Friday, March 27, 2015

President Obama Interviews David Simon

A truly epic meeting has happened at the White House: President Obama interviewed David Simon, creator of the masterpiece series The Wire.

Yes, you read right, and you can see the entire interview below.

This interview is incredible on several levels. First, it is a strong testament to the power of a cultural piece in shaping discourse around big policy issues. If any television series is worthy of this honor, surely it is The Wire, which, through its depiction of the drug trade in Baltimore, has expanded America's perspective of the criminal justice system to the schools, the political system, and the media.

Second, this dialogue is truly wonderful to experience. As I write in Chapter 5 of Cheap on Crime, the Obama campaign was the first presidential campaign since Nixon's that did not feature crime control and punitivism as a central feature. I read this as a testament to the power of recession-era politics to reshape the political conversation. And the followup during the presidency has also been remarkable: no matter what you think about Obama's foreign or economic policy, it is his presidency that fostered the bipartisan initiative to deescalate federal punishment, as well as the Holder and Cole memos to refrain from intervention in marijuana enforcement in legal states. What this remarkable interview reveals are the complex motivations behind this change. In Cheap on Crime I argue that the recession created conditions under which politicians of all stripes can foster non punitive reforms without suffering electoral and public consequences; but even if that's what brings people to the table, it is only partly what fuels these changes. This interview is a combination of financial issues (particularly when Obama and Simon discuss the difficulty of young men with felonies to engage in the job market) and broader issues of dignity, like the ones Jonathan Simon covers in Mass Incarceration on Trial. To Obama, perhaps unsurprisingly, what is salient in this picture is boys growing up with absent fathers, or with fathers in prison, and he particularly mentions the fourth season of The Wire, which addresses the schools.

Third, which is poignant, is what Obama says toward the end of the interview: that perhaps the time has come to address the structural issues that lead to overincarceration in the first place. Is he referring to poverty? racism? social stratification? The time to address these differences through deep economic change is sorely overdue, but with a Republican congress any effort to make America more egalitarian and less stratified generates cries of "communism!" panic that echo the 1950s. I have no doubt that Obama and Holder have deeply understood and internalized the lessons of The Wire, but I can also see why translating these lessons to practical political gains in a complicated field of political struggle is a big challenge.

I applaud Obama and Simon for this remarkable conversation.

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