Monday, January 22, 2007

For "The Wire" fans...

David Mills interviews David Simon.


Dark Tyler said...


Alan, I remember in one of your reviews for The Wire, you were wondering whether a scene from Deadwood in the background was to be taken as a wink or as a dig. I think the answer lies in this interview's final three paragraphs. (although I do believe that Mr. Simon is reading The Shield in a way it was not meant to be read.)

I was not aware of the gangsta hip-hop community's misguided affection for the show. I guess the same thing happens whenever anyone attempts to lower a creation and try reshaping it to fit his own views, but still. How can you not see the tragedy behind Stringer Bell's existence. Damn.

Anyway, that was priceless, can't wait for the next installment(s). Thanks for the link.

Anna Laperle said...

Thanks for posting that link, Alan. David Simon always delivers.

JD said...

I would disagree that the final three paragraphs truly explain the "Deadwood" blip in that episode of "The Wire". Fact is, the final season of "Deadwood" argues the same view that Simon espouses--Bullock doesn't ride in and clean it up, Swearengen (the closest thing to Vic Mackey) doesn't prevail: Hearst, the institution, prevails and rides out of town merely nicked, leaving the town to be what it is. I can hardly believe Simon doesn't know that.

Dark Tyler said...

Heh, my use of english often fails me. jd, that's exactly what I meant. :)

Anonymous said...

The DoMaJe rendition of "Way Down in the Hole" reminded me of a project I had heard of a little while back. A teacher works with a rotating group of inner-city elementary school kids in Maryland who want to become rappers. The music posted at their MySpace website is wonderful and joyous. Has anyone else, or Mr. Simon, heard of them?

Dan Jardine said...

Interesting the verbal gymnastics we must put ourselves through to avoid being called a socialist these days. It's not cholera, people! It's a political philosophy, no more harmful to you than eating flax.

Anyhoo, interesting that Mr. Simon would hale capitalism as the best economic system for generating wealth. I mean, isn't that a big part of the problem with capitalism? It generates all sortsa wealth, but places it in the hands of very few, leaving most of the rest of us to scramble for the crumbs. And many of those end up on street corners selling drugs, cuz they wanna slice of that American Pie too, y'know?

I find it curious that Mr. Simon can present that so clearly in his writing for The Wire, yet be so shy about pointing it out in an interview.

Undercover Black Man said...

I might worry about being off-topic, but, hell... I am the topic!

Dan: So Simon isn't a Marxist ideologue. It doesn't mean he's a bad person.

Socialism is just an idea, huh? Can't hurt nobody? Tell it to the Cubans, the Romanians, the North Koreans, the Zimbabweans, or any past or current citizens of a Marxist-Leninist state.

Free markets make the world go round, dude. The profit motive brought into being the computer at your fingertips… and the harnessed electricity that makes it run. Have you noticed that China is emerging as a world economic superpower? It ain’t because of socialism, it’s because of freer markets.

Also, not coincidentally, free markets tend to go hand-in-hand with political and personal freedoms, while state control of the economy seems tied to centralized control of the politcal apparati and all manner of state repression of the individual.

Why on earth would you imagine that life would be better for the black folk of West Baltimore under socialism?

Dan Jardine said...

Because they'd at least have access to better education and health care systems, for one.

Anyways, you make a classic mistake of many who wade into these waters, so let me clarify: Socialism isn't Marxism.

Nor is what is practiced in the countries you mention (outside of perhaps Cuba, which is about as close to a Marxist state as you'll find in those examples. And I'd argue that most Cubans are better off now than they ever were under the free enterprise state of Batista et. al. ) socialist or Marxist. They are totalitarian dictatorships that are ruled by potentates, not principles.

As for the conjunction of democracy and free markets, there's nothing "free" about a so-called free market that allows rich and powerful people to make all of the rules. I hate to break it to you, but the laws in politics and the marketplace are not created democratically in America. Rich white men make the laws (just take a look at who sits in Congress), control all of the mass media outlets and control the vast majority of wealth in America. The deck is stacked against anyone who is not born into a position of privilege. I'm not saying you can't make a difference if you aren't born rich and white in American, but I am saying that the odds are stacked decidedly against you.

