[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]
Paul Krugman’s column today, “Race, class, and neglect,” is on Baltimore, in which, entre autres, he cites “the great sociologist” William Julius Wilson and expresses dismay at the reaction of “commentators,” i.e. conservative commentators. Krugman here rather obviously has a fellow NYT columnist colleague in mind (whose initials are DB). As usual, Krugman gets it precisely right.
In following Baltimore over the past week, I naturally thought right away of ‘The Wire’, the greatest show in the history of television and Baltimore’s TV claim to fame. I am, of course, only the 750,000th—or maybe the 7,500,000th, or whatever—person to make this assertion. In addition to being brilliant television ‘The Wire’ is brilliant social science, and is consequently taught in numerous college courses, including William Julius Wilson’s at Harvard. Everyone knows by now that, during its 2002-08 run on HBO, it was Barack Obama’s favorite TV show—and that Omar was his favorite character—isn’t he everyone’s?—as Mr. Obama reminded ‘The Wire’ creator David Simon in a conversation between the two this past March, which may be viewed here. Say what one will about Obama, he is without question the most thoughtful president the US has had in a very long time.
As for David Simon, he weighed in last week on “Baltimore’s anguish” in an interview with The Marshall Project’s editor Bill Keller. Also last week, The Guardian reposted an excerpt of a talk Simon gave in 2013 in Sydney, Australia, “‘There are now two Americas. My country is a horror show’.”
Fans of the ‘The Wire’ are, in their great majority, liberals and leftists, though a few conservatives also appreciate it. One of these, Francis Fukuyama—who’s one of America’s smartest and most interesting public intellectuals—wrote a particularly good essay on the series, “Down to The Wire,” in the September-October 2012 issue of The American Interest. Money quotes:
The most impressive achievement of The Wire, however, is the way it humanizes an entire segment of American society that most white Americans would just as soon ignore (and generally do). By humanize, I do not mean sentimentalize or whitewash. Many of the drug dealers, as well as some of the cops, are vicious people, and the viewer gets to watch them inflict unspeakable cruelties on their victims in ugly detail. But we soon come to realize that most of the characters living in the bad parts of Baltimore are trapped there by the simple bad luck of where and when they were born
One of the fundaments of American political culture is the notion that North America started out as a terra nullis, an empty land to which settlers could come and make new lives for themselves. Americans accept instinctively the Lockean notion that the “industrious and rational” will combine their labor with the mere things of nature and create private property and wealth for themselves, while the “quarrelsome and contentious” will not. Democratic political and legal institutions were constructed to protect what James Madison called the “diversity of the faculties of men” and their consequent unequal ability to acquire property. Americans thus distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor in a way that Europeans, schooled in the historical reality of class differences, generally do not. The idea of social mobility is fundamental to both America’s self-image and to its ongoing success: I may be poor today, but through ability and hard work I can ensure that my children or grandchildren will have better lives. Americans therefore care much less than Europeans about actual socioeconomic inequality; what they care about is a level playing field that allows for intergenerational social mobility. As the experience of countless immigrant groups to the United States has demonstrated, this myth has also been the reality for very many Americans.
The one big exception to this happy immigrant story has always been African Americans, who did not come to North America voluntarily and who, up until the Civil Rights era in the 1960s, were subject to overt legal discrimination in many parts of the country. Blacks were the only social group that faced caste-like barriers to mobility. Their social and economic liberation and subsequent advancement required political power to achieve, first in a Civil War that ended slavery and left more than 600,000 Americans dead, and then in a long struggle against legal segregation whose end required strenuous enforcement by Federal authorities.
The Tea Party ideology that glorifies individual self-help and points to the dangers of an overweening national government conveniently forgets this history—or perhaps some of them do remember it, which is why they are so opposed to the Affordable Care Act, many of whose beneficiaries would be black. Even for those not on the libertarian Right, there tends to be a view that the end of legal segregation leveled the playing field, that government efforts like the Great Society’s War on Poverty were a counterproductive failure, and that there is little more that can usefully be done with regard to inner-city social policy.
What The Wire does so effectively is to remind us that while individual ability and talent do matter, and that our character and moral choices matter as well, we are nevertheless very much products of a social environment over which we as individuals have very little influence. (…)
My wife and I watched all five seasons of ‘The Wire’ in fall 2008-winter 2009 (a big thank you to Stathis Kalyvas for informing me of its existence and pressing me to check it out). Since then I’ve lent my DVD set to several people—including a work colleague at the present moment—all of whom have gone through the entire series and given it the thumbs way up. I think we’re due to watch it a second time.
UPDATE: The Nation’s Dave Zirin has a post on his Nation blog (May 4th), in which he describes how he was a fanatical fan of ‘The Wire’ but now says that he is “Reconsidering [the show] amidst the Baltimore uprising.” In a nutshell, he is not sure if the series had a politically progressive message after all. Zirin’s post is followed by a lively—and high-quality—debate in the comments thread, most of whose contributors take strong issue with him. The comment by “Steve” is particularly good, and which I am taking the liberty of copying-and-pasting into the comments thread here.
2nd UPDATE: Adam Shatz—a ‘Wire’ fan—offers his thoughts on Baltimore in a post (May 7th) on the LRB blog.
3rd UPDATE: Orlando Patterson, the brilliant Harvard University sociologist, has an excellent, must-read op-ed (May 9th) in the NYT on “The real problem with America’s inner cities.”