What ‘The Wire’ Teaches About Institutions

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Yves here. Not being a TV watcher, I cannot opine on the use of The Wire as an example of how things work. But some shows have seemed to have had a bit of social impact via their uncomfortable degree of verisimilitude. Even though The Survivor put the participants in a fake setting, many found the resulting human dynamics riveting since they were often more raw versions of what viewers experienced in their real lives. Sex and the City presented a glammed up fantasy of sexually very active women, and it allegedly had cultural influence. I can imagine readers will have examples like West Wing, to add to the case study of The Wire, so please pipe up.

As an aside, having looked only at the embedded clip, no competent litigator would have allowed Omar to grandstand like that. He would have quickly limited him to yes or no answers. Similarly, having concentrated in the Industrial Revolution period in England and France, I also disagree with Neuburgers’s take on the French Revolution. Yes, I have repeatedly pointed out that it took nearly 100 years to achieve a durable republic, in the form of the Third Republic. But as experts have described based on extensive archival research, the people of France, 10 years after the Revolution, the male adult population saw themselves as citizens, and no longer as subjects of a king. The extensive bureaucratic reforms Napoleon implemented, from the creation of arrondissements to the standardization of education to implementing meritocratic access to elite institutions, survived his rule and became foundational elements in France’s modernization. So the break with the monarchy as formerly constituted was durable, despite the Bourbon Restoration of 1815 to 1830. Consider this snippet from a high level summary of the history of that regime:

On becoming king, Louis issued a constitution known as the Charter which preserved many of the liberties won during the French Revolution and provided for a parliament composed of an elected Chamber of Deputies and a Chamber of Peers that was nominated by the king.

A constitution, the Charter of 1814, was drafted; it presented all Frenchmen as equal before the law, but retained substantial prerogative for the king and nobility and limited voting to those paying at least 300 francs a year in direct taxes…

Despite the return of the House of Bourbon to power, France was much changed; the egalitarianism and liberalism of the revolutionaries remained an important force and the autocracy and hierarchy of the earlier era could not be fully restored.

Neuburger may argue that confirms his thesis that change was slow. But we are seeing that in comparison to our modern end state and projecting that backwards. Even the shift from an absolute hereditary monarchy to a constitutional monarchy with citizens having substantial rights assured by law was a massive shift in and of itself.

By Thomas Neuburger. Originally published at God’s Spies


“You want it to be one way. But it’s the other way.” How should we respond to that?

“Why would a shelter provider want to end homelessness when it depends upon the existence of the homeless to pay its bills, including the occasionally exorbitant salaries that go to its executives?”
The Chronicle of Philanthropy, here

“The decision maker acts as if he sees only one kind of success and one kind of failure. He sees his own humiliation, or loss of office or power as catastrophic. The massacre of ‘others’ is seen by men in power as secretly available to them as an instrument of power, although they publicly acknowledge norms that rule this out as ‘unthinkable.’”
Daniel Ellsberg, reflecting on why the Vietnam War was prolonged (lightly edited, quoted from here)

“[All institutions] operate according to the Iron Law of Institutions: the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution “fail” while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to “succeed” if that requires them to lose power within the institution.”
Jon Schwarz, A Tiny Revolution

“You want it to be one way. But it’s the other way.”
Marlo Stanfield in The Wire


Because of the recent news and what I’ve been reading and watching these days, I’ve been led to consider the tendency of every group to stabilize itself as it’s currently constructed and resist sudden change.

Always There’s Change, But Slow

Change occurs everywhere, of course, as I talked about here:

The Culture of the CIA, a First Look

MAY 1
Read full story

It can’t be avoided. Word pronunciation drifts from region to region; government-as-practiced changes (see also here); beliefs evolve or recycle. But sudden change, change that makes the beneficiaries of “stability” uncomfortable — or worse, puts them out of a job — is strongly resisted. By individuals, by groups, by whole societies. By social masses of people and also their structures. Acting deliberately and also organically.

The only sudden change the masters of society want, is what benefits them.

