Are you being served?

I am a huge fan of HBO’s The Wire, and like The Sopranos before it, I was sad to see it end. While The Sopranos reminded me of a Greek tragedy, The Wire unfolded like a sprawling Dickens novel set in present day Baltimore, portraying its broken social, political and economic institutions with artful precision and depth. Each series provoked different thematic questions about our failures; our failure to end the cycle of poverty and violence in the urban black underclass, to address the ineffectiveness of law enforcement, to change obsolete drug laws, the inability of schools to address the social challenges faced by inner-city kids and the political influence peddling that dominates our democratic system.

Gonna have to serve somebody
You may be a business man or some high degree thief,
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief
-- Bob Dylan

As David Simon, creator of the series wrote:

We are a culture without the will to seriously examine our own problems. We eschew that which is complex, contradictory or confusing. As a culture, we seek simple solutions. We enjoy being provoked and titillated, but resist the rigorous, painstaking examination of issues that might, in the end, bring us to the point of recognizing our problems, which is the essential first step to solving any of them

I became entranced by The Wire in the way it juxtaposed the despair of the ghetto and moral vision of its heroes; each character tenaciously fighting personal and organizational battles, caught up in the ruthless machinery of dysfunctional families and bureaucracies. What struck me most about the series was how the continuity of the institution becomes paramount, subjugating the interests of all who serve it. The overriding purpose of the broken system becomes survival for its own sake, sacrificing those who challenge it, seeking to change it for the better.

The more established a culture (ie; the way things are done around here), the more resistant it becomes to change, to the point where the purpose of the institution is protection of its way of operating, regardless of the interests of those whom it supposed to serve. As David Simon said in a recent NPR interview, “The paradigm becomes: how can you serve the institution, not what is the purpose of the institution or how can the institution serve you or serve society as a whole.”

As our current economic crisis shows us, we are becoming more dependent on megalithic creations (banks, governments), whose mission of service has been replaced by growth. This was exactly the kind of situation that the Founding Fathers feared most. It was Jefferson who wrote, “Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.”

When we do not stop to examine our growing subservience to ever larger and more powerful organizations, the interests of the state or the corporate bureaucracy supersede our own and diminish our humanity. “Small is beautiful” declares the E.F. Schumacher Society, and I couldn’t agree more. Our problems are not going to be solved by entrenched special interests or sprawling bureaucracies. We can no longer depend on the big and the powerful to reorganize themselves around our needs. Local currencies, community land grants and micro credit are the way forward.

This is not a call for revolution, it’s a call for devolution; toward creating smaller, community-based institutions that are free from the crushing gravitational forces of global business and an increasingly-intrusive state. Watching The Wire confirmed for me the power in opting out of the current system in order to create a better one. Working from within broken institutions creates martyrs. Working from community-built organizations creates ownership, accountability and substantive change.

“The Wire is about the America we pay for and tolerate. Perhaps it is possible to pay for, and demand, something more.” — David Simon