Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Cops Again

"The Wire,” First Season, created by David Simon, HBO 2002

I’ve resisted watching this series because it seemed like an ordinary ‘realist’ cop drama, in spite of all the rave reviews it got from mostly white media critics.  And why do we need another fake ‘realist’ cop show? 

I was right. 

“The Wire” refers to taps and recorders put on pagers and public phones in a low-rise housing project in black west Baltimore, where heroin and cocaine are being dealt.  The object is to find and arrest a shadowy drug dealer who has killed 12 people to protect his business.   It is a picture of a decaying city.  A corroding urban capitalism that either generates prostitution, drug dealing, addiction, civic and police corruption, racism and death - or is helpless to fix the fundamental fuckupedness of African Americans.  Take your pick based on your political proclivities, as the show is a mirror, in spite of its creator’s intentions.  Watching “The Wire” is like taking a bath in cold, dirty water. 

Simon shows a world of helpless yet human black people, who have no hope or alternative.  It is promoted as a criticism of capitalism by left-liberals.  Actually, conservatives also like ‘The Wire’ because it reinforces their bigoted and racists ideas.  And to me, that is the heart of this show, which makes it hard to watch. Reihan Salam gets it when he says: “it strengthens the hand of paternalists of the left and determinists of the right. In that regard, the show is frankly destructive.”

Black people are nearly all strippers, prostitutes, junkies, drug dealers, party animals, crooked Democratic politicians or killers.  You may ‘kind of’ understand that they were forced into these lives, but actually the episodes do not show that.  Two main black characters are not hetero – one skilled female cop, Kima, is a lesbian and the other is a black gangbanger, Omar, looking for revenge upon the death of his boyfriend.  That is a record – 2 black homosexuals as major characters in one program.  And what might that mean?  There are 2 sympathetic old black ladies and one sympathetic young black woman that are on screen for a minute each, but no men.  The black working class is invisible.  That is a choice that the writers’ made. 

No doubt much of this is true to life for a part of the black community, which is why liberals like the show - so that they ‘know’ the misery of the black underclass.  But it has not led to any real change among the Democratic Party faithful.  As Zizek explains, the subtext of watching a show about poverty means you are also actually ‘doing’ something about it too!

‘The Wire’ features the standard trope of a white ‘good-guy cop,’ McNulty, pursuing Avon Barksdale, the black killer dealer, ignoring the roadblocks put up by corrupt higher-ups in the Baltimore police.  They are helped by a ‘good-guy’ white judge and a white female prosecutor.  And joining McNulty are 3 honest black cops – 2 being the only ‘clean’ black males in the bunch.  Although one cheats on his wife and drinks too much and McNulty is freshly divorced and drinks too much too.   This is another standard TV/movie practice to give the cops that ‘flawed humanity’ we all love so much.

A good number of the white cops on the force are portrayed as lazy, scheming, stupid, violent and really stupid.  Their guns go off accidentally, they drink at work, they beat up black people at 2 a.m. for no reason, they scheme to hurt themselves and get disability, they listen in on phone taps that they shouldn’t.  They have no understanding of stakeouts, police investigative work in civil records, looking through reams of documents, and mostly understand being a cop as being a ‘thumper’ or seat-warmer.  One of them is a regular John Goodman fatso comedian, and he’s one of the best.  These folks are the comedic high points, but even some of them become gradually sympathetic as they get better at their job, being led by McNulty and his female side-kick. 

The cops are the heroes, and we root for them to get Barksdale.  Barksdale, not capitalism, is the real enemy here.  If only he’d stop killing people, everything would be fine.

‘The Wire’ does show that drug dealing could lead Barksdale to becoming a straight businessman.  He has bought a strip bar, funeral parlour, copy shop and much real estate along a particular stretch of one main street.  He’s taking ‘finance’ classes at a local community college.  He tells the guys at his copy shop that the store is not just a front, but could become a real business.  Like the Mafia, he is laundering his money into legitimate businesses.  This is another form of ‘primitive accumulation.” As Marx said, at the bottom of many fortunes is a crime, or many crimes. 

It seems that Barksdale is paying off a local black politician, Senator Clive Davis, and perhaps his real estate purchases have something to do with a plan with real businessmen – or he’s going to open a mall development himself!  Even the black middle-class is suspect.

Recently, David Simon, the creator of “The Wire” and a former police reporter, recently responded to a statement by the Baltimore police department.  Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said of the series, “It was a smear that will take decades to overcome.”  In a long response, Simon opposed the crappy and fraudulent drug-war practices of the Baltimore police, and supported more intelligent and less corrupt policing.  Since the end of this series, this has supposedly happened, as the series focused on a 20-year period from the late ‘80s until the late ‘00s.  Has Baltimore then become a Commune, a workers’ or peoples’ council republic?  Has poverty and racism been abolished?  Or have the cops tweaked their methods?

One cannot avoid the feeling while watching ‘The Wire’ that the police and the criminals are actually two sides of one dialectical coin – poverty and repression are essential twins to the functioning of modern capital. The cops are like a gang in blue.  The drug dealers are quite careful, almost military, and handle their business like experts. 

The brokenness of nearly every urban institution in ‘The Wire’ in Baltimore and by extension other cities, shows that capital indeed is reaching its terminus. This is really not news, at least not to Marxists.   However, not everyone who watches this season will walk away with that thought.  Again, it is a mirror, much like the “Hurt Locker.’ To be fair, each season focuses on a different ‘failing’ institution, and the first is mostly about the police department.   Yet it seems really to be about ‘failed’ African Americans. In the next season, Simon is going to show how crappy the long-shore unions are in the port of Baltimore.  Failing workers can’t be far behind.

Ishmael Reed, a black radical and professor at Berkley and former member of the Labor Party, criticized “The Wire” for using clichés of black people.  He said it portrays drugs as a ‘black problem’ though whites use more drugs.  He opposes teaching “The Wire” in university sociology classes, as if it is some full depiction of poor black society.

Simon recently wrote an essay in reaction to Edward Snowden’s disclosures, an essay that reinforced the view that the vast power of the national security state and its expansion are entirely justified, because otherwise it would make America ‘vulnerable to terrorists.”   This guy is not actually a radical evidently. As far as I’m concerned, he originated “Treme” as a mea culpa for “The Wire,” as Treme, while somewhat nostalgic of New Orleans as a ‘cultural space,’ is not mostly filled with negative images of black people and heroic images of cops.  (‘Treme,’ reviewed below.) 

P.S. - Well, I may have been too hard on David Simon.  He published a somewhat convoluted editorial in the Guardian on Saturday, December 7 talking about the 'two Americas.' He said that Marx had a point with his analysis of capitalism! - but Marx's solution was wrong.  He calls the U.S. a 'horror show' and wants a society where capital and labor sing 'kumbaya,' not just a rapacious capitalism.   Ain't going to happen, as it only happened between, oh, 1946 and 1975.  The nostalgia for this period is the inspiration for many left-liberals.  But at least Simon is trying.

Someone burned the season for Mayday.
Red Frog
November 20, 2013

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