Friday, April 25, 2008

Jimmy McNulty and the Confederacy of Liars

The extent of my addiction to The Wire is so great that I could not resist reading David Sirota's latest Truthdig report, "Matthews vs. McNulty," whose premise is laid out in his opening sentence:

If television is the nation’s mirror, then no two TV characters reflect the intensifying “two Americas” gap better than Chris Matthews and Jimmy McNulty.

Unfortunately (from my own biased point of view), Sirota invests almost all of his column space in a rant (albeit a well-conceived one) against Matthews and his ilk in today's world of what passes for news on television. So McNulty only shows up for the punch line:

Pop culture tells us “The Cosby Show’s” economically privileged family represents the ordinary black experience, politics tells us a money-controlled electoral system is “democratic,” and pundits tell us that aristocrat George Bush is a “regular guy.” Propaganda is ubiquitous—and it results in Jimmy McNulty.

He is the cop from HBO’s “The Wire”—the quintessential everyman. For a time, he tries to understand politics by watching vapid Matthews-style talk shows, but quickly becomes frustrated. “It doesn’t matter who you’ve got [running for office], none of them has a clue what’s really going on,” he says, lamenting that politics treats him “like a [expletive] doormat”—as if the day-to-day challenges he faces are “some stupid game with stupid penny ante stakes.”

McNulty may be fictional, but McNulty-ism is a very real reaction to Matthews-ism. When the media responsible for explaining our world deny the existence of the world most of us inhabit, they breed—yes—bitterness. And the more the Matthewses treat us McNultys like reality is just “stupid games with stupid penny ante stakes,” the wider the gulf between the two Americas will become.

Now there is nothing wrong with using a fictional character as a metaphor for a "real-world" human condition. As far as I am concerned, that is why literature has value in the first place; so Sirota has bestowed upon David Simon the ultimate honor for his efforts, recognizing that The Wire managed to elevate a television series to the level of what we should all be comfortable calling literature. My only real quibble with Sirota's analysis is that he did not carry the metaphor far enough, perhaps because he did not tease out enough of its substance from Simon's text.

To do this we need to look deeper than McNulty's bitterness born of frustration (not to mention the booze and loose sex). The most important plot element in the final season of The Wire was the pervasive role played by lies in “getting the job done.” This was most evident in the parallel between McNulty and his counterpart over at the Baltimore Sun, Scott Templeton. Templeton employs fabrication to advance his career, and we are definitely left with the impression that his advance could well lead to his being the next Chris Matthews. McNulty, on the other hand, fabricates just to do the stuff required by his job description in an organization whose budget has been gutted, regardless of either social norms or the consequences of his acts (both of which come back to bite him as the narrative works its way to the final episode). The result is a society that has evolved from John Kennedy Toole’s “confederacy of dunces” to a “confederacy of liars.” Once we examine all the lies that support Simon’s plot structure, we appreciate that exposing any one of them will bring down the very social foundation in which all his characters abide (even the ones most admirable, like Gus Haynes).

Sirota's report originated not so much in the world of The Wire as in the world of the negative ballyhoo over Barack Obama, whether it involves questions of race stemming from his association of Jeremiah Wright or questions of elitism over "bitterness" and "clinging." As a result, Sirota may have (unwittingly, perhaps) played into that ballyhoo and lost sight of what Simon's literature may actually be telling us: The fictional McNulty depends on the lies of the fictional Templeton in order to sustain his own lies. Could it be that, in some way that none of us may yet have anticipated, Sirota's "McNulty-ists" depend upon (rather than react against) his "Matthews-ists" for reasons we may not yet have penetrated? Think of some of McNulty's rationalizations for his fabrications:

  1. It's the only way to get the job done.
  2. Operations are so screwed up, who's gonna notice?
  3. I can live with the worst of what may happen to me.
  4. Everybody is doing it.

What makes McNulty such a powerful metaphor is that each of these excuses is so consistent with the very identity of his character. Thus, the extent of McNulty's bitterness and frustration is the extent of Sirota's McNulty-ists; and we understand them better not from the surface-level feature of the bitterness Obama was citing but from a deeper structure in which qualities such as honesty need to be sacrificed in the name of basic hand-to-mouth survival. By concluding The Wire with McNulty reflecting on what he had become, Simon was applying his literary skills to get us all to reflect on what we have become. That is a major challenge for an author, but it is an even greater challenge for his readers. Sirota took one small step in that direction; are we prepared to follow his path?

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