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The Wire

Our film columnist Thomas Wartenberg talks about television for a change, as he stares down a cable at The Wire.

One striking feature of philosophers’ recent interest in popular culture is how wide a net they have cast. Although movies were the first pop-cultural form to attract the notice of philosophers, television has recently become a focus of discussion. Philosophers have become interested in the question of the distinctive character of TV as a medium as well as issues about its ability to pose and, perhaps, resolve philosophical questions.

Both of these topics arise in my own reflections on the recently ended HBO series The Wire. The series’ title refers to the electronic telephone surveillance that a small investigative unit of the Baltimore City Police is trying to use to monitor the phone calls of various drug dealers in West Baltimore. The reason that the police need to have a ‘wire’ is that the normal tactic of rounding up the corner dealers does not actually do anything to ameliorate the drug problem, for the people in charge of drug trafficking are not the ones actually making the street deals. For that, the gang leaders hire young men from their neighborhoods, luring them with the promise of wealth and the ‘goods and services’ it can buy, like the attention of the beautiful young women who also occupy a place in the drug dealers’ array of possessions. Hence, the need for telephone surveillance, which can provide the evidence to convict the higher-ups who are the real power brokers in the world of illegal drugs.

Getting a wire is not a simple matter. In order to obtain one, the unit needs permission from a judge. Not only does this involve it in the broader judicial system and its quirks, but also it requires that the unit have sufficient evidence for a judge to provide them with the court order they need. In addition, the unit needs to obtain permission to pursue this strategy from the higher ups in the Police Bureau and this proves difficult to get. This is because the police officials find themselves caught in a numbers game. In order to provide the government officials, at whose pleasure they serve, with the statistics they need to show that they are successfully ‘fighting crime,’ the police have to make arrests and get convictions on the politicians’ timetable. But this is most easily accomplished by arresting the street dealers, rather than going after the more elusive and more difficult quarry of the drug lords. So the unit faces a range of administrative difficulties that obstruct their efforts to actually fight crime effectively.

This, then, is the major focus of The Wire: the problems facing a small detachment of police who actually want to do more than just pay lip service to the so-called ‘War on Drugs.’ But such a bald summary does justice neither to the gritty realism of series nor to the depth of its philosophical concerns. David Simon, the main force behind the series, has said that he wanted to create a show that would be regarded by the people who were its subjects – cops, drug dealers, etc. – as providing an accurate view of their world. In this way, the show seems less concerned to appeal to the views of a middle-class audience than to provide a realistic glimpse into worlds that such an audience never encounters directly.

Although the police and drug dealers are the primary subjects of the series, other groups are included as well. Both the judiciary and the government appear because they play a necessary role in relation to the police. But, after the first season, other groups make an appearance: longshoremen and, in particular, their union in season two, teachers and students in the public schools in season four, and a city newspaper in season five. (I should disclose that I have not seen the fifth season yet.) The show thus has a focus on people who make up six different organizations that are central to contemporary urban life: drug dealers, cops, members of the judiciary including lawyers and judges, government officials, union members, teachers and students, and reporters. What I find most interesting about The Wire, at least from a philosophical point of view, is its take on what all of these organizations have in common. Crime fiction often presents the enforcers of the law as more similar to its transgressors than we are accustomed to thinking. Indeed, this is one of the characteristics of noir fiction as a genre. But The Wire goes both farther and deeper than this in its depiction of the worlds of drug dealers, the police, government officials, etc. What the show suggests is that each of these organizations (be it formal as in the case of the police or informal as in the case of the drug dealers) enforces standards of conduct on its members from which they cannot depart without risking censure of a specific kind. And since these norms of conduct are legitimated internally by each organization, little room is left for individuals to act on the basis of the universal norms of morality that philosophers generally take to be binding on us in virtue of our humanity alone. The Wire thus presents an original take on the difficulty of acting morally because it identifies the problem of doing so not in our depravity as human beings (cf Kant et al) or the weakness of our wills (cf Aristotle, among others), but in our situatedness within social organizations.

An example will help clarify this. The first season of the show concentrates on the police’s attempt to install a wire to track the dealings of a drug gang headed by Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris). As well as the usual street corner business, this gang does most of its trade in a West Baltimore housing project. The show gives us what feels like a first-hand view of how the gang operates. We see many of the street operatives, who occupy ‘territory’ in the housing project and deal drugs to a mostly black clientele. We also get intimate portraits of the gang’s leaders, who are fantastically wealthy and operate their business above a topless bar that acts as a front for their illegal activities.

