British Consumers and the American Dream: A Study of American Media Production and British Consumption Trends Post 9/11.
Analysis – Case Study
The highly acclaimed television series ‘The Wire’ portrays the gritty – and mostly neglected – reality that exists “hidden in the dark corners of Baltimore and the United States” (Keeble, Stacy, 2015: p.3). It was written and set during the prolonged campaign of aggressive foreign policy now infamously associated with the George W. Bush administration. Its realism is founded in the strong credentials shared amongst showrunner David Simon and his co-writers: their combined experiences at the heart of Baltimore legitimise the fictional content as authentic and telling (Hornby, 2007). Each season explores how a particular sector of the community interacts with The Game – or the intricate web of illicit activity that propagates due to Baltimore’s corrupt institutions. Simon makes an overarching summary of the critiques offered in The Wire when speaking to Hornby. Although originally pitched to HBO as a typical cop show,
“The show would instead be about untethered capitalism run amok, about how power and money actually route themselves in a postmodern American city”, (2007).
The first question that could be addressed is why this social demise proliferates post 9/11. Andrew Moore attributes this to the Bush administration’s involvement in Iraq, since this directly contributed to the neglect of domestic issues across the US. As the war in the Middle East progressed, the loss of public support for this particular brand of foreign policy was made evident through newspaper reports of the time – as Dell’Orto has established unequivocally. This loss of public support is represented in The Wire by the financial hardship endured in Baltimore. Such financial shortfalls systematically uphold that administrations can maintain control, irrespective of dwindling public support. This control is then sustained through bureaucracy and a subsequent lack of accountability. Simon draws from Arendt’s writings in furthering his critique of this bureaucracy.
“In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one can argue, to whom one can present grievances, on whom the pressures of power can be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act”, (Arendt, 1970: p.81).
These uncontested interdictions have dictated that capital is re-allocated to programmes of foreign policy. The effects of these cutbacks are evident in The Wire’s already-struggling Baltimore. Poverty ensues: the very notion of money and dignity are often central to the narrative, highlighting the pitfalls in government policy. The prospect of ‘escaping the hood’ – or achieving upwards-mobility, as is sacrosanct to the American dream – not only seems impossible, but such hopefuls often find that instead, they hang precariously on the verge of sliding down to abject poverty. Moore turns to Tocqueville when establishing that for democracy to prosper, there remains a social pre-requisite that equality must be continuously upheld – as was apparently sought by Bush when he proposed the National Security Strategy of the United States (NSS). The unattainable prospect of upwards mobility depicted in The Wire might then lead one to conclude that this was not achieved, if ever it was a bona-fide objective.
“… this is precisely the argument which The Wire throws back in the face of the Bush administration. If equality of condition, as both Tocqueville and the Bush Administration agree, is essential to the ‘unleashing’ of human potential, what must the status of American democracy be when equality of condition is utterly unattainable to a large plurality of citizens?”, (Moore, 2015: p.22).
What this constitutes for the American dream is what directly concerns this research. Moore questions the government’s ineptitude and ultimately concludes that this lack of funding – in favour of foreign policy – results in bureaucracy, which in turn curtails democracy.
“The wire justifiably questions, given the inability of the united states government to make manifest the American dream in West Baltimore, whether or not the Bush Administration can institute a well functioning democracy in the Middle East”, (Moore 2015: p.21).
However, not only does this bureaucracy have a significant impact on citizens’ ability to express their democratic rights, but it also produces blind spots in Baltimore’s systems of surveillance – a key theme in The Wire. Ivan Stacy identifies how bureaucracy can create opportunities for those within the chain of command, to purposefully mislead public opinion. Selective use of statistics gives way to the aforementioned blind spots, and therefore, to illicit activity.
“Where self-interest drives the production of these representations, the resulting omissions, as The Wire shows, result in the ghetto being made invisible”, (Stacy, 2015: p.188).
For surveillance to precede action, agents of law enforcement must form alliances with members of the political and judicial establishments. Given that such alliances exist, and that systems of surveillance are in fact deployed in The Wire’s West Baltimore, it then becomes clear that any inaction would itself constitute a choice.
“…where inaction is possible, it is generally presented in The Wire as an active (and often negligent) choice which contributes to the ‘letting die’ of a section of the population”, (Stacy, 2015: p.189).
