The Wire: Life Doesn’t Imitate Art

Everyone with access to keyboard and a thesaurus suddenly has to write about The Wire, a show that I have loved since the first season. Like a longtime Red Sox fan, I feel that I have a proprietary right to the team. Neveretheless, I have to admit that I found much of the writing about the dramatic arc, character development and so forth very illuminating. (Though I do think there has been insufficient attention paid to Omar – clearly the coolest guy on this, or any, show).

When the discussion veers into the deep implications of the show for social policy, however – and especially whenever I hear any of David Simon’s yammering – I have to suppress a gag reflex. It’s true that the show humanizes lots of violent, disturbed people. On balance, this is probably a good thing, and a service to society. But this TV show is very, very far from being a useful playbook for how to deal with urban problems.

Imagine if Carcetti had accomplished the following for Baltimore: more than halved overall crime rate, murder rate and number of people on welfare. Do you think David Simon would consider him to be a good fictional mayor? Well, Giuliani actually did this for New York. Do think that was a tougher or easier challenge than doing this for Baltimore?

He didn’t do this by creating New Hamsterdam Avenue on the West Side or “reforming the inhumanity of capitalism” or whatever. He did it by being smart, tough and relentless about getting results. He put more cops on the street, managed them better, and enforced laws. He transformed the rules, procedures and expectations of welfare offices to focus on getting people into work.

He summed up his philosophy toward New Yorkers, including those analogous to the characters on The Wire, simply: “One City, One Standard”. This is not a new idea. Another great mayor, of Athens, once put it this way: “We… place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it.”