As I have said, the show focuses on a police unit that is trying to get to the gang’s leadership by means of electronic surveillance. The show wants us to see how difficult it is for them to do so because the norms under which the police operate include maximizing arrests and convictions. In fact, although we like to think of the police as attempting to fight crime and make our everyday world a safer place, on a day-to-day basis most of them, according to the show, are only concerned to keep crime statistics – not the crimes themselves – from increasing, lest their superiors and, worst of all, the political leadership become upset that the statistics might be used to show that there is a new crime wave. As a result, long-term strategies, such as using electronic surveillance to monitor drug activities, are generally rejected in favor of short-term ones, such as rounding up the usual suspects from the street corners. Indeed, the central police character, Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), is a pariah precisely because he eschews the short-term gains and dedicates himself to the project of catching the drug lords, especially Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), Barksdale’s second-in-command.

From this systematic point of view, the drug-dealing organization is pretty similar to the police, although the specific norms for behavior that get enforced are quite different. That is, since both the police and the drug-dealing gang are organizations, each enforces a set of norms for the behavior on the part of its ‘participants’ from which deviation is not tolerated. But, whereas the police value arrests and convictions as well as solidarity with other police, the drug dealers support such values as maximizing profits and not ‘ratting’ to the police if one gets caught. The language that the gang uses to justify its norms treats them all as simply part of ‘the game,’ that is, as a behavioral code necessitated by drug dealing itself.

If we accept the show’s contention that the rules which organizations such as the police and the drug gang enforce on their members are required to perpetuate and protect the organization’s existence, then it seems clear that these organizations will not recognize the superordinate norms of ethical behavior. No deviation from the organization’s norms, regardless of the motivation that leads to it, will be tolerated. I’ve already mentioned McNulty’s pariah status. A more poignant fate awaits one of the drug dealers whose moral qualms keep him from doing all that the gang demands.

D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.) is the nephew of the gang’s leader, Avon. New to town, D’Angelo is given the relatively respected position at the head of a crew of dealers in the West Baltimore housing project. As we get to know him and his life over the course of the first season, we come to realize that he is a basically decent human being trying to come to terms with what he increasingly recognizes as a violent and inhumane world that he abhors. One of his crew is an intelligent but naïve young man, Wallace (Michael B. Jordan). D’Angelo tries to protect Wallace, so that he can leave the crew and return to school. So when Wallace is murdered to make sure that he won’t rat on the gang, D’Angelo is disillusioned with the gang and its methods. He increasingly recognizes that the language of ‘family’ that the gang uses is only invoked to keep people like him in line. As he attempts to become independent from his uncle and the gang, he too is murdered.

What this story line illustrates is The Wire’s presentation of organizations as making ethical behavior difficult if not impossible for their participants. Any action that doesn’t accord with these groups’ norms is a violation that has to be punished. Depending on the organization and the norm, such punishments will differ. While a policeman who doesn’t put stats first may be demoted and find himself fishing bodies out of the bay instead of pursuing drug dealers, a drug dealer who wants out of the game is likely to be found dead the next morning to keep him from ‘ratting out’ the organization. Although there may be ‘different strokes’ for different groups, at least in the show’s view, such apparently different organizations as a drug gang and a city police force have analogous normative structures and react to transgressions of their behavioral norms with the same imperative to punish. And it’s not just those two organizations that have this structure, but also all the others to which the show devotes its attention. This includes unions, government, schools, and the media. As a result, all the players in these organizations are faced with the same dilemma: Conform or be punished! It’s no wonder that morality finds so few footholds in our contemporary world, ruled as it is by organizations.

This perspective on the impact that membership in social organizations has on the lives of human beings opens up a different lens on the problem of conformity in modern societies. What is suggested is that, with the increasing dominance of organizations on the lives of human beings in modern societies, there is a parallel rise in the incentive to conform to the standards that these organizations impose. As a result, individuals enmeshed in such organizations have an incentive to reject acting according to autonomous moral rules even when they experience their pull.

The show’s basic narrative emphasizes this point by focusing on individuals who fail in their attempts to follow their own moral code and suffer punishment for attempting to do so. McNulty and D’Angelo Barksdale are only two of the characters whose actions fit this pattern. The corrupt union president in the second season, the renegade police colonel in the third, and educational reformers in the fourth all confront similar fates (although the reformers apparently do not receive any punishment for their doomed efforts other than to have their successes undermined).