Insurrection vs. Real Revolution

This truth is baked into the way humans operate, especially in large groups: Unless people are truly suffering, they don’t want sudden change, and their societies are built to resist it.

That fact, in fact, is enshrined in our founding documents. From the Declaration of Independence:

[A]ll experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Insurrections are often sudden; they succeed or they fail. But even in success, the pre-revolutionary culture generally prevails. “Rule by landed gentry” marked the United States both before and after the states split from their creator. The French Revolution produced two emperors. Russia replaced a tsar with another tsar, and “rule by tsar” prevails there even today (with a little help, admittedly, from Bill Clinton’s America; see also here).

Insurrections are quick, but real revolution, real change, is markedly slow.

The World of ‘The Wire’

I just finished a multi-week binge-watch of all of The Wire, the mid-2000s television show about life for the working- and under-class in Baltimore — the put-upon masses of people, in other words — and how they get by.

The show is filled with people who “buck the system,” try to make things genuinely better. Some succeed in the margins: A teacher influences a child. A boy is rescued. Among the Greek tragedy characters (Sobotka and Omar), we see comic survivors (The Bunk), and personal redemption miracles (Bubbles, of course). Good things, in short, occur.

But the culture as a whole just moves as though self-directed, like a wandering, lazy big river, high mass and low force. All attempts to change it, no matter where tried, in major part always fail. The police end up ruled by a hack, just like before. No politician, when pressed, colors outside the lines of their personal ambition. The drug bosses change their ways, but minimally. They get better (Stringer Bell), then worse (Marlo Stanfield), then marginally better again (Slim Charles).

But the game is the game, for rich and poor alike. They know it. They work within it. They win or they lose, but no one defeats the game. They’re just in it or not.

Human group culture, a wandering lazy big river. In fifty years things may be better. The river may move. But don’t expect it next week.

The Life We Live

The Wire is admittedly fiction and set in culture that one character says looks like hell. But the lesson is elsewhere the same.

I live in downtown Portland, Oregon’s signature city. Over years, the homeless situation and drug usage patterns have evolved from bad to much worse — spurred by a lab-made virus, cheap fentanyl (anecdotally, a dollar a hit), and the inability of anyone in power to act in a way that doesn’t risk funding or place.

There is leadership in-fighting, entrenched non-profits, disinterested pro-right-wing cops, and sudden policy changes (Measure 110) without forethought on how to properly implement it.

Over time cities get cleaned up. Mid-century Montreal is a good example; same with Portland if you look back far enough.

But the process takes a while.

All This Is to Say…

All this is to say: You can want to move a river or make deserts green, and it’s noble to try. But appreciate that a big enough task will outlive your life.

Not that it’s not worth doing, these big enough tasks, if that’s what you want to do. I’m always a fan of freedom. But know what you’ve signed up to do and plan accordingly.

This isn’t to say that the world has no miracles left. It always has those. And there’s no reason not to be happy unless you’re in great pain. But being personally happy, a great and worthy accomplishment, and seeing the world as the world, are not incompatible.

This observation needn’t determine how we respond emotionally. I’m personally happy as I’ve ever been. My novels are great fun to write, and no one I know is dying; at least not yet.

This is just about the world, what we do in large groups.

Be Happy. Be Wide Awake.

About the last point: As we face what’s before us — Gaza, the next election, our horrible empty choices; the pathological rich and their death grip on climate; the fact that attempts to topple greed-worship and predation are often initially blocked by both victims and perps — we should face all this, as souls, with an equanimity that equals our understanding, while being our best.

Does death make life less sweet? It shouldn’t, and we shouldn’t let it.

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” It’s possible to be happy and also wide awake. Strive to be both.

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51 comments

  1. Lambert Strether

    In general I agree with the thrust of the post (as I confront the role of the public health estbablishment in actively social norming the stigmatization of non-pharmaceutical interventions).

    > Human group culture, a wandering lazy big river. In fifty years things may be better. The river may move. But don’t expect it next week.

