The new issue of City and Community has an article by Peter Dreier and John Atlas about a show that captivates many an urban sociologist, The Wire. Their piece extends comments they made last year in Dissent, in a symposium about the show. In both pieces, they repeat the common accusation that the show is nihilistic, because it presents urban problems but doesn’t show any solutions to them. To bolster the point, they dredge up a quotation from an interview, in which Simon proclaims that meaningful change is impossible “within the current political structure”.
As a corrective to what they see as The Wire‘s shortcomings, Dreier and Atlas catalogue some of the real community activists who have struggled against injustice in Baltimore, and won some small victories. And these are indeed inspiring and courageous people, who have managed to win some real improvements in people’s lives. But by bringing them up and presenting them as the solution to all the problems The Wire portrays, I think Dreier and Atlas miss the point of what David Simon and Ed Burns are doing with the show.
It’s misleading to say that The Wire is nihilistic. It’s true that the problems it portrays appear, within the context of the narrative, to be insoluble. And it may even seem, initially, as though the show is sympathetic to a conservative position: the poor will always be with us, government intervention always makes things worse, so we might as well just give up and try to make things better in our own small, individualist way. But this would be a profound misreading, because the show suggests, not that there are no solutions, but something far more complex. We come to understand, as the seasons unfold, that each of the dysfunctional institutions we see is embedded in a larger system that goes far beyond the scale of Baltimore. There is, as Stringer Bell puts it in season 3, “a game beyond the game”. We therefore have to conclude, not that there are no solutions, but that there may be no solutions at the scale of a single city.
The police find themselves hamstrung by their need to deal with national agencies like the FBI, which has been caught up in the mania of the “war on terror”. The dockworkers find their way of life destroyed by the automation and the transformation of the global shipping industry. The mayor is at the mercy of Maryland state politics because he needs funding. The local newspaper struggles, and fails, to adjust to a world of profit-driven news and competition from new media. Even the drug dealers are at the mercy of their out-of-town “connect”.
None of this implies that Baltimore’s doom is inevitable. Neither imperialism, nor neoliberalism, nor Republican domination of state politics, nor the tabloidization of all journalism are inevitable. If they seem that way on the show, it is because of the careful and clever way in which the story is framed: these larger-scale institutions, the ones where the real agency lies, are always kept off screen and held beyond the reach of the characters. Thus the world the characters inhabit appears to them to be one where nothing can be changed. That doesn’t mean that the world of the show, that we viewers can sense, is actually so tragic.
But is true that none of these problems can be solved in a single city, and most of them require a long-term, and fairly radical project of social transformation. This may present difficulties for liberals who would prefer that social problems have incremental, non-threatening solutions. But by presenting small-scale local activism as an adequate response, Dreier and Atlas do a disservice both to the problems they address, and to the activists themselves.
Perhaps, however, their real political objective is somewhat different from simply promoting the importance of urban collective action. The giveaway comes at the end of the City and Community version of their essay:
Perhaps, a year or two from now, Simon or another writer will propose a new series to TV networks about the inner workings of the White House and an idealistic young president, a former community organizer, who uses his bully pulpit to mobilize the American people around their better instincts. This president would challenge the influence of big business and its political allies, to build a movement, a New Deal for the 21st century, to revitalize an economy brought to its knees by Wall Street greed, address the nation’s health care and environmental problems, provide adequate funding for inner-city schools, reduce poverty and homelessness, and strengthen the power of unions and community groups.
A show like that would certainly be a nice bit of wish-fulfilment for liberals who like to imagine a “great man” riding in and fulfilling all their fantasies. But it’s unclear what has to do with our world, in which an ambitious young politician used his charisma and the wishful thinking of his base to ride to power, and then proceeded to cater to the needs of bankers and insurance companies while sinking America ever deeper into an intractable war in Afghanistan. Faced with that reality, the world of The Wire doesn’t look so nihilistic or unrealistic after all.