In The Republic, Plato argued that people ought to be moral because morality enables one’s soul to be in harmony with itself. The Wire’s conception of the effects of acting morally is a radical departure from that optimistic view. At least in the worlds of the police, drug gangs, the government, unions, and the schools, those who allow themselves to be swayed by their own sense of what is right wind up sidelined, punished or even dead because their lives are governed by organizations that, unlike Plato’s mythical state, treat morality as inimical to their interests.

My take on the show is confirmed by a consideration of one of the few characters in The Wire who is able to live a life that has some sort of moral integrity. It may sound off to deem his code a moral one since it includes murdering those he opposes: Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), is an outsider who makes his living robbing drug dealers in Robin Hood-like fashion (although he keeps his profits rather than giving them to the poor!) It is Omar’s outsider status, his ability to live a life external to the organizations that dominate the lives of most of the show’s characters that allows him to act according to his own norms of conduct.

David Simon, the mastermind behind the series, has emphasized the difference between The Wire’s worldview and that of TV series like The Sopranos. Some have tried to compare Tony Soprano to such Shakespearean tragic heroes as Hamlet and Macbeth. What makes such comparisons at least initially plausible is the fact that Tony shares with his Shakespearean forerunners the sort of interior life that makes us experience both him and them as modern. But the central characters in The Wire, Simon claims, are more like the tragic heroes of Greek drama, victims of fate, which rules their lives without their being able to evade it. Simon also believes that this makes The Wire’s world seem somewhat alien to contemporary audiences, who feel more at home with the assumptions of modernity (and post-modernity), in particular with the idea that we are, at least to some degree, masters of our own fate.

While I don’t completely disagree with Simon, I think he’s failed to recognize one of the distinctive features of the world that he and his collaborators have created: a world in which the very attempt to live according to standards of morality is not only doomed to failure but completely crushed. Although the world of The Wire does share with the world of Greek tragedy an acknowledgment that individuals are not always the masters of their own destiny, what makes the show’s world distinctively (post-) modern is the ubiquity of organizations rather than of gods.

Although I think that this is the dominant outlook of The Wire, there is a minor aspect of the series that tends to undercut it. Unfortunately, at least from my point of view, the series has a tendency to vilify certain characters, such as Stringer Bell and State Senator Clayton Davis (Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.). Such Iago-like evil characters tend to detract from the dominant vision of the series, for it presents their actions as stemming from their character as evil individuals rather than from the norms that govern the organizations to which they below. As enjoyable as it is to have characters to hate, their presence detracts from the overall point of view of the series by making it seem that the terrible fates of individuals like D’Angelo Barksdale are due to malevolence of specific individuals rather than the normative structure of the organizations to which they belong.

I began this column by claiming that The Wire was interesting not only because of its philosophical claims but also because of what it told us about television as a medium. What I think The Wire demonstrates is that a television series provides its makers with an opportunity to develop characters, themes, and situations in a much more sustained manner than the typical movie. The average feature film runs for about two hours. There have been many longer than that, of course, but if viewers are to watch a film in a single sitting, it can’t last much longer than three hours. As a result, there are limits to what a film can achieve. It has to set up a situation, develop its characters, and resolve the narrative in some way within a fairly brief span of time. A television series is not limited in this way, although the creators of television series have rarely exploited this potential. In general, the sort of series characteristic of HBO has around twelve episodes, which gives the creators twelve hours each year in which to tell their tale. This means that a television series can present its viewers with a more complex and nuanced fictional world than the average film, one that comes closer to the world of a novel, which generally requires more than one sitting to read. Our ability to come to know characters over an extended period of time and to gradually understand who they are and what problems they have to confront in their lives means that a series can present its characters as facing more complex situations evolving over a longer period of (screen) time than most fiction films. And when you consider that successful series can run for a number of years, the opportunities for a serious engagement with issues multiply.

So a television series like The Wire is an eminently suitable subject for philosophical reflection. But the series is not just that. It is also an incredibly enjoyable viewing experience. Many of its fans – myself included – are sad that it lasted only five seasons. But we can console ourselves that the show maintained such a high standard of integrity and interest over those seasons. And the show demonstrates that television is a medium deserving the attention of philosophers.

© Thomas Wartenberg 2008

Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Thinking on Screen (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

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