Drug War The Wire

I meant this, not that. But yeah, I meant it.

An unarmed black teenager was shot to death in Florida recently. You probably read about it or caught the controversy on the tube.  A lot of people are saying that the kid deserved it, that he attacked the fellow with the gun, that he was a thug, that he’d been suspended from school, that he wasn’t so innocent as people think.   Others are saying the gunman is racist, that he’s a self-appointed vigilante, that he had no business trailing the kid, that he’s kind of a nutcase.

And day after day, as the case winds toward a trial date, this beast that we have for a modern media culture will parse it  with a few more shards of information and rumor, true and false. Trayvon might have shoplifted the Skittles.  Zimmerman had no visible injuries.  Zimmerman had injuries but they didn’t show on camera. Trayvon smoked pot.

It’s what we do. It’s all that we do, really.

If we can manufacture a good guy, we can exalt him. If we can manufacture a bad guy, we can degrade him.  If we can’t decide, we can argue and call each other names.  But more than anything complicated, the dialectic is always about deciding who is the bigger asshole, in this case, dead kid or his shooter.

Is anything more at stake? And do we even care anymore?

*          *          *

Having come from the bowels of that media culture – the cop beat in Baltimore, Maryland – I find it hard to be entirely pessimistic about the dynamic.  I played the game for a long while, and that history, I suppose, makes it harder to jettison the notion that the marketplace of ideas, as unruly as it is, can actually be, well, in the idea business.

I know there’s a low end.  There’s always a low end.  And as an apostate reporter taking a check from the entertainment industry, I’m certainly not entitled to any illusions about what the low end can be.  A more calculating fellow would withdraw.  He’d make some television, take the check and tell everyone that they’re right:  Omar is the bestest.  He’d say thanks for thinking so, then go hang out by the kidney-shaped pool with the rest of the people we overpay to keep us entertained.

That guy doesn’t work on The Wire, of course.  His projects are lot more plausible, ingratiating and affirming to an audience, to be sure.   And, too, when someone from his original tribe asks him a question about the work, that guy doesn’t actually say what he thinks, but rather, he says what that audience wants to hear.   Me, I can’t help myself.  When the phone rings and it’s a newspaperman and he wants to talk about Richard Price, I give it right up.  I admire Price and want the best for his work, and I was once a newspaperman, so the conversation is an easy one. And when the reporter veers off, asking about all the recent Wire love, I answer that honestly, too.

It’s March and all of these Wire brackets have cropped up on various websites, so I think that we’re talking about all the faux tourneys and Omar versus Stringer and which season is worst and twenty-five best scenes lists and such — and I speak specifically to that mess, or at least I think I do.  Folks slathering that silly shit on the cake weren’t there when the show was struggling to survive, and now, four years later, they’re busy hacking the thing into pop-culture nuggets — which would be cool if anywhere in there an actual idea got discussed or argued or considered.  That’s my view anyway, and I let fly.

This ever-expanding drug war and what it’s doing to our society?  Boring.  The declining American commitment to public education and equality of opportunity?  Why talk about that when we can measure Namond against Dookie in the West Baltimore bracket?   The notion that an America that uses quarterly profits as its only metric is no longer a utilitarian experiment, that free market capitalism, disconnected from a social compact, has made our country coarse and unjust?  Jesus, man, you’re sucking the air out of the room.

To be clear:  I don’t think the Wire has all the right answers.  It may not even ask the right questions.  It is certainly not some flawless piece of narrative, and as many good arguments about real stuff can be made criticizing the drama as praising it.  But yes, the people who made the Wire did so to stir actual shit.  We thought some prolonged arguments about what kind of country we’ve built might be a good thing, and if such arguments and discussions ever happen, we will feel more vindicated in purpose than if someone makes an argument for why The Wire is the best show in years.  (“Buffy,” by the way, was the correct answer to that particular bracketfest.)

Yes, I do get that if you tell a story, people will acquire it on their own terms.  Yes, I do get that people value what they value and they’re no less entitled than the people who tell the story.  And yes, I do know that some things of lesser import present the opportunity for greater humor.  But when asked a question about the belated interest in The Wire, and about what that interest means to us, are the people who worked on the tale for eight years entitled to our own truths?  Or will everyone have hurt feelings if we say, no, sorry,  whether Omar is the coolest ever isn’t the salient debate for which we labored.

Because I said that much, or I tried to.  But for want of a pronoun, the New York Times seemed to think that I was critiquing ordinary viewers who got there late to The Wire, or for failing to embrace the show on my terms.  Ouch.  What I intended to criticize specifically was a media culture that, when the chips are down, values what it does and little more.  And yes, I did want to bite that hand, whether it feeds or not.

Yet I failed to answer in a complete topic sentence and the blogosphere, upon seeing the resulting offense, simply wet itself:  David Simon tells viewers he hates them.   He hates your Wire love.   He tells you how to think.  You’re watching his show wrong.  He may well be the biggest asshole since, well, since whichever asshole we were excited about a moment ago.

