The Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium is usually a tepid affair. Pundits recycle rhetoric, celebrities and politicians regurgitate talking points, and occasionally one of those television polemicists - Ann Coulter, Christopher Hitchens - comes along and says something "controversial." For the most part, there's much fanfare and little substance.
But Wednesday night's speech was different. In a rare instance of raw political honesty, writer, journalist and native Baltimorean David Simon confessed that he was having difficulty commenting on the Symposium's theme, "Renewing American Culture," because he was so much more focused on that culture's collapse.
Simon is neither pundit, politician nor celebrity. For 10 years he was a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, where he chronicled the deleterious bifurcation of Baltimore into a city of fractured, incoherent neighborhoods, a place where two distinct Americas long ago diverged.
He was witness to the ravages of Baltimore's flourishing drug trade, and the failures of a troubled police department and its failed war on drugs. He saw how the excesses of unfettered capitalism gradually devalued the lives of poor and middle-class Americans - once the consumer backbone of the nation's economy - depriving them of "the American dream," a promised ideal which has now become a myth.
He also looked us coldly in the eyes and told us what we had done ourselves. He indicted Hopkins for its tacit negligence in the deterioration of East Baltimore, where the Hospital has for years insulated itself from the impoverished neighborhoods around it, and where another pricey development project - the biotech park - is driving people from their homes.
Simon's most recent endeavor, HBO's The Wire, has been praised for its gritty realism and "narrative visual" style. The Wire tells a story of a fractured and chaotic city, where human lives have lost their worth and capitalism has overrun the working and middle classes. It chronicles political convenience and its estrangement from the truth; it tells us, as Simon said, that everything will not be "all right."
Hopkins students should take heed of these words and become observers of the city in which they live. Beyond the edges of this insulated college neighborhood - with its sprawling foliage and flourishing greens - lies a city infested with blight, riddled with boarded-up row houses and ravaged by a metastatic drug trade. Our city has fractured into clusters of affluence and blight, and it's deteriorating as we speak. David Simon asked us Wednesday night to take notice - hopefully we can do just that.