New Criticals

The Wire and Philosophy: Part Four

Sympathy for the Devil

Given these descriptive facts of the criminal, might something prescriptive emerge, namely, ought we have a certain level of sympathy for these devils? Must our relationship to the criminal become more empathic and understanding? Should something be done in terms of reevaluating not only the underlying assumptions that inform our theories and practices of punishment, which deal with crime after the fact, but also those factors that led to the crime: economic inequality, de facto segregation, racism, broken and failed institutions?

To consider another example, one that explicitly collapses the boundaries between fiction and reality—as many of The Wire's fans know, "Snoop" (Felicia Pearson) was actually born and raised in East Baltimore, a drug dealer, and a convicted murderer who served five years in prison. In a recent article in Rolling Stone featuring Pearson (who was convicted in 2011 on drug charges), Ben Wallace-Wells describes Snoop:

Her early life was imbued with near total deprivation: She was born cross-eyed because of her mother's addiction to crack, fed with an eyedropper by her foster grandmother, stripped and locked naked in a closet at the age of five so her mother could sell her clothes for drugs…By the time she was 14, the street were so much a surrogate parent that she called the drug dealer she worked for Uncle and the kingpin he worked for Father.

At age 15, she shot and killed a girl that was going to attack her with a baseball bat. "There was only one way to stop her," Pearson recalls.  After she was released in 2000, Pearson tried to hold several jobs, but was always fired once her employers discovered her criminal record. At age twenty-four, one of the actors from The Wire discovered her in a nightclub and introduced her to David Simon, who then wrote her character into the show.

So far, this seems like a wonderful Cinderella story that might be a beacon of hope for those who grow up in such an environment of daily violence, poverty, and addiction—her will and a little bit of luck allowed her to rise up out of here "hole." After her success, she gave away most of her heroin and bought a house in a suburb of Baltimore. But this was in 2007, on the eve of the housing crisis. Eventually, the house was foreclosed, and she moved back to Baltimore in a condo not far from where she grew up. In March of 2011, her apartment was raided (interestingly, part of the investigation involved a wire tap on Pearson's phone) and arrested her on charges of conspiracy to distribute heroin.

On the day of her arrest, David Simon released the following statement:

Both our Constitution and our common law guarantee that we will be judged by our peers. But in truth, there are now two Americas, politically and economically distinct. I, for one, do not quality as a peer to Felicia Pearson. The opportunities and experiences of her life do not correspond in any way with my own, and her America is different from my own. I am therefore ill-equipped to be her judge in this matter.

Here, Simon is acknowledging the deep, perhaps irrevocable, contradictions and schisms that exist in our society that create "two Americas," radically different worlds that, though separated by a few blocks or a few hundred feet, are light years apart in terms of the values that define what it means to be dignified, recognized, free. This is precisely the "truth" that is revealed by Major Howard "Bunny" Colvin in his efforts to create the "free zone" Hamsterdam, and it is why one social-epidemiologist who studied these areas of East Baltimore calls it "the Cyst." Whether the motivations for The Wire are descriptive or prescriptive, and whether our response is one of cynicism, activism, despair, or hope, it must begin and end with the harsh reality of this fissure, this wound, if our idealities are to even begin to face and possibly heal the divisions that exist between these two worlds.

To return to the question of sympathy: with all of this background knowledge of the social, economic, political, and historical conditions that have led up to this moment, must we then excuse crime or, simply write it off as an unavoidable fact of our modern world? Does knowing Snoop's story soften our hardness towards her actions? Screams of, "What about the victim!? That criminal made her choice! You're asking me to have sympathy for that devil?" Interestingly, Snoop herself takes the liberal-bourgeois-individualistic line: "It ain't the neighborhood. It ain't like, 'Oh, you better get out here and sell drugs'—nah it's a choice. Everybody got to find their own way out."

Critiquing hyper-individualistic paradigms and emphasizing socio-historical elements hardly excuses the criminal. It only points the deep inadequacy of the dichotomy in the first place. In the same passage from Dewey quoted above, he continues:

[The criminal] retorts by putting the blame on bad early surroundings, the temptations of others, lack of opportunities, and the persecution of officers of the law. Both are right, except in the wholesale character of their recitation. But the effect of both sides is to throw the whole matter back into antecedent causation, a method which refuses to bring the matter to truly moral judgment. For morals has to do with acts still within our control, acts still to be performed. No amount of guilt on the part of the evil-doer absolves us from the responsibility for the consequences upon him and others of our way treating him, or form our continuing responsibility for the conditions under which person develop perverse habits.

The dichotomy between individual and society is false. The truth of the "I" is not a disjunct, but a conjunct: we are both individual and social. Our individuality is not wholly free to form in a vacuum, nor is it something wholly determined by social and historical forces. Likewise, our "free will" does not emerge from dust like Adam being molded out of clay, nor is it completely overdetermined by our environment and our past. In understanding the ontology of the criminal we understand the ontology of the "individual" as such. The "I" is both individual and social, subject and object, independent and dependent, past, present and future at once. We are not integrated and simple individuals, but fractured and complicated dividuals, all of these things at every moment—no gem is pure, no crystal is single-sided.

If we are to have a robust notion of human freedom, there must also be a robust notion of responsibility that coincides with that freedom. By revealing the complexity of the criminal-dividual, will, freedom, and responsibility are not eliminated, but illuminated. The assertion is simply that the dichotomy fails, and that an overemphasis on either side—individual or social—does not adequately capture the complex nature of the criminal and crime. Nonetheless, by becoming aware of the various social and historical factors that always circumscribe an individual's action, we understand that the rigid schism between individual and society is not only false, but a paradigm that has important social, political, and moral consequences. A society that is serious about equality, justice, and freedom must take the criminal seriously, not just through reactive "tough on crime" policies, but through a proactive and intelligent reevaluation of crime and punishment that is responsible to society, the victims, and the criminal.

"The I is a We, the We is an I." Hegel's maxim is not only the condition of possibility an ethical community, but also of an individual who is truly self-conscious, recognized, autonomous, free, something that both individual and society must realize. The individual, the criminal, is not an abstraction, a pure ethereal "I" that stands over and above the concrete conditions inside which it acts. The criminal lives in a world just as any individual does.
In abstracting the criminal we abstract ourselves. In an early essay "Who Thinks Abstractly?", Hegel uses the image of the criminal to critique "abstract thinking." He writes:

One who knows men traces the development of the criminal's mind: he finds in his history, in his education, a bad family relationship between his father and mother, some tremendous harshness after this human being had done some minor wrong, so he became embittered against the social order — a first reaction to this that in effect expelled him and henceforth did not make it possible for him to preserve himself except through crime. — There may be people who will say when they hear such things: he wants to excuse this murderer!...This is abstract thinking: to see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality.

At a minimum, the criminals of The Wire force us to reconsider the criminal not as an abstraction, but as something concrete, complicated, living, human. We have to face the criminal as a face. Facing the criminal can certainly be terrifying, but in facing the criminal, we face our own face. The criminal is not wholly Other—the criminal is Us. If we do not look at the criminal, it is impossible to ever truly look at our own self, at our own world.