Somebody just murdered Snot Boogie, presumably for stealing the cash from an alley craps game. Snot did that every time, though, and his usual punishment was a beating. This time, though… As Detective McNulty (Dominic West) and one of Snot’s acquaintances (Kamal Bostic-Smith) sit on a stoop in the cold night air of a nameless Baltimore neighborhood, the shape of the show slowly comes into view:

MCNULTY

So, the boy’s name is what?

WITNESS

Snot.

MCNULTY

You call the guy Snot?

WITNESS

Snot Boogie. Yeah.

MCNULTY

Snot Boogie. He like the name?

WITNESS

What?

MCNULTY

Snot Boogie.

WITNESS

(Shrugs)

MCNULTY

This kid, whose momma went to the trouble of christening him Omar Isaiah Betts? You know, he forgets his jacket, so his nose starts runnin’, and some asshole, instead of giving him a Kleenex, he calls him Snot. So he’s Snot forever. Doesn’t seem fair.

WITNESS

Life just be that way, I guess.

MCNULTY

So, who shot Snot?

WITNESS

I ain’t goin’ to no court.

(A long pause)

WITNESS, CONT’

Mothafucker ain’t had to put no cap in him, though.

MCNULTY

Definitely not.

WITNESS

He coulda just whipped his ass like we always whip his ass.

MCNULTY

I agree with you.

WITNESS

…Snot been doin’ the same shit since I don’t know how long. Kill a man over some bullshit. I’m saying. Every Friday night…Snot, he’d fade a few shooters. Play it out ‘til the pot’s deep. Snatch and run.

MCNULTY

What, every time?

WITNESS

Couldn’t help hisself.

MCNULTY

Let me understand you. Every Friday night you and your boys’ll shoot crap, right?

WITNESS

(Nods)

MCNULTY

But every Friday night, your pal, Snot Boogie, he’d wait ‘til there was cash on the ground, then he would grab the money and run away?

WITNESS

(Nods)

MCNULTY

You let him do that?

WITNESS

I mean, we catch him and beat his ass, but ain’t nobody never go past that.

MCNULTY

I gotta ask you. If every time, Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away, why’d you even let him in the game?

WITNESS

What?

MCNULTY

If Snot Boogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play?

WITNESS

Got to. It’s America, man.

 

The entire world of The Wire (2002) — our world, as it happens — is robustly displayed in the less than two minutes it takes to begin the five-season series. One nameless individual has decided to murder Snot over stealing money from a craps game. The witness can’t make sense of it — it’s just not how things are done, at least not in his group. He also can’t make sense of McNulty’s bafflement at letting a known cheat into the game. I mean, who does that? But this game is America, where everyone can play, where the individual is practically sanctified in the Declaration of Independence. Except in The Wire, the individual seems relentlessly at the mercy of The System: the street, criminal justice, educational, political — you name it, someone is gonna get got.

It seems like we’re doomed. Following Aristotle, most social and political philosophies assume the human being is a Zōon Politikon, a political animal[1]. We’re the sort of creatures that, with few exceptions, live in groups. These groups are societies in which various institutions are developed. The Wire pretty much covers them all:

  • Social institutions, such as education and criminal organizations, communities, and religious organizations;
  • Economic institutions, such as agents of consumer capitalism (the oft-loathed cable companies, for example), labor unions, banks, and so forth;
  • Political and governmental institutions, such as political parties; the municipality and its substructures (like city councils); counties; and state hierarchies and legislative authorities; and
  • Legal institutions, such as police, prosecutors, and defense attorneys.

As in our daily lives, aspects of these institutions overlap. The Wire shows us this in practically every episode by way of characters’ movements. Pretty much every character directly or indirectly interacts with everyone else who’s known to the audience. It’s like One Degree of Kevin Bacon. These interactions are the joints of institutions, and we observe in every episode that they often break apart. This breakage reveals a simple fact: institutions aren’t real.

Institutions exist, but they’re not real in the way we tend to think of them. Unfortunately, you and I have a habit of making them into substances and scapegoats, shrugging off the incompetent, corrupt, even murderous individuals who run these institutions as, well, just part of “the system.” The more we hypostatize them, the less likely we are to equate them with the individuals that, in reality, constitute them. Think about the last time you were on a 30-minute hold to get your bank to reverse an erroneous charge — a bank charge that! Did you hold responsible the agent who finally took your call, or did you rail against “them,” “the bank” who is always sticking it to you with those horrific interest rates, but can hardly be made to answer a call when they owe you money? What about “the Republican Party” and “the Democratic Party”? The parties are corrupt, ineffectual, refuse to do the right thing for the country. We hear it all the time, as if these institutions are individuals — the Supreme Court’s peculiar judgment in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission notwithstanding. But none of these institutions can decide to correct a billing error or agree to compromise in order to govern. That’s because they’re not real; they’re not substances.

