The Wire isn’t about culture

by zunguzungu

I had not wondered what The Wire looked like through the eyes of a conservative. But — thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates — Jonah Goldberg shows us:

…look at it through the eyes of a conservative. This is a Democratic city, run almost uniformly by liberals. While many of the problems most prominently on display can certainly be traced back to racism, racism itself is not a central issue in The Wire (nor is racism an inherently or historically conservative phenomena). These drug gangs and the poor souls in their orbit, are not trapped by racism so much as by a dysfunctional culture.

Here’s where the train goes off the rails. The point of The Wire isn’t that the city is run by the liberals but that the liberals are run by the city. Carcetti, after all, is largely sincere in trying to change the system, but the moral of the show is simply that “the system” will always win. And this is why Goldberg goes on to say wildly inaccurate things in his next few sallies: he wants to place people at the center of the narrative, people boldly making their own destiny, for good or ill, when the very point of The Wire is that intentions matter less than institutional and social context. That’s why he says “culture” when he should be saying “society.”

That’s certainly the lesson of much of season four. The stoop kids do okay. The Corner Boys are destined for a life of misery. For every main character who is a murderer or dope dealer (but I repeat myself), there’s a representative of the black middle class who rejects the criminal culture of the street. For every Marlo, there’s a Bunk. Race relations between the actual characters are remarkably healthy, and nearly every mention of race as a salient issue is in the context of the political nonsense inherent to Baltimore, or rather urban, Democratic politics. To the extent many liberals try to explain all of the problems of poor blacks on racism, the show was a powerful rebuttal.

His claims that liberals try to “try to explain all of the problems of poor blacks on racism” is, of course, laughable; the show’s lack of interest in “racism” as a key to all mythologies is a pretty mainstream liberal approach, and hardly daring. But the culture/society blunder is the interesting thing, because it lets him toss out the completely wrong statement that the stoop kids do okay while the corner boys are destined for a life of misery. They don’t, actually. There’s absolutely no correlation; in fact, the only one of the four who gets called a “corner kid” is the one who survives and is seen succeeding at the end of season five. But so wedded is the conservative brain to a Moynihan narrative of “street culture,” the idea that people get into trouble because they choose to (albeit because their brains are controlled by the culture hive mind), that he can’t even remember what actually happens in the show.