The Wire and Wendell Berry

I recently became one of the last people to watch The Wire. That it took so long is partly due to my lack of TV ownership, and partly due to a personality quirk (or flaw?) that often makes me suspicious of things that other people are raving about. This, unfortunately, also happens to be a trait associated with hipsters. I’d like to think that my suspicion of very popular culture is a measured and honest consequence of experience, rather than a thoughtless dismissal; I’m certainly a big fan of The Wire, much like everyone else who has seen it. But I’m also glad that I waited so long to watch it.

There’s plenty to unpack in The Wire, so rich are the storylines, the characters and their environment, but one of the aspects that particularly resonates with me is the cynical treatment of public institutions. The Baltimore Police Department, the political system, the dock workers, the school system, the media and drug organizations are, at best, portrayed as stagnant and incapable of improvement. At their worst, they are dysfunctional and harmful to people within and without. A few months ago, I would have said that those institutions, as essentially a group of people, have human qualities like morality. Instead, I now see institutions as mechanisms that often subvert humanity, allowing people to behave amorally by insulating them from the consequences of their actions. One example from The Wire would be Jimmy McNulty’s fabrication of a serial killer in order to route city funds to the police department, which comes at the expense of the education department (among others). In Bunk Moreland’s silence about McNulty’s transgression, we also see how the members of an institution compromise their personal values in the name of the system.

Somehow, this brings me to Wendell Berry, and particularly his recent Jefferson lecture. Berry is notable for being uncompromising in the best way, living according to his principles while largely opting out of institutions and their pitfalls. His speech, which should be read in full, talks about Wallace Stegner’s “boomers” and “stickers”. “The boomer,” Berry says, “is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property and therefore power. Stickers, on the contrary, are motivated by affection. By such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.” He talks specifically about land and our stewardship of it, but his message is broadly applicable. Boomers need institutions as the means for money, property and power, and they need large institutions. Large institutions can, and perhaps even must, oppress. Berry uses the example of industrialist James B. Duke and the institution that he helmed:

James B. Duke would not necessarily have thought so far of the small growers as even to hold them in contempt. The Duke trust exerted an oppression that was purely economic, involving a mechanical indifference, the indifference of a grinder to what it grinds. It was not, that is to say, a political oppression. It did not intend to victimize its victims. It simply followed its single purpose of the highest possible profit, and ignored the “side effects.”

As The Wire shows, this is not limited to industry. The political system, the police and the schools all share the same problem. Individually, this is called corruption, and it’s tempting to say that an institution can be a worthy and positive force if the quality of the people that comprise it is good enough. But what seems more true is that institutions make people worse, and that corruption is not the result of individual character flaws as much as a broader vulnerability in humans. We are constantly trying to elect better people, surveil people and make people more accountable. Is it working? Or is it time to think more deeply about the institutions that we construct? Is it time to opt out of them if we determine that they are unhealthy? Is it time to live more like Wendell Berry?