    But not always. Sometimes Lenin’s apocryphal quote prevails: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

    Take for example “The Great Fear” in 1789:

    The Great Fear (French: la Grande Peur) was a wave of panic that swept the French countryside in late July and early August 1789. Fearful of plots by aristocrats to undermine the budding French Revolution (1789-1799), peasants and townspeople mobilized, attacking manorial houses. The unrest contributed to the passage of the August Decrees, which abolished feudalism in France.

    The Great Fear and its associated riots only lasted for roughly three weeks but set the stage for some of the most important developments of the Revolution.

    … [T[he peasants of Franche-Comté arose in revolt. Bands of armed peasants invaded seigneurial estates, breaking into barns and reclaiming the goods they had paid in manorial dues. Muniment rooms, which contained records of feudal obligations, were ransacked and torched….

    Today, data centers.

    … and other symbols of feudalism such as wine presses and mills owned by nobles, were likewise attacked. In some cases, the chateaux themselves were invaded and plundered. If the local seigneur happened to be in residence during the attack, he would likely be accosted by the peasants who would force him to renounce his feudal privileges. Abbeys and monasteries, too, were raided in search of hoarded goods, and entire parishes banded together to refuse to pay their tithes.

    The Franche-Comté riots were eventually subdued by detachments of cavalry, but the Great Fear had already caused similar revolts to break out all over the country, most significantly in the regions of Hainault, Alsace, Normandy, and the Mâconnais.

    Of course, conditions had to be “ripe.” Nevertheless. (I wouldn’t classify the Great Fear as an insurrection. Any social movement that completely changes property relations is a revolution, not an insurrection.)

    Reply
    1. Adam1

      I agree with your take. I think Marx’s biggest miss or where he paid insufficient attention to is power. In my view power is the biggest unchecked source of economic rent and it can fill institutions with rot and corruption. The forces collecting their rents will use their power to keep those rents and the push back is strong, hence change often comes slowly. However when the rent becomes too high, it only takes the right crack in the dam and the whole thing might explode.

      Reply
      1. Hepativore

        Marx also did not anticipate the fact that in attempting to overthrow the owners of capital in favor of the proletariat, in a few years, members of the “proletariat” would immediately set up a new hierarchy; likely just as bad as the one that replaced it.

        The problem is that people will always be drawn to power, and any sociopolitical system that you set up needs to take this basic fact of humanity into account and try and erect safeguards. I am not sure what you could do to stave off inevitable bureaucratic drift and rot from within thanks to the power-hungry sorts of people that are inevitably drawn to these sorts of positions, but perhaps there is a way to slow it down for a few decades?

        The basic problem is that humans are stuck with the same selfish ape-brains that we evolved millions of years ago along with their ruthless social hierarchy patterns and survival strategies. While these behaviors are ill-suited for civilization, evolution takes millions of years so it is not something that is going to change about humanity anytime soon.

        Reply
        1. JonnyJames

          I tend to agree. Modern society is not compatible with human evolution, a big disconnect

          The large scales of modern societies don’t lend well to a sense of community either, and bring about cold anonymity. Humans seem to be more cooperative when in small communities.

          Western economic thought needs to incorporate more social psychology, anthropology etc as it is woefully inadequate to accurately describe human behavior. Academic economics operates in a vacuum that ignores other disciplines. Humans collectively are clearly not able to deal with the large-scale changes that capitalism has brought about in a relatively very short time.

          I think it was Michael Hudson, who said that Marx was too optimistic, years ago. It has been a long time since I read it, but Marx did analyze fictitious capital, unearned income, economic rent, and the like in vol. III of Capital. But Marx, like other economists, did not factor in the highly fallible, irrational nature of human beings. He also did not expect the linear concept of dialectical materialism to go intro retrograde and the counter-revolution of the rentier (financial parasite) classes to be so successful. But western, linear concepts of history is all there was back in the day.

          Reply
          1. Hepativore

            I think we must also avoid falling into the pitfalls of the “noble savage” that many of the social sciences seem to arrive at, as many hunter-gather societies were also very hierarchical, authoritarian and violent, and while I may not agree entirely with Thomas Hobbes on setting up a governmental “Leviathan” I do not think he was too far of the mark when it comes to human nature.

