Baltimore’s Shared Imagination: How The Wire Influences Us

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I make it a point to watch all cool things at least five years after everyone else has stopped caring. Consequently, I’m just now watching The Wire.

You might have caught the recent spat between Wire creator David Simon and Police commissioner Frederick H. “The Frederanizer” Bealefeld III. In substance, it amounts to little, with the commissioner decrying the show’s “smear” job on Baltimore — which can smear itself just fine, thank you very much! Simon responded by pointing to years—decades really—of misguided public safety policy, and defending the essential truth depicted by his fictional show.

Friends and family of mine have been using The Wire for years now to make critiques of Baltimore. It’s a shorthand way of referencing a problem or failure by the city. But a TV show is not reality, so why does it have such an important rhetorical function?

In a way, the commissioner has a point. The Wire certainly doesn’t paint a rosy picture of Baltimore, and there is growing evidence of an empirical link between the shows we watch and our level of political education, as an Indiana University study showed regular The Daily Show viewers have a higher political IQ. Bealefeld stupidly compares The Wire to CSI: Miami – but, no one could mistake a show about a multi-million dollar forensic science team with the BPD. No doubt, much of the forensics shown in The Wire were meant to contrast with the CSI franchise. Why can’t Baltimore have sexy forensic teams? The answer suggested by Simon is not simple. A web of social forces, individual acts, petty grievances and institutional malaise define and entrench the status quo, much like reality itself. This is the point: The Wire forces us to confront the dilemmas and tradeoffs faced by local politicians and interests. It forces us to think.

Photo of Clay Davis from The Wire
(Photo from HBO via Wikipedia.)

I think the real question about The Wire almost a decade after it premiered is not whether it “smears” Baltimore, but to what extent the lens of Simon’s camera has come to define our experience of Baltimore. TV offers us a version of reality that looks real, augments our own experiences, but which is heavily edited even when nonfictional. I’ve never been a police officer, never driven through West Baltimore, but thanks to The Wire I can imagine how that would look or feel. Moreover, when I have my own experiences, I can organize and understand them by relying on previous pseudo-experiences from TV. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (IMDB) remains an iconic reference of crusading politicians, despite the fact that it’s made up. In such a way, fictional events from The Wire count subconsciously in the daily everyday experiences of Baltimore’s HBO-watching population. When I watch a state senator, I will always remember the thoughtless corruption of Clay Davis. When you read about murders in the paper, do you interpret this as an unavoidable consequence of the drug trade? Do you recall the utter devaluation of human life depicted by the show? When we criticize political leaders, how much of that is preordained by the assumption of incompetence, ass-covering, and corruption implied by The Wire? It’s unsurprising that Bealefeld is keen to undermine the Wire, seeing as how the depiction of police leadership was extremely critical and pessimistic.

Aside from smarter police work, The Wire has no answers. This is as it should be. There are no magic bullets to the systemic challenges of Baltimore. The final legacy of The Wire is one underscored by Simon himself: the emphasis on policing and public safety. I know safety is a real and present concern for Baltimoreans. However, I question as a policy response whether it is possible to attract new residents with only a drop in violent crime. What I mean is: crime is a symptom and a feedback mechanism of the deeper social ills of the city. To treat the symptom is not to cure the underlying disease. I know my family is already planning to leave their Federal Hill row home after only a few years. Taxes are high, services are low. If these incentives cannot be reversed (and I’m not talking about just lower taxes), then Baltimore will continue to decay. This is a real, immediate challenge for the city. Worse, I’m not even sure that the city’s fortunes aren’t already dictated by the inexorable logic of global economics.

(Read Evan’s comment to the original story.)

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