The Wire's Politics

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Earlier this week, Jonah Goldberg brought up a perennial favorite topic around these parts, arguing that as much as David Simon's show was beloved by liberals, it was actually a powerful indictment of a liberal-run urban bureaucracy, and a corrective to various self-serving liberal myths about race, poverty, and crime. In a sense, that's all true! But as we ponder The Wire's crypto-conservatism, or lack thereof, it's worth quoting Simon himself (from an Atlantic comments thread, no less):

Writing to affirm what people are saying about my faith in individuals to rebel against rigged systems and exert for dignity, while at the same time doubtful that the institutions of a capital-obsessed oligarchy will reform themselves short of outright economic depression (New Deal, the rise of collective bargaining) or systemic moral failure that actually threatens middle-class lives (Vietnam and the resulting, though brief commitment to rethinking our brutal foreign-policy footprints around the world). The Wire is dissent; it argues that our systems are no longer viable for the greater good of the most, that America is no longer operating as a utilitarian and democratic experiment. If you are not comfortable with that notion, you won't agree with some of the tonalities of the show. I would argue that people comfortable with the economic and political trends in the United States right now -- and thinking that the nation and its institutions are equipped to respond meaningfully to the problems depicted with some care and accuracy on The Wire (we reported each season fresh, we did not write solely from memory) -- well, perhaps they're playing with the tuning knobs when the back of the appliance is in flames.

... If The Wire is too pessimistic about the future of the American empire -- and I've read my Toynbee and Chomsky, so I actually think a darker vision could be credibly argued -- no one will be more pleased than me as I am, well, American. Right now, though, I'm just proud to see serious people arguing about a television drama; there's some pride in that.

In terms of David Simon's personal politics, then, it's pretty clear that his critique of modern American liberalism is coming from a Naomi Klein-style place, or somewhere still more radical, rather than an Edward Banfield-type place. It's a testament to the genius of the show that its depiction of Baltimore (and by extension, America) offers fodder for liberal, conservative, leftist and libertarian readings - much like reality itself! In this sense, The Wire is the rarest and most precious of beasts: A work of art that's intensely political but rarely devolves into agitprop. But to the extent that any specific political vision undergirds its portrait of contemporary America, that vision is radical and revolutionary - though shot through with despair - rather than conservative.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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