I missed this Conor Friedersdorf piece when it came out last March, but I’d like to revisit it because it captures something that’s bugged me for some time about the best show in the history of television.
And that is how two brilliant men like Ed Burns and David Simon can so astutely and powerfully illustrate the futility and flaws of government institutions as they did in The Wire, yet still unabashedly call themselves men of the left, which implies a kind of default support for massive government intervention to solve or alleviate suffering, poverty, crime, and other social ills.
David Simon’s critique of institutions, whether schools or drug co-ops or unions or police departments, isn’t a hopeful one. He doesn’t seem to think that the right technocrat or better social science data can fix their flaws, as most liberals do. In his Baltimore, institutions are flawed because the humans that oversee and staff them, good people like Cedric Daniels and bad people like Clay Davis and everyone in between, are themselves flawed in inevitably human ways. Anytime an institution subsumes an individual — think the Barksdale organization and Dee, the police department and McNulty, the group home system and Randy — it corrupts or destroys him.
Simon insists that he is a liberal, that the rise of sociopath Marlow Stanfield reflects the logical progression of capitalism and that the Greek, the ruthless crime boss who imports Baltimore’s drugs and kills without remorse, embodies pure capitalism. Here one begins to suspect that Simon doesn’t quite understand what that word — capitalism — means. By definition it refers to voluntary exchanges in a free market of competing non-monopolies, largely unencumbered by government regulations that limit supply or trigger black markets.
The Greek deals in coercive exchanges in a black market on which he has a near-monopoly that is enforced through violence. One could easily create a caricatured capitalist to stand in for the free market’s worst tendencies; but the Greek isn’t that character.
Friedersdorf also correctly points out that where this redemption in The Wire (think Bubbles, McNulty (briefly), Cutty, and Namon Bryce), it comes through the intervention of friends, family, support groups, or self-reliance–that is, the characters in the show who escape the odds do so by way of voluntary society, not political society.
I suppose we all tend to project our own politics onto media we enjoy and respect. But I’ve never been able to square Simon’s public denunciations of capitalism and self-identification as a radical leftist with what to me is such a clear, damning, and complete indictment of government institutions in his work.