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Don’t Shy Away from The Wire

[1]2,123 words

Remember The Wire?

The HBO television series was Barack Obama’s favorite series and a main item [2] on Stuff White People Like (SWPL).

The Wire ran for five seasons from 2002 to 2008. The show is set in Baltimore – the city President Donald Trump called a “rodent-infested mess” – and focuses on drug dealers and the cops who pursue them. The majority of the characters are black, and the show primarily focuses on black problems. The show’s events are based on the real-life experiences of creators David Simon and Ed Burns. Simon was a long-time Baltimore Sun reporter who wrote a bestselling book about the city’s crime in the 1990s. Burns is a former Baltimore cop and teacher. Neither man is black, and both would count as old-school white liberals. (Simon is Jewish.)

The show may have once qualified as the most progressive show on TV, but not anymore. Its tone is too white liberal to be sufficiently woke in 2019. It blames black depravity on structural racism and bad neighborhoods. It makes you sympathize with black criminals and makes viewers wish for criminal justice reform. It boasts multiple gay characters, and treats viewers to graphic depictions of their intimacy. The show also has a prominent interracial couple and strong female leads. As previously stated, the show’s general message is that blacks aren’t inherently drawn to criminality and corruption; our society makes them that way.

But it would not be considered especially woke today. While it is all about blacks and blames their problems on what would be called “systemic racism,” it’s not really anti-white. Granted, many of the white characters are bumbling fools or assholes, but they’re not the villains of the show. None of the white characters are portrayed as irredeemable racists, nor are viewers bludgeoned with lectures about white privilege and racism. It’s not a preachy show, which makes it a tolerable watch. The Wire is also probably too real in depicting black dysfunction. Many of the black characters can’t do basic math or read. They’re impulsive and quick to violence. They’re nightmares in school. Black politicians are incredibly corrupt. Blacks are mainly a threat to themselves. The show also positively portrays characters who display “toxic masculinity,” and doesn’t seek to subvert traditional gender roles.

Worse, the show is filled with white saviors, who are verboten today.

The show doesn’t really serve up white guilt, and blames structural forces and capitalism for the woes of the black community. If made today, more of the black kids would be geniuses. All of the villains would be white and outright racists. There would be transgender characters, and the black characters would be less homophobic. If the Trump Baltimore controversy [3] is any indication, corrupt black politicians would be excised and replaced by white, racist politicians. There would also be no white saviors. All the good guys would be one-dimensional black superheroes. We can’t have our noble non-white heroes show a trace of wrongdoing.

The Great Awokening has made our culture worse and more insufferable. Compare The Wire to HBO [4]’s [4]new [4]Watchmen [4] series [4], and the old SWPL favorite seems reactionary.

SWPLs were right about The Wire: It is a good show. There are no dumb subplots, unbearable characters, or cringe-inducing dialogue – with the exception of the final season. The show feels realistic and authentic, and it’s ultimately worthwhile. The characters are believable, the writing is solid, and the stories keep your attention. There’s no overwrought plot devices or meandering BS outside of the final season; it resembles a good novel. The final season is an exception to many of these qualities due to its ridiculous plot (one of the protagonists invents a serial killer to obtain resources to go after a drug gang) and rushed nature.

Identitarians will roll their eyes at the structural racism themes and the “these are good kids” takes, but most of us will enjoy the accurate depictions of institutional dysfunction and the conflict between capitalism and honor. The second season’s Trumpian message about the white working class should also resonate with the Dissident Right.

Every institution depicted in it doesn’t work right. The police department can’t do its job properly due to petty politics and bureaucratic mismanagement. The city government can’t properly function due to racial politics and extreme corruption. The drug gangs don’t work well due to the stupidity of their members and the pride of their leaders.

A clear reason why these organizations are so dysfunctional is never offered by the show. One of the police characters, Deputy Chief Bill Rawls, says the force is incompetent and ill-managed thanks to affirmative action. Rawls tells the incoming white mayor, Tommy Carcetti, that the police department is crippled by its push to elevate incompetent black officers. He suggests in a not-so-subtle appeal to racial solidarity that he should be put in charge. That analysis is treated as crass and a bit racist by the characters who hear it, and is one of the few times the show portrays a white character as prejudiced. Rawls’ ambition to become Police Commissioner is temporarily stifled by his race, and the black chief is kept on in spite of his crooked reputation. Rawls’ assessment is correct, but an HBO show can’t tell us that. Instead, most of the black officers are portrayed as competent, though some are corrupt.

The Wire, much to its creator’s chagri [5]n [5], supported Trump’s view of the city as a shithole. The current headlines from the city don’t counter this image one bit:

The drug gangs embody capitalism’s vices: Profits matter more than friends, family, community, and sometimes even honor. Many of the gangs are torn between divisions over honor versus profit. The Barksdale crew, which is the predominant gang in the first three seasons, typifies this division in its two leaders: Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell. Barksdale is a man of the street who prioritizes reputation and territory. While obsessed with the business, he doesn’t believe it should undermine commitments to family and the streets. On the other hand, Bell is an aspiring businessman who takes economics classes at the local community college. He wants the gang to operate like a business and go legit. He cares more about real estate deals than how many street corners they control, and opposes turf wars. As a businessman, he cares less about family and street honor, which leads him to order the death of Barksdale’s nephew and give up territory to a rival in exchange for a better product. Their different mentalities eventually lead the two to betray each other: Avon gives his partner up to a hitman who was nearly killed in a dishonorable Bell scheme. Stringer gives Avon up to the police to end a destructive gang war. Bell ends up dead and Barksdale in jail as the result of these dueling betrayals, illustrating the cutthroat nature of capitalism.