            I am not sure what sort of economic system is best, as I am not a diehard “capitalist” by any means, just that I am of the opinion that all other economic systems have been tried and failed. Capitalism and similar economic systems seem to hang around for quite awhile in our history. Maybe this is because humans are primed to seek out resources and extract them for their own survival wherever they can as resources like mates, food, and territory were very scarce for most people until very recently in our history.

            I guess that I am for some variant of capitalism, albeit a tightly-controlled and regulated system similar to the Scandinavian countries is probably best, combined with strong social programs.

            Reply
            1. witters

              “I may not agree entirely with Thomas Hobbes on setting up a governmental “Leviathan” I do not think he was too far of the mark when it comes to human nature.”

              How close to the mark can you be when you conception of human nature has no place for the reproduction of cultural life.

              From Shaftesbury’s “SUBLIME and BEAUTIFUL” Naturalism, Tony Lynch & Stephen Norris, Philosophical Investigations: https://doi.org/10.1111/phin.12228

              Against Hobbes, Shaftesbury claimed that community generally, and human community more emphatically, were entirely natural (“social Love, and common Affection… is natural to Mankind”). It had nothing to do with enlightened self-interest or “reason” as an abstract principle, but was rather the result and demand of our shared biological nature, and most especially and fundamentally, it was embodied in the prolonged period we spent in infancy as “most helpless, weak, infirm.” This situation of absolute dependence on our fellows, and the human preparedness to meet this dependence – this fundamental patterning of our lives together – was the cementing ground our social instincts.

              “Does not this defect [the infants helplessness and dependence] engage him the more strongly to society and force him to own that he is purposely and not by accident, made rational and sociable and can no otherwise increase or subsist than in that social intercourse and community which is his natural state? Is not both conjugal affection and natural affection to parents, duty to magistrates, love of a common city, community or country, with the other duties and social parts of life, deduced from hence and founded in these very wants?”

              Humanity, by nature, and by necessity of its nature, was in its origins and logic, cooperative and communal, dependent and responsible, not individualistic, irresponsible and combative. And it could only be that because humanity was not “matter formless,” but had its own form, its own proportions, its own harmony and order.

              Reply
        2. Kouros

          There are structural ways to fend against the Iron Law of Oligarchy and Bureaucracy.

          Before the written history, humanity was a laboratory experiencing various types of organizing society. See The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity.

          I personally would like to have a long stab at deep democracy, with elections via sortition and very stong mechanisms for overseeing bureaucracy. Insuring more transparency and accountability is really not that difficult to do in a structural way, ultimately. People need to be well policed by all of us. The public shaming of corrupt officials should be a public holiday…

          Reply
    2. JohnnyGL

      Very good addition, Lambert.

      Of course, if it had failed, it would have been an ‘insurrection’, but since it succeeded, it was a step towards revolution.

      I’d like to add war as a cause of, and accelerator of, change. Wars often precede, or follow, revolutions.

      Reply
      1. JohnnyGL

        The gap in social class and culture on full display, while also introducing a brand new character who is going to be a key part of institutional innovation (the drug gang is scaling up a new method of disposing of evidence).

        Gang leadership (at senior and mid-level) needs to conduct operations without attracting attention from the police and needs to do so at scale. They understand that dead bodies are a key reason for police attention and they need to hide them.

        The audience doesn’t understand why there’s a need for $600+ staple gun (at early 2000s prices) in this scene, but we certainly get curious. We’re slowly brought up to speed during the season, and we enjoy the journey.

        Again, best of all, they made it hilarious!

        Reply
    1. JohnnyGL

      They didn’t just demonstrate the Prisoner’s Dilemma. They demonstrated institutional knowledge transfer of operational methods. They also demonstrated the gulf in knowledge stemming from age/experience, social class and education.

      Best of all, they made it hilarious!

