I thoroughly enjoyed the HBO series “The Wire”. Creator/producer David Simon portrayed it as a complicated metaphor for the state of America- in some of the DVD commentary he apparently explains that some scene involving police surveillance of drug dealers in a housing project is about the futility of military strategy in Baghdad, or something like that- but not hearing the liberal dogwhistles, I never got that. It can be enjoyed on different levels. It’s a cop show. It’s about middle-aged alcoholics. It’s about bureaucracy in the workplace. What it’s really about is people getting lost in systems that don’t care about them, that grind them up no matter what they do- cops, dock workers, drug dealers, teachers, reporters, lawyers, and minor politicians. Only a few top-level crime figures seem to be making things work for them.
Even while the earnest liberalism of “The Wire” is easy to ignore, it’s hard to miss. Earnest liberalism permeates American society, left and “right”. A couple of writers have made the connection that a long, serialized, socially conscious drama bringing together people from all levels of society isn’t a bold new innovation, but something that has been done before, long ago– a Victorian novel of the sort published in serial form by Charles Dickens and others. They have advanced the premise that the television series was actually based on an old Victorian novel of the same title, by the brilliant but obscure novelist Horatio Bucklesby Ogden.
Personally I find the idea of Bunk and McNulty as topcoated Victorian detectives carrying on a monosyllabic conversation- one composed of the nuanced exchange of one obscene word- hilarious. But the connection is clear. Earnest liberalism is a Victorian invention, and so deeply ingrained in our world we don’t even know what it is. The Democrats have one version, and Republicans and mainstream “conservatives” have a slightly different one. Earnest liberals look at things and are shocked and appalled. There’s no shortage of things to be shocked and appalled about, or course, but earnest liberals want to fix them. Democrats want to fix education by spending more money; Republicans want to fix education by testing students and firing bad teachers. As much as these two factions loathe each other, they share the assumption that education can be fixed. That most people are stupid, whites not excepted, most people don’t want to learn any more academically than is absolutely to get by, and that most people, whites not excepted, actually despise educational achievement goes unsaid.
Empirical realism is the foundation of not just any kind of effective action, but of sanity itself. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to fix things, as long as the thing can be fixed, you know what it is you’re fixing, you know what’s broken, you know when you’re done and can tell in some way if it is fixed or not.