Monday, January 22, 2007

Q&A: David Simon (pt. 1)

I’ve known David Simon for 26 years, going back to our college newspaper days at the University of Maryland. Now he’s one of the best writers in television.

Simon was just in Los Angeles, where he collected an AFI Award for “The Wire.” He’s gearing up for the fifth and farewell season of that HBO hit, and more awards will surely rain down on him before all is said and done.

I’ve never had a deep discussion with Simon about politics, though he’s always been on the Left and I’ve lately slid towards the Right. Being that “The Wire” is as much political treatise as urban drama, I figured it’d be cool to hang with Simon in his Santa Monica hotel room with my tape recorder running.
DAVID MILLS: I heard your HBO podcast, where you pretty much say you believe in class warfare and soaking the rich. Are you a socialist?

DAVID SIMON: No, I’m a social democrat. I believe in capitalism as the only viable motivating force to create wealth. But I believe that there have to be certain social frameworks that allow for a distribution of a share of that wealth throughout the classes. …

That is not to say that I think they should get an equal share. Or “to each according to his needs.” The impulse towards Marxism is not there. But I do believe that raw, unencumbered capitalism, absent any social framework, absent any sense of community, without regard to the weakest and most vulnerable classes in society – it’s a recipe for needless pain, needless human waste, needless tragedy, and ultimately a coarsening of our society.

MILLS: Okay. Let’s apply that to the fourth season of “The Wire.” You might have seen, I mixed it up on the discussion boards at Slate –

SIMON: I did.

MILLS: And there’s a hip-hop blogger named Byron Crawford, and at the end of the season he wrote a piece. Listen to what he said: “Kids like Namond and his peers can’t cut it education-wise because their ignorant-ass parents could care less whether or not they do well in school. Not because they’re naturally dumb or because the school needs new computers or whatever.” He put it on the parents. He got 217 comments.

SIMON: He did his job, didn’t he? (laughs)

MILLS: Yeah. And one black teacher said, “Racism isn’t the reason Tyrone can’t read. The achievement gap exists because black parents don’t support/reinforce learning in the household.”

Some people, when I commented on Slate, resented the introduction of the concept of personal responsibility into a discussion of “The Wire.”

SIMON: That’s as fucked up as accepting capitalism as the ultimate arbiter of morality. Listen, I always use this quote – it might be Churchill but I can’t remember: “The sign of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two seemingly opposing ideas at the same time.” “The Wire” Season Four presented both elements.

It presented a city and a society that really had no use for the class of African Americans in West Baltimore that they were pretending to educate. They were pretending to educate them for the society, and the kids on some level were pretending to be educated, but ultimately they were being trained to be cannon fodder for the corner. So we depicted a society that was quite cynical in its pretensions to equality of opportunity. I think that’s fair.

If you look at the themes of “The Wire” going back through all seasons, there’s been an argument that the triumph of capitalism is the creation of wealth and the diminution of labor. The corner boys are more and more expendable; the cops who know their business are more and more expendable; the longshoremen are more and more expendable; the East European and Russian prostitutes who are coming in in boxes – Every day, human beings are worth less. That is the triumph of capital. … The more we become post-industrial, the fewer we need. Every minute, human beings are worth less.

However, that people are often complicit in degrading themselves is also in “The Wire” at points. And in this very key season where we were looking at these kids, we were very careful to include the parenting. With the exception of Randy’s foster mom – and telling you it’s a foster mom – and ultimately Colvin and his wife, taking their empty nest and making a place for Namond, the parenting is abysmal.

We were issuing a challenge on the other side. All of these societal hypocrisies may be true, and all of their reduced expectations and reduced need for these kids from West Baltimore in terms of the greater economy, the greater society, may be true. And we may be marginalizing them from birth. That does not absolve you, in the sense of being parents with personal responsibility, personal choice, from exercising your own demand for dignity and existential purpose and relevance for you and your kids. We were saying both simultaneously.

There’s a lot to indict the school system in Baltimore for. But the other thing that has to be acknowledged is, they’re not inheriting kids who are coming in in the same situation as in the counties, black or white. These county educators that want to apply county solutions – and also lay people who want to comment on the Internet about how, “If the kids would just do this” or “If the school system would just do that” – it’s really ignoring a fundamental thing that I think Season Four did say, which is that a lot of damage has already been done, even in these kids’ earliest years, clearly. And the expectations can’t be that high. It’s not fair.

Conversely, if the expectations aren’t that high, then what are we doing there? What I thought was very true was Colvin saying, “We’re pretending.” We’re pretending to have solutions, we’re pretending that we can resolve this, and it’s more profound. Ultimately what he does is to literally seize one kid and say, “I’m gonna take responsibility for you,” in a world where nobody’s taking responsibility for anything. Not the school system, not the parents, not anybody.

The other thing that I’m amazed at with “The Wire,” and I have to say – because “The Wire” has been embraced by the hip-hop world as their show – I have nothing but contempt for the more-gangster-than-thou attitudes of hip-hop. It’s just horseshit. It’s just self-destructive horseshit. “I’ve been wounded so many times so I have something to say about how people should be.” Well, they shouldn’t be out on a corner getting shot. …

MILLS: People, particularly those who comment on the HBO boards, are reading the show as if it’s just a soap opera of their daily lives, and they’re applying their own morals –

SIMON: When I started reading that shit about how Namond was a punk, and Namond deserves to get got, I’d be reading this shit and going: “He’s 14 fucking years old! He deserves a childhood! He deserves to be 14 years old somewhere in America and be worried about whether or not he’s gonna get with some girl that he’s got a crush on, and whether or not his fucking social studies paper is gonna come back with a C or better.

