Thursday, October 4, 2012

"By the Wire," not "Through the Wire"

 It has been 10 years since David Simon's "The Wire" premiered on HBO.  A product of Simon's long-time partnership with Ed Burns, a retired Baltimore City homicide detective, "The Wire" presented Baltimore through the lens of police officers, drug dealers, troubled children, educators.  A Dickensian drama-from-below, Simon's series grew more and more complex through its five seasons.  Actively working to challenge easy interpretations of Baltimore's problems, Simon refused to indulge in the usual media reduction of urban life to pathologized caricatures.

Over those 10 years, some anthropologists began to include "The Wire" in their courses, presumably because they found it ethnographically interesting.  And it is, but not because it offers an empirical "window" onto the lives of Baltimore's urban poor.  Instead, "The Wire" is interesting because it presents the complexities of white, middle-class perspectives on race and social class.  It lays bare the tortured contradictions, the logical inconsistencies of dominant theoretical perspectives, from the neo-liberal, rational choice theory used to interpret some of The Wire's more larger-than-life drug-dealers, to the structural interpretations examining the inequalities of education in the city.  Ultimately, though, the series remains trapped in the puzzle-box of the racialized other, and the failure of the series to indict the neo-liberal (although Simon certainly tried) points to the inabilities of US intellectuals to conceptualize both race- and class inequality.  Bouncing between reformer, radical and reactionary, "the Wire" is probably the best portrait we have today of U.S. urban policy, one that accurately represents the hypostatized contradictions urban lawmakers and pundits bounce impotently between in their perpetual efforts to prescribe a "cure" to the problem of the urban.

In that sense, Peter Beilenson's and Patrick McGuire's Tapping Into The Wire: The Real Urban Crisis (The Johns Hopkins Press, 2012), is a logical next step.  In a series of reflections on his 13 years as Baltimore's public health commissioner (1992-2005), Beilenson examines scenes and characters in The Wire as synecdoches of public health problems inflicting US cities.  As he reflects, "I realized then that it was a perfect crystallization of all of the public health and social problems I had faced in real-life Baltimore during my thirteen years as health commissioner" (4).

Each chapter focuses on a health problem (drugs, STD's, HIV), and Beilenson's response to it as commissioner.  Some of these stories are heroic--e.g., Beilenson's needle-exchange program and his work on a plan for universal health care for Baltimore.  Some, less so.  In fact, my only memory of Beilenson during his tenure is his infamous support for Norplant, a birth-control implant that he wanted to offer to at-risk teens, a plan that led to charges of eugenics.  Later, there was similar controversy over Depo-Provera.  Here, he defends those programs, and there is little doubt that he had the City's best interests at heart.  But he still comes across as disingenuously political.  As he writes,

Although certainly not the only reason, I think it is clear that the provision of contraception in our school-based health centers helped Baltimore drop from having the highest teen birth rate in the country to the number 15 ranking: over the past twenty years, the city's teen birth rate dropped by more than 40 percent. (118)
First, there's a suspicious, semantic shift from Norplant and Depo-Provera to general contraception.  I think making contraception available in schools is an important intervention--but which ones?  Second, it's unclear how much these interventions are responsible for dropping teen birth rates.  Teen pregnancies have been dropping nationally by about 3 percent per year since 1991.  The CDC is not entirely certain why this rate has dropped, and it seems like a bit of shell game to suggest that Norplant led to the Baltimore decline. 

Still, Beilenson's anecdotes are reminders that enlightened public health policy can make concrete changes in the lives of people, and that so many of the things conservatives interpret as the intransigent moral failing of individuals are, in fact, public health problems that impact all of us.  Perhaps we can bring Beilenson back from Howard County (where he continues as health officer of Howard County).

But Tapping Into the Wire also sharply contrasts with our approach in Anthropology By the Wire.  Ultimately, Beilenson and McGuire still take their cues from The Wire and, by extension, hegemonic representations of Baltimore in mass media that define the city and its citizens as a series of problems, as a negative values in indicators for health, education and crime.  The difference: we're starting from the opposite end, building media that begin with people's lives and experiences, not in order to provide fodder for political pathologizations, but to help people represent themselves to each other, and to other institutions and agents of change who might be of benefit to them.  In other words, "By The Wire": in the same places, the same neighborhoods, but getting an altogether different story.