What does it mean to say that institutions aren’t substances — at least, not the way you and I are? Consider Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. The 17th century English philosopher asked us to imagine a pre-social condition, that is, man in the state of nature. Nature is a place of total freedom, but it’s no Garden of Eden. Instead, it’s a “war of all against all,” a place where life is ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’ There are no protections, only fear — it’s get or get got. Not until individuals decide to give up their freedom in favor of security is a society formed. As Hobbes would have it, the social contract means the absolute rule of a sovereign in exchange for a civil society of laws.

One interpretation of this view is that institutions are fundamentally expressions of self-interest. As such, an institution can be traced back to a social compact established out of an interest in preserving one’s life. Institutions may be located in this or that building, or codified in this or that law or policy, but ultimately, the institution is embodied by the individuals who constitute it.

Let’s take another view of institution creation by way of contract formation, this time consulting 20th century American philosopher, John Rawls. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls lays out a process[2] for establishing a just society — which also means that the society’s institutions would be justly determined and justly administered. Rawls assumes that each person is rationally self-interested[3] and therefore motivated to make informed self-advantageous choices. We imagine ourselves in what Rawls calls the “original position,” an impartial standpoint adopted when we reason about principles of social and political justice. This standpoint is one in which we are free and equal to everyone else. Because we are rationally self-interested, we need a device to ensure impartiality. This, Rawls says, is ensured by stepping behind a “veil of ignorance.”

Behind this veil, no one knows anything about him or herself. No one knows if she’s a he, homo- or heterosexual, rich or poor, confined to a wheelchair, what color skin he has, etc. In short, behind the veil of ignorance, no one knows anything about one’s own or others’ individual characteristics or social, political, and historical situation. When we adopt this standpoint, we will find ourselves agreeing to two basic principles[4]: first, that there should be an equality of liberties; second, that where there is inequality, for example, in terms of material goods, the least well-off are benefitted. (Think of a well-paid – ha-ha! – teacher uplifting poor children’s futures through education.) Another aspect of this second principle is that everyone has the opportunity to move up to better stations.

Where in Rawls’s theory is a thing called an institution? Nowhere. Instead, there are individuals making choices. A potential challenge to this claim about the reality of the institution comes from Foucault, who compellingly argues for a view that makes institutions feel like things with lives of their own.[5]

In Discipline and Punish, 20th century French philosopher, Michel Foucault argued institutions normalize certain disciplinary practices — be it the confessional or the assembly line, the classroom or the bedroom. These practices are internalized; the result is that we become good workers, good Catholics (who don’t drink Protestant whiskey), good students, and so on. The cycle becomes self-sealing. Or does it?

The normalization Foucualt talks about requires individuals to say yes, and yes again. Each one who does makes more arduous the struggle to say no even once —more importantly, the ones who go alone make it almost impossible for one person to pull off that resistance in action. This seemingly Sisyphean task is why, despite the fact that, in Season Four of The Wire, Namond (Julito McCullum) is not the only deserving corner kid or shorty,[6] we still desperately root for him when Bunny (Robert Wisdom) takes notice. This struggle is why, despite the fact that McNulty is an inveterate louse and champion drinker, we want him to pull off the serial killer charade. It's why we want Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), that two-timing, child murdering drug dealer, to somehow make a legitimate life from all his bloody money. It's why, despite the fact that we all thought incompetent cop Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost) was a total asshole before he turned to teaching, we want so much for him to succeed in helping those kids at Tilghman Middle School that our chests ache. It's why, despite its illegality and questionable morality, we sympathize with Bunny Colvin’s decision in Season Three to illegally set up “Hamsterdam,” a tolerant “free zone” for drug dealers that aims to move crime out of the residential areas it’s so profoundly damaging. It’s why we understand that Mayor Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) thinks he can help more people from the governor's chair but we still hate what he does to those he serves. After all, individuals are not mere means to his ends. Indeed, he has an obligation, in the form of an oath of office, that he chooses to ignore for the supposed greater good. It's why we hold our breaths when Wee-Bey (Hassan Johnson) considers handing his son over to Bunny to raise, knowing what would happen to Namond if Bunny hadn't asked in the first place. It’s why, after all this hoping against hope, we let our collective breath go and sigh resignedly when State Senator Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) lands on his feet, just like we knew he would... Wait, what was the “it” in all this again? That’s right, “it” is the reason that we can’t hide behind the facile notion of institutions as monsters with lives independent from the people who work in them. “It” is the fact that they are you and me — and it’s damn hard to be an individual.