Seeing what I had wrought, I called the Times reporter.  Didn’t you know I was talking not about viewers in general but about all that bracketology crap that was going on?  It was clear to me what you meant, he replied, but you didn’t quite say it.  I wish, he added, I had followed up with a question that would have made it clear.  Yeah, well, maybe  so.  But hey, I’m the one who failed to convey what he meant.  Joke’s on me.

You want to go on-the-record now and talk about it?

Instead, I called a fellow who is, I’ve found, careful and nuanced in his work.  I apologized in that second forum for saying what I had no intention of saying – noting that the offending remark actually makes no sense, that it contradicts everything I’d ever said prior about how the Wire was acquired and how that allowed it to survive.  Then, I elaborated on the criticism I did intend, and answered other questions put to me.

Which of course made it worse.

More fun!  He apologizes!  What a dick.

But here’s the rub:  In the same way that  it’s largely irrelevant what anyone thinks about Omar and Bubbles, or even the individual cases of Zimmerman and Martin, it sure as hell doesn’t matter what you think of David Simon or Ed Burns.  And certainly, what they might think of you is wholly unimportant.  Yet this stuff has traction in a way that the systemic never does.  At this point, it’s easy to say that ours is a culture that no longer solves its fundamental problems, but it’s worse than that; we no longer recognize our problems for what they are.  We have no sense of perspective, of scope.

Hell, we can’t even manage an argument that matters anymore.

*          *          *

A few weeks ago, I felt so beleagured by the overall coverage of the Trayvon Martin case that I pulled up and wrote an op-ed for the Miami Herald, which argued, basically, that we’re missing the point.

Obviously the details of what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman matter to the adjudication of that singular incident.   But regardless of whether Zimmerman is convicted or not, what matters far more – and requires greater attention from the media, from legislators, from the public – is that there is now a sea change in American criminal justice.

Where once it was incumbent on people who take a life to prove that they did so in self-defense, now – in Florida and nineteen other states – hundreds of years of American jurisprudence and English common law are reversed so that the burden of proof is on the state.  Now, Florida must prove that someone who takes human life did not have reasonable cause to believe they were in grave jeopardy.

Previously, this was a legal standard that we extended only to sworn and trained law officers.  If they had reason to believe that they, or fellow officers or citizens were in jeopardy – even if they were wrong in that assessment – then grand juries were routinely told not to indict. Our legal system has long understood that even good police – those not prone to excess, those fully trained in the use of lethal force – can still give you a bad shoot in a decision that is often made in a short second or two.

And now, quietly, by dint of both cash infusions from the gun lobby to legislators and scant attention from a hollowed-out press corps, this cautious standard is gone in twenty states.  Now, anyone — regardless of their role, training or ultimate purpose —  can bring a gun to an argument and take a life.  And then, if they can manufacture enough of a threat to their person, they can justify the act.  Maybe witnesses will be present to contradict their version of events; maybe not.  Maybe there will be physical evidence to invalidate their claims; maybe not.  But now, the baseline for responsibility lies not with the shooter, but with the state.

Guns don’t kill people, people do — this is the mantra that for generations has defined the prevailing ethos of the firearms lobby.  But now, the argument has moved on:  Guns don’t kill and neither do people; now, folks are just killed.  Shit happens is the new credo for this quiet, epic revolution in our country – one that has already led to many more homicides that defy prosecution in the affected states.

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, that’s the fundamental that relatively few in the media scrum find interesting.  Legalisms have no real traction.  Rumors about Trayvon’s purported thugishness are a delight for some.  Tales of Zimmerman’s neurotic cop-wannabe behavior are a salve for the rest.  And for every article that carefully takes on the legal foundation, there are twenty or thirty more that fetishize the particulars of Zimmerman v. Martin.

A week or month or a year from now, someone else is going to walk up to a fresh victim in Florida or some other state burdened with stand-your-ground absurdity and we’ll have a new body over which to argue. Which is just fine, because does anyone really believe that our instant-assessment, instant-gratification media world  is capable of anything beyond the ad hominem?  Let them begin again and do what they do best:  Which one was the asshole?  Who is the bigger dickhead?  He deserved it.  No, he didn’t.  Which one am I rooting for?  Which one gets my vote?  Who wins?  Who loses?

Two men go in, one man comes out; may the lesser asshole win.

*          *          *

So the Trayvon Martin piece runs and on the Herald website, everyone pauses not a moment before returning immediately to argue about whether Zimmerman is a nutjob or Trayvon is a thug.  Scarcely a reader addresses himself to the transformational effect of the new law.  It’s a reaction that reflects precisely our political demeanor: Florida legislators, rather than call a special session or reopen debate on what they have wrought, have instead insisted that we should wait for more details from the Sanford shooting to come out, as if an outcome in that anecdotal case  can guide us in answering larger, more frightening questions about lethal force.

A couple weeks before writing that op-ed, I was in Baltimore, finishing a piece for the The Sun on a former officer who was shot and blinded twenty-five years ago, a good man who gave up everything but life itself trying to protect a neighborhood that is now mostly empty lots and boarded-up vacants.  From the hepatitis C he got in surgery back in 1987,  Gene Cassidy now needs a new liver, type A or O if you happen to know a donor.  And, too, what remains of West Baltimore he fought for is now a half-empty shell, a no man’s land for our relentless drug war.  The blogosphere – the second-by-second thermostat of our media culture — can’t do much with stuff like that.  They can throw up a link to a given tale or essay, sure.  They can swirl it around once or twice.  But then what?

