The Jimmy McNulty Gambit
In season five of The Wire, Jimmy McNulty invents a serial killer and tries to use the press to spur a systemic reaction to an irritant that doesn’t really exist, but also sort of does exist. Marlo, after all, is actually a serial killer, just not the kind that anyone really wants to actually try to stop. So he invents one that the system really does dislike, the kind of sensational killer that gets people excited. This fails, of course, but that’s not the important thing; the important thing is why he even tried.
After all, Jimmy McNulty’s problem is not only that he’s an unscrupulous narcissist, but that he combines that quality with a streak of good intentions, a kind of idealism and desire to do some version of the right thing. Cynics and fatalists wouldn’t fall into this trap, because they’ve never expected the world to be different, or never imagined that they could change it. Those who want to work within the system – for whatever reason – will be co-opted or will simply adjust their expectations relative to what it is that they can reasonably accomplish within the bounds of that system (Carcetti being McNulty’s doppleganger in that sense). And, of course, many don’t want to change the system at all.
But McNulty’s problem was that dangerous coupling of his belief that he could change the world with the idea that he should. And because the world he lived in didn’t allow him that possibility – because, by season five, it had been pounded into his skull that you can’t get results by following the normal channels – he rejects the reality he inhabits, the true stories it would be possible to tell, and decides to invent a new story, to imagine the kind of reality that will provoke the system into taking the kind of action he wants it to take.
If there’s a certain radicalism to this gesture, we should also note that the most he can do is make the system do what it always does anyway: in this case, throw police at a crime it thereby propagates and reproduces. But the main thing is why, and how: the fiction comes into existence because an immovable object has been met with a force that can’t accept that it is stoppable. Within the normal course of the system, Marlo can’t be moved, because the system is not built to move him. But because McNulty can’t imagine his own failure, he imagines that failure out of existence. He tells the story he needs to be true.
* * *
Mike Daisey wasn’t the first person to make up a false personal story as a way of raising the kind of “awareness” that will necessitate change, nor was #StopKony the first hyper-successful campaign to take a massively complicated political-economic-military problem and reduce it to the narrative of a great white savior. See, for example, Greg Mortensen, who is similar to both, in the way that both are similar to each, or to a Tom MacMaster, the hoaxter behind “Gay Girl in Damascus.”
The pattern, the trend, and the continuity are far more interesting than the individual stories. Part of it is simply the usual racist narcissism of The West, of course, which is and which must always be History’s Protagonist, for which all problems become nails, the better to be serviced by our hammers. But while this is the Occam’s razor explanation – and it’s the true one – there is also more to see here, more to say: what these fiction writers also have in common is a certain objective sense in which they are right, in which the story they are telling is true. While their subjective accounts tend to be the least true part of it (the most damning lies have to do with Daisey’s description of his personal experiences, for example), but behind those subjective untruths, we also find a broad field of objective accuracy: Foxconn is a terrible place to work, Joseph Kony really is a nightmare, building schools in Afghanistan is a good thing to do, and Syrian repression is no joke. Marlo really was a serial killer.
This is not a defense, of course, but it is worth saying: if we only emphasize the lies in these accounts, we thereby overlook the extent to which they were saying true things. And it is also worth remembering that truth is not an either/or. One can easily deceive by telling nothing but the truth – telling it selectively, misframed, etc – and one can also tell a kind of truth by using statements which are, on their own, untrue. This is why fiction matters, and why journalism never rests on quite the firm bedrock of objectivity that it needs to pretend it does. But again, this is not a defense, just an attempt to describe a problem that we often have vested interests in failing to acknowledge, the blurriness of the line that separates fact from fiction.
I say this to clear away the temptation of easy moralism, of making “true” seem like it would be the easy way to be right. For if truth and fiction are not black and white – and they are not – then it is simply not enough to condemn Mike Daisey for lying. Moralizing about that, after all, allows us to imagine a simplistic world in which telling the truth would have been the right choice. If you tell the truth the right way, we imagine – if you tell the version of Mike Daisey’s story that didn’t narcissistically mythologize – then the real problems that really do exist could be dealt with. But this isn’t the case, is it? If you tell the truth with scrupulous accuracy and breadth, people are as likely to doze off as be scandalized.
