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Baltimore, The Nation, The Wire

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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.

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

17 Comments

  1. This is probably a silly question, but if the Democratic Party in this country were transformed into, or replaced by, a revolutionary party of the working class in opposition to big business, do you think it’s possible for capitalism to be beaten at the ballot box without violence on the level of say, the Russian Civil War?

  2. I would argue that there are plenty of characters fighting for their own salvation. Omar and Michael are easily examples of this. As are McNulty and Sydnoor. The Wire to me, being native to that state, was the most genuine, authentic depiction of the police and how it deals with the community and all of the politics surrounding the loser drug war which has done way more harm than good.

    It warms my heart to know that the author of my favorite books views my favorite show favorable.

  3. skzb

    Dennis: There’s no way to know in advance. Certainly one can hope. The general rule for revolutions is: the more the revolutionary class is prepared for violence, the less violence there is.

  4. Steve, this is a fine and important piece. I’m certainly gratified to see that you value The Wire as much as I do — it was a series that showed the death of a major, once-thriving city at the hands of capitalism: its brutalizing police, its educational system, its corrupt political elite, its press. No other series demonstrated the necessity of the drug epidemic to the capitalist system. All this despite creator David Simon’s obvious limitations in understanding capitalism and how to fight it (see his recent interviews about the current struggles in Baltimore).

    Art can certainly wade into the midst of poverty and describe it — were Dickens and Zola guilty of “cultural appropriation”?

    Dave Zirin is one of those middle-class political strivers hanging out via The Nation on the fringes of the Democratic Party; we should not forget that he does double duty as a columnist for Socialist Worker, the web site of the pseudo-left International Socialist Organization (ISO). Both The Nation and the ISO put forward amorphous grass-roots organizations (channeling into the Democratic Party) as substitutes for the building of a revolutionary party based on the working class.

  5. ‘he cannot see beyond capitalism, and thus can see no way forward’

    I’m not sure that is the whole story, because there are plenty of capitalist countries where the police hardly ever shoot anyone…

  6. The most popular comment at The Nation is a pretty solid refutation of the article.

    It’s sad when people concerned with social change spend their time complaining about art that failed to change the world. Art doesn’t change the world. At best, it asks us to question our assumptions about the status quo, which The Wire does admirably.

  7. A great piece of analysis. Well done, indeed.

  8. See also: http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/05/15/balt-m15.html (Lawyers Detail Horrific and Illegal Conditions of Baltimore Arrest Victims.)

  9. skzb

    Cynthia: Thanks for the link!

  10. The closest equivalent I’ve seen to “The Wire’ is the French 40-episode TV series “Spiral” (original title “Engrenages”), which is unsparing in its depiction of police brutality and judicial corruption. It paints a grim, pessimistic view of Paris, with no prescriptions for change. You can see it on DVDs or streaming on Hulu Plus and other services.

  11. I wanted to write up a longer response to this but I feel completely out of my depth here, not having a great political education and having a bit of a personal stake in some of the arguments being discussed in the comments section. (Also, I’m in the office, and should probably at least PRETEND to do a little work today.) So apologies if I’m rambling, stating the obvious, or using the wrong terminology.

    With great respect, Steve, I think it’s a disservice to Dave to conflate his political positions with those of one of his publishers; he’s spent his career bringing a welcome and necessary pro-labor, Marxist perspective to the blinkered and apolitical world of sports journalism. I feel as if you’re extrapolating positions or goals in line with the main thrust of The Nation, or its essentially capitalist perspective, out of things that he didn’t write.

    That Wire review isn’t a tactical guideline or a statement on his own political principles; it’s a piece of art criticism on a show that, /by its own nature/, essentially limits his field of discussion. Talking about The Wire without talking about race and identity politics is failing to talk about The Wire’s own place in American pop culture and political entertainment, because those are core to it. If he refers to vague “social movements,” it’s because the existence of ANY kind of popular working-class movement – whether identitarian, borne out of working-class solidarity, or somewhere on the spectrum between – is entirely omitted from The Wire. I think, basically, it’s hard to talk about Organizing 201 when your topic is a show that hasn’t even started Organizing 101.

    I understand that there’s inter-left differences that go over my head and I’m certain that, given column inches enough and time, a blistering discussion could be had about the relative importance of “social movements” amid the variety of organizing tactics. (Or, at least, a DEFINITION of those airy social movements could be produced.) But given the essential thrust of Dave’s piece – “I don’t think The Wire does enough to depict the possibility of organized class struggle” – it’s weird and disheartening to see him accused of betraying that same struggle.

  12. skzb

    Welcome to the discussion, Reuben. Thank you for taking the time to make such thoughtful remarks. Let me address a few of them.