Who is going to focus real, prolonged attention on any of the big, dry, disturbing stuff when every day, we can play with the farts and foibles of celebrity and near-celebrity.  The last twenty years has seen a great divestment in journalists who once covered issues – well-trained and committed men and women who might have, say, spent careers charting trends in criminal law and their effect, or who might be writing critical pieces about the rates of incarceration and what they’ve done to urban America.  The bodies that once did such things – or at least harbored ambitions in that direction — now don’t see the actual street.  Instead, they go to cubicles and snatch pieces of celebrity froth and mock outrage off one website, add a fresh witticism and repost.  Then they fire off another 140 characters or so alerting you to the fact that they’ve reposted.   There’s a real future in that, apparently.  Some even call it journalism.

Arguments about the taste of the bread or the look of the circuses go on forever, because, hey, Omar is cool and Bunk is funny as hell and isn’t it great when Clay Davis says the word shit.   Yes, it is nice to know that people were entertained.  It’s not that anyone begrudges an audience its pleasure; we wrote the cool stuff and the funny stuff and we enjoyed it, too.   But four years after The Wire is off the air, are we wrong for admitting aloud to other hopes and purposes for the finished work?

I know one thing:  To suggest as much, you have to choose words with a great care.  And, now, having said so again, it’s an even bet that the reaction to any of the above will be a predictable one:  Get over yourself.  It’s only TV.  Shut up.  Or on the more thoughtful side:  Just because we are having a little fun deconstructing the show into character contests or which-seasons-are-better debates doesn’t mean that we’re crowding out any serious discussion of issues.  C’mon, that’s not what this or that website is about anyway.  We’re here for fun and wit.  Someone else will fret the big stuff.  There’s a place for everything.

Well, so you say.  And somewhere else, someone might get to an idea or two, maybe in a forum that matters.  Except what got me to bleat what I did to that reporter in the first place was just such a moment, an improbable juxtaposition of a television show and Someone In Charge.  It involved a fellow, seated across from the President of the United States, interviewing him.

Now, I know that Bill Simmons is not a hard-news journalist.  He’s a sports columnist, and a good one, and at some point he apparently became enamored of The Wire.  And, too, given that my politics are somewhat to the left of the Democratic Party, it’s safe to say that Obama will have my vote in any likely contest going forward.  So god bless both fine men.

And yes, I understand that the reason for that interview – the precondition under which Obama participated, no doubt – was that it was a discussion of sports.  So, okay, no one needs to bring up a TV drama with the President of the United States for any sensible reason.  And yet at the end, Simmons chose to invoke The Wire.

If he were a hectoring asshole, an argumentative scold, a fucking killjoy, he might realize that he has The Man right there, and that he is at the end of the day acting as, well, a journalist.  So if anything is to be said about that show, well, here is a rare chance to break some ground.  He might swallow hard, seize the moment and say something along the lines of, “Mr. President.  I know you’ve said you’re a fan of The Wire.  Well, one of that show’s basic critiques is that the drug war is amoral.   More Americans are now in prison than ever before, and the percentage of violent offenders in prison is lower than ever.  We are now the jailingest society in the world, incarcerating more of each other than even totalitarian states.  How can we go on supporting this?”

Balls out like that.  Truth to power,  brah.  Get some.

Instead, to use a sportswriting cliché, Simmons choked, throwing up an ugly brick at the buzzer: “Who’s the best character in The Wire?”


Yeah, I know my question is cranky and rude.  Poor Obama, thinking he’s sitting down to talk Jeremy Lin and someone throws an actual issue at him?  The hell?

You’d have to be an asshole to do something like that.

*      *       *

A year ago, a magazine asked if I’d offer up — along with other scribblers — a brief something on a book that influenced me, that changed the way I thought or the way I wrote, or why I wrote at all.  I didn’t hesitate:  James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” – a book so devoted to its humanist argument that its pages made me both proud and ashamed to be a journalist in the same instant.

Agee’s classic is one of the most intimate studies of American poverty ever attempted, and at the point of publication, the author was somewhat aghast at the delicacy of the lives in the balance, the possible affront to the essential dignity of the broken, desperate world that he and Walker Evans had captured in prose and photograph.

True, the Wire was fiction, and true, too, it was operating in the medium of American television, which is premised on entertainment above all.  But concede at least that the problems depicted in The Wire are an actual dynamic in places like West Baltimore, where real people are marginalized or destroyed as a systemic function. A writer who would use such a world solely as an entertainment, or who thinks entertainment alone justifies such use – he needs to soak in “Famous Men” for at least a few chapters.

“If I could do it,” Agee declares, “I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art; and I could trust a majority of you to use it as you would a parlor game… “

Is The Wire art?

Who but a professional critic gives a rat’s ass.

Is it a parlor game?

Exactly so.  With Omar as the big winner.

*         *         *


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