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The New York Sun


'The Wire': War of Truths

March 14, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

It was hard Sunday night watching the finale of "The Wire" and facing the fact that we will never see the characters again. The richness and nuance of the show were such that you continually have to remind yourself that those people do not actually exist—that when Stringer, Omar, Boadie, Snoop, and the others were killed, the actors playing them got up and walked away after the director yelled "Cut!"

I start to wish they'd do a few more seasons—but actually, I don't. The show would start drifting into formula—this season, health care—which would undercut how achingly real it was. Cutting it off now and leaving so many loose ends keeps it real, so to speak. It really was, as far as I know, the best show ever to air on television.

Also useful. It was a magnificent demonstration of the futility of the War on Drugs. The kingpins run their organizations with the diligence and tenacity of any entrepreneurs, and continue pulling strings from prison. There are always kids as young as 13 ready to replace runners sent to jail. There is always a vast market for the product. The war has less chance of being won than the one in Iraq. Yet a combination of puritanism, heartlessness, and petty concern for holding on to office make it so that no politician dares take the problem by the horns.

Police Chief Colvin surreptitiously allows an open-air drug market where addicts can be coaxed into treatment and there is no need for constant scuffles between sellers and the police. When word gets out, the entire block is blown up.

However, elsewhere, the politics of the show's creator David Simon disappoint me. In the book on the series, for instance, "The Wire: Truth Be Told," it turns out that in the first two seasons Mr. Simon intended an additional lesson: that the flight of low-skill jobs from cities leaves young men with, essentially, no choice but to turn to lives of crime. We are supposed to come away from the series thinking that the black drug runners in season one are plying the trade because there aren't factory jobs waiting for them a bus ride away like there were for their grandfathers.

In season two, white Ziggy and Nick can barely get by as longshoremen because technology has thinned traffic to a trickle in the harbor. Mr. Simon's lesson, presumably, is that this leaves them with little choice but to drift into selling drugs, with tragic consequences.

This is a lesson many social scientists consider a precious wisdom, but research doesn't bear it out.

Rather, studies by social scientists such as Harry Holzer, the former chief economist of the U.S. Department of Labor and a professor of public policy at the Georgetown's Public Policy Institute, and James Johnson, a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School of the University of North Carolina, have shown that factory relocation was responsible for at most a third of the rise in unemployment of uneducated young men in the 1980s. Cities where factory relocation was minimal have seen the same problems with unemployment and drug vending as ones like Baltimore—Indianapolis is a useful demonstration. A causal, as opposed to correlated, relationship among these problems and deindustrialization has not been demonstrated.

Overall, the literature on this issue grapples with the sad fact that the problem is less that jobs for people without B.A.s are unavailable (are jobs with the post office or installing cable exactly out of reach for someone who wants one?) than that a wide range of factors discourage people from finding and taking them—one of them being how lucrative selling drugs is because of their illegality.

Mr. Simon is right to decry the War on Drugs, but wrong to think globalization leaves uneducated young men with no choice but to subject themselves to said War. This kind of pessimism about the employment situation is presented as sympathetic and often genuinely intended as such. However, it distracts us from real solutions.

It was similarly uncomfortable watching Simon in season four portraying No Child Left Behind as mere bureaucratic nonsense. Okay, results so far have been minor. But the general implication of season four is of NCLB being imposed on teachers who were doing a fine job, stopped in their tracks by having to, Lord forbid, test students more than they used to and focus on reading and math skills. But then later on, Lester Freamon passingly dismisses the kind of education Baltimore public schools provide, and we are to nod warmly at his wisdom. Well, that"s just the kind of school that we see NCLB being "imposed" upon. The question, as always regarding NCLB, is precisely what we are to suppose would be a better idea?

Nevertheless, the quality of the writing and acting on "The Wire" are so very good that what comes through is a much more nuanced message than Mr. Simon often seems to have intended. I think this is also because actually watching written characters so richly written and portrayed in such situations makes it hopelessly clear that the idea that factories moving to the suburbs turns a community into a war zone simply does not describe actual human beings.

Original Source:



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