You Know Who I Blame? The System!: The Wire, Barack Obama, and Omar for President

by zunguzungu

Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation opens with the figure of John F. Kennedy being nominated to run for president and invoking the “New Frontier” as his vision for the country. As Slotkin observes, it might seem odd for a candidate so heavily identified with the Eastern seaboard to invoke the Wild West, but then, of course, this is exactly why Kennedy did it: by tapping into what Slotkin calls “a vein of latent ideological power,” Kennedy managed to be “intelligible to the widest possible audience–to Brooklyn and Cambridge as well as Abilene and Los Angeles,” by employing a set of symbols that were also an “appropriate language for explaining and justifying political power.” In Slotkin’s words, “The ‘frontier’ was for them a complexly resonant symbol, a vivid and memorable set of hero-tales–each a model of successful and morally justifying action on the stage of historical conflict.”

There’s a lot going on here, but I want to flag two things. First of all, the “cowboy” as national cultural form allowed Kennedy to transcend the regionally particular image he was otherwise saddled with, getting away from the idea that he was “merely” a North-Eastern Liberal Irish-Catholic. This was well worn piece of cold war politicking: to use the Soviet threat to reconcile the bellicose and militaristic traditions of American nationalism (regionally strong in the South and the West) with an Eastern establishment traditionally oriented towards Europe. But perhaps more importantly, the cowboy metaphor also isn’t just an empty signifier; as Slotkin puts it, Kennedy’s frontier rhetoric:

“entailed more than simple affiliation with the campaign or administration”; it summoned the nation as a whole “to undertake (or at least support) a heroic engagement in the ‘long twilight struggle’ against Communism and the social and economic injustices that foster it…thereby set[ting] the terms in which the administration would seek public consent to an participation in its counterinsurgency ‘mission’ in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. And it shaped the language through which the resultant wars would be understood by those who commanded and fought them. Seven years after Kennedy’s nomination, American troops would be describing Vietnam as ‘Indian country’ and search-and-destroy missions as a game of ‘Cowboys and Indians’; and Kennedy’s ambassador to Vietnam would justify a massive military escalation by citing the necessity of moving the ‘Indians’ away from the ‘fort’ so that the ‘settlers’ could plant ‘corn.'”

To understand the American mission through reference to frontier mythology, in other words, is to call upon a very specific set of symbolic tropes and to imply not merely a specifically racialized manifest destiny, but also a particular kind of self-legitimating use of violence. In the cowboy Western, not only is the only good Indian a dead Indian, but the killing of an Indian is also a precisely a productive act: as in Ambassador Taylor‘s quote, violently relocating native peoples is the same thing as creating space for “corn” to grow, a self-evidently good thing.

All this, then, is to ask the following question: what should we make of the fact that Barrack Obama, the now presumptive democratic nominee for president, who both explicitly identifies with Kennedy and faces the same type of problem as Kennedy did (the problem of being identified as “merely” a minority and elitist candidate), said that Omar was his favorite character on The Wire? What kind of latent ideological power is he tapping?

I ask this question, of course, not to try to answer it (as these folks have) but because I have a thesis that sets it up: Omar is a cowboy. This should be obvious even if you didn’t know that the show’s creators looted old cowboy movies in blocking, shooting, and editing Omar’s various train-robberies and high-noon gun battles in the street (and you know this because Michael Kenneth Williams, who plays Omar, said so on the DVD commentary in season two). After Brokeback Mountain, it even seems fairly normal for him to be a gay cowboy. But in some ways his sexuality is a red herring: Omar is a cowboy not because he’s gay; he’s gay because he’s a cowboy. He’s the only character on The Wire who lives free on the range, who doesn’t cow-tow to society, who lives according to his own code. And most importantly, he makes his own law by a self-justifying use of force: he violently robs drug-dealers.

In a key conversation between Omar and Bunk (one of the show’s many symbolic doubles), Omar acknowledges that “I do some dirt, too, but I never put my gun on nobody who wasn’t in the game.” Bunk replies, with a certain bitterness, “A man must have a code,” but not only is Bunk’s irony lost on Omar, it’s lost on us as well: it is precisely to the point that Omar doesn’t bother citizens, only other players in the game. While the show’s own morality places an incredibly high premium on the distinction between drug crime and homicide (condemning resources spent on the former that should be spent on the latter both in the show and out), Omar manages to be a killer and the show’s most popular character the same way so many of John Wayne’s characters did: by killing only those who are “naked life” in Arendt’s terms or “bare life” in Agamben’s, acts of killing which thereby integrate the killer into the work of the state. After all, Omar’s immediate alliance with McNulty and the detail would be completely implausible were it not for this convergence between his code and theirs: as with the “savages” of cowboy legend, drug dealers in The Wire make it impossible for “citizens” to live and produce in peace, so the only good drug dealer, also, is a dead drug dealer. And Omar’s war against the Barksdale crew is ultimately reducible to a revenge that is carefully staged as the justice no police could give him: they torture his lover and they shoot off his grandmother’s hat on the way to church.

