. He reports it and even goes to city hall meetings. The city responds with periodic arrests and things quiet down. I fear for his life. In the city I’m in, he would be dead. He tried to watch the wire, but couldn’t take the violence. I wonder if maybe it was realizing his own fragile existence.Report