The conservative anger of David Simon

The HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero just premiered, which means that the public gets to enjoy the same spectacle we do every time a sanctified liberal hero puts out something new for us to buy: a fresh slew of hagiographies, all recapitulating the same few points about why the artist is so uniquely valuable to our democratic experiment. Having just properly honored the new James Baldwin, it’s time for yet another celebration of David Simon, America’s anguished liberal Cassandra.

The most effusive praise for Simon comes from Matt Zoller Seitz, and his piece “the Radical Humanism of David Simon.” To properly honor a man who was “elevate[d] to the Western canon” sometime between his second and third shows, the piece opens with an apology. After 1200 words praising Simon’s new program, we get to the apology itself, which regrets not sufficiently appreciating Simon’s work until now, for not caring “as much as he does,” this man who “truly cares, as a democratically minded American citizen should care.” Simon’s work isn’t just extraordinary, but vital, bringing any of us who will likewise care a perspective “necessary for the survival of the United States.” According to Zoller Seitz, “His work is more morally and politically and dramatically advanced than almost anyone who naysays it.” Evidently there’s something other than unanimous critical ejaculation for Simon out there—and like the mightiest liberal creative titans, to be one of these critics is to reveal oneself as a pathetic, basement-dwelling cretin.

The only thing besides gushing praise for Simon is a reference to the artist as “legendarily grumpy and hectoring,” an understandable outcome of being such a clear-eyed and lonely prophet of American decline, a side-effect of his radical humanism. Zoller Seitz doesn’t quote any of Simon’s “grumpy” statements, but these constitute a genre of their own and the essence of his status as a modern Jeremiah. “The audacity of despair” is a cornerstone of the Simon brand; the title of a far-reaching public speech on American decay, the name of his blog, and his twitter handle (@AoDespair). In countless talks with minatory titles like “the end of the American empire” and “America is a horror show,” Simon charts a course of decline, which has brought America to the low point it currently occupies. A January 2015 piece in Grantland is a useful guide to the salient points about Simon’s worldview, which have gained him his reputation for aggrieved seriousness and world-weary miserabilism.

The interview and career retrospective is titled “David Simon Does Not Care What You Think Is Cool About His TV Shows,” in a nod to his misanthropic aura. It’s also a reference to something on which Simon and I are simpatico, in that both of us find it extremely tedious to hear how cool Omar is, again. Simon was a reporter on the police beat for the Baltimore Sun in the ’80s before budget cutbacks. He wrote a “classic” crime book, Homicide: Life on the Killing Streets, which became a 7-season TV series. He and cop Ed Burns then got together and wrote The Corner, The Wire, then Generation Kill. “No one,” according to Simon, watched The Wire or Treme, just like no one watched Generation Kill, since in the latter case America wasn’t ready for “a piece about the American misadventure in Iraq when people still have a taste of Fallujah in their mouths.” Simon keeps giving America truths no one can handle, and for it he’s scorned like Prometheus.

Still, David Simon does get to be celebrated as one of the greatest American creative geniuses, and Wire fans are quick to remind you that the Great American Novel is actually a show called The Wire. David Simon got to interview the Drug Warrior-in-Chief, who, along with America’s former top cop, has praised Simon’s genius along similar lines. Maybe no one watched The Wire or Treme, but those shows were on for 5 and 3 and a half seasons, respectively, which might mean some of the self-flagellating is just so much brand-building–and standard procedure for rewriting conventional bourgeois disaffection as radical critique.

More interesting is his cynicism about the 2005 Marine Corps drama Generation Kill, about “the American misadventure in Iraq.” Generation Kill was written by Evan Wright, based on his account of the first weeks of the invasion while embedded with the 1st Recon Battalion. The show itself doesn’t depict much in the way of “misadventures,” beside the standard amounts of fucking-around and shit-talking common to any group of hyper-aggressive 20-something men. The show is 7 hours of vulgar but competent, brave, and decent Marines doing their duty to liberate the Iraqis and fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here. In interviews from the time of the show’s release, Wright reiterates that the experience left him above all with a deep respect for the American military, primarily blaming the public for the failures of “their” media and leaders. Some viewers may associate Generation Kill with flag-draped coffins rolling out of C-130s at Dover AFB, but the show itself is exactly the sort of pro-military story that lead the Pentagon to create the embedding process in the first place. Kill isn’t an indictment of American warmaking, but an ode to the courage of America’s warrior sons, with an elegiac undertone for those troops betrayed by public indifference and government incompetence—in other words, a work that liberals, centrists, and reactionaries alike can enjoy. However, Simon sees his show, which actually tells the most popular type of story in America, as something insurgent, dangerous, and too-hot-to-handle for the ‘Muricans glued to their idiot-boxes.

