Below you will find a list of books that members of the Geopolitical Futures team are currently reading. It highlights insightful and relevant books from around the globe and the reasons we chose them.
Here’s to hoping that our subscribers don’t know much about “The Wire,” the acclaimed HBO series considered by many to be the best television show ever made. If they did, they would know how tired it is for a 30-something-year-old white guy, armed with a platform, desperate to brandish his pop culture bona fides, to write about it. They would know that writing about it now is not nearly as fashionable as it was writing about it a couple of years ago, when it seemed like a Wire renaissance had grabbed our nation’s millennials by the shoulders and screamed in their faces, “This is the truth!” If our readers were familiar with “The Wire,” they would realize that I have nothing new or insightful to say about it, but that having nothing new or insightful to say won’t stop me from saying it, because “The Wire” is great, and everyone else should think it’s great too.
If you’re unfamiliar with the show, then you’re in good company. “The Wire” wasn’t widely watched when it aired, nor was it especially commercially successful. Critics seemed to like it well enough at the time, but it became prestige TV only after its cancellation, as audiences began to appreciate how remarkable it really was. At a time when so many other shows trafficked in mindless escapism, “The Wire” challenged its audience by painting an honest, even a cynical, portrait of its subjects. Its unflinching depictions have earned the show a reputation as being more documentary than fiction, and though that reputation is slightly overblown, some of the show’s characters were, in fact, inspired by actual people, while others were played by the actual people themselves.
But if its content made “The Wire” revolutionary, it also made it hard for some to watch. On the surface, the show is about America’s drug war, as seen through the eyes of the criminals who sell drugs and the cops who police them. It takes viewers to the war’s front lines, in Baltimore, Maryland, and if the history of warfare has taught us anything, it’s that front lines are grisly.
The war on drugs, however, is just a vehicle for deeper observations of our society. “The Wire” is more accurately about the struggle of inner-city life. It’s about capitalism. It’s about the politics of development. It’s about racism. It’s about how some communities in post-industrial America are not just left behind but willfully forgotten. It’s about how a city lives and breathes as a singular organism, and how the failing of any one constituent part imperils the whole.
“The Wire” wasn’t the first show to point out how broken our communities are, of course, but it was the first to dissect, with surgical precision, the institutions that keep them broken. (Each season, in fact, puts a different one under a microscope, taking aim at city hall, public schools, the media and the like.) And it did this so effectively by illustrating the tyranny of institutions, the notion that organizations have minds of their own, that they constrain and compel their members’ behaviors. In “The Wire,” institutions suppress dissent and reward loyalty, and in doing so they raise uncomfortable questions about how much agency any of us really has. This is one of the most important themes of geopolitics, one that we at GPF struggle with every day.
“The Wire” is not a novel, but it’s as close to a novel as any TV show is likely to come. Each episode is a chapter in a longer story, rather than a self-contained segment with its own story arc. This is by design, and it is reflected in the show’s production team. Its showrunner, David Simon, is a former journalist (and a MacArthur genius grant recipient), and among its writers and producers are dyed-in-the-wool crime novelists such as Richard Price and George Pelecanos. The show was co-created by Ed Burns, a former Baltimore cop who served in both the homicide and narcotics divisions of the Baltimore Police Department.
“All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of the Wire,” by Jonathan Abrams, isn’t something to pick up if you’re interested in watching “The Wire” for the first time. But it is essential reading for fans of the show. Abrams was given unparalleled access to nearly the entire cast and crew, including the HBO executives who had to be persuaded to greenlight the project, and he approaches all of them with the dignity of a professional and the reverence of a fan. It’s a difficult line to walk. I didn’t even try to walk it here.
Cole Altom, managing editor
Usually my attention is drawn to books that describe global problems, or books that explain the history of geopolitically relevant countries. While on vacation to Tunisia, as I enjoyed the rather cold waters of the Mediterranean Sea, I decided to find out more about the country where I was. “Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly” is an excellent place to start. The author of the book, Safwan Masri, correctly notes that Tunisia is both inside and outside the Muslim world, and so engenders an identity that is someplace between European, Middle Eastern and African.
Yet the book mostly describes the modern age of development of Tunisia, which started in the 1950s. Masri details events that led to the Arab Spring. In fact, the purpose of the book is to answer the question why the Arab revolution was born there and not somewhere else. Masri starts with the Tunisian Spring, then moves to the Jasmine Revolution, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the subsequent protests, the flight of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the relative calm of the eventual elections. This was unique unto Tunisia, never to be replicated in the other nations caught up in the Arab Spring.
It’s not until later in the book that Masri explores the roots of Tunisian identity, briefly narrating its history starting from Carthage, before turning his attention to Habib Bourguiba, a national hero who played an outsize role in Tunisian history, all while remembering to address important if less sexy educational and social reforms the government in Tunis has implemented.
This book is a good read for those who want to understand why Tunisia has such an exceptional story of the Arab Spring. Of course, Tunisia still has many problems. It has high unemployment among youth, low-paying jobs and massive inequality. It hasn’t changed all that much since the Jasmine Revolution. This is why we can’t rule out the possibility of instability in this storied country.
Ekaterina Zolotova, analyst