"The Wire was not a story about America, it's about the America that got left behind" / A talk with David Simon
Are the “places in our cities where most people fear to tread” also places where it is possible to find “ground to stand on”, “indomitable will” and nobility? Is it possible to re-wire and so redeem these abandoned and fractured communities?
“At best, our metropolises are the ultimate aspiration of community, the repository for every myth and hope of people clinging to the side of the pyramid that is capitalism. At worst, our cities—or those places in our cities where most of us fear to tread—are vessels for the darkest contradictions and most brutal competitions that underlie the way we actually live together, or fail to live together”.
“I was stunned... An affirmation of my presence in the world that would hold me up and give me ground to stand on… I saw behind the seeming despair and emptiness of their lives a force of life, and an indomitable will that linked to their historical precedents became noble in a place where nobility wasn’t supposed to exist”
Most of what is talked about in the interview is not brand new, but it reminded me of some of the comments in our conversation on the "black creative class" that sought to 1) acknowledge the creative power of the black lower class and 2) find ways to engage all economic classes in the black community in order to bridge the gaps.
Another question that arose in mind is the role of art within these points.
The Wire has been called "social science-fiction". Does the role of art extend beyond that of reflector and/or commentator or does the responsibility then transfer to the audience? I tend to think that it's a shared role that oscillates back and forth between creation, commentary, analysis and action. With that said, that oscillation is sometimes easier said than done.
Below is the excerpt from the 2009 interview Bill Moyers conducted with Simon. The interview re-iterates some of the main elements that made The Wire such a valuable, illuminating drama in our time. And it's also timely considering all the happenings in Washington (and other states) right now surrounding budget reform, labor and class:
Simon: "The drug war is war on the underclass now. That’s all it is. It has no other meaning.
"You know, a guy coming out of addiction at thirty, thirty-five, because it often takes to that age, he often got into addiction with a string of problems, some of which were interpersonal and personal, and some of which were systemic. These really are the excess people in America. Our economy doesn’t need them—we don’t need 10 or 15 percent of our population. And certainly the ones who are undereducated, who have been ill-served by the inner-city school system, who have been unprepared for the technocracy of the modern economy, we pretend to need them. We pretend to educate the kids. We pretend that we’re actually including them in the American ideal, but we’re not. And they’re not foolish. They get it. They understand that the only viable economic base in their neighborhoods is this multibillion-dollar drug trade.[...]
"One of the themes of The Wire really was that statistics will always lie. Statistics can be made to say anything. You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America: school test scores, crime stats, arrest reports, anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on, and as soon as you invent that statistical category, fifty people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is.[...]
"Certainly the underclass. There’s a reason they are the underclass. We’re in an era when you don’t need as much mass labor; we are not a manufacturing base. People who built stuff, their lives had some meaning and value because the factories were open. You don’t need them anymore. Unions and working people are completely abandoned by this economic culture, and, you know, that’s heartbreaking to me. I’ve been a union member my whole life and I guess I belong to a little gilded union now. A gilded guild.[...]"
Moyers: "So is this what you mean when you say The Wire is dissent?"
Simon: "Yes. It is dissent. It is saying, “We no longer buy these false ideologies. And the false motifs you have of American life.” I look at this and I think to myself, if only you stand up and say, “I’m not going to be lied to anymore,” that’s a victory on some level, that’s a beginning of a dynamic. Can change happen? Yes. But things have to get a lot worse."
Video: David Simon on Bill Moyers Journal, 2009
Related: Baltimore police commissioner criticizes The Wire and David Simon responds