So tell me, how exactly is that an example of freedom and democracy in action?

Undercover Black Man said...

Dan: Let's continue this discussion in a college dorm room with a twelve-pack and a pizza.

Dan Jardine said...

I'm too old for that. But the beer sounds good.

Ben Livant said...

Tell you what fellas, enjoy those beers 'cause I'm in it for the pizza.

Undercover is right to call Dan on his treatment of ideology as purely theoretical. But why, then, does Undercover so promptly retire from the discussion and suggest that it should only be continued as nothing more than an academic exercise? Admittedly, political debates do become heated very quickly and can just as quickly degrade into mud slinging. But the spirit of Dan's initial inquiry should not be dismissed out of hand. His reference to "philosophy" is, it seems to me, simply a challenge for us not to be afraid of ideas as such and the free political speech necessary to generate them. It is precisely because the practical ramifications of political discourse are so serious that we cannot leave the investigation of this "philosophy" to professional dictators and/or college kids.

Returning to the topic - Undercover are you the topic? I thought the topic here was the David Mills interview of David Simon - Dan says the Mills engages in "verbal gymnastics" to avoid being branded as a socialist. Say what? In response to a direct question about this, Simon clearly positions himself as social democrat who believes that economic production must be based on capitalist profit and political justice must attend to the subsequent redistribution of wealth. Dan is quite right that it is not requisite to be Marxist in order to be socialist, but Simon is plainly not any sort of socialist.

So what is it about The Wire that prompts Mills to ask Simon point blank if he is a socialist of some sort? Simon immediately answers this question for us when he, in effect, equates a socialist orientation with a Marxist point of view. He rejects class warfare. Like all social democrats he does so be implicitly regarding class struggle as exclusively a subjective matter, as something that is determined though individual choice, albeit, of many people, like marching into battle. He's having none of it, so it's not happening. Meanwhile, the Marxist position is that class stuggle has this subjective side, to be sure, but at the same time it has an objective dimension which conditions the movements of individuals in social structures. Simon explicitly addresses these conditioning structures in terms of "institutions" and it these that he would re-jig on behalf of a "social framework" that promotes redistributive justice.

Personally, I have deep reservations about the realism of social democracy to achieve capitalism with a human face, (to play on the ambition of the Czech reformers of the 60s who wanted their statist command economy to take on this profile). What is more, it seems to me that The Wire is itself a case in point with respect to the limitations of Simon's own stance. Simon may be ideologically confident in his social democracy but what makes The Wire throb with drama? Yes, the isolated and desperate efforts of individuals in institutional settings to make those circustances work for them somehow or somehow escape those circumstances entirely. Yet, simulaneously - the concrete substance within this abstract generality - class struggles. These may not be consciously pursued as such or if they are, they may be so indirectly; i.e., secondarily experienced as competition between ostensibly equal players fighting for market share, political authority, military supremacy, etc. It's not as if Stringer Bell was studying The Communist Manifesto before he got wacked. The point is that many of these contests for upward mobility and power positioning are derivative manifestations of contradictions between those who own property and manage investment and boss labour and those who have nothing to sell in the so-called free market other than their power to work.

Perhaps the most engaging feature of The Wire is that these contradictions are fundamental enough to transcend the split between legal-legitimate and illegal-illegitimate political economic activity. This is deeper than corny morality that recognizes some "bad cops" and some "good criminals," as Simon himself discusses. But what Simon himself does not recognize is that the excellent dramatic realism and gripping aesthetic intensity of The Wire comes from the objective status of class struggle up in his storylines and his characters. It's not just, as he implictly proposes, that people are complex and institutions existentially dehumanizing. In short, Simon rejects class warfare but class warfare is, at least significantly in part, what The Wire is all about.

Then - Ben

Anonymous said...

I am what I am and I said what I am.

Y'all keep going round in circles on the terminology and then, when what I'm saying doesn't fit your established definitions, you suggest I don't know what I'm saying or addressing myself to.

Let's avoid labels here.

Capitalism is the only game in town. It's inevitability and innate power to create wealth are unmatched. There is no going back on it for anyone.