      Reply
  2. Robert Gray

    > … disinterested pro-right-wing cops, …

    This appears to be an oxymoron. If you are pro-anything, then ipso facto you are not impartial.

    Reply
  3. begob

    Miracles? Souls? Counsel of despair dressed up as hope.

    My TV choice is Breaking Bad, where the obsession with money is integrated in a cycle with drug addiction – everyone destroying themselves and each other in pursuit of ideals. But, unlike The Wire, it shows the way out of both conditions – granted, only for one individual, but where else do we start? Perhaps the destruction of Liberalism is contained in its own premise of individual liberty.

    Reply
    1. JohnnyGL

      Breaking Bad is probably the 2nd best tv series I’ve ever seen. Only slightly behind The Wire.

      I give the edge to The Wire only because the show writers made an explicit point of showing how people interact with, and within, institutions and how they are constrained by them. They test those limits at times to carve out some autonomy, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Social class looms like a dark shadow over the whole show, unseen, but understood by all involved.

      Breaking Bad goes deeper into individual psychology, with fewer characters, but more of a character arc for those few over the course of the series.

      The Wire does something most shows just don’t do.

      Reply
      1. eg

        I was particularly impressed by The Wire for the range of institutions examined over the course of its seasons — policing, the courts, ports, education, news media, and politics. I’ve probably forgotten a couple.

        Reply
      2. Neutrino

        Breaking Bad was that gateway drug for me, leading to The Wire and then, when I was suffering withdrawals, to Better Call Saul. Those were riveting, with characters and story lines that provided some escape from daily life to glimpses into the life of so many others.
        Those were the days, or nights, hazy and all.

        Reply
        1. Martin Oline

          While we are digressing, I would recommend David Simon’s 2010 to 2013 series Treme. It has a 4.8 approval from Rotten Tomatoes who sez:

          Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, this hour long drama series, from “The Wire” executive producers David Simon and Eric Overmyer, follows the lives of ordinary residents as they struggle with the aftereffects of the 2005 hurricane. Says star and New Orleans native Wendell Pierce, “The only things people had to hang on to were the rich traditions we knew that survived the test of time before: our music, food and family, family that included anyone who decided to accept the challenge to return.” The large ensemble cast is supported by notable real-life New Orleanians, including many of its famous musicians.

          Those musician vignettes include, among many, many others, the Neville Bros., Dr. John, Allan Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Kermit Ruffins, and Trombone Shorty.

          Reply
          1. Albe Vado

            Treme is much worse than The Wire. Underneath the slick presentation the substance of the show is deeply essentializing, not just of the city itself but of poverty and race. Simon became infatuated with the place and lost whatever insight he had with the Baltimore show.

            Reply
      3. Albe Vado

        Breaking Bad is ultimately just a much more refined Dukes of Hazard. “How are these meth boys gonna get out of this one?”. Until, finally, they don’t (except one character still does because the franchise was too cowardly to give him the ending he richly deserved, which was either death or prison).

        I will say the scale and context is much closer to lived reality than many TV shows (what starts the entire plot is a guy just trying to pay his medical bills).

        Reply
  4. Mikel

    ” we should face all this, as souls, with an equanimity that equals our understanding, while being our best.”

    Going from genocide to genocide with equanimity.

    Reply
    1. JBird4049

      I would think that he is not equating being equanimous with a genocide as much as being so with the general, often terrifying, excitement that is life. There are so many horrible things happening that to give them all of their proper attention would make someone insane.

      Reply
      1. Mikel

        It’s all very exciting, I’m sure…as long as you believe you aren’t or haven’t been on the docket for the next genocide.

        Reply
  5. Robert Hahl

    They saved the true meaning of The Wire for the very end. As each of the old characters departed the scene he was replaced by a young one filling the same niche, including the new Omar, a thirteen year old with a gun robbing a drug runner, who says in surprise, “You’re just a kid!” – bang – “That’s just a leg!”

    Reply
    1. JohnnyGL

      To paraphrase Willie Sutton, “Why rob drug dealers? Because that’s where the money is!”