Omar is not exactly The Virginian, of course, but there is a great deal of precedent for the gangster-cowboy figure, as Slotkin (and many others) have noted: the underlying narrative, the good man who must use violence to survive in an amoral world, is present in everything from My Darling Clementine to Scarface to The Big Sleep and their more contemporary equivalents. And just as the cowboy had to kill or be killed, surviving and opening space for civilization only by becoming increasingly more savage (exactly as Frederick Jackson Turner “theorized”), so too can Vito Corleone create space for his family, and the family’s business, only by turning to the kinds of violence that society condemns in theory but condones in practice. It was this kind of hypocrisy that the classic era of Hollywood thrived by exploiting, turning the failure of the state (and of social institutions more generally) to use their monopoly on violence correctly into an argument for individualism: since American society has become corrupt and oppressive, in other words, a true American is someone who makes his own justice.

In this sense, Indians are never the real villains of cowboy movies (and The Wire is not innovative in encouraging us to sympathize with the state‘s enemies); exactly because of the inevitability of their deaths, Indians could even become a figure of romantic attachment, valued almost precisely because every death seems to signify a step forward for progress. No, the real villain in Westerns, gangster movies, noir, and Mafia films is the same villain as in The Wire: “institutions” or an even more amorphous “the system.” And you don’t have to dig very deep into The Wire’s dvd commentaries or interviews with the creators to discover a very basic and overriding cynicism about the possibility of positive reform; as David Simon put it (in a quote I got here), The Wire “overtly suggests that our political and economic and social constructs are no longer viable, that our leadership has failed us relentlessly, and that no, we are not going to be all right.” These failures are, again and again and again, attributed to “institutions.”

But what the heck–and this is the point–is an “institution?” You’ve got to give the show credit for being incredibly savvy about tracing out the dynamic power relationships between low level employees, middle management, and upper corporate leadership, and I think Marc Bousquet is right on when he notes:

“What the show grasps is that private corporate and public institutional managers both employ “quality” in an Orwellian register in which a “quality process” is one of continuously increasing workload and continuously eroding salary and benefits, with a single, doltish mantra employed everywhere-in police departments, in social services, and school systems, just as on college campuses: the perpetual command to “Do More With Less.”

But there’s also a certain danger in imprecise hyperbole, and this kind of insight can be pushed too far. For example–and I’m stealing from Bousquet’s post again–James Poniewozik claims that, “All The Wire’s characters face the same forces in a bottom-line, low-margin society, whether they work for a city department, a corporation, or a drug cartel. A pusher, a homicide cop, a teacher, a union steward: they’re all, in the world of The Wire, middlemen getting squeezed for every drop of value by the systems they work for.”

So I ask, again, “are they really all the same? Are these really all exactly the same forces?” I don’t think they are, but–to put it another way–I would suggest that the particular mystification by which a particular kind of difference is elided is not incidental. As Ed White notes, in his excellent The Backcountry and the City, Americans tend to be extremely bad at talking about the social space between “Self” and “System”; in his words:

“to give an obvious example, we today use the term “institution” to refer to voting and marriage, legislative government or the House of Representatives, the marketplace or the Bank of North America. Our impoverished vocabulary for collectives slides carelessly from the precise acts and attitudes of the here and now to the general systems of history.”

It’s like Borges’ Chinese encyclopedia. If “marriage,” “B&B enterprises,” and the Baltimore PD are all “institutions,” is the word still doing any real work as a signifier? Illustrating exactly that point, there’s a moment in the DVD commentary for episode 3:11 that made light bulbs go off in my mind. As the writer of that show takes note of the various ways that the main street standoff between Omar and Brother Mouzone is patterned after Westerns (he mentions Leone, Ford, and Hawkes, and particularly cites the professional respect they show as they discuss each other’s guns), he goes on to draw a larger comparison with the use that the Western (and Samurai film) makes of the “outsider” figure. As in The Magnificent Seven (or, rather, Seven Samurai), the community must be protected by outsiders who fit in nowhere. “Like McNulty,” he tosses off, “Who doesn’t fit anywhere, not even in the institution of marriage.”

