The Audacity of Despair and the Obama Coalition.

The central theme of “The Wire” is  a pretty bleak one: our institutions are dysfunctional and/or corrupt, and America’s cities were beyond salvation.  So can you buy that basic premise of the show and be an Obama supporter? We asked that way back in February back when our beloved show was ending, and it’s a question that’s still worth kicking around. Obama’s message of hope and change was deeply at odds with the show’s argument that reformers become co-opted or are purged, that institutions grind people under to perpetuate themselves.

But it’s obvious now that you think you can or maybe even should; the Wire’s audience almost perfectly mirrors the demographics who make up the Obama coalition. (And, tellingly, it’s Obama’s favorite show.)

Case in point: last week, shani-o and I attended a discussion at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School about “The Wire” and urban crime. The panelists were David Simon, the show’s creator, and Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia. Simon launched into one of his trademark seething rants, lamenting (celebrating?) the end of American empire, blasting the War on Drugs and the systemic dehumanization of the people who live in America’s inner cities. (A deadpan Nutter: “Thanks, David. I met the [Phillies] at the airport. Just got a new hat. I was really having a bang-up day.”)

Then Simon got all weird. “That said, it would be nice if things got better,” he said to a hall full of chuckles. When he got back to Maryland, he said, he was gonna go door to door doing GOTV for the Obama campaign. Huh.

Nutter called the show the greatest show in the history of television (and, I know I belabor the point on this, but he’s sorta right);  he screened the final episode in City Hall. He was decidedly more upbeat than Simon was — which obviously isn’t much of a challenge —  even while agreeing on all the central points and flashing some indignation of his own. Nutter told the story of a man in Philly whose wife recently found him lying on the floor in the bedroom as he got ready to work, killed by a stray bullet that whizzed through the window. “If you are not safe in the second-floor befroom of you home, what kind of country is this?” he asked. “Yet we will spend 10 billion a month to chase some people who had nothing to do with the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.”

Unsurprisingly, that line went over really well. It was definitely an Obama crowd,*  comprised of college students and a not-insubstantial smattering of people of color. (shani-o may correct me here, but I think it skewed pretty female, as well.) They both rolled their eyes at the criticism directed at city dwellers from the Republican presidential ticket (“Fuck small town values!” Simon spat), and pointed out that most Americans live in the orbit of large urban centers.

Afterward, I asked Mayor Nutter what, if anything, an Obama administration augured for America’s cities given Obama’s urban political pedigree. Nutter was optimistic. “It’ll be a good thing.”

Kinda vague. “I hadn’t heard him speak too directly to urban issues on the trail,” I said.

“Well,” Nutter countered, “He is trying to win.”

*Nutter endorsed and campaigned for HRC in the primary. “But things happen in politics, you make your piece with it and do what you can for the party,” he said.

23 thoughts on “The Audacity of Despair and the Obama Coalition.

  1. ladyfresshh October 23, 2008 at 11:12 am Reply

    *voices only complaint*

    you know i never watched the show and figured there would be posts on it and i’d skipp them

    but frankly the show is over…it’s been over
    it’s long over
    can we get past it g.d.?
    do you need to hold my hand?
    i think you cry all the tears for TW which you never cried for IOL…
    get a good cry on man and let it go

  2. G.D. October 23, 2008 at 11:14 am Reply


    1) read the post and get at me.

    2) you don’t know what you’re missing.

  3. ladyfresshh October 23, 2008 at 11:36 am Reply

    1 – don’t wanna read it it started off the wire and it was all a blur from there

    2 – nah i opted out like oz way back when, too depressing

  4. shani-o October 23, 2008 at 11:44 am Reply

    Well, I’m glad you finally wrote this! I didn’t hear your conversation with Nutter, and I think he makes an interesting point. With the majority of Americans living in or around cities, why can’t a candidate win an election by talking about urban issues? Urban issues are everyone’s issues.

  5. WestIndianArchie October 23, 2008 at 11:50 am Reply

    “you know i never watched the show ”

    ^^^kinda person that disses the album before they hear it

  6. Grump October 23, 2008 at 12:02 pm Reply

    I’m waiting for a candidate to win an election dealing with SUBurban issues.

  7. G.D. October 23, 2008 at 12:09 pm Reply

    LF: The post isn’t strictly about The Wire, per se.

    But if you’re so uninterested, just K.I.M.

  8. quadmoniker October 23, 2008 at 12:17 pm Reply

    You know what’s interesting to me about Nutter’s comment? He seems to trust that Obama cares about urban issues and is just not talking about them because he has to get elected. Why do people do that with Obama? They said he flipped on FISA to get elected. He supports clean coal and flipped a bit on offshore drilling just to get elected. I personally think some of his rhetoric on poverty hides his true beliefs, just because his true beliefs wouldn’t get him elected. Why do we do this? Why is he such a blank slate for what we want him to think? Or do his books make us think we know him better?

  9. shani-o October 23, 2008 at 12:17 pm Reply

    Grump: Like what?

  10. Christien October 23, 2008 at 12:23 pm Reply

    I wrote a column about this in the spring for my school newspaper, “I’m Here Because of Bubbles” ( I think there is hope in the Wire, if you look for it.