In fact, this is precisely the problem that empowers the Mike Daisey’s and Tom MacMaster’s to get creative: because reality won’t cut it, isn’t outrageous enough, we must sex up the story for it to get any traction, and it must get traction, it MUST. Children literally working their fingers to the bone? That’s outrageous. But children who grow up into a world of endless toil, one that offers little human dignity or hope of self-realization but only metaphorically “works their fingers to the bone” will produce little outrage. That’s normal, our normal. Yawn. And that “yawn” at what is and should be maddeningly outrageous is not even a new problem: Upton Sinclair thought that when people read The Jungle, they would get upset about the capitalism, about the working conditions, about the crushing and cruel exploitation. In fact, people got upset about the thought that there was rat shit in their food.
Beyond the narcissism, this is where the lies come from, and where the belief comes from that a lie is true, must be. The truth is not enough, these people think; I have to tell the story that will get results, results that will testify to their deeper truth.
But the deeper problem, I think, is that telling stories is the only way these people can conceptualize getting results. And because appealing to the public sphere to be scandalized and to demand reforms is the only kind of result they can envision – because this is how they imagine justice works – the story will inevitably become what it needs to be to appeal to that kind of conscience, whatever will appeal to that sense of the public’s fickle taste. No one in the West will care about the reality of Syrian repression, thinks Tom MacMaster; I need to invent an Angelic White Victim to speak in place of those whose stories are not, as such, sufficiently compelling to compel action can only speak and be unheard.
The result will be twofold. On the one hand, as the producers of outrage crank it up to eleven, the threshold for what to takes to produce real outrage will rise as well. As Amitav Ghosh puts it, quite nicely:
The thickening crust of our awareness is both a sign and a reminder of our unwitting complicity in the evolution of violence: if that which mesmerized us yesterday ceases to interest us today, then it follows that the act which will next claim our attention will be even more horrific, even more resistant to yesterday’s imagination, than the last.
Ghosh is talking about 9/11 and suicide bombing, of course, but it’s still an apt way of phrasing the way our outrage economy tends towards an equilibrium. And this complicity is worth thinking about very carefully; if a certain level of violation is required to provoke our interest, then does feeding that interest with stories that reach that threshold only reinforce the fact that a broad range of stories do not interest us? Does the “we must do anything” of the #StopKony campaign also mean that anything less than child-raping scans as less outrageous by comparison
Perhaps more importantly, because such stories are derived from their audience – and its imaginative capabilities – they will for that reason demand and privilege reactions to the problem that are maddeningly simplistic in their very imaginable practicality. Kony is bad and so he must be killed by the military, because that’s something we can picture, can visualize; fundamentally restructuring the Central African system of political economy and governance is impossibly and unthinkably remote. Apple is bad and must be regulated (or shunned or something), because, again, that’s something simple we can imagine happening (as opposed to any alternative to the advanced industrial capitalism that makes Foxconn all but inevitable). And MacMasters later admitted that he had given his story an ending, an ending that is striking by its plausible realism: “I was going to end the story with having her be free, and get out of country — end of story.” But this ending is necessary precisely because individual escapes happen every day (while a real solution to the Syrian crisis is unthinkably complicated). Each of these outcomes are imaginable, in part, as a direct consequence of the fact that they do not trouble the status quo. We can imagine those reforms, because they are essentially superficial adjustments of a system that not only remains intact, but which we – in our thinking about what is and isn’t possible – rely on and presume.
All of which is simply to say: it’s in the nature of grand structural transformations that we will always have great difficulty picturing what the end-state would look like. And because we feel we have to, we tend not to, falling back on the narrative patterns we know better. It’s hard to imagine a future without militaries or a world without capitalist production, because we don’t live in that world, or that future; everything we do know about the range of possibilities we inhabit is derived from the economic and political conditions of it, of our knowable world. And since we live in a world that produces capitalist exploitation as reliably and as organically as militaries produce conflict and police produce criminals, we will always have difficulty in imagining what a system that didn’t organically do so would look like; we will tend to be confined to the solutions which that system produces for itself, which the world we live in makes thinkable, possible. In short: we can imagine killing Kony, or fining or shunning Apple only because doing so would do nothing to disable the systemic forces that make Kony possible in the first place, would do nothing to change the system that makes it economically “necessary” to treat workers the way Foxconn does.
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Apple is bad and must be regulated (or shunned or something), because, again, that’s something simple we can imagine happening (as opposed to any alternative to the advanced industrial capitalism that makes Foxconn all but inevitable).