This is exhibit A for the prosecution, and my case is that The Wire is very good at thinking about one particular kind of capitalist formation, the profit driven corporate structure that Bousquet is talking about, and is especially good at understanding the ways that ostensibly non-profit driven structures, like the police, can become restructured by a bottom-line logic of statistics and political benchmarks. But at the same time, The Wire is strikingly bad at understanding or even imagining any other form of social organization. And this myopia–the inability to see the fallacy of comparing the Baltimore Sun with marriage–is a blindness that produces a particular kind of insight. Simon and company are incapable of seeing any possible good coming out of structural forms because they’ve already closed their eyes to the possibility. The Wire therefore becomes an attack on a particular type of violent institution, but it interpellates all forms of social organization under that rubric, and concludes with an incredibly pessimistic vision of society as a result. This, in fact, is what makes it so curious that Obama would gesture towards The Wire when he did, as a few people have noted: the most basic premise of the show, that institutional reform is impossible, would seem to run directly contrary to Obama’s proposal to do exactly that.

In any case, the quote I gave from Ed White is in a book specifically interested in what he calls “feelings of structure” in colonial America–the ways that our modern day disinclination to think about social groupings blinds us to what was really going on in those days–and there’s something specifically post-industrial about this wholesale rejection of “institutional systems.” More specifically, it seems to me that the kinds of tropes that Omar channels are the kinds of “feelings of structure” that developed out of the widespread crisis in faith in public institutions and the American system during the great depression. Slotkin talks about the ways the Western and Noir dovetailed in their valorization of rugged individualists who could work outside the system, but it’s Lawrence Levine’s essay “Hollywood’s Washington: Film Images of National Politics During the Great Depression” that, for me, particularly brought out the connection between the failure of public institutions and a political faith in the extralegal. For Levine, for example, Frank Capra’s “Little Man” trilogy of 1939-1941 (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe) is a paradigmatic example: in each film, a single “little man”–thereby representative of the nameless masses, as Meet John Doe makes particularly clear–goes forward to do battle with the dark forces that bedevil America’s heartland, pitting the values of small town America against the systemic and institutional corruption of the press, the plutocracy, and the political establishment. And as Michael Rogin notes, these quixotic quests always seem to end in pointedly unrealistic endings, martyrdoms that either magically (or Christologically) convert the unbelievers but which seem to offer no real grounds for practical reform. This kind of pessimism may, in fact, run deeper than the superficiality of the happy endings. After all, Capra could never have ended his films without a happy ending; one possible conclusion to Meet John Doe, he later said, would have sent Gary Cooper plunging to his death on Christmas Eve, but as he put it in 1973, he didn’t dare to film it. “It’s a hell of a powerful ending,” he said, “but you just can’t kill Gary Cooper.” Instead, Capra went with the Hollywood ending every time: after staging unsolvable problems, he closed them down by changing the subject and foregrounding a romance plot.

The Wire can and does “kill Gary Cooper,” so to speak; the standards for what can and cannot be said in popular culture have changed to that extent. But the underlying frame of reference is not so different, the same dialectic of alternating faith and cynicism that asks whether a Quixote like McNulty or Major Colvin can make headway against the entrenched corruption of Baltimore’s powers that be, but finds itself capable of asking only that question. Within that dialectic, it is possible to imagine the cowboy against the system, the law and the outlawyer, but it pointedly isn’t possible to imagine anything in between. Instead, we are limited to a frame of reference that tracks from outsider to insider while pointedly unthinking the question of what the structural referent is. Omar’s homosexuality therefore makes him the ultimate outsider on the streets–he could never fit into a crew like Barksdale’s without giving himself up–and as such he becomes one of the show’s only possible sources of justice, the primary vehicle for the audience’s wish fulfillment. And on the other end of the spectrum, you have Rawls, the closeted Deputy Commissioner, who serves as an example of what self-denial does to those who chose to conform and fit in: they become the world’s biggest prick, a source of pain and suffering for everyone around them, arbitrarily uniform in their production of suffering. It is hardly surprising, then, that Jimmie McNulty, the show’s annoyingly central crusading cowboy (come from outside to impose justice on the natives), is from the beginning partnered up with Omar and engaged on a vendetta against Rawls. Unlike them, though, he at least has the option of the Capra false ending, even if The Wire is a world in which marriage is structurally equivalent to a drug cartel.