Obama and The Wire

Jonathan Golob at Slog points out that The Wire is Barack Obama’s favorite TV show, and proceeds to explain why it’s such a great choice for a presidential candidate:

No character is left unblemished. Institutions are at best viewed as noble failures (the Stevedores Union) and more often as a destructive force. Obama’s declaration of love for the series, to me at least, is his deep recognition of the limits of presidential and governmental power as well as the magnitude of the problems we face. Any man prepared to take such a naked look at today’s United States deserves my vote.

Indeed. The Wire, like Obama, has a politics that’s hard to pin down. Margaret Talbot, in an epic profile of the show’s creator, David Simon, writes:

“We don’t have a lot of victories,” Simon told his colleagues. “As cynically as the rest of this stuff is ending, it will validate the one place we put any of our sincerity, which is individual action.” It’s hard to classify Simon politically, but anytime you start thinking of him as some sort of bleeding-heart socialist you’re brought up short by his unremitting skepticism about institutions.

The show’s characters are obsessed with the game, which often means to the drug trade, but is really a metaphor for capitalism, and the system, generally. “Buy for a nickel, sell for a dime,” is the refrain of the drug kingpins: there’s no morality in capitalism. It just is. It’s up to us as humans to supply the morality in our lives.

Simon has said he sees the world of the show as being like Greek myths. The gods are bureaucracies and institutions. Characters who defy the gods and try to change the system — by reforming the drug trade, or city government, or the public schools — get their wings clipped, while those who keep their heads down and their mouths shut generally survive and even thrive.

But on the flip side of the coin, the rebellious individuals are themselves deeply flawed. They’re not afraid to leave their friends and co-workers hanging out to dry if it advances their narrow self-interest. So you can’t conclude that Simon — or Obama for that matter — is simply libertarian. They’re just aware that bureaucracies, over the long run, can tend to serve themselves.