Following a link on Making Light, I just read this piece from The Nation. It brings up a number of interesting questions about police violence, about art in general and The Wire in particular, and about The Nation.
Before I get into what I think is the main point of the essay I want to discuss something that appears early in the article. Dave Zirin, the author of the essay, is speaking of how Baltimore residents he knows feel about The Wire, and relates being told that, “living in Baltimore was a struggle and the idea of anyone making commerce out of their pain was simply not their idea of entertainment.”
This is a very telling remark. It relates closely to much that I’ve heard about “cultural appropriation.” Let us perform a thought experiment: take “commerce” out of the sentence I quoted above and replace it with “art.” At this point, it seems to me that any reasonable person would have an attitude something like, “Well, that depends how good and how honest the art is.” It now becomes clear that the issue is commerce. We are all aware of the multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry, and the idea of human misery being exploited to increase their profits naturally turns our stomachs. But there is the corporation, and there is the writer; the conglomerate and the artist. They work together, they are in conflict, they need each other, they battle each other. So long as we live in a capitalist society, artists cannot, in general, create their art unless they are paid for it (to be sure, there are exceptions, but none of these exceptions are on major television networks).
My point is this: artistic problems with depictions of exploitation in art are about honesty, integrity, sensitivity, and technique: how effectively are you telling the truth? Moral problems with depictions of exploitation in art are a problem of capitalism. If you remove the profit motive you also remove the moral issue. Of course, it needs to be stated that the only way to remove the profit motive is to destroy capitalism, which would likewise remove any reason for those conditions to exist in the first place. I hope we can all agree that the existence of poverty and oppression is a far bigger problem than if and how it is depicted! Those who object loudest to “cultural appropriation” are those who accept capitalism as permanent, and thus consider the inhuman conditions caused by capitalism to be unalterable.
Let’s move on. The thrust of the article is that there are two flaws in the TV show The Wire that seriously undermine its value in the eyes of Mr. Zirin: that it understates the level of police violence, and that its central focus is on how individuals are crushed by systems while it ignores “grassroots organizations who have, in a state of MSM invisibility, been building movements for years to fight poverty, end street violence, and challenge police brutality.” Let us consider the first of these points.
In the article, Mr. Zirin observes that the police in Baltimore are, in fact, far worse than depicted on The Wire. I’m glad to know Mr. Zirin is finally aware of this, though it makes me wonder just where he’s been hiding until now. And yet, the central issue is this: a major television show depicted police violence, not as an aberration, but as part of a system. And did so with good writing, sympathetic characters (brilliantly played by some amazing actors), and genuine heart. Certainly, it would have been better if it had been more honest–if the innate viciousness inherent in the need to constantly terrorize and oppress those who have been discarded by capitalism had been even more highlighted. But there is no understanding of history or art without context, and a critical evaluation of The Wire needs to begin, in my opinion, by recognizing that this is the first time there has appeared on US television a program showing the police that didn’t simply assume they–or, at any rate, the majority of them–were heroes whom all ought to respect and admire, even if there is, here and there, a “bad apple.”
But the second point is more significant, and cuts to the heart of the matter. In speaking of his “grassroots organizations” he says, “But when bureaucracies battle social movements, the results can be quite different.” At this point, I want to ask the author just what movements he has in mind and what those movements have accomplished lately? If these social movements are doing so well, Mr. Zirin, what led to the explosion of protests–some of them violent–that caused your epiphany?
“Why were those fighting for a better Baltimore invisible to David Simon? …those fighting for their own liberation? Why was The Wire big on failed saviors and short on those trying to save themselves?”
It is valid to ask that of Mr. Simon, and in my opinion the answer has to do with his own limitations: he cannot see beyond capitalism, and thus can see no way forward for the “human refuse” capitalism produces. In my opinion, it is very much to his credit that he shows them, and shows them as human beings, rather than stereotypes.
But I would also like to address the same question to Mr. Zirin. Why have there been no effective mass movements against police violence, unemployment, grinding poverty? When he refers to “social movements” it is vague. And that is exactly the point. He seems to be speaking of some sort of, “people getting together to do something,” without a particular purpose, direction, program. This is important: what first brings people together in opposition to cruelty and injustice might be anger, desperation, the desire for justice. But those feelings, powerful as they are, never last beyond the short-term. What holds a movement together long enough to accomplish change is it’s program; and when there is no program, there is nothing to hold a movement together. Under those conditions, what does the movement do? Sometimes it dissipates into apathy. Sometimes it explodes into justified but unproductive violence. Sometimes it is swallowed up by an organization that can make the right-sounding noises and actually has a program in place–such as the Democratic Party.
There have been many such movements in the past, and they have all led to the same place: back into the safe, non-threatening waters of the two major parties of big business. Why have there been no effective movements of the oppressed in recent years? The answer to that question is: so far, those “fighting for their own salvation” have been stuck in protest politics and identity politics and efforts to pressure the Democratic Party. It is no accident that this essay appears in The Nation–a magazine that epitomizes exactly that: the drive to harness and control the legitimate outrage of the most conscious elements of the oppressed and divert it harmlessly into the left wing of the Democratic Party. That is exactly The Nation’s agenda. And the results? Is Mr. Zirin aware that Baltimore is controlled by Democratic Party politicians? That the mayor is African-American? That more than 40% of the Baltimore police force is African American, including the Commissioner and the Deputy Commissioner? That is the result of his “social movements.” How has that worked out for you, Baltimore?
Here the ultimate cynicism of this essay is revealed: He asks why “social movements” are ignored by The Wire. The answer is because they have had no effect, and that is because, hitherto, these movements have been led into a dead end because of exactly the sort of politics Mr. Zirin is advocating: the empty, formless, content-free “social movement.” And, like all pseduo-left radicals, the working class–the one force in contemporary society that is actually capable of effectively fighting the attacks of capital–appears nowhere in his essay or his perspective. Like all of those who are frightened for their middle-class positions, nothing terrifies him as much as a working class that is fighting independently of the capitalist parties. Today as the working class is becoming more angry by the day, and are showing signs of beginning to organize, the desperation of forces like Zirin and The Nation to do anything, anything to keep the rage of the oppressed safely confined within capitalist channels becomes almost palpable.
The problems of Baltimore–of police violence–will not be solved by “social movements” in the abstract–but by united action of the working class and the oppressed following a program that rejects the two parties of big business. The oppressed have no way forward today except by organizing and uniting under a socialist program. And among those who have to be fought are those who would lie and mislead us, with The Nation at the top of that list.