      Again, we get the context of how the environment breeds opportunistic Omar-style piracy.

      The message is conveyed, repeatedly, that these individuals just aren’t that unique or special. The context creates and shapes them. Sure, there’s individual flair with experimentation and innovation along the way, which makes the story more fun.

      I can’t think of another long running series that makes its characters uniquely fun and interesting, but also completely disposable. Again, it conveys the message that it’s the institutional, racial and social class context that creates and shapes these characters.

      Reply
  6. Paul Art

    Highly recommend “The Devil’s Chessboard” – David Talbot for those who are interested in delving into the CIA and particularly Alan Dulles. Reading about the life of Dulles made me think deeply about what exactly motivated the man and on reading this piece it seems that it was all about individual power more than anything else. He definitely was a tool of the 0.1%, having worked for all the Corporate clients (United Fruit) in Sullivan and Cromwell but he never seems to have benefited in any pecuniary way other than the odd vacation at a rich person’s resort or something like that. In fact the book chronicles his inability to pay for his son’s mental treatment at one point. I wonder if human beings are born with a ‘mission to accomplish’ drive. Most of us strive because it gives us a certain kind of pleasure? Whether we strive for good or bad is unfortunately not completely in our hands. In earlier days, the most intelligent strivers among the 0.1% were to be found in the Ivy League schools ergo the CIA and FBI recruited from them almost exclusively? Catch them young and indoctrinate them well and they will never go off the rails except in rare cases? Dulles had a pathological hatred of Communism as do many in power today and yet his father was a Clergyman. Not germane but what emerges out of “The Devil’s Chessboard” is also the utter perfidy of Lyndon Johnson who put Dulles in charge of the Warren Commission. I suppose it was not as breathtaking as it is now when we read about it because in that time not many people knew about Dulles and how he was probably the mastermind behind it all. “The Wire” I thought was just breathtakingly brilliant writing. I just could not stop watching and suffered from severe withdrawal after I completed the last episode.

    Reply
    1. JohnnyGL

      “I just could not stop watching and suffered from severe withdrawal after I completed the last episode.”

      Are you sure it’s not because Stringer Bell diluted the purity of the product to boost profit margins?

      Reply
    2. JCC

      Not only The Devil’s Chessboard, The Brothers by Stephen Kinzer. I’ve read both and they are excellent history books. History that will never be explained to the general public of why and how the US ended up where it is today when it comes to justifying extreme meddling in many foreign countries, democracies or otherwise.

      I often tell friends that the US public is – whether this is a good descriptive word or not – gullible. They have been thoroughly trained to get their history from US MSM, the cheerleaders of everything the Dulles Brothers have been responsible for.

      Unfortunate.

      Reply
  7. gk

    > Sex and the City

    An interesting aspect of the cultural influence isn’t discussed much. My last time in NYC (1 B.C – before Covid) I stayed in a B&B in upper Manhattan. Two Chinese women were also staying there, and they were not impressed by NY. They gave 2 reasons: One was the unimpressive architecture. I imagine that instead of teaching them about the Empire State or the “Chrysler” building, the city was pushing unimpressive things like the High Line. The other reason was that it was so dirty. My reaction was “this is NY. What do you expect?”. Then I realized that my knowledge of NY first came from films like The taking of Pelham, Taxi Driver, or (god forbid) Escape from NY, so it was pretty much what I expected.

    It turns out that younger people know NY from Sex and the City, which is nothing like the real thing….

    Reply
    1. Michael Fiorillo

      NYC was a high-end consumer item in Sex and the City, to be used up and discarded by the lumpen bourgeois status seekers the show was about and directed toward.

      Reply
        1. JohnnyGL

          XOXO

          Soap opera style adventures of rich teenagers are always being produced in lots of countries. Netflix now lets you watch the same sort of thing, just picked up and dropped into different, beautiful places around the world.