If capitalism -- unencumbered or unadjusted by humanistic or communal impulses -- is allowed to trump every other moral construct, then our society will become an ever more stratified and brutish place. That is happening. More and more, America resembles the world of The Wire, in my eyes at least.

Class warfare is a nice ideological call-to-arms. But it ain't happening. The underclass has been narcotized, the political infrastrucure has been bought by monied interests and civil liberties and dissent themselves have been confined and reduced by a post-9/11 priority on state security. (Class warrior, welcome to Gitmo!)

The American republic, such as it is, was at its most powerful when, beginning with one Roosevelt's trust-busting and another's insistence on taking responsibility for the most vulnerable classes, we acknowledged that capitalism itself, and profit itself were no substitute for our national responsibility to each other. All of us, to each other. That's not foolish sentiment and it's certainly not the stuff of ideological labels.

So I'm sorry if I'm not sufficiently socialist or sufficiently free-market. But in 1932, I would've voted for FDR and I would have believed that the New Deal was exactly that. And for one part of America, things are great. And for the other, things are 1932. And the people in the middle -- the consumer class that once created the most vibrant and affluent society in the world -- are under great pressure due to globalization, the decline of labor, and the cult of the CEO. We no longer believe that we all share the same fate. It's now a race to see which few of us will be minted-new millionaires living in gated communities and remarking sadly on how it's not even safe to drive into the city anymore.

Social democrat is what I meant. And I know what the Wire is about. It's about the world as it is and in many respects, the world to come. And the only class warfare driving it is a vague sentiment; an idea and a moment that is never going to arrive.

Ben Livant said...

Anonymous indicates that we have been going round in circles here with our terminology and labels. He also speaks in the first person as if Simon's words in the Mills interview were his own. It's almost impossible to engage with such a response because it simultaneously trashes the conversation thus far and hints at being the authoritative
representation of Simon's position. Even so, on behalf of my own contribution here...

Anonymous seems to think that I think Simon is advancing the cause of the communist revolution without knowing it. This would be utter twaddle on my part, of course, and I meant nothing of the kind. All I did was propose that The Wire lends itself to class analysis - which I spoke of perhaps confusingly in terms of class struggle objectively understood - and further, that such analysis provides solid grounds for appreciating the realism and drama of the program.

Of course, in order to accept that this might possibly be correct or at least valid, it is first necessary to adhere to the notion that class stuggles do, in fact, have an objective dimension when it comes down to concrete, particular persons. This means that class struggles are not only organized mass movements engaged in conscious battle for state power to direct macroeconomic processes, but rather that they occur for individuals too in all sorts of relatively personal socioeconomic conflicts.

Not only "class warfare" but also class struggle at the level of micro-contradictions is generally dismissed outright by social democratic ideology. Insofar as Simon falls into this tendency, I suggested that there might be things going on in his art behind his back. I did not, however, suggest that Simon doesn't know what he is talking about in his interview with Mills. Quite the contrary. I said Simon clearly positions himself ideologically in response to a direct ideological question. How Anonymous failed to notice this difference is for Anonymous to reconsider.

Having sorted this out, shall we not resume the discussion? Anonymous is dogmatic about the inevitability of the hard-hearted status quo, on the one hand but on the other, longing for warm-hearted relief. Meanwhile, the system grinds on and us in the process. Specifically, Anonymous expresses anguish about the degredation of the American polity. I too respect FDR and the New Deal as positively noble compared to the increasingly fascist direction the USA is taking today. But we need also to locate the golden age of American prosperity and democracy in a larger historical and global setting. Much of that wonderful development was predicated on imperialism, both at home and abroad, and the present period is revealing the rendering of the domestic republic to the level of the world as a whole according to the rationale of capital. In short, US foreign policy isn't just for foreigners anymore and if The Wire is to be taken seriously, the Third World is in Baltimore. Like Anonymous, I too despair at this but unlike Anonymous I do not see how it should encourage us to think less and not more about class struggle.

Then - Ben

Dan Jardine said...

In summary:

1. Ben: We are engaged in class warfare.

2. Anonymous (Simon?): Mebbe. But we're too narcotized to notice or care.

3. Ben: Doesn't mean we give up on the idea.

Anonymous said...

Agree with that summation.