Baltimore Police Department’s refusal to take any action based on their observation is mostly “in anticipation or response to others’ observation of them” (Stacy, 2015: p.189), thus establishing whose interests are actually being safeguarded by this selective action – or corruption. Bureaucracy systematically fails the then inadvertent corner boys, who could therefore be forgiven for their participation in The Game.
Politicians also advance corruption when such questionable statistics are knowingly used to win over an electorate. With regard to the newly elected Mayor Carcetti, the question remains as to whether his effort to hold onto power stems from a genuine desire for positive change. Carcetti’s good intentions are made evident when tackling issues that are unquestionably within his remit. However, when attempting to implement significant change in the police department’s use of statistics and surveillance, he remains unable to enforce any deviation towards a more positive mode of policing, and thus defaults on his promise to do so. Stacy turns to Foucault and his theories on ‘biopower’ to explain such inability on Carcetti’s part.
“…these statistical approaches to governing the population as a whole rely upon more subtle and rational measures which appeal to self-interest rather than working on the basis of fear and threat”, (Stacy, 2015: p.176).
That Foucault refers to governing the population ‘as a whole’ is indicative that this predilection for statistics lies at the core of government policies of state, therefore preventing any deviation at a local level. Furthermore, from this one could further derive that corruption – or the effect of this bureaucratic reliance on statistics – could itself run across the hierarchical chain of command.
Such bureaucracy is not exclusive to Baltimore’s political, judicial, and law enforcement institutions, and can equally be rooted in other public sectors of American society. As previously mentioned, those ‘corner boys’ who have systematically been let down by the state might even be forgiven for their inadvertent participation in The Game – their loyalty to gangs could thus be interpreted as another symptom of bureaucracy. Their initial encounter with bureaucracy might be traced to their time in education. Nation-wide policies such as the ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB) act of 2001 would also prove detrimental to Baltimore’s social fabric. The implementation of NCLB, irrespective of its obvious deficiencies, in itself is testament to the debilitating power of bureaucracy. Laura Bolf-Beliveau and Ralph Beliveau turn to Charles Mills’s theory on the epistemology of ignorance, and other theorists in the field of education such as Paulo Freire and Michael Apple, in order to substantiate this critique.
“…the post 9/11 reform movement, No Child Left Behind, serves as the oppressive neoliberal agent that deforms, rather than informs, educational practices in The Wire”, (2015: p.209).
This ‘deforming’ at the core of Mill’s theories of domination and exploitation, has a direct bearing on the already-compromised democratic power of students, and therefore, NCLB also serves to maintain this undemocratic system of bureaucracy. Henry Giroux questions the motives behind the implementation of such policies in this light.
“What does it mean in terms of providing the conditions for forms of individual and social agency? How does it address questions of injustice? How does it make us better citizens? How does it close the gap between the poor and the rich? How does it prepare us for a global democracy?”, (Giroux, 2006: p.9).
Teachers and school officials are rendered equally powerless under this bureaucratic system. The narrow education that Baltimore students receive merely serves to systematically pass exams in maths and reading. Schools are routinely being held to unattainable targets, as imposed by the state in its attempt to exert control over the country’s educational establishments.
“The goal of 100 percent proficiency has placed thousands of public schools at risk of being privatized, turned into charters, or closed. And indeed, scores of schools…were closed because they were unable to meet the unreasonable demands of NCLB”, (Ravitch, 2010).
With many students unable or unwilling to engage with the mundane educational practices that ensued, and subsequently dropping out of school altogether in favour of fulfilling their destiny as a corner boy, it could then be said that the NCLB act serves The Game just as much as it functions as a control apparatus for the state. The horrors enacted by children and young teenagers in the streets of Baltimore thus serve as a damning critique of such failures by the educational establishments. Furthermore, with the pursuit of education frequently singled out as integral to the American dream, it then remains that this failing system is symptomatic of its death.
