In today's column, David Brooks looks at troubled urban enclaves like Freddie Gray's Baltimore and, naturally, blames the residents' failures to learn self-discipline:
The problem is not lack of attention, and it’s not mainly lack of money. Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded....
Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it. What’s needed is a phase shift in how we think about poverty.... the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.
That was predictable, and if that were the worst thing about the column, it would be just another day at the office for Brooks. What's worse is that Brooks drags in David Simon, creator of The Wire, as a witness on his behalf, even though Simon's words don't in any way buttress Brooks's argument, as is obvious to anyone who can read.
In a fantastic interview that David Simon of “The Wire” gave to Bill Keller for The Marshall Project, he describes that, even in poorest Baltimore, there once were informal rules of behavior governing how cops interacted with citizens -- when they’d drag them in and when they wouldn’t, what curse words you could say to a cop and what you couldn’t. But then the code dissolved. The informal guardrails of life were gone, and all was arbitrary harshness.
That’s happened across many social spheres -- in schools, families and among neighbors. Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted. It is phenomenally hard for young people in such circumstances to guide themselves.
But in the interview, Simon doesn't say that the disappearance of well-crafted "informal guardrails" has left poor Baltimoreans incapable of self-guidance. What Simon says is that the rules for interactions with cops were absurd in the past, although they were knowable:
A humble is a cheap, inconsequential arrest that nonetheless gives the guy a night or two in jail before he sees a court commissioner. You can arrest people on “failure to obey,” it’s a humble. Loitering is a humble. These things were used by police officers going back to the ‘60s in Baltimore. It’s the ultimate recourse for a cop who doesn't like somebody who's looking at him the wrong way. And yet, back in the day, there was, I think, more of a code to it. If you were on a corner, you knew certain things would catch you a humble. The code was really ornate, and I’m not suggesting in any way that the code was always justifiable in any sense, but there was a code.
Brooks wants you to regard the old rules as benign and nurturing. According to Simon, the rules might have been codified and everyone might have known the code, but the code was preposterous:
In some districts, if you called a Baltimore cop a motherfucker in the 80s and even earlier, that was not generally a reason to go to jail. If the cop came up to clear your corner and you're moving off the corner, and out of the side of your mouth you call him a motherfucker, you're not necessarily going to jail if that cop knows his business and played according to code. Everyone gets called a motherfucker, that’s within the realm of general complaint. But the word “asshole” -- that’s how ornate the code was -- asshole had a personal connotation. You call a cop an asshole, you're going hard into the wagon in Baltimore.
And Simon doesn't even claim to know for certain whether these absurd rules still apply:
At least it used to be that way. Who knows if those gradations or nuances have survived the cumulative brutalities of the drug war. I actually don’t know if anything resembling a code even exists now.
(Before we proceed, let's recall how Brooks describes what's happening now: "Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted." Does the old system that Simon describes seem to you like a set of "norms that middle-class people take for granted"?)
What's happening now, according to Simon, is not a lack of guidance. What's happening is total war:
For example, you look at the people that Baltimore was beating down in that list in that story the Sun published last year about municipal payouts for police brutality, and it shows no discernable or coherent pattern. There's no code at all, it’s just, what side of the bed did I get up on this morning and who looked at me first? And that is a function of people failing to learn how to police. When you are beating on 15-year-old kids and elderly retirees -- and you aren’t even managing to put even plausible misdemeanor charges on some arrestees, you’ve lost all professional ethos.
Allow me to quote the Sun story again:
Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson. Those cases detail a frightful human toll. Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones -- jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles -- head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement....
That's not a lack of "guardrails." It's not "harshness." It's armed occupation. It's sadism and brutality. And it wasn't benign in the past. It was just less awful. Why can't Brooks read Simon's words and grasp what they actually mean?
Crossposted at No More Mr. Nice Blog