I thought I effectively signed the piece when I entered simon in the password box, but that was apparently overridden when I chose "anonymous" instead of "blogger" (nope) or "other" (?!?). Sorry, my bad.

In any event, I reacted to the suggestion -- if it was not so, my further apologies -- that I was tepid about declaring myself a socialist. Fellas, I'm not tepid about calling myself any kinda name if the shoe fits. Socialist doesn't quite do it.

I accept capitalism as the inevitable economic paradigm. I do not believe a state-run economic system practical. But I want my political infrastructure to be resolved to then redistribute some measured portion of the wealth, opportunity and future created by capitalism to the more vulnerable strata of my society. No trickle-down bullshit. I want the thing to flow and to do so by democratic consensus. New Deals and Great Societies and that all that which addressed not just pure profit but the better angels of our collective nature, which I happen to believe in and which The Wire -- for all its anger at the indifference and greed of the institutional political and economic culture -- implies in its depiction of individuals. The phrase "class struggle" suggests to me a proletarian rush to the barricades, but maybe that's just me. I think there are many like-minded Americans of the upper-middle classes and even upper class who would like to see more of their countrymen pulled from the margins to share in the nation's economic and political future. That's not so much struggle as it is voting the right way and for the right things and abandoning raw capitalism, which has been our prevailing god since Mr. Reagan so glibly mocked our best communal instincts by declaring, "We fought a war against poverty and poverty won."

Funny man. Funny line. But we should still be at war -- not with each other in some sort of revolutionary classist way, but with our own selfish impulses.

Sounds like a social democrat to me. Or call it whatever you want. It's what I think and I told DM pretty much that.

David Simon (Anonymous)
Baltimore, Md.

Ben Livant said...

Flattered to make your aquaintance Mr. Simon. For what it is worth, Deadwood and The Wire are pretty much the only television programming I have watched since Get Smart. They were thrust upon me by Mr. Jardine, also dropping in here, who has been at pains to make me realize that there are things worth viewing besides the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. In case you missed the opinion underscoring everything I have said here, let me make it plain that I believe The Wire is an excellent program in many ways, both thematically and stylistically. So I signal my respect for your accomplishment. Sincerely, thank you for the intelligent writing.

I hope that I have been lucid enough thus far for you to notice that I have consistently acknowledged your declared position as not socialist. Fine. So this is well established here. Now, as much as I would find it worthwhile to debate your conception of my democratic socialism and my conception of your social democracy - a square dance to decide between supplementary adjectives and principle nouns - you might have better things to do... and I am fearful of boring you away.
Also, I hope that you will indulge me as I return to the question I asked a couple of postings ago.

What is it about The Wire that prompts Mills to ask Simon point blank if he is a socialist of some sort? I tried to provide an answer to this question from a class analytical perspective. I fear my exposition was muddled and misleading. It would appear that some if not most of the confusion arose from my inconsistent and probably idiosyncratic usage of the terms "warfare" and "struggle." So let us set these aside at this point. Meanwhile, what about "class?" Mr. Simon, am I imposing the facts of class on The Wire from without or are they there to be unpacked from within? If the latter is the case, as I am betting, how are we to interpret these facts?

Am I really supposed to come away from watching your drama thinking that the root problem is a few too many corrupt public officials, a few too many overly rapacious entrepreneurs and way too many marginalized souls unwilling and/or unable to take responsibility for themselves? Granted, The Wire does not present a socialist critique that explicitly includes economic structures, but all the institutions it examines are found wanting and then some. And all of these broken institutions are shown to be not merely connected but collectively undermining each other. Perhaps I am indeed reading too much into it when I tell you that for this member of the audience, The Wire goes beyond condemning bad government, beyond pointing to a redistributive failure, beyond concern that some measured portion of wealth is not reaching the most vulnerable strata of society. Is it just me or is the society as a whole on the brink of collapse in your show? I am not suggesting that The Wire promotes nihilism. Rather, I am proposing that the social contradictions you depict in The Wire constitue a systemic critique when taken together and furthermore, it seems to me that much of the substance of this critique hinges on class.

