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Merry-land's tripwire and the prescience of Slavoj Zizek

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OKLAHOMA CITY – On a recent flight to St. Louis I was reading a 2012 book by Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek, appropriately titled The Year of Dreaming Dangerously.

It’s a fascinating book full of insights about the politically explosive year of 2011 and how the growing rage and dissatisfaction is building around the world, including here in the United States, as we saw this past year in the St. Louis area, which includes Ferguson, Missouri.

As I thought about Zizek’s book, here on my desk, and stared at the book jacket, featuring a glum-faced Zizek in an Istanbul T-shirt walking down the street of an unnamed city as a car goes up in flames behind him, I thought it looked a whole lot like a picture taken in Baltimore, Maryland of an African-American man walking in a similar manner as a state-owned police van goes up in flames behind him, following riots in the wake of Freddie Gray's funeral - another African-American killed at the hands of the overzealous cops (note Robert Bates case in Tulsa).

To me, it was as if Zizek was predicting what was to happen in Baltimore and in other American cities that have fallen on hard times, here in Gilded Age 2.0, and in a city where mental health problems, drug abuse, sexual violence and teen pregnancy are rife.

And what was even more prescient about Zizek’s book, which addresses all manner of issues, circa 2011-12, from the so-called “Arab Spring,” to the “desert of post-ideology” to revolution happening everywhere in response to years of domination, was his chapter about the groundbreaking HBO series The Wire, set in Baltimore.

That chapter in The Year of Dreaming Dangerously was called “The Wire, or, What to Do in Non-Evental Times.”

Zizek starts off by addressing how show creator David Simon incorporated a “collective creative process” to ultimately provide a “kind of collective self-representation of a city, like the Greek tragedy in which a polis collectively staged its experience.”

He goes into the realism of the show and how the show’s title, The Wire, has come to mean, according to Simon, “an almost imaginary but inviolate boundary between the two Americas,” between those participating in the American Dream and those left behind.”

In an age of increased income and social inequality and how what we see in futuristic, dystopian films like the South African District 9, or its follow-up Elysium, is really not some far-off notion in a time, long after we are all dead. No, the 2154 Elysium is actually 2015 America, according to director Neill Blomkamp, a place where most of Earth’s citizens are in utter poverty (look at the horrors in Nepal, following the earthquake, or Haiti before it) while a small elite live in a clean space habitat in Earth’s orbit where people are cured of every disease and live in peace.

Recently, Blomkamp said: “Everybody wants to ask me lately about my predictions for the future. No, no, no. This isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now.”

Back to Zizek’s book and 2015 Baltimore, this is a city, a mere 50 miles from our Nation’s Capital, where some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world live. And yet, there is that “wire,” as David Simon puts it, that class struggle where the rich and the poor inhabit the same geographical “sphere,” but rarely, if ever, interact.

The two cultures (rich and poor),” Zizek writes, “Are separated in the basic manner of their relating to the Real: one stands for the horror of addiction and consumption, while in the other, reality is carefully screened.”

In the next sentence, Zizek really hits the nail on the head (think of all the top-notch medical facilities in Baltimore, like Johns Hopkins, etc.) and writes: “On the horizon, one can even make out the contours of the rich as a new biological race, secured against disease (like in Elysium) and enhanced through genetic intervention and cloning, while the same technology is used to control the poor.”

Talking about The Wire, Zizek notes some comments David Simon made about what was really going on in the show and how it wasn’t simply law enforcement going after “bad guys,” it was something more sinister: “We pretend to a war against narcotics, but in truth, we are simply brutalizing and dehumanizing an urban underclass that we no longer need as a labor supply … The Wire was not a story about America, it’s about the America that got left behind … The drug war is on the underclass now. That’s all it is. It has no other meaning.”

Red Dirt Report's Shane Smith, one of Oklahoma's most vocal critics of the ongoing Drug War, noted how the violence in Ferguson in 2014 is an extension of the Drug War, noting that until that war ends, "the catastrophic social fracturing casued by prohibition" won't heal. 

And yet they resist, as Zizek notes, later in his Wire essay. “Resist, even if you that in the end you will lose.” And with the senseless death of Freddie Gray (even the name sounds like it was from The Wire) at the hands of Baltimore’s police force, the “urban underclass” of Baltimore is reacting in outrage, after initially protesting peacefully, all this in the face of racism, corrupt cops, drug warriors and ineffectual bureaucrats, just the way Simon created them in The Wire.

As David Simon wrote in a blog post this week: "But now — in this moment — the anger and the selfishness and the brutality of those claiming the right to violence in Freddie Gray's name needs to cease. There was real power and potential in the peaceful protests that spoke in Mr. Gray's name initially, and there was real unity at his homegoing today. But this, now, in the streets, is an affront to that man's memory and a dimunition of the absolute moral lesson that underlies his unnecessary death," write Simon. "If you can't seek redress and demand reform without a brick in your hand, you risk losing this moment for all of us in Baltimore. Turn around. Go home. Please."

And yet the feckless mayor, and the reactionary, Nixon-esque Republican Maryland governor, along with racist city council members and marching, militarized police are only fanning the flames in Baltimore as phalanxes of riot police blocked streets and occupied intersections in Baltimore's impoverished working-class neighborhoods.

And while The Wire was fiction, it was a harsh program based in fact. A Reality faced by many thousands in Baltimore - people who know the system is rigged but are not sure how to change it, just as the characters in The Wire realized. And we wonder why there was some property damage in Baltimore this week? The people who whine about property damage are missing the point.

In recent years, during visits to Rome, Italy and Oxford, England, to name a few, I've happened upon protests. My brother was in Istanbul in the midst of one. They are happening all over the world with increasing frequency, which (oddly) seems to coincide with increasing seismic activity as things approach their breaking point. Zizek has been around the world, covering protests, analyzing their cause, and offering his Marxist worldview for readers to consider. Even if you disagree with his dialectical materialism, he makes some outstanding points and has been right on a number of issues. Clearly he saw the Baltimore riots in the not-too-distant future.

Back to the Zizek essay on The Wire. He concludes by offering this, “Are we not today approaching an ‘outright economic depression’? Will such a prospect give rise to a properly collective counter-institution? Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear: only when we fully embrace Simon’s tragic pessimism, accepting that there is no future (within the system), can an opening emerge for a radical change to come.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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