  11. G.D. October 23, 2008 at 12:24 pm Reply

    Grump: he hasn’t?

    qm: i agree with your point, that we’re projecting our wants onto him re: urban policy. But Obama’s background is in urban politics, which means that Nutter’s comment isn’t completely baseless. Still, I think that’s pretty much all we have to go on.

    His stance on drilling is a bit of a hedge: we’ll consider offshore drilling as part of our energy platform. He didn’t say they’d do it. It was a way to steal the thunder from McCain, who was consistently beating him on this issue, even though we all know offshore drilling is a crock of shit and won’t work.

    I think the FISA thing only mattered to the plugged-in, political junkie set. I remember how angry I was at his waffling there, and no one seemed to know what the hell I was talking about. If it’s calculating and cynical and no one notices, does it matter?

  12. Ike Moses October 23, 2008 at 12:25 pm Reply

    The Wire constructed institutions as more static than they are in life. Perhaps because this is how Simon really sees things, or maybe because it makes for better drama. But when “-30-” aired and we saw Michael become Omar, Dukie become Bubs, and Sydnor become McNulty (I can’t spoil an off-air show, can I?) it was less of a dialectical spiral and more of a completed cipher.

    Obama is definitely in danger of becoming a Carcetti, but he doesn’t need to revolutionize the presidency to give hope to America. He just needs to be slightly more dynamic than his predecessors.

  13. Grump October 23, 2008 at 12:35 pm Reply

    Suburban issues was more of a title than actually a defined policy

  14. G.D. October 23, 2008 at 12:36 pm Reply

    Ike: I feel you, but I’m not sure if those institutions in real life evolve or change in effect, even if they change in strategy. Por ejemplo: America’s public schools have remained crappy, even as every presidential administration/mayoralty brings sweeping overhauls in the way they do business. The desire for changing them is more political — a politician wants to put her/his imprimatur on an issue — more than it has to do with improving the way function.

    Also, there’s an irony in that the economic downturn has made an Obama presidency more likely and reduced the chances of it being a transformational one.

  15. Big Word October 23, 2008 at 12:38 pm Reply

    I think Obama’s plan to focus on growing the economy from the bottom up can do a lot to address inner city issues. It’s probably an oversimplification on my part but I think the main issues are simply educational and economic opportunites of the lack thereof in most inner city communities. For the last 30 years the inner city has been ignored.

  16. WestIndianArchie October 23, 2008 at 3:19 pm Reply

    I think y’all missed the point of Carcetti – one earnest person can’t change the system.

    Carcetti could not save Baltimore.
    Neither McNulty nor Colvin could fix the street.

    Is Obama facing that kind of world?

    One where institutions are not only broken, but ill conceived ideas that could never really address the problems they were meant to fix.

    Vouchers, Charter Schools, new computers, nice facilities – none of that would have helped Dukie.

  17. bitchphd October 23, 2008 at 4:08 pm Reply

    Don’t even listen to LF–I have yet to see the Wire. I think it will be on my radar next semester since I won’t be teaching again and the election will be over.

    Anyway, so my take on this post, having not seen the show, is that what you’re saying sounds to me like it would also apply to a certain segment of the progressive left–Obama supporters, but basically complete cynics about America, American government, elections, “the system,” all of it. For people like me, who aren’t that cynical, I would say that the Wire, as you describe it, is/sounds appealing–like political cynicism is appealing–because we know that *often* that is what happens: the reformers get corrupted, people get bitter, things fall apart. But that doesn’t mean that that’s necessarily *always* the case. For the cynics, Simon perhaps included, I would hypothtesize that they support Obama because basically that cynicism is founded on an idealism: what they’re bitter about is the failure of reality to live up to their ideals. But at the bottom, it’s the idealism that drives the cynicism, not the other way around.

  18. quadmoniker October 23, 2008 at 4:24 pm Reply

    Bitch Ph.D-
    You’re completely right. I wouldn’t have been able to put it that way, but that’s the key. There was an element of hope to the show, as grim as it was, even if it was a hope that would never be achieved.

  19. shani-o October 23, 2008 at 4:41 pm Reply

    Well, this is the first thread related to The Wire that I’ve been able to keep up with. I’ve never watched the show (and, honestly, don’t plan on watching it) but I find that the idealism/cynicism dichotomy is something that translates…

  20. Ike Moses October 23, 2008 at 6:36 pm Reply

    G.D.: Perhaps we’re too impatient with evolution, and perhaps I’m not acknowledging the subtle shifts in The Wire’s arc for the sake of argument. It’s hard for me to fathom an immobile human institution of any sort, however.

    “The more things change, the more things stay the same” holds true in the short term, but our stubborn nation has taken significant strides over the years. Whether these strides were in the right direction or not is up for debate, but the movement itself is harder to argue.

    But I agree on the irony of Obama’s situation. I think it would be healthy for us all to lower our expectations.

  21. […] and urban policy.  It’s particularly relevant because as G.D. and others noted in this thread, Obama’s background is in urban policy, but he hasn’t been talking about urban issues […]

  22. […] info By G.D. Categories: Barack Obama and Policy We wondered aloud what an Obama administration would mean for cities, and it looks like his administration will be […]

  23. […] encumbrance from the souls of black people and compel Negroes to “do better.” (At that Princeton lecture shani-o and I went to, a white guy asked Michael Nutter if Obama’s prominence would mean an improvement in the […]

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