Let me go at this from another angle, shoot from the hip. I already noted that Stinger Bell was never shown reading The Communist Manifesto. Am I now to understand that had he been allowed to live, he would have eventually voted for a Democrat, one who remembers FDR fondly and Reagan with contempt, one who would have put the appropriate extra-market mechanisms in place for the likes of Stringer Bell to channel funds to the wretched of Baltimore's earth, one who would have made a difference?

Then - Ben

Undercover Black Man said...

Ben asked: "What is it about The Wire that prompts Mills to ask Simon point blank if he is a socialist of some sort?"

Let me (David Mills) jump back in to address this quickly. I asked not based on the text of "The Wire," but based on comments Simon made in an HBO podcast interview from last October. It's available for download here and on iTunes (for free).

It's a 37-minute interview that Ben and Dan would surely enjoy listening to. You'll see why I asked David Simon for amplification when you check it out.

The back-and-forth here has been more interesting than I would've guessed when I ducked the discussion. (Not that I've pondered these big questions as deeply as Simon, Dan and Ben have in the first place.)

Anonymous said...

Yes. You are correct. The wire is decidedly about class and the economic and political stratification of our culture. It is primarily diagnostic, rather than prescriptive in tone, with a few exceptions (Hamsterdam being the most notable.)

It is not so much about the effect of individuals on the society, but society's affect on the individual. All the characters struggle individually against the forces arrayed against them, but there is nothing to imply that concerted class struggle or warfare are in any way a likely to emerge as a counter-force of much consequence.

I am not sure that Stringer had the opportunity to vote in any event. In Maryland, his criminal history may have disenfranchised him. But I would think him more a free-market libertarian, indifferent to the marginalization of others and duly worshipful of the effect that say, mass layoffs can have on the price-per-share. I see a fellow whose vote is wasted in a blue state.

Sobotka votes the Democratic line. Cutty can't vote. Corbin and McNulty no longer believe it matters. Kima and Cheryl stopped voting years ago, realizing that their votes were just canceling each other out, with Kima showing a cop-like conservative streak that pisses Cheryl off. Maybe now that they've split one or the other will slip off to the polls. Bunk meant to vote for whoever his wife tells him to but he got hurt with Glen Livet the night before and slept the morning away, then had to work a four-to-twelve. Clay Davis voted three or four times in the primary at least, depending on how many times he got paid. And Freamon -- he dutifully reads the candidate positions and casts votes thoughtfully and with some residual sense of civic purpose, except of course in presidential elections when he realizes that unless he actually lives in Ohio or Florida, his role in the American democracy actually does not matter. On those quadrennial Tuesdays, he works on his dollhouse miniatures.

All best,


Ben Livant said...

I'm fucked. "You are correct." What the hell am I supposed to do with that? "The Wire is decidedly about class and the economic and political stratification of our culture." Like that leaves me a lot of argumentative options. No, no Mr. Simon you are wrong. The Wire is really about the stars and pink elephants we all see when we rub our eyes too hard. And these visions are mankind's hope for the future because they are messages transmitted to us by aliens with even more intelligence than we have. THAT is what The Wire is truly giving the viewing public. Oh yeah, another thing, McNulty is not Mr. Null 'n' Void about voting like you said he was. The man still loves his kids and he's off the bottle, so he's down with the Dems in the guise of the Working Families ticket. What are you thinking? That you, yourself, personally write the show or something?

Alas, it looks like we have gone about as far as we can go, this time at least. I will take the advice of Mr. Mills and check out the 37 minute interview that originated this discussion. After this, it will perhaps be possible for me to tease you gentlemen out of the woodwork for further conversation, debate even. I am not confident that I have pondered the big questions to the degree attributed to me by Mr. Mills. Nevertheless, I will try to impose upon Mr. Simon a dash of collective ownership of the means of production and a splash of worker's self-management to cook up with his main course of capitalism. This I would attempt in response to his pronounced aversion to all of us having to eat capitalism "raw."

As a fan of The Wire looking forward to Season Five, I thank you for engaging with me here, a genuinely social-democratic gesture on your part and a bit of a thrill on mine.

Then - Ben

Dan Jardine said...

In summary:

Mr. Simon: I am not, nor have I ever been a communist.

Ben: I have. Am. Fuck.

We really MUST do this more often, gentlemen.