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.
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.
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?
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. 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 (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?)
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.
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.
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 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.
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. 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. 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. 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 Baltimores 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. 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.
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? 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? 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? 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? 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 city’s legitimate economy does not? Is it possible to speak well of Baltimore, sincerely, while allowing certain truths to stand?
Not yet, apparently. And for some folks, maybe never.