One of the ways The Wire makes this clear is the repetition of the lesson that, whether you live by the institutional rules or not, you have no guarantee that you'll come out of it alive. Ultimately, of course, you won't, but in The Wire there's no guarantee you'll live longer, either way. Worse yet, because they aren't real, institutions won't help. Just take a look at a brief list of who followed each of his or her own institutional rules: Bodie (J.D. Williams), the corner kid who did everything he was told to do by the established leaders of his neighborhood drug dealing operation and when he grew up he still went nowhere but the grave; a school board administrator (Yolanda Gaskins) who would rather cave under the pressure to juke the standardized testing stats than actually help children learn by letting them grow in the at-risk program; the murder witness (Lizan Mitchell) who followed the rules of the street and changed her testimony at D'Angelo's trial, and William Gant (Larry Hull), the witness who didn’t, but instead testified for the prosecution — and both were dead when all was said and done; Acting Commissioner Ervin Burrell (Frankie Faison), who would do just about anything to become Commissioner, because apparently, that’s how you move up the ladder; and Sun editor, Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson), one of the last real journalists who understand what it means to be a member of The Fourth Estate, and is demoted for his efforts. That list goes on and on.

Then there’s the other list, the one of people who didn’t follow the rules: Season Five’s fiction-writer-as-journalist Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy) whose actions contributed to the demise of journalism in almost equal measure as did the companies that bought and sold the Sun until it was eviscerated; McNulty, who abandons classic detective methods to make up serial killings in an effort to expose and exploit the media’s love of salacious gruesome details; Omar Little (Michael Kenneth Williams), living by his own code, not the streets’, and managing to survive while robbing drug dealers and being homosexual in a vituperatively homophobic environment; Bunny Colvin, creating Hamsterdam; Stringer, formalizing the Game by establishing meetings that follow Robert’s Rules of Order, establishing a drug co-op whose members meet regularly in the local hotel conference room, and finally trying to go legit by making real-estate investments; and poor Gant again, breaking the rules of the street.

The thing is, it’s the cop who decides whether or not to make an arrest or beat on a suspect. A judge decides to write off on a wiretap warrant…or not, because he’s up for re-election. A mayor decides to collude again and again with a slimy state senator. A teacher decides to give a kid a change of clothes and the chance at dignity. This is just as true in the drug game as it is in any other realm. That's because the institution's reality is simply individuals agreeing to do or not do certain things. Policies, laws — they're all what we say yes or no to, and in so doing embody them, and in doing that, we make them real.

It's not institutions that ignore human trafficking and murder in Season 2, but people who were told by other people that this sort of thing wasn’t high priority in the era after 9/11.

It's not institutions that confront Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) for stealing three lousy lollipops, and it’s not the institution that later has him murdered.

It’s not institutions that cover for Prez’s actions; it’s his father in-law, Stanislaus Valchek (Al Brown).

It’s not institutions that firebomb Randy Wagstaff (Maestro Harrell) and his foster mom, Miss Anna’s (Denise Hart) home for perceived snitching, not institutions that ruined that boy’s life. It’s the unnamed individuals who thought he did.

It’s not institutions that make connections from the wiretaps, it’s Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters).

It’s not institutions that fail to show up when promised so Bubs (Andre Royo) could finally get some relief from the thug who kept stealing his hard-earned money; it’s Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi).

It’s not institutions that give a fuck when it’s not their turn; it’s individuals like Bunk (Wendell Pierce).

It’s not institutions climbing career ladders, it’s Lieutenant Daniels (Lance Reddick) keeping his mouth shut even when he knows he shouldn’t; it’s Stringer making real estate investments with drug money; it’s Poot (Tray Chaney) and Bodie murdering Wallace; it’s Judge Phelan (Peter Gerety) leaving McNulty and company in the lurch to protect his chances of reelection; it’s Namond’s mom (Sandi McCree) expecting him to follow his father’s drug dealing and murderous footsteps.