Aside from the direct representations already touched upon, The Wire employs another, more indirect, method to further its critique of capitalism. Recent studies would mostly agree that the US economy has consistently been the largest – in that regard, one must simply accept Dell’Orto’s suggestion that the US is the globalised economy. However, many theorists have nonetheless opposed liberalisation – a precursor to this globalisation – on the basis that it furthers the monetary interests of a few wealthy individuals above those of the workforce. These privileged individuals – or capitalists – might then pledge their public support and fund the political campaigns of those politicians whose manifestos give precedence to such neoliberal policies. These alliances – formed in the boardrooms of the most powerful multinational companies and synergies in the world – are also protected by bureaucracy. As has widely been reported, this capitalist economy – which therefore remains unopposed – has seen the biggest class divide in the history of economic study. This divide is a fact well documented by filmmaker Michael Moore. In ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’, Moore is particularly damning of a leaked memo from Citibank to its top investors in which the bank describes this scenario as a ‘Plutonomy’. So significant is this divide that most of the economic – hence democratic – power lies with an exclusive 1% of the total population. They enjoy a higher net-worth than the bottom 95% combined.
The Wire’s indirect critique of neoliberal policy, capitalism, bureaucracy, and the resulting socio-economic fragmentation, is made through the intentional under-representation of a now disenfranchised, and therefore disinterested, middle class – or what Michael Lister has termed the ‘Missing Middle’.
“It seems, therefore, that in the world depicted in The Wire, civic virtue and public participation are neither present, nor are they seen as core characteristics of the citizen, who is rather, defined in economic terms”, (Lister, 2015: p.76).
That the critique on the state’s use of bureaucracy – as a means to further the economic interests of a select few – is on this occasion indirect, does not deride from the important social implications. Lister turns to liberal thinker John Rawls, who determines the impact that a shrinking middle-class might then have on democracy itself.
“… without widespread participation in democratic politics by a vigorous and informed citizen body…even the most well defined political institutions will fall into the hands of those who seek to dominate and impose their will through the state apparatus…for reasons of class and economic interest”, (Rawls, 1988: p. 272).
Rawls further elaborates that for a truly democratic system of governance to remain in place there must be significant participation, in a social and political capacity, by citizens “who posses the political virtues needed to maintain a constitutional regime”, (Rawls, 1988: p.272) – the implication being that these are virtues not usually attributable to Baltimore’s lower class.
This Missing Middle in The Wire is then also a damning critique of capitalism. In an interview with Rebecca Rosen for The Atlantic, Professor Juliet Schor reveals that polling undertaken in 2014 marked a shift in aspirations regarding upwards mobility. What directly concerns this study is what the implications of this shift are, specifically within the context of the American dream. She states that with freedom topping the list,
“…the second most-cited idea of what the American dream is is just getting your basic needs met, which is not what we would traditionally think of as the American dream. It would be more about upward mobility and a level of material affluence that’s beyond basic needs”, (Rosen, 2015).
The Missing Middle might then serve as a warning to US citizens as much as to those in power, of the financial consequences of abandoning their moral and political obligations towards their beloved country and its dream.
The public institutions discussed so far share a common thread in relation to the effects of bureaucracy on private citizens, and those who hold public office alike. The Wire consistently portrays bureaucracy as incapacitating players, from the Mayor down to the inadvertent corner-boy. However, the critique of bureaucracy’s effect on individual agency is never more the focus of attention than in the case of what came to be known as the Hamsterdam experiment. Much of the drugs trade in West Baltimore would proliferate in the Franklin Terrace Towers. Following their demolition, business moved onto street corners in high numbers, becoming all the more visible and causing an increase in recorded crime. The unconventional approach taken by the newly promoted Major Colvin – when subjected to political pressure – might then be interpreted as a compromise between bureaucracy, and his professional and moral obligation. The allocation of three derelict neighbourhoods for the purposes of conducting illicit activity was met with understandable scepticism by officers and dealers alike. Addiction and prostitution were kept out of sight, whilst the victims of these circumstances enjoyed a certain level of security and access to much-needed medical attention.
The ‘Natural Law’ philosophy that the Major assumed resulted in the creation of Hamsterdam: a halfway sensible solution that constituted an unofficial acceptance of defeat. It was natural in that he accepted that The Game is rigged to continue: he accepted things as they stand, not as he would like them to – a philosophical line that J.D. Taylor (2015) attributes to important political thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes and Benedictus de Spinoza. Furthermore, it was half-way sensible because most of the players in The Game – irrespective of which side of the law they stood in – were not as committed to his experiment, and therefore, chaos ensued nonetheless. Ultimately, the Hamsterdam experiment was defeatist in that it undermined national policies governing the ‘War on Drugs’, and presented a compromise as a viable alternative to a continuous and unsolvable problem. In the immediate aftermath that ensued upon its discovery by the media institutions, Commander William Rawls forcefully dismantled Hamsterdam, and the Major was immediately removed from command.