The Barksdale crew’s territory is taken over by Marlo Stanfield, a far more ruthless drug lord. The Barksdale crew at least looked after their people and rarely killed anyone outside of the “game.” Marlo, by contrast, kills many of his subordinates on the slightest suspicion of snitching, and orders his hitmen to kill any random person who disrespects him. He’s the apex predator of capitalism, and his brutal methods win him control of West Baltimore. His pursuit of power and profit leads him to try to take out possible allies who stand in the way of his ambition. His hitmen treat their gruesome work like good corporate drones: They show up early for “jobs” and emphasize their dedication to hard work.

The drug gangs’ cutthroat capitalism contrasts with the code-based conduct of gay stick-up artist Omar Little. Omar was Obama’s favorite character, and the show treats him as one of its heroes. Personally, I didn’t like the character and rooted for him to come to a final end. But Omar does represent a higher code than his enemies, who will kill anyone for a buck and don’t keep their word. He only targets those in the “game” and always keeps his promises. Even though his job requires him to steal, he doesn’t seem particularly concerned with money. He’s more focused on protecting his honor and maintaining his reputation. Unlike many of his enemies, he survives due in large part due to his code. People respect Omar and know that he won’t harm anyone outside the drug business.

Another character like Omar is Brother Mouzone, the hitman wronged by Stringer Bell. The bowtie-sporting enforcer, who evokes the Nation of Islam, also adheres to a code of honor and isn’t driven by profits. Also like Omar, he is one of the more unbelievable characters in the show. Mouzone reads highbrow magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and The Atlantic while guarding drug corners. He tells an underling that the most dangerous thing in America is a “nigga with a library card.” This is probably more unrealistic than a gay stick-up artist with a heart of gold. Regardless, Mouzone upholds honor culture against the profit-obsessed world of the drug gangs. He refuses to accept monetary compensation for the dishonor he suffered from the Barksdale crew, and demands blood. He tells Avon that his word matters far more than his money, which convinces the street-conscious drug lord to sell Bell out.

When Mouzone and Omar confront Stringer, the aspiring businessman tries to bribe them. They both refuse. (Bell tried to have both men killed.) To his credit, Stringer accepts his death like a man.

The second season’s main plot is the urban equivalent of Hillbilly Elegy. The show switches focus from the ghetto to the docks worked by a predominantly Polish union. The union guys would be considered archetypal deplorables today. They work with plenty of blacks, though that doesn’t preclude the working-class whites from showing pride in their identity as blue-collar Poles. The Wire sympathetically portrays their plight and culture. The working-class whites express many politically incorrect views and utter racial slurs, yet they’re shown in a positive light. Their jobs are threatened by automation and the dictates of global capital. Their neighborhoods are run down and threatened by drugs and the black undertow. The union head, Frank Sobotka, works with a shady Greek/Eastern European criminal organization to save his organization and his men’s jobs. This Faustian bargain eventually costs his family and the union everything.

There is a Trumpian message to the union story. Sobotka delivers a barnstorming speech to his upper-class lobbyist about the difference between their families. It’s essentially Chris Arnade’s “front row kids versus back row kids [9]” analysis of the 2016 election. Sobotka proudly declares that his social milieu was made to be workers and can’t be college kids like his lobbyist’s family. He decries how society has stripped his class of stable employment while the better off don’t suffer the consequences of globalism. The speech, if delivered today, would make a good column explaining Trump’s anti-globalist appeal to the working class.

Frank’s nephew, Nick Sobotka, is the best white character in the entire show. He’s a tall Chad who wants to make enough money to support a family and do right for his community. He bravely confronts black drug dealers who ripped off his cousin, and shames a white drug dealer for acting black. He’s one of the few white characters who exhibits nobility and virtu. Unlike the other sympathetic white characters, he’s not a white liberal. Nick would definitely be a Trump voter today.

Befitting The Wire’s tragic story, Nick’s foray into crime results in his own downfall. His father exhorted him and Frank to stick to honest work. Their refusal to listen ended poorly for both. Like the black drug lords, the Sobotka’s pursuit of money – while underscored by more virtuous motives – is the cause of their demise.

As said before, most of the show’s messages are pretty blue-pilled. The third season probably gave the Cato Institute a hard-on with its promotion of drug legalization and inner city deregulation. The fourth season implies that black kids just need a different learning experience to succeed in school. That season even transforms teenage drug dealers into avid learners.

Fortunately, these liberal themes don’t ruin the show’s captivating stories and characters. If you can get over The Wire’s blackness, it’s a rewarding experience. It’s certainly better and less pozzed than most shows today.

Yes, it is peak Stuff White People Like. There’s no shame in occasionally agreeing with those goofy white liberals.