Saturday, March 8, 2008

Public Education: Three Cheers for HBO's The Wire

As my wife has long pointed out, my ability to opine on American culture is sorely undermined by the fact that I haven't watched TV seriously since Twin Peaks went off the air. Even I however, have heard about HBO's The Wire, and the extraordinary job it has done over the last five years portraying the very high costs and limited successes of the war on drugs. For all these years, students who have taken my classes or heard me lecture have told me to that many of the issues we dealt with in class were being readily handled on HBO's The Wire.

Now, ahead of tomorrow's final episode, the show's writers,David Simon (creator of HBO's The Wire), actor Ed Burns and novelists George Pelecanos, Richard Price and Dennis Lehane have published a clear and powerful letter in Time Magazine that summarizes (perhaps for many who missed seeing the show) the undeniable fact that the war on drugs has failed at stopping illegal drug markets, and has undermined those communities already harmed by drugs themselves.

The short article should be read and passed on to anyone you know who remains ignorant of this shameful travesty that is the equivalent of ten Iraq wars only waged on American cities over forty years. (read it here).

I quote only briefly to underscore their crucial point that law enforcement itself has been deformed by the drug war in ways which have undermined its capacity to solve real crimes.

The drug war has ravaged law enforcement too. In cities where police agencies commit the most resources to arresting their way out of their drug problems, the arrest rates for violent crime — murder, rape, aggravated assault — have declined. In Baltimore, where we set The Wire, drug arrests have skyrocketed over the past three decades, yet in that same span, arrest rates for murder have gone from 80% and 90% to half that. Lost in an unwinnable drug war, a new generation of law officers is no longer capable of investigating crime properly, having learned only to make court pay by grabbing cheap, meaningless drug arrests off the nearest corner.

But for another example of why so many journalists have failed to understand the war on drugs and have promoted its ideology, listen to Scott Simon's testy interview with writer Dennis Lehane, about the letter (listen here).


RacyKacy said...

I felt the need to let you know, how much do you know about your neighbor. I remember a Chinese family asking about the house up for sale in the cul-de-sac where I live (18 houses in all) A year later - no sign of anyone moving in.

The only activity seen 12 months later was the drug squad with their battering ram breaking the door down - only to find the whole house an orchard of Cannibis plants. So there you have it, is your neighbor Joe Bloggs the man you think he really is.

MR said...


Mike said...

What the writers offer is something that few critics of the Drug War (or mass incarceration, "law and order" politics, etc.) rarely do: a suggestion for how ordinary citizens can resist (one that interestingly recalls David Bazelon's forfeiture thesis).

Unfortunately, in the interview with Scott Simon, I think Lehane retreated somewhat by saying the writers' point is not to get on a jury and acquit but to avoid jury service on non-violent drug crimes altogether. Why? If this, in fact, the writers' answer to the question "what can we do?", it makes me wonder whether they aren't more concerned with moral purity than practical resistance. For the writers, they have made their intention to nullify public, so my point is arguably moot with respect to them. But what about the rest of us who oppose the Drug War and want to resist it? Wouldn't it make more sense to keep quiet during voir dire, get on the jury, and then nullify?

I also feel the need to express my irritation at Scott Simon's (the NPR host, not to be confused with Jonathan Simon or David Simon) suggestion that buying drugs somehow makes the drug user responsible for the acts of violence drug dealers finance with their proceeds from drug sales. Part of me thinks the argument is too bad to warrant comment, but since I know many people who take it seriously, I'll share just a few thoughts on it.

First, there is the obvious point, which the "The Wire" clearly tries to make over the course of five seasons, that the violence of the drug trade is partially the product of how drug laws are enforced. Second, Scott Simon's question is premised on what he apparently believes is an obvious truth: that drug dealers are "some of the worst people on earth." One of the strengths of the "The Wire" is that, while it considers the perspective and experiences of everyone caught up in the drug war, it does not take the extra step of valorizing drug dealers and drug users. But the show doesn't valorize anyone. Which brings up an important question. When Scott Simon says that drug dealers are some of the worst people on earth, with whom is he comparing them? One of the more obvious themes of "The Wire" (and most good literature or film) is that people are morally complex creatures, whether they are drug users (Bubbles), dealers (Stringer Bell), police officers (McNulty), stickup artists (Omar), or even serial killers (Chris). And what about us, especially the politically relevant among us? In standing by and watching (or ignoring) poverty destroy cities like Baltimore in the post-Jim Crow era, can we really say that we are morally superior to many drug dealers? If anything, it would seem that their rationalizations are more compelling than ours.

Finally, the silliest aspect of Scott Simon's suggestion (which, by the way, is taken straight from the government's anti-drug campaign) is that it operates on a logic that would make all of us responsible for nearly all of the world's ills. Lehane does a good job of pointing this out when he asks whether our grandparents are (or were) responsible for the Mafia's misdeeds. But we might also ask whether all American tax-payers are responsible for the death and misery in Iraq? Perhaps in some sense we are, but not in the sense that Scott Simon is using the term. The discussion is not about whether to hold non-violent drug users "responsible" in some abstract sense; it's about whether we should lock them away in jails and prisons.

I must say, though, that Scott Simon does bring up a good point about the strength of support for the drug war in inner-city communities. Still, I wonder whether Lehane might have done a better job in answering the question. At one point, Lehane says that he just wants the drug war to be carried out differently. I'm not sure what he means by that or if he even meant what he said. Regardless, Simon's question and Lehane's difficulty in answering it highlights what I think is a failure of imagination on the part of the drug war's critics.

One question is whether it is possible to decriminalize drugs without causing additional deterioration in already poor communities? Let us not forget in this context that, while the point has been disputed, it may be, as Bruce Western and others have argued, that incarcerating the underclass at the rate we do "works" in at least one sense: it hides unemployment and and thus conceals the defects of American capitalism. There seems to be a lot of hope invested in drug treatment, but I wonder, first, how effective drug treatment tends to be in reality and, second, whether there would be opportunities for those people who overcame the odds and managed to kick the habit. All the talk about treatment, I think tends to underemphasize the structural nature of problems in places like Baltimore.

Also, from personal experience I know that Scott Simon is right to suggest that some of the strongest proponents of the drug war do come from inner-city communities, but what exactly does this mean? Opinions, attitudes, and beliefs are, to some extent, ideologically conditioned. It may be that people support the Drug War because they can't imagine--or haven't been presented--with a more attractive alternative. Similarly, I wonder how good of a job we've done of capturing the contradictions and nuances of what people in inner-city communities and elsewhere think about the Drug War. The people Scott Simon has in mind are probably the moral entrepreneurs of inner-city communities, the people who are most visible and vocal, but do we know that what these people think is representative of their communities?

My final thought concerns resistance to the Drug War, mass incarceration, and "law and order" politics generally. Is refusing to serve on a jury, or nullifying if we do serve, the best we as individuals can do? There is a wealth of literature on the history and consequences of "law and order" in America. Powerful analogies have been made to apartheid, Jim Crow, and other horrible events and institutions. And yet, when it comes to resistance, most critics seem to trade their indignation in for a more utilitarian way of thinking. Also, rehabilitation, which was once the object of radical left's scorn for what I think were very good reasons, now seems to be the aim. Is this just good politics or this there room for a more radical approach? I suppose I'm of the mind that we ought to be talking more about rehabilitating a society that incarcerates 1% of its adult population than we should about rehabilitating (or re-forming) prisoners. But perhaps this isn't a helpful way to think.