Earlier in the summer, at the moment when the George Floyd protests were spilling onto every corner, an anonymous ex-policeman wrote a gutting essay affirming that yes, all cops are indeed bastards. He delved into the trauma-infused nature of the officer training process, and how it girds the toxic fraternity of law enforcement culture so that cops are not only insulated from accountability but also effectively inhibited from making a lasting positive difference in society, should they feel so compelled. He explained the ways in which cops are taught and sometimes incentivized to interfere with an individual’s constitutional rights. He illustrated how years of underfunding health, housing, and social services have generated an abundance of crisis scenarios to which cops are either woefully ill-equipped or altogether unqualified to adequately respond. Noting that these issues are compounded by baked-in racism and macho militarism, he showed readers how seamlessly a cop travels the twenty-odd minutes from a non-emergency call about a counterfeit bill to committing murder in the street.
Toward the end of the piece, the author pivoted from his bleak reporting to an eloquent justification of why defunding or even abolishing policing in its current manifestation could have a tremendous benefit to society. He posited some ways in which law enforcement could be reimagined for the betterment of all Americans. And then he closed his article. In a rather harrowing reflection of our polarized and broken national dialogue, the comments he received were evenly split between enthusiastic fuck-12 supporters and disgusted right-wingers who called bullshit on his very legitimacy along with his arguments.
(Ironically, some of those very readers who refused to believe he was actually a cop justified their doubt by suggesting his essay was too well written. Smoke on that for a while.)
His essay provoked plenty of personal and political reflections for me, but I was midway through a rewatch of True Detective this spring, and I realized his writing helped me unlock what I’ve long felt about the series, particularly the first and third seasons. (I feel like most of us idiot box aficionados rightfully ignore the existence of the second season, and I’ll continue to leave it out whenever I reference the series here.) True Detective is the ultimate ACAB parable: it explores the notion that true justice lies well beyond the reach of modern policing, and as such, being a cop is ultimately more of a curse than a calling.
True Detective demonstrates how the brotherhood of law enforcement promulgates violence and secrecy, and the generational scope of the show hammers home how little truth is uncovered within the mountains of bureaucracy that tower over the American legal system. It shows the toll that police culture takes on cops and the people who interact with them: dysfunctional marriages, lost time with lost children, domestic abuse, post-traumatic stress, addiction.
The series anchors itself on the fundamental impotence of even the most righteous cops to better society in any lasting way. Despite all that they can seemingly do with impunity, the one thing they can never accomplish is bringing any transparency or accountability into their place of business. Solving a mystery, True Detective posits, is ultimately never the same thing as resolving the root causes of whatever fundamental wrong created the mystery itself.
It’s all there in the series for viewers to tease apart, especially if they take time for multiple viewings, but while it sugarcoats nothing, the show does not tell you which side of the argument you should come down on. It suggests that the argument itself might be pointless. The comments on that ACAB essay made clear that while we all see the same unchecked power and violence in American policing, culturally, we’re in two radically polarized camps about how problematic these issues really are. Some see modern policing as inherently racist and corrupt, others see it as the only protective layer our republic has between freedom and anarchy. Societal gridlock and its sclerotic influence on our ability to suss out human rights from political ideology reflect the partisan divide that’s ostensibly paralyzed our government over the last several decades. And it all seems to keep too many people of conscience from doing anything about the writing on the wall.
And maybe that, in a larger sense, is why True Detective had such an impact on me. It speaks to something even more American than our history of police violence: the overriding sense of apathy in our culture about institutions and injustices that we view as simply too big or too calcified to fix, and its dangerous consequences.
Earlier this month, Leonard Pitts wrote a column suggesting that this might have been the first 4th of July when the end of America was in sight. And he isn’t wrong. After I finished it, I thought about an evening nearly twenty years ago when Congress fast tracked the Patriot Act after 9/11. (9/11 being an event which then-President Bush could have, theoretically, prevented before it occurred, given what we now know about Presidents and their briefing books. He was held to some account for it later, but not much, and ultimately the reinvention of his image as some kind of happy painter who lives on his ranch and dotes on his grandkids and was never, ever, not even possibly a war criminal speaks to how effectively we as a society repudiated his inherited lust for blood and oil.)
It came out not much later that several of the politicians who passed the Patriot Act never read it in full before they voted. Many of those politicians still hold office. At least a couple of them have run for the big chair. We, the voting public, didn’t seek to replace or reform these law enforcement officers for failing to do the most basic requirement of their job. I’ve always thought that it was because American politics have been so dysfunctional for so long that none of us found their dereliction of duty all that shocking.
Being an American means grappling with the lurking sense that something about our government is so fundamentally rotten at its root that the idea of “reform” or of “justice” is really no more than rearranging the furniture in a burning house. This kind of dull despair for the country has followed wars and Watergate and terrorism and now we feel it keenly during the pandemic and the protests.
Perhaps the death of George Floyd marks the backdraft which fully renders the burning house unsalvageable, and makes the way for us to imagine a new and better house in its ashes. Or perhaps it really just is the beginning of the end. The corruption of Trump, which feels new, really isn’t. It’s simply a bolder and more crass variant of the kind of backroom dealing career politicians of both parties have engaged in for a hundred years while they failed to prevent our union from slipping into decline. It might just feel more repugnant to us right now because we don’t have the refuge of our everyday lives in which to hide from it—our everyday lives are now overfilled with deadly health risks, systemic racism, and historic poverty—and we have more time at home to watch it all play out on cable news than we used to.
With each year that’s passed in my working life since 9/11, I’ve come to fully realize that this American experiment really has yet to be, fully, about us Americans. America, as an idea, and despite its founders best intentions, has so far worked out to be an ill-fated juggernaut of capitalism, white supremacy, and career politics. Violence and corruption will always flow readily from a system that puts profit before people, and new forms of media make it impossible to ignore the death toll.
That’s what makes True Detective such a compelling show. It shows you America from the perspective of working class Americans (the ones who most readily fall vulnerable to violence and systemic inequality) and the way police encounter them. From such a perspective it is undeniable that police work is really not about building safer communities, that “peace officers” are likely the absolute last people you should call on to prevent violence. Viewers witness the fallout from generations of American disenfranchisement: traumatized veterans, impoverished families, towns wiped out in turns by climate-wrought natural disasters and economic devastation, leaving a bountiful hunting ground for predators and a dearth of trustworthy authorities to bring them to justice. True Detective illustrates the fundamental distrust that keeps us segregated from one another and from our government. “Death created time to grow the things that it would kill,” says Rust Cohle. The dream of our founders, authored as it was following a hundred and fifty years of slavery and colonialism, is one of those ill-fated things.
Like some of the more blatantly nihilistic characters in True Detective, I’ll keep voting and participating in protest not because I am fully confident it will change anything, but because I simply don’t want to be an accomplice in the continued disenfranchisement of this country. Apathy breeds complicity, and the vast majority of evil gets done in complicity’s impenetrable shade. Faint as the light may be, every little beam of it is worth fighting for.
So True Detective speaks to me. Not merely because of its apt commentary on American law enforcement, but because it is about hopeless people choosing to play a hopeful part in a broken world. It is about learning to identify the insidious ways that apathy breeds, and a reminder that challenging it is vital not merely to one specific cause of justice, but to finding better and more honest justice for all people. It specializes in the type of happy ending that only a cynic like me might enjoy, but I think it does offer some happy endings, in its way. True Detective not only affirms that all it takes for evil to thrive is for good men to do nothing, but it challenges a viewer’s definition of what being a good man really entails.
I love it.