We are all Nathan Rees
Those plotting the demise of the latest NSW Premier - along with those of us simply looking on in resigned bemusement – could do well to tune into the free-to-air premiere of ‘The Wire’ on ABC-2 tonight.
David Simon’s masterpiece, rightly dubbed the ‘greatest TV show ever made’, is ostensibly about the drug trade in Baltimore. While first-time viewers will think they have stumbled upon just another cop show, as they become addicted they will be drawn into the workings of a post-industrial city.
‘The Wire’ is about the connections that bind a city – from the projects to the ports, from politics to education, to the crumbling power of the media. It shows how systems now rule and render good men and women powerless.
As you might be guessing by now, I am a bit of ‘Wire’ geek – I watched the five series end to end last year and was totally blown away by what it achieved.
I consumed all the DVD Special Features, I sought out the fansites, I googled for interviews with Simon, a one-time police reporter on the Baltimore Sun, to get a handle on how he had created such a rich story.
What I stumbled upon helps explain why ‘The Wire’ works so well, but also why so much of what passes as drama – and for that matter what passes as political analysis -leaves me cold.
In an interview with British novelist Nick Hornby Simon explains how in creating The Wire he had embraced the Ancient Greek tradition of story telling, where the city takes precedence over the individual.
As Simon explains it most contemporary stories – good and bad – follow the Shakespearean tradition, revolving around individuals whose rise and fall are dictated by their own personal qualities and failings.
The earlier Greek tradition presents ‘doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality’, they are individuals whose stories are written by their surrounds.
I think this distinction is a profound one. If you look at the way that we think of modern politics, so much of it seems to be framed by the Shakespearean notion of the ‘Great Man in History’.
Modern politics is all about the leaders, it is their personal journeys, their decisions, their character traits; it is a personal narrative that in over-stating the role of the individual, leaves them doomed to fail.
The Greek telling of modern politics would focus more closely on the challenges that constrain leaders, the way they are limited by the decisions that we as a society make.
Which brings me to Nathan Rees – because if ever we have had a leader who is a product of his environment and a victim of the systems we have all been responsible for creating, Nathan Rees is that man.
You can line up all the problems facing NSW and it is hard to pin any of them on the Rustnut, indeed its hard to see how any leader, no matter how Great a Man (even Barak O’Farrell) could make any real difference right now.
- On state infrastructure – we wanted the Olympic Games and worked ourselves into a catatonic state to get them sinking a decade of major investment into a theme park without a punch-line.
- On state debt – we demand balanced budgets but refuse to countenance tax increases – even when they are on the properties of millionaires. Then we demand AAA credit rating, without knowing what it means.
- On public services – we are the ones seduced by statistics like waiting lists and school league tables, even when the experts tell us they bear little relation to service delivery. One of the interesting plotlines in The Wire is the way stat-based policy in policing and education pervert the system.
- On transport – we are the ones who want our own quarter-acre block, even if we need to move further out of the city, meaning we need roads for our cars now, unable to wait the decade for a rail network.
- On public debate – we are the ones who stopping buying newspapers and watching news, meaning the outlets needs to push harder and harder for audience, driving the soap opera approach to politics.
In these and so many other ways we, the people, make decisions every day that constrain our leaders and limit their ability to lead – we put them in a strait–jacket and then condemn them for lacking dexterity.
Perhaps this is what the adage, “we get the leaders we deserve” really means. It’s probably not a lot of solace to Nathan Rees, but I reckon he’s the least of our problems.
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