Major Colvin’s attempt to bypass bureaucracy for the benefit of all inflicted parties was explained by use of an analogy. The Paper Bag Compromise draws on the iconic brown paper bag that street-drinkers used to conceal their alcohol and avoid confrontation with the police, who in turn, would be released to attend to more pressing matters.
“The paper bag compromise represents an unwritten social contract between the urban poor…and the police. If they do not openly flaunt public laws, the police will overlook any possible transgression in order to do realistic police work”, (Taylor, 2015: p.101).
The fact that Taylor even refers to this as a compromise infers that at some point, bureaucracy as it stood had given way to change – regardless of whether this change was made possible through individual agency or more directly through a change in state policy. However,
“…for the sake of war continuing there can be no dialog with the enemy and no official social contract: such a reform would necessarily confer legitimacy on the concealed and unwritten laws of the game”, (Taylor, 2015: p.102).
The individual agency exhibited by Colvin – futile as it might have been – can thus be interpreted as an attempt to substantiate a moral rationale when no other in command would dare for fear of reprisal. And therein lies the strain that bureaucracy places on individual agency. Furthermore, this critique is extended to zero tolerance policing and mass imprisonment policies that ultimately fail to resolve the drugs problem.
“The Wire questions the assumptions behind this policy, as well as the policy itself. The opposite of a zero-tolerance approach to the drug problem is harm reduction. Therefore the Hamsterdam project exemplifies harm reduction and, as such, questions the US government’s War on Drugs”, (Andersson et al., 2015: p.85).
With showrunner David Simon providing much commentary on his intended critique, there is then a solid reference for academic discourse on any such representation. Bureaucracy, in all its guises, has thus been categorically established as one of the most significant adversities that lower and middle class US citizens currently face on a daily basis. It has become the most effective means by which the highest representatives of authority in the US control a bulging lower class now inevitably reduced to subservience – perhaps even surpassing Althusser’s ‘Repressive State Apparatus’ to this aim. If freedom and upwards mobility are important aspirations that partly constitute the American dream, then the current climate is indicative of the dream as dying – but not all agree. There are some contributors to the discussion who would argue that because hegemony is inherently present in The Game, the motivation to accumulate wealth by its players – an attempt to break with hegemonic control and bureaucratic monopolies – constitutes the pursuit of the American dream. Michael Gow proposes this viewpoint despite his own recognition that any such pursuit is relegated to illegal channels.
“In many cases we see the motivation of various actors to maintain and extend their participation in the American Dream, even though they are increasingly excluded from legitimate routes to the realisation of that goal”, (Gow, 2015: p.65).
In his argument, Gow sidesteps all the other treasured characteristics that only together, can constitute the American dream, and instead concentrates solely on capital accumulation as if that in itself was representative of the dream ideology in its totality. Many scholars and thinkers that consider the American dream to any degree, only attempt to define it in passing precisely because it means so many different things to so many different people. Dell’Orto turns to Kreye when she reminds us that America and its dream represents “the constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness” (Dell’Orto, 2008: p.89) amongst many other things: however, always constitutional – never illegitimate. That Gow himself would consider illegal trade in The Wire as constituting the pursuit of the American dream is itself symptomatic of the state that the dream finds itself in. Contrary to his intended argument then, Gow corroborates Simon’s critique.
Gow was nonetheless correct on one point: hegemony unquestionably exists in The Game. Hegemony is the ultimate objective of the highest authoritarians and capitalist leaders of any regime. It advances their prevalence over the lower and working classes through an imposed bureaucracy, whilst all the time making such bureaucracy appear as obviously normal, and thus, as one of life’s inevitabilities. The concept of hegemony is reinforced in The Wire through the portrayal of its very inescapability – as made evident in the end of season montages.
“Certainly, one of the most prominent themes in The Wire is the cyclical nature of The Game”, (Keeble, 2015: p.149).
