July 06, 2008

Becoming "Somebody": Systems Beyond Repair

Ed Burns is one of the writers and co-creators of "The Wire," the widely praised HBO series. I've only seen the first three episodes of the first season thus far, but I can report that it is extraordinarily well-done. The subject matter is depressing in the extreme, yet the treatment is informed by exceptional writing, acting and directing, and it is altogether riveting. (Several readers have been very generous in offering to help get me a DVD player that actually works, so that problem should be addressed in the near future. My deep thanks to everyone who has been so wonderfully supportive on this, and more generally. I am more grateful than I can say. So I should soon be able to watch more of "The Wire," and much else.)

Burns joined the Baltimore police department in 1971, and retired from it 20 years later. He then worked as a geography teacher in a middle school:
He taught for seven grueling and rewarding years that showed him the flip side of his life as a cop, "being with kids and seeing the problem from a different perspective," he said, "trying to understand the drug culture, the impact of the drug culture and our responsibility for creating this culture."
After all these years of grinding, heartbreaking work came the great success of "The Wire."

And with that success came something else. In a NYT story about Burns, his work and life, and about his new miniseries, "Generation Kill" (once again done in collaboration with David Simon), concerning a group of marines in Iraq and which premieres next week, we learn what that something else is:
Mr. Burns said he was surprised by all the attention "The Wire" received from policymakers who were piqued by the show’s gritty civics lessons — the very sort of people, he said, who more or less ignored him when he worked in the public sector.

"The irony is that you have to be somebody before anybody listens to you," he said. "I wasn’t an expert when I was an expert, and now that I’m not an expert, I’m an expert. It’s kind of curious."
And there, in brief, you have one of the major keys to the corrupt establishments that run every area of life in America. No one will listen to you, even (more often, especially) if you are genuinely informed and perceptive about the area in which you work, until and unless the system has determined you are "somebody." And that determination will never be granted by the system you so passionately wish to improve, for systems resist nothing so much as change. The more fundamental the change, the greater the resistance. But once those mysterious Important People in some other system have placed the crown of Somebodiness on your head, then those in charge of the system in which you previously worked will listen to what you have to say.

"Curious" is one word for it. Others come to mind.

I've written about this phenomenon in a number of articles, including one concerning the field of foreign policy ("How the Foreign Policy Consensus Protects Itself"), and one about related more general issues ("'Regrettable Misjudgments': The Shocking Immorality of Our Constricted Thought").

The Times article concludes:
He considered the often bleak worldview of "The Wire," with its overarching theme that no matter what a person does, it will never be enough to stop the city from grinding over him. "I’m not a fatalist," he said. "I’m very optimistic. In America, before we notice things, things have to become bad."
But how bad, Mr. Burns? Aren't we there yet?

It would appear not. That is indeed unfortunate.