Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Wire and History and Real Thugs - Part 5

Sudhir Venkatesh is back with another segment of What Do Real Thugs Think of The Wire - Part 5.

Venkatesh is a Sociologist at Columbia and the author of Gang Leader for a Day, which explores the Chicago drug trade and gang life. It's gotten great reviews and I look forward to reading it. He has also written several other books on the economics of the urban underclass and the ghetto in general. You can read a few articles he has written at his Columbia faculty site.

Another interesting article that I've come across is Joseph Spillane's "The Making of an Underground Market: Drug Selling in Chicago, 1900-1940" in The Journal of Social History Vol. 32, No. 1. (Autumn, 1998), pp. 27-47. Spillane's article is mostly narrative, but it shocks because of the similar terminology and situations as in today's drug war.Interestingly and perhaps true of Baltimore as well (the great grandfather of Bubbles?): "By 1908, the phrase 'as crazy as a West Side dope fiend' had entered the lexicon of city residents" (1). Also in 1908, the Chicago chief of police vocally made a complaint that many a police chief of today's drug war has uttered under their breath: "'we can drive out every occupant of the 22nd street district in forty-eight hours. But do you want us to drive them into the lake as has been suggested? Do you want them driven to the resident districts? What do you want done with them? Isn't it better to keep them corralled in one spot with their names and histories tabulated?'" The parallels with season 3's Hamsterdam are obvious.

The Wire treats history in an interesting fashion. The action itself is certainly in the present without the use of flashbacks, but there is a glorification or nostalgia for the past. A pantheon of drug dealers from the seventies and eighties are often invoked by Prop Joe in Season Three for their ability to make drug-dealing into "just business", without the murder, guns, and games that come with its current incarnation. Of course, the attempt by Stringer to go back to this idealized past ultimately dooms him.

This same theme is played out in Season Two by Frank Sebotka. He felt he was breaking the law for all the right reasons to preserve the stevedore/working class future for his family. Of course, he doesn't save the dying occupation.

Simon has set up a world where institutions obliterate individual agency, but it is also a world constantly becoming worse. A sort of declension theory ("decline of the American Empire"). But Simon seems to tie this decline to more recent phenomena. The war on drugs, the weakening of the working class, the failure of inner city education and resegregation of schools, and mass media's transformation all become fodder for Simon, but as Spillane points out, these same battles have been fought in inner cities for well over 100 years.

For the past 4000 years, every old guy thought "it really used to be better in the good ole days" or.. "simpler" (conversation repeated 38 times daily at Colonial Williamsburg: "boy, they really knew what was important back then" "yep, it was a simpler time"). Often, it ain't quite like you imagine it (conspicuous lack of horse manure and raw sewage in the streets of CW?).

...a few more thoughts on this for a later time.

(1) Spillane, "The Making of an Underground Market: Drug Selling in Chicago, 1900-1940," Jo. of Soc. Hist. Vol. 32, No. 1. (Autumn, 1998), 29.

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