Individuals choosing. They are all choosing, even if their options are shitty. In no episode did the institution make an appearance, unless you count buildings or empty lots with some garbage strewn around. Even then, consider how “institutions” marginalized the wiretap unit in cruddy buildings not once but twice.[7] No, the whole show presented people being treated well or poorly by other people, on accident or on purpose. People making choices with unforeseen consequences — would Mr. Prez have given Dukie an ultimatum if he’d known where that would end? – even if they only have so much room to move within, given the confines of their situations.

It’s obvious: we’re all in “the game.” It’s America, remember? The game is larger than drug dealing, larger than police department position jockeying. We all play it, which is to say, we’re all actors or agents. We may not be entirely free — that’s a major metaphysical hornets nest. But to the extent that we do what we think we have to, or do what we think we should, or do what we want, we choose. We act.

The Wire is not made up of the big, grandstanding moments of political stages, but the everyday moments of people getting along in a world that makes it hard survive with dignity, let alone to flourish. Hollywood gestures, like Carver jumping on the hood of a patrol car, are empty. If we didn't learn that lesson by the time then-President Bush shouted, "I hear you," as he stood on the rubble of the Twin Towers, then this generation will never learn it. Those big moments and grand gestures, just like institutions, aren’t ultimately what matter or what last. What lasts is the consistency of individuals doing their best every day, even if some days their best is not as good as others. It's making a promise...and keeping it. It's doing what you can or should or must...even when you don't want to.

Don't be bulldozed by the idea that you can't change your life. Michael (Tristan Wilds) wasn’t. Stringer wasn’t. It may go to shit, like it did for them, but that's not the point. The point is trying, even when "they" shut you down. And you know by now it wasn't any "they," some nameless thing, but someone — some ones — who made choices, maybe together with other individuals, but each still on his own making a choice as an individual being. Remember Mayor Carcetti’s stunt when he went around to the various municipal departments and told them things like, “There’s a broken fire hydrant,” or “That alleyway has all sorts of junk in it”? He never told people specifically where the problems were. So, miracle of miracles, things improved everywhere. Institutions don’t do that, individuals do.

The Wire relentlessly reminds us of these individuals treating each other well or poorly — or, to be fair, neutrally — by having many of them repeatedly interact with each other. There are crossovers from one institution to the next by way of what these individuals do. Even if we want to say that reducing the problem to individual choices is to oversimplify and misdirect blame, we're still left with the question of what exactly the institution is that's failed the kids and the adults who are effectively screwed over by situations they didn't create. The answer is simple: other individuals.

The show is called “The Wire.” The title has an obvious literal meaning — a wiretap, which is a central feature of Season One’s plot — and at least two other meanings that are less obvious but no less significant. The show is about the tenuousness of walking a wire, of walking both sides of being an individual making choices and being part of a larger social organization, be it criminal, legal, political, or educational. And the show is about the wire that runs through communities large and small, binding individuals together through the chain of our countless and interconnecting interactions.

From The Wire’s first season, the initial police efforts to obtain a wiretap introduce us to the maze of institutions that quickly give way to what’s really running the show: individuals. A judge needs to sign off; the police department higher-ups have to give the okay; the Mayor has to agree to fund the project as a priority, and so on. In all of it, there are Machiavellian[8] moves, people living in Hobbes’s state of nature, and those insistent that justice as fairness is possible. Now, where are the institutions?

hiin Enkelte, den Enkelte

 

[1] “It is clear that man is a political animal more than any bee or any gregarious animal.” See Aristotle’s Politics, 1253a7. For Aristotle, the polis, the city, the society is made up of the sort of animal that has reason, i.e., man.

[2] Like Hobbes’s state of nature, Rawls’s Original Position and veil of ignorance are part of a thought experiment.

[3] This is not equivalent to selfishness.

[4] "Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all."

"Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged… and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity."

[5] I’m not suggesting that Foucault thinks these institutions are substances in, say, the Aristotelian sense, but only that he argues about the effects of institutions on individuals compellingly enough to make me think of them as real entities that shape individuals.

[6] Worse yet, and it’s pretty bad to say, but just maybe, if we had to make a Sophie's Choice, Namond wouldn’t be the one we'd want to save.

[7] I owe this insightful observation to Nathan Lowe.

[8] I suspend judgment on whether The Prince is a critically ironic work or one that endorses its content.