I’ve seen Daisey’s Jobs show a couple of times and I’m a fan of his. But I take most of your points. (Hello, by the way; I found your blog through the Slacktivist’s link to your very valuable post “On the Genre of ‘Raising Awareness about Someone Else’s Suffering.'”)
Daisey made dumb decisions. He’s often portrayed himself in his monologues as very capable of self-destruction and narcissism; it turns out that this is true. He opened himself up to a scandal in exactly the sense that Dirks described it, and his reputation will now be sacrificed in order to invalidate his point.
Moreover, his lies weren’t necessary. He’s a tremendous orator and could have done it honestly to the same effect. For what it’s worth, he now says that he’s changed the monologue to be more scrupulous and to address his failures, but that only makes it more obvious that he could’ve easily done it differently, even if only by framing it differently.
I do take issue with the line I quoted at the top of this comment. If I recall it correctly, Daisey’s point wasn’t at all that Apple “is bad” and should be “regulated or shunned or something.” He made it clear that he admires Apple and any simple emotion he has towards their labor practices is enmeshed and confused by his love of their devices. I believe he never said anything about regulation. Certainly he never brought up a boycott except to reject the idea as oversimplified and ineffective — too easy.
Instead, his conclusion was only that Americans should accept that their stuff was not made by robots, that it was made by hand, that we should acknowledge the dignity of the individuals who made it, and that capitalism subsists on the absence of empathy. His suggestion on Apple amounted to the idea that audiences might write to Jobs (while he was alive, or presumably to his successors now that he is dead; I haven’t seen the show since) and ask him to step up and change the industry’s labor conditions by example. Jobs had already helped somewhat to turn around its environmental abuses, so it wasn’t a bizarre idea.
I agree that Daisey didn’t offer an alternative to advanced industrial capitalism. The show struggled towards one, but it never arrived. Yes, empathy is a powerful anti-capitalism virus (just as scandal is a powerful anti-empathy vaccine), and letter-writing helps, but Daisey seemed well aware that empathy and letter-writing wouldn’t be enough. Still, they were a place to start.
And I realize “still, it’s a place to start” is often precisely where people go wrong. Capitalism, after all, also runs on despair. To start is painful. It is easier to start than to continue. Most ways to start just end up feeding the system, and if we try and fail and recognize our failure, we hate ourselves. We hate ourselves even more if the thing that inspired us to try turns out to be a lie. Yet another thing that capitalism runs on is the fear of being fooled; it’s better to believe nothing and keep to oneself.
I’m new to the language of activism, and frankly I started learning it because of Daisey (I saw one of the first performances of his Jobs show at a festival in Portland in late 2010). I feel betrayed because he lied, but mostly I’m upset that that he lied when he didn’t have to — the facts are bad enough, and most of his failings were matters of embellishment or exaggeration or dramatic license. He put guns in guards’ hands and cameras in dorm rooms; he placed unionists in an expensive coffee shop they probably couldn’t afford; he said he’d met people he’d only read about; he said he’d visited more factories than he had, spoken to more people than he had, was more fully confident that he’d spoken to children. Daisey’s fundamentally a theater artist and I actually do buy his defense that the theater has its own idea/ideal of what truth is. But he’s crossed over from theater into journalism this time, and he should’ve known that. I think he does know that, and always has — just as I think Ira Glass knows that humiliating Daisey wouldn’t undo his own humiliation.
I’m not sure of the extent to which this overlong comment is even a direct response to your post. I think it’s pretty far off your central point, actually, for which I apologize. Like I say, I’m not a natural activist and I’m not good at talking about activism; I feel a lot safer talking about aesthetics. But I try, and Daisey helped me to start trying precisely by reaching activism through aesthetics. I’m going to keep defending him even though he’s made an ass of himself (and me).
I think he does know that, and always has — just as I think Ira Glass knows that humiliating Daisey wouldn’t undo his own humiliation.
(I should clarify here: I’m not excusing Daisey’s failure to hold a journalistic piece to journalistic standards by saying that I think he knew what he was doing — quite the opposite. Also, I’m probably wrong to pull this analysis on Glass, whose work I don’t know and whose life I know even less. In every uneditable piece of writing, there are always one or two points that you regret immediately.)
Oh, right, last thing: I never actually listened to the now-yanked TAL episode. I was pretty familiar with the monologue already and never bothered. Since it was one-hour excerpt from a two-hour show, the focus was probably much narrower, and it’s possible that points I’m talking about were entirely omitted (and that the change in the shape of the story had a larger and less quantifiable effect). I’ll have to track it down. Somehow I suspect that it’s still available somewhere.
