For All of You “The Wire” Lovers Out There

November 5, 2011

Political Theory, Uncategorized

What’s with all these new, fluff TV shows?  CSI Miami, Wipeout, Royal Pains (to name a couple)…c’mon on now.  At least older shows like Degrassi were so corny that you could at least kick back and have a few laughs.  Don’t get me wrong shows like Wipeout are somewhat entertaining (as horrible as it is who doesn’t like to see people fall into tanks of water and bounce off of gigantic bouncy balls?), but they rely on their entertainment value and don’t have much substance.  This is not bad by any means because television centralizes on entertainment and not reality, but they should be recognized for what they are.  I mean, seriously, how many one-liners can David Caruso really rattle off in CSI Miami with out it getting a little old?

Shows like The Wire are hard to come by these days – this may not even be a TV series – it is almost a society.  Those who have seen this famed HBO series can attest to its excellence in just about every category that can possibly apply to a TV series.  The Wire is not only incredibly amusing, but it touches on hugely important aspects of our society in a realistic fashion.  It’s not too hard to figure out why Harvard offers a class on this very TV series – it’s that complex and evocative.  I’ve digressed.  Now I will address why I bring up such an amazing TV series.  First, I’ll give a little background for those Non-Wire watchers (it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start watching).

The show is based on the city of Baltimore and as one would expect, like any city but to a greater extreme, the streets of Baltimore are conveyed as dangerous, unforgiving, cutthroat and corrupt.  The flow of drugs throughout the city is highly concerning for the police force and the ordinary citizens who have to walk to streets everyday.  The streets and corners essentially function as superhighways for the exchange of drugs.  To combat the ugly ramifications of the drug game, the Police Major, Bunny Colvin comes up with an interesting, but potentially detrimental idea.  Colvin decides to create a small, enclosed zone within the city where drugs can be bought and sold.  In this area, the policemen knowingly supervise the exchange of illegal substances.  Colvin’s creative idea hinges on the idea that the violence stemming from the drug game will be reduced and kept within a small parameter where innocent people cannot be harmed as much.  When drugs are normally exchanged on the streets innocent people are exceedingly susceptible to harm and the police receives massive influxes of complaints – his mentality is basically to try something new and evaluating the results.  Colvin’s enclosed drug area becomes known as “Hamsterdam”.  He is constantly criticized for “legalizing drugs” by letting dealers freely sell their product in this space, but this doesn’t initially stop him.

Bunny Colvin with his intense expressions

All of this seems similar to Hobbes’ state of nature concept.  He believes that humans will naturally create an anarchic world with their actions.  The streets of Baltimore are represented in a way that parallels the state of nature that Hobbes discusses.  In Baltimore, there is a presence of the law, but the drug game is not entirely hindered by the fear of police.  Yes, dealers take precautions to avoid arrest and jail time and this affects them, but the police do not ultimately stop them from doing their thing.

Hobbes provides a way of eliminating the environment that comes with his idea of state of nature: by bringing in a strong authority and strictly limiting the power of the citizens.  Hobbes’ approach is somewhat extreme, but Colvin’s way of dealing with the rampant drug trafficking does resemble this mindset.  He collects as many dealers as possible and bans them to one area.  For the most part, they don’t have any say in what they can or cannot do in this area and hence there is a lack of the participation factor that Hobbes harps on withholding.  Hobbes’ ideology doesn’t acknowledge any reason why the people should have the freedom to participate.  In The Wire’s case, Colvin would be the one absolute ruler because he is the one calling the shots in “Hamsterdam”.

Whereas Colvin deals with the criminals in a Hobbesian sort of way in order to reduce the Hobbesian state of nature of the streets, a Machiavellian approach is applied to the societal aspect of this.  He creates this artificial arena for selling drugs and puts it on the outskirts of town in order to benefit the people who are unjustly affected by the drug game.  Having bullets flying through your windows at 3am doesn’t sound too appealing does it?  This is a Machiavellian mindset because Machiavelli’s idea of the ruling Prince involves a harmonious balance between pleasing the public and being firm enough to lay down the law and invoke some fear.  Colvin, again isn’t The Prince per say, but he leads this operation and he does just that.  He strives to please the citizens of Baltimore by reducing the crime on their doorsteps, but he is firm in disciplining the dealers and attempting to keep things under wraps in “Hamsterdam”.

