Caution – the following post is too long, too exhausting, and too packed with fancy phraseology to be read by anyone with a job, a mate, or anything resembling a life. It’s the latest salvo in what Baltimore Talk Radio is calling a “blog fight” between myself and David Simon, the creator of Homicide and The Wire. I’m not sure it’s a fight, per se, but this is the latest from David’s blog, with my replies. Seriously – do NOT proceed if you’re prone to headaches.
DS: It seems that despite the most temperate reply possible, I’ve been drawn into another absurdist debate about whether The Wire, or Homicide, or perhaps even The Corner is good or bad for Baltimore. This time, the righteous indignation about the tarnish applied to my city’s reputation is from a gentleman named Mike Rowe. A Baltimore native, he is employed elsewhere in this great diaspora of television and he has now assumed the mantle of defender of my city’s reputation as a worthy ville.
MR: Thanks for being gentle with me. I’m grateful. But who exactly, has drawn you into another “absurdist debate?” My concern for Baltimore is neither righteous nor indignant. I haven’t vowed to defend her virtue, or assumed the mantle of her official protector. And in spite of the headline in the article where you were quoted, I’m not coming to “save” Baltimore. I’m coming home to visit my parents and shoot a TV show.
DS: Mr. Rowe marks his displeasure with our work by reductively describing it as a depiction of “drug dealers” and “pimps” that is sufficient to convince anyone that Baltimore is a mere cesspool, certain and fixed. In this simplicity, he joins, by late count, a few business leaders, several political aspirants and at least two police commissioners in decrying narratives that don’t provide the imagery with which Baltimore wishes to adorn itself.
MR: Again, I’m afraid you’re mistaken. I never said I was “displeased” by your work. In fact, I called The Wire “one of the greatest pieces of narrative fiction ever written,” and offered to buy you a beer. I have never decried the importance of storytelling, or lobbied for a single, sanitized version of the city. I’ve simply suggested that many people with no firsthand experience of Baltimore now harbor an impression that’s both negative and unbalanced. I suspect the same is true in Albuquerque, where the success of Breaking Bad has made that worthy ville synonymous with the finest methamphetamine money can by. Obviously, that’s not Vince Gilligan’s fault, even though the success of his show is the proximate cause of an unintended association.
DS: Having been specifically directed to Mr. Rowe’s remarks and asked for comment by the Baltimore City Paper, here is the sum of my entire response. It is distinct from the writing of any City Paper essayist and it alone represents my position. The City Paper‘s arguments necessarily remain its own; they do not coincide with mine at points. I wrote:
“Speaking for the collective that worked on the narratives in question, we undertook to tell those stories as best we could in the hope that they would be honest and relevant to the whole of our city, to our divided American society and to the fundamental necessity that is our shared future. We even operated with some hope that such storytelling might help lead to redress and reconsideration of certain policies and priorities.
“On a personal level, that’s simply my job. It was my job as a reporter and as an author. It is my job still and I take it seriously.
“Certainly, there are other meaningful uses for narrative and imagery, and civic boosterism is one such laudable purpose. That is the job of others and I understand that they, too, take their labors seriously.
“As a Baltimorean fully vested in the city’s future, I can respect and support such efforts and purposes, even should others demonstrate less understanding and respect for the role of storytelling as a means of offering dissent and opening civic and societal debate.”
Exactly what did I claim here?
MR: That’s an excellent question.
DS: 1.That our narratives were undertaken in earnest and to an ethical and professional purpose, and that my colleagues and I believe the narratives address fundamental issues and concerns that ought to be addressed. And, oh yeah, we take our role as storytellers seriously.
2. That these are not the only narratives and images that can represent the city, and that civic boosterism or promotion is also a laudable goal undertaken by equally serious and committed people.
3.That as we are Baltimoreans, living here and vested in our collective future, we support efforts to improve the city’s image.
Rather than critique Mr. Rowe’s fledgling endeavors in any way — and certainly with less reductive cynicism than his depiction of our own efforts — we find it easy to support and encourage him. And for this, there are now people with their asses in the air, including Mr. Rowe who has already fired off more verbiage? Really? Is there a cognitive problem here?
MR: Quite possibly. I’m not that bright. Moreover, I’m not always sure where my ass is, or the asses of others. What baffles me though, is where you got the idea that I’m critical of your work? I praised both Homicide and The Wire, and thanked you sincerely for providing hours of high quality entertainment.
DS: Mr. Rowe got a careful, polite reply because he managed to critique our storytelling without, say, the bombast of a city council president who actually used her post to attempt to pass official proclamations against The Wire (What business does any government have sanctioning or opposing narrative?), or a police commissioner who demanded apologies for the narrative existing (Not enough for him to dislike or critique a story, he instead demands that those who would tell a tale not to his liking actually apologize for doing so?), or a mayor who wanted to be governor and actually attempted to use his administrative authority to alter or prohibit the narrative itself. (Will you change the story or quit the story, or do I keep holding up your film permits?)
