Lessons Gleaned from The Wire
~by Anderson Tuggle
“It’s really about the American city, and about how we live together. It’s about how institutions have an effect on individuals. Whether one is a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge, or a lawyer, all are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution they are committed to.”
That’s David Simon, creator of The Wire and former Baltimore Sun writer, explaining his show, a show I believe to be the finest television series ever created. For those of you who have not seen or heard of The Wire, it lasted five seasons on HBO, from 2002 to 2008, and attempted to capture the complexities and contradictions of sustaining an urban community in the 21st century, with the specific focus on Baltimore. It is technically fiction, but many of the writers, cast, and crew have spent their lives working in Baltimore (e.g. Ed Burns, William Zorzi, Rafael Alvarez) and they tell the story straight from the source, with major characters and incidents based on very real people and events. Heralded for its “echoes of the Victorian social panorama of Charles Dickens” and ability to “dissect a troubled American city as well as and certainly more truly than any history book could have”, The Wire has become something of a holy relic to those who have experienced it. Even gangsters have been known to watch the show and nod approvingly at its authenticity.
So, for those of us interested in urban policy, the war on drugs, cycles of poverty, public schools, or any other facet of the American city, The Wire has a lot to offer besides just superb writing and a whole host of beautifully flawed characters. It looks critically at Baltimore’s network of institutions, their interests, and how those interests collide, leaving individuals as mere collateral in the great game of power. We look at the police department’s (and their political superiors) obsession with improving their arrest numbers and grimace, but then, after watching Colvin’s attempt at reform and the gangs’ manipulation of the law, ask ourselves if it’s even possible to create a justice system where the little guy doesn’t perpetually take the fall. We look at the stevedores union and feel pity at their dearth of opportunity, while wondering if anything can be done to change Frank Sobotka’s globalization analysis that “we used to make shit, build shit in this country…now everybody just puts their hand in the next guy’s pocket.” We cheer along as a new Mayor promises better governance, only to see deficits and politics overtake good intentions, forcing us to ask why we always place such hope in one person. These are tough dichotomies and, thankfully, David Simon and company espouse no preference towards either the gangs or the police or the teachers or the blacks or the whites, making it easier to analyze the show without falling prey to the biases that permeate any political discussion. The Wire asks, “How can you make moralistic judgments when ALL sides are rendered in their confusion and complexity?” Or in its street form: Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Surprisingly, though, the series does not fall into a nihilistic charade where all hope is smothered by the behemoth of the status quo. Several characters end up for the better by the close of the fifth season (I won’t spoil who here) and, on the whole, The Wire portrays bleakness in Baltimore’s institutions but cautious sanguinity and tender empathy for its individuals.
Now, it’s hard to find strong lessons in a show that challenges every simplistic assumption you have, but here are four thoughts about the functioning of the American city that I have taken from The Wire:
1.) The justice system does not work as it is portrayed in mainstream crime television (ala CSI and Law & Order.)
Admittedly this is a “duh, obvious” conclusion to draw, and I would hope the viewers of the above-mentioned shows know it. A few imperfections exist in these shows, however, that are worth clarifying. The most obvious fault is the emphasis these shows place on the line between those who break the law and those who enforce it; the good guys vs. the bad guys, so to say. In The Wire, characters like the finger-breaking Officer Walker contrast with the youth leader/ex-convict Dennis Cutty, putting to rest any conclusion that the law and justice permanently reside in the same camp. Also, the slick efficiency of the justice system with seemingly limitless budgets and zero regulations, as shown in the forensic labs of CSI, is a myth when it comes to city police and bureaucracy. Budget cuts and a backlog of forgotten overtime pay frustrate already-stressed police, while wiretap warrants get caught up in judicial politics and regulatory catch-22s. In an institution as vast as Baltimore’s criminal justice system, there are few shared values and, more often than not, multiple versions of the truth (the homeless killer of Season 5, for example). To quote Sophie Fuggle’s superb essay on darkmatter.org, “Throughout the show, characters are faced with decisions not between right and wrong but, instead, whether to do the wrong thing for the right reasons or the right thing for the wrong reasons.”
2.) No one person can possess absolute power, much less use it to change things for the better
This has been a common theme throughout human history, particularly as we have moved away from absolutist monarchs to a democratic network of interests, but The Wire goes to great lengths to show the limitations on any one man who tries to reform deeply-entrenched institutions. The most obvious examples include Tommy Carcetti’s attempts to root out bureaucratic corruption and Jimmy McNulty’s fruitless use of “creative policing” to solve crimes in a manner that doesn’t fit BPD’s protocol. Both men think they can influence an outcome through sheer force of will, but, unsurprisingly, they end up unable to control all of the x-factors. This belief in absolute power (and the pitfalls that accompany it) exists outside the political realm as well: Stringer Bell cannot make the black market work like a free and fair market, and Frank Sobotka cannot turn back the clock on 21st century capitalism. Even poor, homeless Bubbles sees his grand plan to take revenge out on an enemy crumble beneath the weight of unintended consequences. 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.
3.) Simple platitudes like “more active government” vs. “smaller government” are unhelpful.
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. Yet, conservatives and libertarians (probably more so libertarians) can cheer as the excesses of bureaucratic red tape, the “gangster lifestyle”, standardized testing, and Baltimore’s Democratic Party are laid bare. In the end, though, The Wire refuses to allow stereotypes to take hold. While Clarence Royce and Clay Davis fit the conservative caricature of urban black politician disturbingly well, they are balanced out by more scrupulous characters such as Cedric Daniels and Norm Wilson. While No Child Left Behind gets a bad rap, public schools and caring teachers are still seen as a force for good in students’ lives. While the BPD’s system of “juking the stats” and “roughing up the corners” is shown as counterproductive to good policing, the individual officers run the gamut from fair, intelligent public servants (e.g. Ellis Carver by the latter seasons) to guys who just want to take their anger out on somebody (e.g. Anthony Colicchio). Hence, The Wire notes how some areas fail because of an abundance of policy and rules, while others suffer from a lack of attention and concern from not only the public sector, but the general populace.
4.) Still, small victories can be achieved in the face of overwhelming social forces.
For the most part, people describe The Wire as a cynical, even depressing, work where nothing ever changes. This sentiment strikes me as a bit unfair, though not inaccurate. Characters can and do make a positive difference in The Wire: Bunny Colvin helps a young man turn his life around, former gangbangers and convicts claw themselves out of a vicious cycle, amateur police officers blossom into teachers and community leaders, and drug rehab programs help shepherd addicts to sobriety. Do the structural institutions of the city change for the better? No, not really, but, as the folks behind The Wire are journalists, they dutifully report the facts from the ground with no cherry on top. It is important to remember, though, that the characters who foster small, positive changes are generally decent people who understand the limits to their power and practice small resistance in realms they can control.
To again quote David Simon, “We are not selling hope, or audience gratification, or cheap victories with this show.” That being said, the show is truly as entertaining as it is insightful…So has anybody else seen The Wire? What do you think? What lessons do you take away from it?
Further Reading: Check out any of the hyperlinks above, especially the darkmatter.org Wire files. The Sophie Fuggle and Lawrence Blum essays are great.