” And because we feel we have to, we tend not to, falling back on the narrative patterns we know better. It’s hard to imagine a future without militaries or a world without capitalist production, because we don’t live in that world, or that future; everything we do know about the range of possibilities we inhabit is derived from the economic and political conditions of it, of our knowable world.”
Reminds me of Bertolt Brecht talking about theater.
First, to call Central African government a “system” is a fib of its own. The weakness of regional governments is a major factor that allows wild cards like Kony to bloom.
Secondly, there are a nigh-infinite number of objective facts in the world. Telling any intelligible story necessarily leaves most of them out. We can’t make decisions or make sense of the world without constantly making choices about what to pay attention to and what to ignore, and we can’t expect others to agree with our choices. This, as far as I can tell, is what postmodernism was trying to say. Still, we live in the world, and we have to decide how to act.
Put more simply, it’s not Mike Daisey’s or Tom MacMaster’s fault if The Entire Truth About Everything can’t be conveyed in a five minute video.
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It seems like another of saying this, more consistent with the central metaphor you employ, is that the McNulty gambit can only work once. What we can expect from the system that produced Marlo Stanfield is the production of new Marlo Stanfields in the future, as well as the lack of resources need to adequately combat him (the show may not suggest this, but I’m sure that David Simon would). The next time a Marlo arrives on the scene, likely coupled with both budget cuts and a lack of institutional concern with his emergence, a similar horizon-transforming act will be necessary to produce those resources and to convince institutions to topple him (and likely to do so in predictable ways, i.e. arrest and imprisonment).
But the end result ends up being that the supposedly horizon-transforming McNulty Gambit doesn’t end up being horizon-transforming the way that McNulty himself would have wanted it to be. Why? Because the next time around, it might take more than a serial killer with a weird fetish to produce the diversion of resources necessary to take out Marlo 2.0. The truly horizon-transformative act would not be the McNulty gambit but rather, say, the Urban Marshall Plan Gambit, or the Investing Adequate Resources in Schools Gambit. But those, too, could be seen as inadequate in comparison to the Socialist Revolution Gambit. What we take to be horizon-transforming is also a function of ideology. There’s no way out of that. There is, however, a better and a worse, the better being a subtle understanding of what is really being transformed, the worse being the sense that anything that presents itself as a “game changer” really is one (as if “thinking outside the box” wasn’t already de rigeur).
Your discussion might provide a useful critique of Zizek’s interpretation of The Wire and his description of the McNulty Gambit as an act corresponding to the suspension of the ethical. The McNulty gambit is good because it violates certain precepts of conventional morality (telling the truth foremost amongst them) in the name of some higher Good. But the McNulty gambit doesn’t serve a higher good than catching the bad guy. StopKony and the anti-FoxConn campaign stretch the truth in the name of some higher good, but those goods must also be understood in a larger economy of intentions and horizons. The only real “solution” is to know that and…well, I don’t know after that.
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Came for any mention of Dan Rather or “fake but accurate,” left disappointed.
There is also Daisey’s Georgetown talk from the other day:
In which he speaks de profundis about precisely how and why he fucked up.
(There’s a lot of review in the first half; really pertinent stuff begins at around 25:00 and builds from there.)
I have an alternate theory, one that doesn’t so much explain McNulty (who is a justice enforcer in a law enforcement uniform) but does explain Kony2012 and Gay Girl in Damascus.
When cultures are focused outward, like certain (liberal) parts of American culture are now, there is little demand for art and culture makers who are made up entirely of the ‘inside’. Because they are such insiders, they see outsideness not as something they can go experience, and not as something of inherent worth, but a code that they can crack and then use. The thought goes, I’m just as good a writer as Maya Angelou — if I was a black woman who’d been sexually abused, I’d definitely be a bestseller by now. After that thought hits, fakery of one kind or another is on its way. None of these people, to my mind, really want to create change (and I would say that each has materially harmed the propensity of their audience to care about the topics on which they wrote). They want to create blogs and videos and get hits: conceptual and physical frontiers are the place where the hits come from, so they pretend an investment in those things.
What the Kony and Gay Girl authors don’t get is that we’re not focused outside our culture for our own entertainment, but to learn about otherness. It’s fashion, sure, but it’s also a way to revitalize our own moribund culture, and undertake some broad liberal goals (racial and religious harmony, equality, etc.). The fashion part can be faked; the rest can’t.
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