          “Here’s a bunch of pretty, rich teenagers misbehaving in Spain….here’s some more in South Africa…etc…”

          Reply
  8. Biologist

    For anyone interested in The Wire – and with long car journeys ahead:
    I enjoyed this podcast which was produced in 2020, going through each episode in detail. The hosts (Jemele Hill and Van Lathan) are (I think) in showbiz and sports journalism, pretty ‘glamourous’ scences, but grew up in inner cities and discuss the institutional failures displayed in the show in great detail.
    https://player.fm/series/the-wire-way-down-in-the-hole

    Reply
  9. JohnnyGL

    “As an aside, having looked only at the embedded clip, no competent litigator would have allowed Omar to grandstand like that.”

    I’d like to push back a bit on Yves, here. I think the scene is brilliantly written as is. Most TV/movies make courtroom dramas with long, ridiculous monologues, — even the best ones (think of Jack Nicholson in ‘a Few Good Men’).

    The brilliance is in conveying the point in so few words from Omar. The defense attorney is making a moral case against the credibility of the witness and calls him a “parasite”, and is stunned and horrified that his class privilege and moral high ground has been questioned when Omar says, “just like you”.

    “I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. But, it’s all in the game, though, right?”

    I think it’s plausible to imagine a witness slipping in a remark like that in a courtroom setting. In one line, Omar’s launched an institutional critique of how the criminal justice system operates, and undermined the moral basis for the defense attorney’s argument about his credibility. For those who want to think harder, there’s a racial and class commentary buried in there, too.

    By comparison, Jack Nicholson did a lot more grandstanding before, and after, his famous, “you can’t the truth” defense of his actions.

    https://youtu.be/9FnO3igOkOk

    I think it’s a more fair comparison to judge TV courtroom dramas against other movies and courtroom dramas. Comparing film portrayals to reality is harder because, well, reality is much slower and more boring.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Have you ever been cross examined? It appears not. That scene is not realistic. Even in a pissant, seemingly relaxed court like probate in backwater Alabama, an attorney with decent courtroom experience VERY quickly shuts down witnesses who do more than provide narrow answers to the questions asked by limiting them to yes and no responses. And judges aggressively back the attorneys up.

      The Jack Nicholson speech was even more ridiculous. His attorneys would have shut that down before he got much of anywhere. He still might have made the core damaging admission but not all the hysterics.

      Reply
    2. Michael

      and then the judge looks over at the prosecutor to say “well? (he has a point)” Great cinema!

      And great post!

      With George Orwell being outted on MOA over the last week or so, we need to update our dystopian sages.
      I vote for Omar!

      Reply
  10. JonnyJames

    I haven’t watched regular TV in many years, I never saw The Wire or Breaking Bad. I did stream The Sopranos a few years ago. Taken together with the classic Mafia films: The Godfather, Goodfellas… I tend to (half-jokingly, or not) equate our society with the Mafia portrayed in these shows and movies. These fictional movies and shows are useful to describe how business and politics really work in the USA in a clear understandable way.

    Don Corleone “had all the judges and politicians in his pocket”. That kind of sums it up right there. There is always a Mafia analogy. “Nothing personal, strictly business”

    From The Godfather 1
    Michael Corleone: My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.
    Kay Adams: Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed.
    Michael: Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?

    At least the Mafia are more honest than the politicians

    Reply
  11. Albe Vado

    “Why would a shelter provider want to end homelessness when it depends upon the existence of the homeless to pay its bills, including the occasionally exorbitant salaries that go to its executives?”

    As someone who actually works at a homeless shelter, in my experience this entire dismissive sentiment is deeply wrongheaded. The ‘exorbitant salaries’ amount to 60k a year (I know this for a fact; I’ve seen the paperwork first hand. Non-profit finances are also legally required to be publically avaliable where I live).

    Apparently some people find the notion that as government commitment to a functional civil service or any kind of civic minded ideals have faded, much of the expertise and enthusiasm hasn’t disappeared, but been shifted to the NGO circuit, totally alien. I won’t deny there’s very likely corruption (though I’ve seen none of it), but there’s also much that is completely genuine.