    :”I think it’s a disservice to Dave to conflate his political positions with those of one of his publishers; he’s spent his career bringing a welcome and necessary pro-labor, Marxist perspective to the blinkered and apolitical world of sports journalism.”

    If we want to bring up the author, I’m fine with that. I’d never heard of him before the essay, but since then I did some hunting. He also writes for the Soocialist Worker, the web site of the International Socialist Organization, a group that specializes in hostility to the working class, identity politics, and backhanded support for the Democratic Party. His “pro-labor” record has always based itself on subservience to the trade union bureaucracy, and pressuring the Democrats. There is nothing in his essay that isn’t an expression of his own opinions, based on his record writing for the Socialist Worker.

    ” it’s because the existence of ANY kind of popular working-class movement – whether identitarian, borne out of working-class solidarity, or somewhere on the spectrum between – is entirely omitted from The Wire.”

    Yes it is. Because those movements, insofar as they have accomplished ANYTHING AT ALL,are also omitted from contemporary American politics. In the last two decades, they have accomplished exactly nothing. This is indisputable. Therefore, the complaint is ether that The Wire should have made something up out of whole cloth, or else spent it’s time depicting failed and futile “grassroots” organizations, which might have been an interesting show, but is clearly a different one.

    I should add that The Wire, to its credit, spent Season 2 exploring the situation of Baltimore’s dock workers. While it failed to show a way forward (impossible without a socialist program), at least it mentioned that there was such a thing as the working class, and that the collapse of capitalism has a devastating effect on them, which puts it way ahead of the essay.

    “I understand that there’s inter-left differences that go over my head…”

    This one isn’t all that difficult. Does the way forward for the oppressed rely on the Democratic Party, or on the independent strength of the working class? You don’t get to have both.

    ‘But given the essential thrust of Dave’s piece – “I don’t think The Wire does enough to depict the possibility of organized class struggle”’

    Where did “class struggle” appear in that essay? Hell, where did *class* appear in that essay? That is entirely my point–when you speak of “grassroots organization” and police violence with no mention of class, you are definitively establishing your political position. And Mr. Zirin confirms his middle-class outlook, and his fear of an independent working class, with every article of his I’ve seen.

    I look forward to more of your comments; thanks again for getting involved.

  13. It was Dave Zirin who took Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to task for correctly saying in a public statement that class rather than race was the basis for the police attacks in Ferguson, Missouri. See Socialist Worker for August 20, 2014, http://socialistworker.org/2014/08/20/racism-killed-mike-brown. He has no Marxist perspective. It’s telling that Zirin can write for both The Nation and Socialist Worker. I see little difference between the two publications.

  14. At some point, and this is mostly off topic, you and I should have a very … delicate… conversation about the nuances and sources of the profit margin at the individual level.

  15. skzb

    Martin: Succinct. Yes.

    Jeff: That is bound to be an interesting conversation, as I have no idea what “profit margin at the individual level” even means.

  16. “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.”

    I disagree, and not just because you’re poisoning the well with your comment that reasonable people must necessarily agree with you.

    The sentence you quote was a reference to the attitudes of Zirin’s friends and what “other people just said to [him]”, i.e. people in his circle whom he was likely to see in the course of his work, and not the average person on the street. Looking at the meaning behind the phrase “cultural appropriation”, which is a very recent addition to our vocabulary, I think you’d find for most people it’s about respect, not economics. If I were to wear a yarmulke and tallit gadol as street clothes, it wouldn’t matter whether it’s because I think they look snazzy or I want to express support of Israel, it would irritate most Jews to see me treat clothes which to them are highly symbolic as a fashion statement. Music, art styles or artifacts which were refined in a culture over centuries, or which were created by and define a specific sub-culture, have a very powerful pull on the people within that culture, and to see them used by outsiders as entertainment or in any way antithetical to their sensibilities (e.g. scientists wanting to dissect native American remains) is probably going to be very offensive to them.

    So I disagree that the issue is “clearly” commerce.

    “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).”

    I don’t see what makes artists special in this regard. What sort of person *can* do anything without being hired? A highly trained corporate executive can’t execute anything if she hasn’t been hired to do it, any more than a screenwriter can live off screen writing if no one hires her. A free-lance personnel consultant requires a constant influx of customers just as a sculptor needs patrons to get by. Did Raphael, working in a pre-capitalist society, manage to create his work with no recompense at all? Did Chaucer not have a patron?

    “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.”

    So you’re saying that the *only* reason people objected to Piss Christ was because they live in a capitalist society? That the similar treatment of a god of the Kombai wouldn’t result in some sort of damage to the person responsible? That’s a new perspective to me; I’d love to know about any pre-capitalist societies that recognized nothing similar to sacrilege or blasphemy.

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