Tuesday, September 29, 2009
I Can't Believe I'm That Guy
Here I am sitting outside of Baltimore's City Hall doing a really bad job of looking like Jimmy McNulty. My ridiculous faux-pathos aside, I knew at that moment I was in the spiritual company of legends. I'm not talking about the real politicians who served here. I'm talking about the fictional characters whose stories revolved around this center of power for five seasons on the HBO's The Wire.
Yes, I'm that guy. My name is Garth and I'm powerless over the temptation of talking about The Wire whenever humanly possible.
I've always tried to avoid being that guy. You know the type. The person who is so obsessed with one topic that he or she weaves it into every conversation. We all know a few. They can be ... how shall I say it ... insufferable at times. That guy who incessantly talks about his boss. That guy who brings every conversation around to why some random hobby like scuba diving is so freakin' awesome, "and you know what, you should definitely try it." That guy who is forever telling college stories, well into his 50s.
There are many variations. I just never thought I would be one. Then I watched The Wire. All opinions about art are by their nature subjective, but as far as I'm concerned there has never been a TV series as insightful, realistic and entertaining as the Wire. Period.
So here I sit outside Baltimore City Hall, the fictional home of Mayors Royce and Carcetti and the epicenter of a city whose alter ego was played out for five seasons through the lives of McNulty, the Bunk, Omar, Avon, Stringer, Bubbles and countless others. I'm like a nerdy school boy. The show's fifth and final season has long since passed and yet I still am in awe of the story telling that creator David Simon was able to pull off in this series.
Here is the "Forest through the Trees" lesson of what The Wire said to me: As individuals we have the power to make choices that can radically alter our own lives, either positively or negatively. We hold within ourselves the the seeds of creation or destruction of our destinies. But on an instituational level the ability of an individual to affect change is virtually zero. The instituations that serve us, (or purport to) such as governments, the media, the school system - even blackmarket systems like the drug trade - are macro reflections of the group consciousness of a society at a given time and place. Therefore only a large sea change in consciousness can alter them in any signficant way. Lone crusaders - the McNultys, the Stringers, the Major Culvins - don't have a chance.
Popular history often likes to glorify crusaders and give them credit for changing entrenched systems. Yet close inspection will show you that Martin Luther King Jr. did not end segregation by himself. Susan B. Anthony did not hand women the ballot of her own accord. Ghandi did not chase the British from India acting alone. These men and women were important, but they were only the most visible leaders and symbols of the long and tedious work of thousands and thousands of people over many frustrating years until events conspired with their cause to affect a sea change in the consciousness of a society. Once the group consciousness tipped in the favor of their ideas, institutions gradually changed with it.
I was reminded of this just a few short minutes after I did my James Cagney pose in front of City Hall. I was walking to the East Habour and passed a museum advirtising an exhibit on the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It took a near total strike by the city's black ridership for 381 days in 1955-56 to reach a settlement that changed the minutae of rules on where they could sit on the city buses. Yet segregation in all other areas of Montgomery remained unchanged. It would take many more years (and a few lives) before institutions in states like Alabama truly changed to end legalized discrimination in all facets of society.
To me, The Wire is a great artisitc reality check of my generation. It is a cautionary tale of the power of insitutions to be resistant to change, however ineffectual they have become.
The hope for me comes from knowing that when enough indivduals evolve to see an issue diffently, the institutions which supported those outdated assumptions do finally crumble, and something else is created in its place. It just takes a while. So activists, know that you are in for a long haul. And since you have time, be very, very careful to live a life of reflection and constantly ask yourself "Is their anything about how I act in my own life that doesn't reflect the same change I am demanding of an institution." Because within a modern day democracy our insitutions are just a collective reflection of the priorities, prejudices and principles of you, me and all our neighbors on a grand scale. Our lived example is as big a part of what we are seeing back in that "institutional" mirror as the person our words are aimed at coercing.
Wow. This post took a turn for the serious rather quickly. As the SNL character Gilly would say ... "sorry!". I started out writing about the Wire and ended up with what appears to be an exegesis of Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror". I've kept you hostage long enough. Now pardon me while I try and figure out how to strike up a conversation with this guy sitting next to me about The Wire. Who knows, maybe he was an extra in one of the episodes.