MR: Yikes! Thank goodness I made “The Polite Reply List!”
DS: Over the years, telling these tales in which we believed proved, at points, a source of direct conflict with city officials who were willing to do far more than merely vent their personal displeasure as critique. In those instances, yes, I felt obliged to defend with some vigor the legitimate right to tell a story that serves interests other than the glorification of Baltimore and its present administrations.
MR: I’m glad you did. Scripted television is better for your efforts. Unfortunately, Marge from Iowa is still under the impression that a visit to Baltimore will end with her demise. And Bob from Virginia is pretty sure that Albuquerque is overrun with meth labs. Marge and Bob are not idiots. But, like most viewers, they’re influenced by the power of a good narrative and the enduring impact of consistent, evocative imagery.
DS: Here, though, I read carefully and understood what Mr. Rowe did and did not argue. And my comments were proportioned to make clear that there was plenty of room for his good efforts on behalf of the city, that such efforts easily obtain my support, and that those efforts did not, in my mind, necessarily conflict with the concurrent responsibility by others to use narrative and imagery to tell hard truths about our city, our nation, and our national priorities and policies. That’s the sum of what went back over the transom.
MR: Then why let yourself get dragged into another “absurdest debate?” What do you care about the fledgling efforts of a Baltimore expat from the “diaspora of television?” Regardless, what came over MY transom was the totality of an article in which your comments appeared, the gist of which compared the authenticity of a PR campaign, a reality show, and a scripted drama. That’s what I primarily responded to. But here, you’re not responding to anything I actually directed to you. You’re making me a straw man, and it’s obvious.
DS: Too much? If Mr. Rowe can dish out his caricatures about who populates The Wire and Homicide — pimps and dealers and junkies, oh my! — yet finds himself unable to endure the brutalities of the above reply, he boasts a sensitivity that I fear cannot long endure in the town of his birth. After all, the only phrase I offered in critique of Mr. Rowe’s performance, rather than in direct support of his effort on behalf of Baltimore, was to note his apparent lack of understanding for the role of storytelling that doesn’t affirm what those in power already wish to have said about just how swell they’ve administered things. For that, you can’t rely on political leaders, or celebrity promotional campaigns, or any deep reservoir of empathy from many of those whose lives are arrayed on the right and profitable side of a status quo. For that, some measure of dissent is required.
MR: Again, I’m not sure what I’ve said or written to make you think I might disagree with your right to dissent, or the importance of what you do. Maybe you’re so accustomed to being attacked, that you simply assume the world is out to silence you? For the record, I’m not. And don’t worry about the brutalities – my skin is plenty thick.
DS: Any insult from Mr. Rowe’s remarks may well have been unintended; however, the pimps and dealers and drug addicts that this gentleman so easily and hastily conjured to lament our narratives are, of course, a minority of the characters actually depicted in those stories.
MR: So what? We barely saw the shark in Jaws, but it’s implied presence was enough to keep millions of rational people out of the water for years. There were a lot of characters in Breaking Bad that weren’t addicted to meth, but that’s cold comfort for The Albuquerque Tourism Bureau. Proportionality has nothing to do with perception. Perception on the other hand, becomes reality in no time.
DS: But in focusing on those few stereotypes, Mr. Rowe was clearly raising an argument that I find familiar and disturbing: That an undeserving portion of Baltimore has been chronicled at the expense of a Baltimore more deserving of attention, and that the America left behind by deindustrialization, poverty and the depredations of the drug war should just quiet the fuck down while we sell more of the America that has not been so marginalized.
MR: I can understand why that argument might trouble you. But I have no idea why you think I’m raising it. I’ve never said that your narratives have come at the expense of others, or suggested that one part of the city is more “deserving” than another.
DS: Mr. Rowe, there are literally hundreds of television narratives — sitcoms and reality shows and comic-book dramas and cops-and-robbers affirmations of law and order out there, shows about the America in which human beings are still valued and in which capital still operates to the advantage of the many. By contrast, there was, for a brief time, one little-watched drama on one pay channel that tried to tell a story in that part of the nation where those things are no longer close to fucking true. That story happened to be set in the city of Baltimore; Mr. Rowe now asserts that as far as he is concerned it was one story too many. I do indeed find that stance offensive, parochial and myopic. Telling only the pretty, affirming stories has a cost, too.
MR: That’s a fine rant, and I must say, it’s exciting when you talk dirty. But this would all make so much more sense if I had actually asserted any of what you claim. Again – I have never suggested that your stories shouldn’t exist. I’ve never suggested that you should alter a single word. I have never suggested that only the pretty, affirming stories have merit. I get that others have, but I have not.
DS: Telling tales in which the poor and marginalized — including those who live and work amid an underground economy that is, in fact, the largest employer in Baltimore city — are rendered as human rather than as merely the chow for avenging cops has, at least, some small chance of perhaps slowing the war on the underclass now ongoing in this country. If it is tough work that Mr. Rowe chronicles — and I understand it’s his stock in trade — then the ease with which he throws judgment across the chasm between the two Baltimore’s has perhaps denied him some fresh material, and some real insight into one of the hardest, most destructive and self-destructive occupations in one of America’s largest growth industries.
