David Simon, co-writer of the Wire, has a story he tells about New Orleans, about the city before the Hurricane. An old fishing boat, long abandoned, was sitting in the harbor next to the levy. New Orleans, jazz capital of the South, sits dangerously close to the sea level, and the levies keep it dry, keep it safe as the tides ebb and flow. This old boat, rusted, barnacled, is so close to the levy that people are afraid. If a storm kicks up it’ll blow into the levy and knock it over, possibly drown the city.
When the media reported on the Hurricane Katrina disaster, on the total chaos that preceded the city-wide floods – the breakdown in order, the looting, the murders, not many bothered to mention that it wasn’t really the hurricane that knocked down the levy. It was the boat.
A few years later another hurricane hit New Orleans, and another levy broke, and here’s the kicker, the boat was still there, and may have been a contributor.
Contrast the cost of towing a rusted old wreck, to the cost of repairing a city, debit that, credit that, tell me what the efficient market response is?
It would be easy now, to interpret our story through our preselected political frameworks. If I’m on the left I point out that no private business managed to coordinate itself, or even form a collective to get the boat out of the harbor. That’s a nice narrative. I could introduce coase theorem, pointedly ask whether corporations really can solve all problems, talk about negative externalities, public goods and so on. And yet there’s a problem with that. City Hall had been notified of the danger.
So, if I’m on the right wing, I run with that. More government incompetence hey. In all that time, with all their taxpayer-derived resources, they couldn’t move a freaking boat.
And the problem here is that we don’t have a neat example of market failure or government failure, of either dropping the ball. We have an example of both.
The thing that the Wire does well, the reason they teach it at Harvard, the reason it’s the most highly reviewed show on Metacritic and Amazon, the reason that half a dozen critics have called it the best TV show of all time, the reason it stays with you, irks you, hurts you, is because in place of stock dialogue, in place of CGI, in place of well acted platitudinal narrative, in place of a moral lesson, it gives you the seemingly unwinnable entropic reality of a city in decay, a generation losing and a younger one lost, a war against drugs that no one even seems interested in winning, a circular tragedy of corners and body counts, and there’s no relaxing resolution, the string is never tied back up. It’s about the unraveling.
There’s this line I think I’ve heard, someone, sometime, saying that House of Cards is the dark inverse of The West Wing. Following that line, they argue that the show represents actual America in its devious Machiavellian actuality.
That’s nonsense. Each show is a cynical, although fun, caricature. Neither even approaches reality. The West Wing gives us the honorable. House of Cards gives us the sordid. The Wire, channeling Dostoyevsky, channeling Solzhenitsyn, maintains that the line between good and evil runs through the heart of everyone.
I could put that another way. Fox News and CNN, seemingly so distant, are mirrored reflections. The same shock, the same simplification, the same NOISE NOISE NOISE, the same quick summation and cliché and catchy music and twist and controversial statement and switch camera switch camera makeup low lights high lights are you paying attention ad-break and we’re back.
The West Wing is to CNN what the Wire is to old world shoe-leather investigative journalism. The Wire spends a week down in the locker room at the docks asking the longshoremen how it is and how it’s changing. The Wire pulls up a dozen folders of crime statistics and then goes and asks the sergeant down at the bar how he’s been manipulating them. The Wire follows an issue doggedly for twenty years and gives the straight truth of it because that’s what they taught and that’s what we promised when we joined, because Lincoln said that it’s what’s holding democracy together, because the suburbs read back then, bought books, listened to four hour speeches, cared.
Because if a city was consuming itself in the implosive force of heroin and corruption back then, back it those velvet days, at least someone would have the balls to write an editorial. Because if a boat drowned a city in a developed nation, a city of millions, twice in half a decade, someone would actually write about it, and it might be some feather weather hippy, or an old company man on lunch break, or a family around the table after dinner, we don’t know who and it wasn’t like you’d hear straight back, but you knew that someone out there in America was reading. And all I’m saying here, is that if you were in Baltimore, watching kids in the inevitable elliptical approach, as the gravity of the drug industry pulled and the schools tried to shovel No Kid Left Behind, if you were that kid or you were in that suburb, at least you’d know someone was reading. At least you weren’t alone.
It took hyperinflation, a lost world war and a soviet revolution on the doorstep to overturn Weimer and usher in that great age of illusion and delusion. It normally takes war and turmoil to enable demagoguery. And yet, in America today, historic levels of populism are circling the credulous and confused in an age of relative peace and prosperity. And I see that only 20% of American households bought a book last year.
I hate firing shots at people because I always feel culpable myself, but it has to be said. The reason you can’t solve problems anymore, the reason anthropogenic climate change denial is a thing, the reason corporations run your congress, the reason Rome is kindled is simple. It’s because y’all stopped reading.
The amount of noise in America is something else. There’s an endless appetite for catchy presupposition confirming chatter. For something, anything that supports that political tribe that way back twenty-five years ago you decided to go with because… who can remember. And beneath the canopy, lower down below the static, underneath the non-Euclidian arc of the mock sound wars, of signals flying north to south and south to north, on the ground, inland or by the sea, just think of all the stories that are being ignored. Think of all the lives lived in squalor and despair, all the miserable hopeful ignorance.
And the reason that the Wire stayed with me, probably always will, as the greatest thing I’ve ever seen, heck maybe as the greatest piece of literature I’ve ever come across, is because it went there. It went down to Baltimore. And because the media won’t do it anymore, it used a freaking TV show to tell you about a few kids and a few corners, about Wallace – a kid trying to leave the gang that is his entire community, about McNulty – the smartest cop in the service and an Irish adulterous ass, about Barksdale and Omar and Cutty. It’s a show drenched in despair because you should have been despairing. You should have already known.
But you didn’t watch it, did you? Not many people did.
It never rated like CSI.
And so far as I know, the boat is still in the harbor.