the sociology of the wire

Omar, from The Wire

I’m not going to lie, I’m intensely jealous of anyone who gets to do a ‘Sociology of The Wire’ course and CMG and I have thought about co-teaching a class for years. It is a favorite amongst my colleagues, especially PI. Slate has a nice write-up about the phenomenon. There’s an on-line journal with a special issue on the show. A class at Middlebury has a blog about watching the show. When asked why he’s holding a class on the show, pairing episodes with readings from Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street, Sandra Susan Smith’s Lone Pursuit, Bruce Western’s Punishment and Inequality in America, and Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off the Books, he told the writer: “Although The Wire is fiction, not a documentary, its depiction of [the] systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the urban poor is more poignant and compelling [than] that of any published study, including my own.” David Simon, the co-creator of the show, states that the value of The Wire comes from it’s ability to straddle ‘two myths’ (thanks PI):

To state our case, The Wire began as a story wedged between two American myths. The first tells us that in this country, if you are smarter than the next man, if you are shrewd or frugal or visionary, if you build a better mousetrap, if you get there first with the best idea, you will succeed beyond your wildest imaginations. And by virtue of free-market processes, it is entirely fair to say that this myth, more than ever, happens to be true. Not only is this accurate in America, but throughout the West and in many emerging nations as well. Every day, a new millionaire or three is surely christened. Or ten. Or twenty.

But a supporting myth has also presided, and it serves as ballast against the unencumbered capitalism that has emerged triumphant, asserting as it does for individual achievement to the exclusion of all societal responsibility, and declaring for the amassed fortune of the wise and fortunate among us. In America, we once liked to tell ourselves, those who are not clever or visionary, who do not build better mousetraps, have a place held for them nonetheless. The myth holds that those who are neither slick nor cunning, yet willing to get up every day and work their asses off and be citizens and come home and stay committed to their families, their communities and every other institution they are asked to serve – these people have a portion for them as well. They might not drive a Lexus, or eat out every weekend; their children might not be candidates for early admission at Harvard or Brown; and come Sunday, they might not see the game on a wide-screen. But they will have a place, and they will not be betrayed.

In Baltimore, as in so many cities, it is no longer possible to describe this as myth. It is no longer possible even to remain polite on the subject. It is, in a word, a lie.

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