Recently, my friend Matthew* (aka organ_printer), convinced me that I have to start watching The Wire, an HBO series that follows crime investigations through Baltimore. When I started to watch it, I wasn't super impressed. Too many of the characters were juvenile and between the street lingo I can never follow (had the same problem with NYPD Blue) and the quick, scenes strung together with a seemingly endless cast of characters, I just couldn't keep up.
But I gave it a chance and kept watching and by about episode number four, the show started to pull me in. I realized that the endless cast of characters were absolutely necessary for the basic premise of the show: a complexly woven story of all of the ways that chaos determines so much of the world we live in. What one watches as the season unfolds is a series of smaller actions, leading to bigger consequences, consequences you mostly didn't see coming. But even MORE striking for me was what was missing from the story. The actions and decisions that were being made and not shown to the viewer that led to certain outcomes. I know. I'm lost, too.
So, I started thinking about the show in general terms. We've got:
- A cast of characters where those who appear to be real fuck-ups in the beginning are actually key to solving the case presented and, in my case, ended up being my favorites.
- An ostensibly hopeless situation that you discover in a key moment in the last episode that the situation is only hopeless for certain individuals. And, to make this less cryptic, the show gives a humanized glimpse into the drug trade as a true business (untaxed of course, so not totally viable) that employs a huge number of people and runs more efficiently than any business I've encountered in my travels who can, then, support their families.
- Some vigilantes, both Jimmy McNulty (lead character) and Omar Little (and to a smaller extent, Kima Greggs, who I hope to see more into in further seasons), who have learnt to mistrust the system set up to serve and protect and who are effective because they go around it in their own ways. And at the same time, the two of them will use that system to further their individual causes when it behooves them. These characters also have an unwavering code of ethics.
- A story that isn't about the drug trade and a case to stop it at all, but is about something deeper.
Matthew says it's about democracy in America, but I must not know enough about democracy in America**. I see it more as an illustration of the balance of chaos and control that effects us every day. But I'm guessing that is what he means by democracy in America.
The photo that opens this post is of my friend, Alex Hillman. We took it while in the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co., a seriously awesome storefront to a more seriously awesome idea. Alex is 'embracing the chaos' - one of the many fun products you can buy to help you become a superhero - and playing off of a favorite theme of mine. It's one of the core principles to raising Whuffie and one of the core lessons to the movements I've been involved in, including BarCamp and Coworking. Embracing the chaos isn't about letting chaos reign, but about realizing that chaos is a reality in the world. If we embrace it and are flexible enough to move with it, life becomes much easier. We are presented with opportunities, we learn more and we become totally resourceful. Of course, with chaos comes chance and this is where control is necessary, too.
The choices we make along the way, as well as the choices others make, help contribute to various outcomes. In The Wire, the characters make certain choices along the way, some positive and some disastrous, but the case moves in a direction because of these choices. The system represented in The Wire (and I hate calling it a system, but I can't come up with a better term right now) is in place to control those choices. The law that states that one action is right and one is wrong is set up to control the choices of citizens, the process and the chain of command within the police department is set up to control the choices of public servants and personal politics and ego (not officially part of a system, but part of the human race) are in place to control those in control of the law and the process. Whether or not you like control, it is an essential part of the balancer for chaos.
For example, in the case of BarCamp, there is a controlled framework in place to assist BarCampers in making better choices. There are rules that state that you must participate in some fashion and encourage people to make the choice to show up and present. There is a schedule that controls the length of presentations so that those that could potentially go on forever, won't, and those who may not take the time to explore a topic have to. For the wider movement, there are all sorts of community pressures on what you can and cannot call a BarCamp. Can you pre-schedule? Can you charge for it? Can it be commercial? Can it be invite only? Although these controls aren't really explicitly stated or enforced, there is enough social pressure in place to effect the choices of BarCampers all over the world.
The law and the team of detectives enforcing it in The Wire are present to set limits...exert control over the choices made by the citizens on the street. But that is only one dimension. There is a balance of control and chaos at work on the street and within the police department. Without chaos, creative solutions to living/policing/etc. wouldn't happen. Without control, there are those who would make really bad choices that hurt others. The balance, and imbalance, of the two are represented beautifully in The Wire. Nobody ever 'wins'. That's not the point. Justice isn't supposed to prevail. There isn't justice in a chaotic world, only an ongoing teeter totter of chaos and control that, like Jimmy and Omar, we can learn to straddle in order to move things forward for us and for the people around us. This isn't a bad thing at all. It is truly the only way we can advance in a diverse world.
I can't wait to start watching Season Two.
* the site I point to here is only parked...mostly giving him incentive to get something up there.
** From Matthew's comment below as I misunderstood his thesis: ...while it's not about Democracy in America it is as important as De Toqueville's book Democracy in America. It paints the downfall of a degrading city as a result of internal and external events and the citizens that play by the game of Capitalism. It is the first show to humanize the drug trade with a cogent argument for why those in the game are left with no other options for success. And that they are just as enterprising as the rest of us working on what we call the "right side of the law."