Pop Culture and the Imprisoning of America

The guards pretend to guard and the prisoners pretend to comply

One of the strangest videos I’ve seen in years shows Barack Obama (yes, that guy) interviewing David Simon, the creator of the epic television series The Wire.

The Wire, which aspires to a realistic presentation of Baltimore street life, is a devastating expose of the failure of the drug war, public schools, the welfare state, and punitive policing as a means of social uplift.

The series pictures a level of ineffectiveness and corruption that it overwhelms the viewer with a realization: the government is the number one barrier to turning this violent wasteland into a civilized world. The viewer is gradually led to realize that our old views of who the good guys and bad guys are not only wrong, they might actually be inverted. We come away with some admiration for the victims of law enforcement, and a great deal of disgust for the people who run the regime that victimizes them.

Whatever the creator’s intention, you would have to be blind to not see it as an indictment of 50 years of failed policy.

Why did Obama interview Simon? The president says that he likes the show. “I think it’s one of the greatest not just television shows, but pieces of art, in the last couple of decades,” he says. “I was a huge fan of it.” Further, Obama explains that he wants Simon’s view on what should be done.

Simon does his best to suggest decriminalization of drugs and less reliance on jails and courts, though he is clearly pulling back a bit on his views given that he is being interviewed by the president.

The strangest bit of this interview is how Barack positions himself not as a proponent of these failed policies, or even as the actual President of the United States that is supposedly in charge of enforcing them, but rather as some kind of intellectual impresario who is attending to a national conversation about drugs, crime, and poverty.

Obama doesn’t come right out and say it, but his language and approach seem designed to suggest his strong sympathy with decriminalization. He condemns “this massive trend towards incarceration, even of non-violent drug offenders…. And the challenge which you depict in your show is, folks going in at great expense to the state, many times trained to become more hardened criminals while in prison, come out and are basically unemployable. And end up looping back in.”

Obama even uses the word libertarian:

There is an increasing realization on the left but also on the right, politically, that what we’re doing is counterproductive, either from a libertarian perspective, the way we treat nonviolent drug crimes is problematic, and from a fiscal perspective is breaking the bank.

You end up spending so much more on prison than you would with these kids being in school or even going to college that it’s counterproductive, and it means everyone’s taxes are going up, or at least services that everybody uses are being squeezed, or we can’t hire cops to deal with violent crime as you talked about. But we’re all responsible for at least finding a solution to this, and the encouraging thing is I think awareness is increasing.

He concludes his interview with the strongest hints of the need to massive policy change. “If we can start down this path to a more productive way of thinking about drugs and its intersection with law enforcement, twenty years from now we can say to ourselves, ‘Well, maybe we got a little smarter.’”

What is going on here? It’s probably correct to see this interview as brilliant politics. Obama comes across as hip, connected to pop culture, intellectually broad and considerate, and open to ideas from all sides. With his hinting in the direction of decriminalization, he gives hope to legions of supporters. He also manages to exculpate himself, to some extent, from the ghastly results of the very policies he has overseen during his six-plus years of being the most powerful person on earth. This is brazen, but it is also smart.

What is the broader significance? An interview like this — one that signals a much-needed shift in drug and prison policy — would have been inconceivable a decade or two ago. It’s unimaginable that Reagan or the Bushes would have interviewed the creator of a show that condemns the drug war.

But these days, the failure of the status quo has become overwhelmingly obvious at all levels in society. We’ve pushed police state tactics as far as they can go, and they have backfired with a stunning ferocity. And this is why we see the ongoing wave of change taking place at the state and local level, toward decriminalization of marijuana and a more therapeutic approach to the problems of real drug abuse.

Popular culture is helping to push the trend. It is revealing anomalies in the dominant policies and making it impossible not to consider alternatives. The shift is so irresistible that even the President of the United States finds it in his interest to distance himself from his own administration. This is why it doesn’t really matter whether Obama’s interview with Simon reveals the White House’s political cynicism: the signalling here is suggestive of a dramatic turn in public life, away from state escalation toward a more rational approach.

The Wire is only one of many pieces of pop culture that indict the police state. One of my favorites is Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.” The message here is that people do not lose their humanity when they go to prison. Prisoners still have aspirations, feelings, emotional needs, particular tastes, brains, and souls. What this means, in the end, is that they cannot finally be controlled. There are constraints, enforced by coercion, as with any aspect of life — people both in and out of prison face that. And what do people do? They form a society. They figure out ways to trade. They assemble based on human volition, tribe, interest. They work the system. They make the system work for them.

All of this is on display in the show. The social networks are complex and ever-changing. The race relationships are fascinating. There are deep friendships and intense hatreds. There is trade and entrepreneurship. Every vice and virtue is on display in infinitely changing combinations. Yes, it is jail but only in a physical sense. Otherwise, they are free to think and dream and make lives for themselves as best they can. And they do exactly this.

Also, and ironically, drugs are a huge deal in prison. Yes, narcotics get in, despite the drug war, despite prison, despite the high security. Why are these women in jail for drugs when their jailers themselves are accomplices to the furtherance of the drug trade in prison? It’s because the whole system is a lie from top to bottom.

Prison is a particular kind of hell because of the intensity of the demands for compliance with arbitrary rules. But in the end, there really is no such thing as prison, at least as it exists in legend and lore. There are only various degrees of coercive constraint, none of them finally capable of creating order. If order exists, it is because we create it ourselves. That’s the message of this series.

What’s especially interesting is the prisoners’ relationships with their jailers. The guards don’t really believe in the system either. They are all “corrupt,” which is to say that they too are human. Why do they do what they do? Because it’s their job, and they signed up to do it. Like the old Soviet joke, the guards pretend to guard, and the prisoners pretend to comply. And they bide their time until a better opportunity comes along. In this sense, the fundamental social distinction between inside prison and outside it begins to blur.

It’s this way with most functionaries of the modern nation state, with its limitless intrusions into our lives, property, and communities. When the bureaucrats themselves stop believing in the system, and when even the head of state is unwilling to defend the status quo he has long upheld, something is giving way. The ground is indeed shifting beneath our feet.

More by Jeffrey A. Tucker