David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

A Note on Hierarchy

What sticks with me most from Paradise Now is the image of the slick, assured Jamal, dressed in a tweed jacket and casually assuring his two suicide bombers of the heaven that awaits them and the nobility of their actions. His first action in the film is to tell Said that he has been chosen; later on, after Said has gone missing, he speaks of nothing but the problem Said has caused, portraying him only in terms of his utility to the militant organization. Leaving aside all the politics of the film (nothing I say below should be taken as any political or moral statement of my own), Abu-Assad’s presentation of Jamal is not sympathetic and constitutes one of the more unambiguous criticisms of the militant movement in the film.

Contrast Jamal to the militant leaders in Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, who are as involved and at risk as any of their lieutenants. The Algerian militants lead by example, underscored in how the film shows their rise from the absolute bottom of society, while the leaders in Paradise Now are secretive, smooth, and manipulative. Said and Khaled, the two bombers, are mostly pushed around by forces that they hardly understand.

It’s not just that Jamal is manipulative, but that he represents “the management.” The exploitation and dehumanization of the peons of an organization by its management is such a seemingly universal situation that it makes the members of the militant organizations understandable–no longer the inhuman “other” that the viewer is a tourist amongst–and this is a significant achievement. The Battle of Algiers is far better as propaganda, but its realism only goes as far as the historical level; its characters are hollow in comparison. It is the greater film, but it does not provoke the shock of recognition that Paradise Now does.

Likewise even with Al Qaeda, where the Los Angeles Times underscores the obvious in describing nepotism, micromanagement, and rhetorical hot air:

Yet Mohammed describes a terrorist outfit fraught with the same conflicts and petty animosities that plague many American corporations. Mohammed describes himself in particular as having to fend off a chairman of the board who insists on micromanaging despite not knowing what he was doing.

Had Mohammed not insisted on such security measures, he suggested, Bin Laden might have endangered the whole mission. That’s because Bin Laden, an exiled Saudi multimillionaire with a huge trust fund, apparently had a knack for forcing Mohammed to take operatives who couldn’t follow directions or keep their mouths shut.

These are patterns that I have seen in every hierarchy I’ve been a part of, from academia to corporations to newspapers to the arts. The most comprehensive portrayal I’ve seen remains The Wire, where the bureaucratic and organizational details of both police department and drug dealer alike ring eerily true: empty suits at the top, political exploiters in the middle, manipulated peons (or frustrated rebels) at the bottom.

Many terrorist leaders have had western educations, so I hesitate to say that the microstructures of these hierarchies are universal, but there is still something uncanny about how the patterns of exploitation and mismanagement repeat themselves with such regularity across diverse situations. I’ll have more to say after I read Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States.


  1. i may be forgetting: who are the empty suits supposed to be on the drug-dealer side of the wire? (say, in season one in particular.) are you thinking that stringer bell’s manipulation of the situation makes him the political exploiter and avon the empty suit? i kind of saw them as on a similar level, save that bell’s supposed loyalty to the institution (i.e. their flagging empire) – or maybe rather his self-interest, which happened to be focused on the insitution – was strong enough to make (apparently – stringer seems pretty cold about it all) it practically a non-question whether or not to subvert avon’s authority and violate whatever personal loyalties they had. (just a matter of whether he could do so without avon finding out.)

    i suppose seasons one and two, the ones i’ve seen so far, at least hint that eventually the empty suits, once you go up high enough, are the same ones – politicians like clay whatsisname.

  2. I hesitate to say too much because you haven’t seen the third season, which follows up on nearly all of the threads that you mention. But yeah, I did see Avon as something of a figurehead and Stringer as the thinker…as when D’Angelo looks at the chessboard and calls Avon the King and Stringer the Queen. Sort of like the Ken Lay-ish CEOs who sign off on their underlings’ illegalities without bothering to follow them too closely. They’re more important for their contacts and network than for their brains–e.g., Avon’s refusal to cede territory to Prop Joe in order to get a decent package.

    That said, I think that David Simon does make the point that the drug network IS somewhat more efficient than the police department because screw-ups and deadwood can be killed, rather than merely moved around or promoted out.

  3. one thing the first season left me a bit unclear on is how avon could have ended up in the position he was in anyway. it seemed to imply, by the way his organization worked so well and how he was so well-insulated from ever having to deal directly with anyone (and with any heat), that it was because of his masterminding – but then by allowing him to be subtly undermined by stringer, it suggested that perhaps stringer was always more responsible for their success in the way he positioned himself as the most trusted advisor and used avon as a means of misdirection, almost. i guess without thinking it through too clearly i took it that avon had just become a bit more lax as of late, and so during that year stringer was able to take advantage of the presumed trust/loyalty – but that before that it was something more of a cooperative effort. (the role d’angelo’s mom plays seems to support that cooperative view a bit more, maybe. apparently in the third conversation she and stringer have a conversation about d’angelo’s death? i can’t wait!)

    i guess i haven’t really thought about parallels between the crime outfits and the police force on the lower levels. one thing you could say – probably speculating on the basis of what little we’re told about him – is that avon could have ended up the leader, and stringer the thinker, because avon didn’t just have a better network, but was better -at- networking. i’m not sure which of the detectives would make a good parallel, but that situation at leasts contrasts with mcnulty, who’s ‘good police’ but who can’t network for shit. is there a detective who’s clearly cannily attaching himself to a better networker not just out of self-interest (like, say, daniels) but for institutional reasons, i.e. for the police, the sake of justice? it would seem freamon has the right interests but he doesn’t have a similar connection to the figureheads, whoever they are among the police.

    god, i love this show.

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