Editor’s Note: The first guest blogger in our series “The Wire at Ten” is Carlo Rotella, noted scholar, public intellectual, playground point guard, and, not incidentally, Director of American Studies at Boston College. (Full disclosure: he was a couple years ahead of me in graduate school.) A regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine and an op-ed columnist for the Boston Globe, his latest book, published this fall, is Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories. “The Case Against Kojak Liberalism” is excerpted from his piece of the same name in the University of Michigan Press collection The Wire: Race, Class, and Genre, edited by Liam Kennedy and Stephen Shapiro (2012). Unlike last week’s commentator Joe Spillane, Carlo has actually watched The Wire.
In his commentary on the DVD version of episode one of the first season of The Wire, David Simon notes that it was Ed Burns who wrote Detective Carver’s line about why the war on drugs isn’t really a war: “Wars end.” Simon says that Burns is “entitled” to have written it after having fought in two losing wars, first as a soldier in Vietnam and then as a police officer in the war on drugs. The collapsing New Deal order spent much of its remaining force in these pyrrhic struggles. When I talked to some of the creators of the show in 2008, they were explicit about their interest in this historical and political big picture against which they set The Wire’s action.
When I asked Burns about the war on drugs he pointed out that Kurt Schmoke, the former mayor of Baltimore who turns up on The Wire in a minor role as a health commissioner, was “crucified for questioning the war on drugs.” Burns told me, “People are fed up with it. We wanted to make it permissible to talk about that. The police have become an army of occupation.” Simon added, “We wanted to highlight the fact that the drug war is actually destructive to law enforcement.”
For Dennis Lehane, the chance to address the big picture in politically “simpatico” company—which also included the novelists George Pelecanos and Richard Price—was part of the attraction of writing for The Wire. “I felt that a lot of 80s crime fiction was shit and it wasn’t about anything,” he told me. “It was, ‘Let’s have nine serial killers.’ I felt it has to be about something, some kind of social document. If there was a place where we all agreed, it was that the war on drugs was a farce, a de facto war on the poor that drove our incarceration rate through the roof.” In formulating their response to this disaster, the writers wished to steer clear of both the conventional anti-crime right and what they regarded as a weak, unappealing left. “I’m not a kneejerk liberal,” Lehane said. “I grew up in Boston under busing. We’re not Kojak liberals, and we’re not kneejerk liberals.”
Whatever kind of liberals they were, they were also professional tellers of crime stories. I want to outline how those two elements, an ideological disposition and a craft expertise in genre fiction, came together in The Wire. In the last third of the twentieth century, the war on crime and its subsidiary war on drugs claimed so much ideological real estate that it pushed dissenters to a margin occupied by bleeding hearts, stoners, libertarian cranks, and hairsplitting lawyers for the defense like The Wire’s own Maurice Levy. Urban liberals, especially, were squeezed into a tight corner by compulsory universal conscription in the war on crime.