All of this is based on the interesting concept that people are more prone to do things when they are restricted or not allowed to do them.  The drug game is much more violent because of the fact that it is an illegal trade.  Everything is covert and having muscle is very important because obviously the police aren’t there to protect you if you’re selling – they’re out to get you.

I now turn and ask you this: Would this ever work in real life in an American city or anywhere for that matter?  Would legalization of a drug such as marijuana be beneficial?  What do you think about Colvin’s unique approach?

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One Comment on “For All of You “The Wire” Lovers Out There”

  1. Phil O'Donnell Says:

    Great show. Great post.

    I’m an avid Wire fan and although I don’t disagree with anything that was said in the post, I’ll give my reaction to some of the provocative issues raised by the author.

    Firstly, considering the show’s society and characters as being part or complicit to a social contract, I believe that this is a very complicated and ambiguous issue. Initially, Baltimore is presented as having no type of social agreement, its pure chaos and anarchy in some parts of the city; drugs, violence and a devaluation of human life. However as the show develops and the audience begins to understand the characters and society more, some could be lead to believe that there is partially a social contract in Baltimore’s most dangerous areas.

    Firstly, the most strikingly obvious feature of their society is that the drug ‘game’ (as it is frequently called) is structured and hierarchical, almost like a feudal system. From the hoppers (the peasants) at the bottom, to the generals (such as Wee-Bey or Bodie) who acts as the barons in this feudal model, to the kings of the drug game; Marlo, Prop Joe and Avon; the ‘game’ is similar to a medieval feudal system. This seems to present some type of social contract between the leaders and their ‘crew’; as symbolized by Marlo giving out money to school children before their first day back at school for books and supplies, this evidences a type of contract to an extent as there is seemingly the assumption that these kids will grow up to be either part of the New Day Organization (Marlo’s crew) or at least be complicit to them and not challenge them. Marlo, like a good Machiavellian Prince, is looking out for the welfare of his subjects and in terms of Rawls can be seen to look after the least off (the most vulnerable) in his society. Despite this apparent evidence of a social contract type, there is a fundamental flaw in the contract due to the nature of their environment and their situation, which is that none of the leaders can ultimately guarantee the safety of their subjects and hence there is a constant threat of death (arguably increased by being part of the ‘game’), which implies a type of state of nature in Baltimore.

    The problem of the Wire’s society and the drug trade (and in my view what makes the show so realistic and gripping) is that it is so complicated. There can be no social contract for the dealers or those involved in the drug trade, as their micro society is breaking the laws or agreements (ultimately the social contract) of the greater society, namely the laws of the United States. There are so many characters who want to break the social contract of the drug trade; such as the police force, Omar and even the users such as Bubbles (for example his fake money trick).

    This leads to the question of Hamsterdam and Bunny’s plan. He, himself, is guilty of breaking the social contract which he operates under, which is the contract of the US law, hence seemingly encountering a dirty hands problem, as he creates his own social contract between the dealers and the police. Interesting that even Bunny can’t guarantee that the dealers won’t be killed in the Hamsterdam contract, rather he can just guarantee that they wont be incarcerated. Furthermore, I disagree with you that Bunny is calling the shots in Hamerstdam, rather he has seemingly created a platform or clause in the greater society’s social contract (US Law) for the micro society’s social contract (the game) to function and be legitimate. Bunny has seemingly just moved ‘the game’ from a Hobbesian inspired society to a more pluralistic society, where the dealers have more autonomy, yet still lack control. It is almost Locke-ian inspired , as there is a respect for property (drugs) which is rejected in the greater society which operates under US Law.

    But in reality, none of these theories are really convincing, as the Wire shows how this type of inner city area ultimately relies on chaos, violence and crime. Hence, the audience can go on a cyclical process of thinking about the social contracts in Baltimore. In the end, they are seemingly left with the conclusion that Baltimore is devoid of a social contract and that it is closer to the state of nature then a society working under a coherent social contract. The show is characterized by constant power struggles between the ‘good’ guys (the police etc) and the bad guys (those involved in the drug trade), yet there are also constantly power battles internally within both sides, such as Avon and Stringer’s epic power struggle.

    Comparing the Hamerstdam idea to reality, I think the social contract or agreement made between students and police on football Saturdays is very similar to the one made in the show. On Hill Street or State Street, students can look police directly in the eyes and consume alcohol as long as they obey the social contract that is seemingly followed by both sides. This contract includes staying off the sidewalks and keeping the noise to a reasonable level, hence this seems to be an almost exact comparison, as illegal activity is legitimized by the social contract in place.

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