MR: Well, you got me there. I am guilty of judging the actions of human beings. And when human beings sell drugs to kids, or deliberately hurt other human beings, I condemn their actions. But I have not condemned you, David. As for my stock in trade – I produce light-hearted portrayals of hard-working people doing honest labor, and profiles of mostly anonymous people pursuing legal activities with passion and good humor. I’m not in the business of highlighting destructive or self-destructive behavior. But I appreciate the suggestion.
DS: The drug war doesn’t endure as it has for 60-odd years without people being fed a media diet of contempt for dealers and pimps and addicts in the precise terms that Mr. Rowe feels so comfortable venting. We don’t become the most incarcerative society in the history of mankind without so easily dehumanizing those who are consigned to the parts of our city that Mr. Rowe, the Greater Baltimore Committee and aspiring politicians might struggle to sell as authentic or charming. Moreover, I hold the audience for our harsher narratives — and indeed for other, warmer storytelling about Baltimore — in much higher regard than Mr. Rowe, apparently. I think viewers are smart enough to understand that these stories represent certain quadrants of my city, but not all of Baltimore, and even more certainly not the whole of the metropolitan area. They are stories about one America, long and purposely ignored and isolated, and while set in Baltimore, they are applicable to East St. Louis or South Chicago or North Philadelphia. Anyone who thinks The Wire is all of Baltimore is as much a fool as anyone who can be shown a crabcake and convinced that the Inner Harbor is all of the city. Pretending otherwise — from either end — is a mug’s game.
MR: Well then, maybe I’m a mug. But let me see if I’ve got this straight. You think the war on drugs has been prolonged because the media has successfully dehumanized criminals by portraying them in a stereotypical, one-dimensional fashion. You also believe that viewers are too smart to conclude that your stories are representative of Baltimore in general. But if viewers are able to discern something that obvious, why are they so easily influenced by the ham-fisted caricatures of pimps and pushers and addicts? Why can’t they see past the obvious stereotypes, and conclude, as you have, that these criminals have been “dehumanized” by scripted narratives? The answer, if I might hazard one, is because you don’t have to be stupid to be impressionable.
Again – Benchley and Spielberg didn’t set out to decimate the shark population, but they damn near succeeded. Why? Because their narratives sparked an accidental Holy War on sharks. That’s a serious unintended consequence of being a great storyteller. But now, I’m confused. I thought you were frustrated because people were challenging your right to tell a fictional tale in the manner of your own choosing. Now, it sounds like you’re angry because not everyone shares your view of “humanizing criminals and lowering incarceration rates.” If your primary mission is to “slow the war on the underclass,” you might want to gird your loins for a lifetime of pushback. I’ll defend your right to tell any story you want, in whatever way you wish. But please, spare me the exasperation and surprise at being misunderstood. If this is your true agenda, I suspect the next “absurdest debate” is right around the corner. (Or “The Block,” if you prefer.)
DS: My question — and given how regularly I have to deal with this dynamic, I think it a fair one — is simply this: Is it possible for someone to assert on behalf of Baltimore’s charm and worth, while at the same time being grown-up enough to understand that other stories have an altogether different but essential purpose?
MR: Of course. I’m doing it right now.
DS: Is it conceiveable that someone seeking higher office, or credit for civic improvement, or even a paid promoter’s fee might simply do the straight business of asserting for the best of Baltimore, without going to the trouble to pretend that there are not significant problems in this city and every American city that require redress?
DS: Is the universe sufficiently vast to contain both the empirical fact that a Faidley’s backfin crabcake is the world’s best and that Baltimore is the fifth most dangerous city in America?
MR: No. The best crabcakes are at my mothers. Sorry.
DS: Can it be that Brooks Robinson is indeed the superior third baseman to Mike Schmidt, while at the same time credible that as many as half the African-American males under the age of forty in my city are unable to find or are no longer even seeking legitimate, full-time work?
MR: It’s true. Brooks Robinson kicked ass. But when people who need a job stop looking for legitimate work for any reason, it’s tragic. Regardless of their color.
DS: Does a walk around the harbor’s growing promenade suggest hope in the city’s planning and execution in a way that the failure to educate most public school graduates to participate in the city’s legitimate economy does not?
MR: Yes. No, wait…yes? Crap, I dunno. I gotta be honest man, my head hurts. I’m known for some pretty windy shit, but you sir, just ate my lunch.
DS: Is it possible to speak well of Baltimore, sincerely, while allowing certain truths to stand? Not yet, apparently. And for some folks, maybe never.
MR: Well, I think you’re wrong. I think you’ve done all that and more. And I still think The Wire was a great show.
PS. I’m guessing that beer’s not gonna happen?
Read Mike’s initial blog on the subject “Rewiring The Wire”.
Mike’s follow-up blog – After, After “The Wire”