    They’re also a way to get things done that aren’t politically feasible for the government to do directly. In an ideal world everyone would be guaranteed housing and making sure this happened would be conducted out of some subbranch office of the DHS. But that doesn’t happen. Voters will not support just housing people, on the simple grounds that ‘I never got a free house, why should these bums?’ (a lot of this job is maneuvering around NIMBY obstructionism. The housed are consistently the most annoying thing to deal with, and that’s amid the rampant meth and fentanyl pandemics).

    What you can do though is shunt a lot of money to NGOs to ‘alleviate the homeless problem’, and most voters don’t inquire what that specifically means. What it means is housing them (the shelter keeps people alive on a day to day basis while using the opportunity to connect people to longer term housing options, which often just means a housing voucher that is subsidized. The government is still effectively giving people a free house, just going about it in a roundabout way).

    The reality of the situation in and around Portland is that there have been a series of failures at the government level, and then the work of trying to patch up the gaping wounds has been outsourced to us in the non-profits. We are in fact doing a substantial amount of work, while fighting a government component that is substantially defective (a big one is how there is essentially no mental health system at all, much less a reasonable path to get people committed. So the handful of literally crazy people I know are condemned to love and die on the street. This is a hill I’ll die on: some people are insane and we need to bring back the asylums. Not all the homeless, not remotely, but say 5%. There is no mechanism to give them the help they need, and the effort of trying to manage them drags everything else down).

    This meme of blaming everything on NGOs is getting very tiresome. Government fails, NGOs try to pick up the pieces, and yet NGOs are blamed for apparently just being grift; because we don’t magically fix everything it’s because we’re a scam? With all due respect, sod off with this nonsense.

    ‘You’re not solving homelessness because your paycheck depends on it.’ Utter rot. We ARE housing people, by the hundreds. Literally everyone I know in this field would love for this crisis to be gone and they’d wander away to do some other job, which would inevitably pay more. This idea that we don’t do anything to solve the problem can only be uttered by someone who has literally zero knowledge of any of the particulars of what we actually do everyday. Might I suggest starting by actually getting a tour of a relevant NGO in Multnomah or a neighboring county?

    Reply
    1. Glenda

      Great comment, Albe Vado. That is what I see in Berkeley, CA.
      Thanks for doing the thankless work. In solidarity, Glenda

      Reply
  12. James

    The Wire is the greatest TV show of all time. I think it might even be the greatest work of narrative fiction of all time.

    Reply
  13. Albe Vado

    The gist of The Wire is that it’s attempting to be a long-form exploration of why nothing can ever change in a major American city. That you might have well intentioned people at all levels, but lower down people don’t have the freedom of action because their superiors straitjacket them, while institutional factors restrict and funnel those same superiors so they won’t allow change.

    I used to believe all that too, but my experience now is that it’s basically just a lot of whiny bunk. The reality is that change, substantial change, is absolutely possible. It might be an uphill battle; it can be like pulling teeth. But change is possible, especially on issues where things have clearly gone wrong and something desperately needs to be done. A key is to not just abstract away a problem and claim ‘something something social structures’. That’s in a way a kind of braindead mysticism. Policy is set by people. If you actually take those key people (mayors, country commisioners, DAs, state senators, etc) aside and engage with them directly, present them with a clear model, and particularly if you can show them a model that is already being implemented at a lesser scale, you can actually make forward progress.

    Also season five of The Wire was pure trash. It completely abandoned the systemic critique in favor of David Simon working through some old personal level grudges he had related to the journalism industry.

    Reply
    1. Mikel

      “The gist of The Wire is that it’s attempting to be a long-form exploration of why nothing can ever change in a major American city….”

      So several seasons of “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

      Reply
      1. James

        No – it goes into great detail. One season is about the role that job offshoring has played. Another season is about the problems in the school system. Yet another season is about the news media.

        Reply
  14. maria gostrey

    “the wire” is so great. this last time watching, i enjoyed the casual references to classical history & mythology.

    another great show for casual historical reference is “succession”. in the episode i watched last night, a character made a joke abt the habsburgs.

    in swedish.

    Reply

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