Analysis – Survey Results
An online survey (appendix D) conducted specifically to test the figures obtained from the BARB website; to cross reference the findings from the case study; and to therefore, further cement that popular television drama can be relied upon as a social critique; ran for a period of one month as from the 16th December 2015. This period of sampling coincides with the end of the year from which the BARB figures were taken. With limited resources insofar as promoting the survey – therefore relying mostly on personal channels of social media – a total of thirty-one respondents participated. All the respondents gave their consent as per the first question. Furthermore, they could all be deemed eligible for the purposes of this study in that they all belong to age groups normally associated with the demographic for television dramas such as The Wire – a demographic that is similarly associated with technologically competent users. The individual responses to these qualifying rounds can be verified in the table of survey responses (appendix E). The more pertinent questions that followed touch upon viewing trends and practices – which can be cross-referenced directly against the BARB figures – as much as the cultural preferences of participants – which might resonate with depictions of the American dream in The Wire.
Insofar as viewing practices, participants were allowed to vote for multiple choices, therefore accounting for a total percentage of over 100. The most popular method of watching television was by streaming online: the preferred choice for 51.6% of participants. This was followed in second place by satellite television: a method favoured by 41.9%. Freeview, cable, and DVD followed in popularity, attaining a 38.7%, 32.3%, and 29% score respectively. The fact that the majority of participants share a propensity for high-tech viewing practices renders this cross section of British television audiences as users: or the type of viewer whose opinions on a mediated text might be forged intellectually (as according to Newman and Levine), and are therefore worthy of further consideration.
Drama was voted the most popular genre, as might have been predicted when considering the BARB figures. Furthermore, the majority of respondents that shared a partiality towards the genre also enjoy watching television by high-tech means. An overwhelming nine out of the eleven participants who chose drama over any other genre had selected streaming online and/or satellite television as their preferred viewing practice. From this, one might safely conclude that the sociopolitical critique offered in trendy televisual dramas such as The Wire, would probably not go by unperceived or unappreciated by this audience.
When participants were asked to declare their preferences with regard to British and American produced televisual content, 45.16% voted in favour of local production. Only 32.26% of participants preferred American production, and a further 22.58% declared no preference. The majority of participants that preferred British productions also fall into the category of users, as according to their viewing practices. These figures alone conclusively reject Dell’Orto’s hypothesis that Europeans (or British television audiences in this case) buy unreservedly into the American dream – at least through the consumption of American television production. This becomes even more evident when coupled with the fact that, the appropriation of Americana through imported media products could be deemed almost none existent according to the BARB top-thirty figures. The fact remains: American television production is for the most part, not being consumed by a majority audience in the United Kingdom.
An overall preference for British production is not necessarily reserved for the televisual. Bearing in mind that the majority of participants have previously visited the United States, an overwhelming 90.32% of respondents maintained a preference for British culture in general. Out of the twenty-one respondents who indicated they had visited the US – and are therefore justified in that their opinions are forged from a first-hand encounter – only two preferred American over British cultural values. Although this particular question could not be corroborated by secondary data at the time of this analysis, the extremity of the margins attained, and the fact that the results obtained are perfectly in keeping with those regarding television production, might then render the responses as at least acceptable.
The remaining two questions addressed the issue of trust in America as a country and as an ideology in a more direct manner. The results obtained might then convey a sense of conformity or rejection towards American leadership and the appropriation of the American dream. Whilst 32.26% of responses indicate that the United States might be deemed a world leader in a political context, and a further 25.81% attribute leadership qualities in an economic context, only 9.68% believe that the Unites States are world leaders in a cultural sense. Furthermore, a resounding 54.84% majority lie in those who consider the United States as world leaders in no way whatsoever. Insofar as the American dream itself – and notwithstanding the at-best ambiguous interpretation of such a concept – only 22.58% would agree with Dell’Orto that this ideology might be appropriated by Europeans as much as by Americans themselves. Although only an equal percentage of respondents agree that the American dream is unworthy of appropriation by anyone at all, when added to a total majority of 54.84% of responses that deem the American dream a concept best relegated to Americans – thereby forming a total percentage of responses that conclude that the concept is not worthy of pursuit by the British – the total stands at a conclusive 77.42%.
Overall, the categorical results obtained in this survey further the notion that British television audiences do not buy unreservedly into the American dream, neither through the consumption of American television production, nor through an unshakeable belief in the concept itself. Not only do these figures correspond with the secondary data from the BARB website, but they also indicate that users might actually take a highly critical view of the state of the American dream – as contemporary American showrunners have consistently portrayed in their popular television dramatisations.
Semester 6 (January – May 2016) : Final Major Project.