Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Origin and Uses of David Simon's Anger

My buddy and fellow Wire addict Tim directs us to a piece in The Atlantic about David Simon, the show's creator. In it, noted journalist Mark Bowden, who loves the series, argues that Simon's personal anger at how he was treated earlier in his career by the Baltimore Sun has driven him to create "his own Baltimore." It's a piece worth reading, but I think it ultimately fails. Bowden writes about Simon's grudge against William Marimow and John Carroll, two newspaper guys who he felt gutted the Sun's reportorial talent. Bowden says:
Declining circulation means declining advertising, which means declining revenues, so corporate managers face a tougher and tougher challenge maintaining the high profit margins that attracted investors 30 years ago. These are just facts, and different people and organizations have handled them with different measures of grace and understanding.

But to Simon, this complex process became personal, boiling down to corporate greed and the "soullessness" of Marimow and Carroll. It's an honest opinion, but arguably unfair, flavored by personal bitterness and animosity.
I get that. I'm all for complexity, and for changing business environments that then change facts on the ground. But Bowden says it's "arguably unfair," and he never really makes the convincing argument. Surely, as Bowden would be the first to admit, the five seasons of The Wire represent a hell of a lot more than a personal grudge against a couple of bad guys at work. And what Simon's angry about might be the result of perfectly understandable forces, but that doesn't mean it's not worth getting angry about. Understanding something doesn't always mean making peace with it. But Simon's better equipped to discuss this. He actually stopped by another Atlantic blog, run by Matthew Yglesias, and left a comment. Here's the bulk of it:
The Wire is dissent; it argues that our systems are no longer viable for the greater good of the most, that America is no longer operating as a utilitarian and democratic experiment. If you are not comfortable with that notion, you won't agree with some of the tonalities of the show. I would argue that people comfortable with the economic and political trends in the United States right now -- and thinking that the nation and its institutions are equipped to respond meaningfully to the problems depicted with some care and accuracy on The Wire (we reported each season fresh, we did not write solely from memory) -- well, perhaps they're playing with the tuning knobs when the back of the appliance is in flames.

Does that mean The Wire is without humanist affection for its characters? Or that it doesn't admire characters who act in a selfless or benign fashion? Camus rightly argues that to commit to a just cause against overwhelming odds is absurd. He further argues that not to commit is equally absurd. Only one choice, however, offers the slightest chance for dignity. And dignity matters.

All that said, I am the product of a C-average GPA and a general studies degree from a state university and thirteen years of careful reporting about one rustbelt city. Hell do I know. Maybe my head is up my ass.

If The Wire is too pessimistic about the future of the American empire -- and I've read my Toynbee and Chomsky, so I actually think a darker vision could be credibly argued -- no one will be more pleased than me as I am, well, American.


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