Note: I am not finished with the entirety of The Wire. Currently I am on season four, episode seven. Why do I love television so much? Because it’s story telling with words and images that is the same every time, there is no variation, there is no retelling, it is the one time presented, and you can analyze it over and over again. It’s not like oral stories passed on, the story itself remains the same but the significance changes over time. It is filmed in one era but can be viewed in another, making the experience different. The technological and anthropological significance of television is one that is truly intellectually underrated.
The Wire might be one of the most bad-ass, gritty, and provocative television series off all time that was not only revolutionary for it’s time, but the social concepts explored in The Wire continue to be possibly more relevant today than at the time of it’s broadcast during 2002 to 2008. The early millennial had not socially approached it’s next revolutionary epoch in America, the likes of which we are seeing in the next wave of liberation movements (gay rights, the fight for racial equality, a focused discussion on what modern feminism is), most likely because Bush was in office and everyone was really patriotic because of the post 9/11 environment and focused on several international wars we had going on. From a national perspective with white Americans in charge, there wasn’t a lot of time to talk about race. So unfortunately for The Wire, while it was critically acclaimed and an arguable work of television perfection, was praised and watched, but the saturated racial environment explored by The Wire wasn’t raw like it is now.
Flash forward, and under our first black President, a barrage of social changes are accomplished. Gay marriage is legal in 36 states, marijuana is fully recreational under one state and medicinally available in 23 states in some form, and there is a frank national conversation about how rape victims are treated in this country from a non-male solipsistic perspective. Granted, this did not all occur at once under President Obama (gay marriage and medicinal marijuana were “a thing” before his administration though clearly the ability of both those movements to gain momentum forward increased dramatically under Obama), but the more liberalized political and cultural environment and clearly brought changes.
However, as a nation, we are seeing a discussion on race relations that still has the ugly unsettled undercurrents and full swirl tsunamis of white supremacy and hatred against non-whites that pervades in the hearts of some in this country. With all footsteps forward come backlashes, and as everyone knows the scope and breadth of hatred is long-winded. Ferguson was a national tragedy, disaster, and embarrassment to justice. It also caused Chris Rock to make one of the funniest jokes I have ever heard concerning how social relations now function in the new cyber world, “I found a new app to tell which one of your friends is a racist. It’s called Facebook”, referring to the number of pro-Wilson sentiments that many white Americans were exposing, some in the process exposing the ugliness and irrationality of their racist thoughts. Indeed, I defriended at least two people as a result of their hateful racism displayed on my Facebook feed.
Back to The Wire, the first season is pure gold. I am a cinema and television junkie, and The Wire proved so masterful in it’s story telling, character building, and plot development, that the next seasons unfortunately haven’t captured the same gold shine, though they do gleam as works of the most advanced and rich television series to date. However, the rest of the seasons are not without merit. The first season is a work of drugs, sex, money, power, politics, and what lays beyond the veil of civilized and polite company. The rest of the seasons tell the tale of how it gets to be that way, and unfortunately some of the sexiness wears off. Season Four is spent examining the broken lives of Baltimore’s children, hardly a “sexy” topic and nor should it be, but one of incredible seriousness that shows the generational impact of times that came before a person was born.
John Rawls is considered a father of “liberal contractionalism”, or the philosophical concept that all human beings have an inherent obligation to one another by virtue of being human. On your first day in Philosophy 101 class in college, you are taught Rawl’s “Veil of Ignorance”, a mind exercise that asks the person to erase any and all concepts of identity. Pretend that there is no civilization, you have no identity, and you don’t know the significance of any identity characteristics behind “the veil”. Now, while you’re behind this veil, you create what you want society to look like.
Is it based on your identity characteristics, and which ones, and why, and for what reason, and how?
Most likely you would say something along the lines of an equal society, because human beings are by virtue, of merit in and of themselves.
What this equal society looks like, is up to your imagination. But remember, when the veil is lifted and you are in a wheelchair, without physical beauty, of the ethnic group out of favor, and of a limited economic status, do you want to be considered of less value than a physically beautiful able bodied person who is part of the majority ethnic group with a lot of disposable income? Remember now, you didn’t know your identity and what it meant under the veil. You were just asked what equal treatment of human beings looks like.
After The Wire runs us into the underworld, introduces us to where political contributions come from in inner city urban areas, what people do when they are put in potentially deadly environments, and a healthy swig of cop culture, it brings us to what happens to the children when they grow up in this environment. And this is what America was not ready for ten years ago, an examination of what police violence, racial tension, economic degradation, illegal drug markets and poor understanding and treatment of people living with addiction can psychologically wreck on children.
Ol Dirty Bastard of the Wu Tang Clan, one of the greatest hip-hop groups to help tell the struggle of the African-American identity and experience in inner city America, once said “Wu Tang is for the Children!”. Most people rarely understood the extreme wisdom of this rambling man, and what he meant was, us, the Wu Tang, we tell the truth. The truth, what you let children know and how you let them know it, is how they know the world. Wu Tang wasn’t about lying to the children, it was about enlightening them to the harsh reality with their story-telling.
In Part II, I hope to offer an analysis of why America needs to rewatch The Wire in order to pull away our veil of ignorance.