“We’ve created a character that’s basically at the precipice of being hurled into the drug culture, and you people are pissed off because he’s not jumping in with both feet? You are fucked up! You are culturally destructive and self-destructive.”

MILLS: But here’s the thing. Isn’t that a danger of even telling a story about gangsters? This applies to earlier seasons too, when there was this love affair that people had with Stringer Bell.

SIMON: It’s the same problem with “The Sopranos.” Point-of-view is a powerful thing. Point-of-view grants a character a lot of humanity if you do it right. I think all the cues have been there for why Tony Soprano is an asshole and a hypocrite and an elementally destructive force in his family and in his community. And I don’t think David Chase has been equivocal. But he’s also given the primary point-of-view in that narrative to Tony Soprano. So if the audience isn’t careful – and a lot of viewers of television are not careful – the audience acquires a point-of-view that is corruptive and corrosive.

MILLS: But it couldn’t be any other way. Because who wants to tune in every week and see a show about a guy they don’t like or respect?

SIMON: And the truth is, I really do reject the idea of good and evil. I’m not particularly interested in that. “The Wire” is really more interested in social determinism. Not to say that people on “The Wire” don’t do bad things. … Some characters, because of the place they occupy in the life of this simulated city, their capacity for doing things that society would recognize as being good is greater than their capacity for doing bad.

“I’m a cop and I’m trying to do this wire-tap case against a guy who’s doing illegal things.” The chance that he’s going to be societally as destructive as a gangster is pretty minimal, though he may have incredibly cynical and destructive moments, personally and professionally. And vice versa. If he’s a gangster, his chance for doing damage is considerably more, although he may have moments of extraordinary humanity. But I don’t approach writing any of these characters as if, “Well, he’s a bad guy.”

Even Marlo. I look upon Marlo as the ultimate social-determinist outcome of gangster culture taken to its natural extreme. Eventually somebody decides, in a purely Machiavellian sense, “I’ll get to the point of being Hitler. I’ll get to the point of being utterly draconian in my pursuit of power.” But I don’t even regard Marlo as being necessarily good or evil. He just is. And I think that way about all the characters.

MILLS: Based on what you just said, you’re making a comment about Marlo that goes over the heads of a lot of viewers who just think Marlo’s the shit –

SIMON: Absolutely.

MILLS: “Marlo’s the man.”

SIMON: “You gotta be like Marlo.” And you know what? I’m not sure you can do anything with somebody thinking that way before you show them “The Wire” or after you show them “The Wire.” If that’s their state of mind going into any cultural experience, what are you gonna do?

If you look at the outcomes for these gangsters – We devoured the Barksdales. They’re either all in jail or dead. Basically what we’ve said was, “If it seemed like they were controlling events, look again. This is a Greek tragedy. All their hubris, all of their vanity, all their sound and fury, it amounted to death and marginalization.” Much like the longshoremen, much like the cops who buck the system. The thing is a Greek tragedy.

So much of American drama – Look at “The Shield.” Not to get into “The Shield” specifically, but nothing is more the quintessential American dramatic impulse than to make the individual bigger than the institutions which he serves. Vic Mackey, he is the id that rages well beyond the L.A.P.D. It’s “What is he capable of? What is he not capable of?”

“The Wire” has not only gone the opposite way, it’s resisted the idea that, in this post-modern America, individuals triumph over institutions. The institution is always bigger. It doesn’t tolerate that degree of individuality on any level for any length of time. These moments of epic characterization are inherently false. They’re all rooted in, like, old Westerns or something. Guy rides into town, cleans up the town, rides out of town.

There’s no cleaning it up anymore. There’s no riding in, there’s no riding out. The town is what it is.



rukrusher said...

I look forward to the rest of this.

SJ said...

Great interview. It's always great to read/hear Simon's thoughts.

I like the dig at 'The Shield'. Though it is a supremely entertaining show after watching The Wire it feels quite unrealistic.

Anna Laperle said...

Thanks for this, UBM. David Simon is one of the most intelligent, insightful and articulate commentators about American society today. I enjoy reading interviews with him as much as I enjoy watching his show.

Michael K. said...

Tell Simon that the quote is F. Scott Fitzgerald. One of my favorites. BTW: Outstanding interview, can't wait to read more.

S.O.L. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
S.O.L. said...

Great interview, David. How rare and wonderful a TV show to be so reflective of the showrunner's world view. Your blog is so amazing -- I really look forward to getting my dose of Undercover Black Man.

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks to all for reading. I'll have the rest of the interview up on Wednesday.

Anonymous said...

Amazing stuff. Thanks so much for this interview. To have both of you in one room, it must be like electric in the air with all that deep creative energy. OK, maybe I'm laying it on thick, but ya know. ;)

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?

Milaxx said...

The school system depicted in The Wore is very similar to how poor people are treated in general. I work as a casemanager in one a welfare to work program. The premise seems good; help people get off welfare by getting htme jobs. The problem is many of the jobs are low paying, or without benefits. It's an imperfect system, that I think only truly works for may 15% of the popuplation.

Undercover Black Man said...

Puds, thanks for stopping by. (TWoP rocks!)

You wrote: "The problem is many of the jobs are low-paying..." Not to pick a fight, but... how many people coming off welfare are qualified for HIGH-paying jobs?

With Mexicans by the millions coming into the U.S. for their economic betterment, it's hard to say there's no jobs for poor people to do. I would guess that the big issue is the will to work, the cultural value attached to work, and this has been an issue in the black community going back to Du Bois's era.