The Bleakness of The Wire

Mark Bowden gets the central problem with The Wire, which is (I begrudgingly accept) the best show on television.

“I am struck by how dark the show is,” says Elijah Anderson, the Yale sociologist whose classic works Code of the Streets, Streetwise, and A Place on the Corner document black inner-city life with noted clarity and sympathy. Anderson would be the last person to gloss over the severe problems of the urban poor, but in The Wire he sees “a bottom-line cynicism” that is at odds with his own perception of real life.

This cynicism resembles courage. But really, who doesn’t want to believe that the tragedies of the inner-city are intractable? David Simon thinks he’s constructed a critique of capitalism, but in fact he’s prepared an elaborate, moving brief for despair and (ultimately) indifference. If you’re outraged by The Wire, do you then … go and support the election of your own Tommy Carcetti? Or do you throw up your hands and rail against the depredations of the market economy? This could lend itself to some more radical challenge to the status quo, and of course we’re never shown the depredations of Chavez’s Venezuela where petrosocialism has fueled new inequalities and new repression. Or it could lend itself to paroxysms of white guilt.

The Wire is ultimately premised on our inability to engage in self-help, and in particularly the inability of the black poor. It is about their lack of agency, and their status as eternal victims. Though compellingly drawn, so compellingly drawn as to move yours truly to tears, this is nothing new. Moreover, this view of human beings trapped in a cage of dysfunction transcends ideology: it strengthens the hand of paternalists of the left and determinists of the right. In that regard, the show is frankly destructive. I’m struck by how many of my friends believe they have more refined moral sensibilities because they watch and swear by The Wire, as though it gives them a richer appreciation of the real struggles of inner-city life, despite the fact that they are exactly as insulated as they were before. So apart from the handful of viewers who are embarrassingly naive, the worldview of the target audience remains utterly unchanged. Bowden says that the trouble with Simon is that he has “his story all figured out.”

The essential difference between writing nonfiction and writing fiction is that the artist owns his vision, while the journalist can never really claim one, or at least not a complete one—because the real world is infinitely complex and ever changing. Art frees you from the infuriating unfinishedness of the real world. For this reason, the very clarity of well-wrought fiction can sometimes make it feel more real than reality. As a film producer once told me, “It’s important not to let the facts get in the way of the truth.”

And so Simon is free of the messy world of Chutes and Ladders, in which members of the inner-city poor really do get ahead.

The truth is, it’s by no means clear to me that a more accurate show would be a better show. Far from it. In New York city, the housing projects are fast evolving into naturally-occurring retirement communities. They tend to be in desirable and accessible locations, waiting lists are long, crime is down, and tenants tend to stay in place for a long period of time. Family life has reconstituted itself in unconventional ways, but also in surprisingly robust ways. The drug trade has also changed dramatically since the crack epidemic, when Simon had his ear to the ground. New York is different for many reasons, and far less bleak than Baltimore by almost any objective measure. But these trends are a sign of the more complex picture of urban crime and poverty.

It doesn’t help that Simon seems fundamentally uninterested in women, who are of course better than half of the population. Economic advancement among black women is the unheralded success story of the past forty years. Though it is closely tied to other less encouraging trends, and though it is by no means as far along as it should be, the extraordinary success of black women in educational attainment has helped buffer the black family against a broken criminal justice system.

But now I’ve become a scold.

Much of Bowden’s piece is about his own experiences with Simon, and Simon’s jaundiced view of the newspaper world. It allows Bowden to get at the essential ways Simon’s worldview are informed by his character. I can’t really assess who is wrong and who is right. What I do know is that the bleakness of The Wire lends itself to a “knowing” political pose that almost certainly does little good. I’m tempted to say that it encourages exactly the wrong habits of mind, but that’s tough to say in light of my basic affection for and investment in the core characters.

P.S.- I’ve added more thoughts below.

Tim, if you think of me first and foremost as a “GOP partisan,” a heuristic device you seem to value very highly, it’s going to lead you in the wrong direction pretty consistently.

I actually do think Bunny’s intervention in the middle school was a real solution. But of course it’s a solution that appeared punitive and judgmental. In UK debates, isolating disruptive students is a tactic commonly identified with the political right, and I assume the same is true in the US. So I think you’re half-right here. But what is the upshot of the soundness of the solution? Who are the allies of the program — it’s most likely allies, members of the “punitive” right — don’t enter the picture, which of course is accurate: they aren’t a part of the urban power structure, by and large.

This is why the excellence of The Wire transcends its political narrowness — one can walk away with a quite different interpretation. That’s part of what makes the show successful as fiction.

As for Hamsterdam, it’s not obvious to me that it is presented in a particularly favorable light. Again, it seems like do-gooderism undermined by internal contradictions. I say this as someone who advocates the decriminalization and legalization and other harm-mitigation strategies. I feel like kind of a broken record when I say this sort of thing, but I feel like people project views onto me that I don’t really have. You can see why this might be frustrating.

As for Season Two, it was represents perhaps the most underinformed argument re: political economy in the history of the show. Note that I spoke of “self-help,” not “solutions” — solutions inevitably devised by Bunny or the good people of the College Park campus. Self-help for the dock workers might have involved breaking from a dysfunctional working-class culture founded on clannishness, chauvinism, and narrow horizons, and not on some deus ex machina.

Freddie: you make an excellent point, and this is actually why I’m always quick to defend “white guilt.” It’s not an unqualified defense, to be sure, but I often note that if the alternative to “white guilt” is white smugness or white indifference, it’s clearly not the worst thing in the world. I obviously have more to say on this subject, but that’s the heart of the matter.

But here’s the thing: who is allowed to be a subject or an agent? When upper-middle-class people watch The Wire, is it spurring them to constructive heights of weight guilt or even a meaningful expansion of the moral imagination? Or it a salve for their conscience? And if it’s the latter, perhaps a stance of basic respect — residents of the inner-city are human beings who are at some basic level responsible for their own lives — might be preferable. It occurs to me that this view sounds shocking in the context of deeply-ingrained luck egalitarianism (among intellectuals and the intellectually-inclined). But it reminds me of the extraordinary findings about victims of sexual abuse, evidence that politicians (and in particular conservative Republicans) have tried to suppress or condemn: people are extraordinarily resilient, even, perhaps particularly, those we think of as the ur-victims. The stance of nonjudgmentalism, of understanding and pity and inegalitarian compassion, seems to do little good.