A central facet of Simon’s mythology is the idea that things could get better if Americans were more receptive to his messaging. His public speeches, interviews, and shows like The Wire all date America’s troubles to sometime around the 1970s, when manufacturing closed up shop and the war on drugs turned the whistling, baton-twirling constables who kept us safe into something like an occupying army. According to a 2013 interview with The Guardian, in the last 30 or 40 years, there’s been a “misapprehension of capitalism,” when Bad Apples like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan undid their market economies’ robust welfare systems and prisons became a solution to the growing underclass. Though he’s “not entirely unconvinced” that the drug war “is not intended as a war on the poor,” Simon isn’t “ready to throw capitalism out yet,” since, as Thatcher herself once said, there is no alternative.

So how does Simon envision reversing America’s decline and returning it to its post-WWII peak? Simon is as clear about what shouldn’t happen as what should be done. In a piece telling Baltimore’s protesters to “go home,” which got a lot of people looking askance at his politics for the first time, Simon repeated Tom Friedman’s favorite cliché about the lack of a Palestinian Mandela. So armed struggle is out (though Simon hasn’t uttered a word about non-violent BDS).

In a June 2013 blog post concerning the first Ed Snowden leaks, Simon dismissed the story as “bullshit.” A story about America in decline and a system growing out-of-control in a cold war against its own citizens, would seem to be right up Simon’s alley, given the set of concerns he’s been railing about for the entire 21st century. However, Simon wasn’t interested in the “faux scandal”, because of what he knew from his time covering the cops in 1980s Baltimore. Just like the water cooler’s most obnoxious aesthete, David Simon doesn’t care about mass surveillance because it’s not as good as The Wire. So pursuing even mild reform through corporate platforms and elite-approved debate is out—though Simon calls terrorism, which kills fewer Americans annually than toddlers or vending machines, a “high-risk conflict,” so maybe this is one endless war he supports.

Simon’s prescription for reversing America’s decline is to effect gradual change through traditional political channels. In his incrementalist approach to reform, he’s very similar to Wire fan Barack Obama. Despite Simon’s trademark slogan being a negative echo of Obama’s memoirs, both men believe solely in working within the system. Zoller Seitz praises Simon’s work by saying “it’s significant that he tells stories about poor and working-class as well as middle-class people, and has never had much interest in the rich.” Given that Simon thinks the underclass he’s spent his career publicly wringing his hands over should fuck off so that Koch Industries, liberal jailers, and Newt Gingrich can hash out prison reform, it’s equally significant that Simon’s artistic sensitivity is the polar opposite of his actual politics.

The negative trends that have hobbled American greatness were able to take hold because of one last decline: that of the American newsroom. From season 5 of The Wire to numerous interviews to a Senate appearance where he slammed the practice of blogging, this is the concern that Simon revisits the most. In an interview conducted in 2012 by Reason, Simon insists that the newsroom is a neutral ideological space, where the only agenda is “to cover the ground and find out what really the fuck is going on.” Like heavy manufacturing, journalism itself was an industry; bustling factories churning out The Truth, righting the ship of state when it veered off course. This is ultimately why David Simon’s diagnoses and art are so crucial. He’s the last practitioner of traditional journalism, with its utopian power to generate much-needed empathy and change, unmuddied by the elite interests whose system it challenges.

Another journalist publicly expressed the same faith, saying “how could I possibly agree with people who were claiming the system didn’t work, that it was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and existed to protect the power elite? Hell, the system worked just fine, as (far as) I could tell.” This naïve view of the newsroom was articulated in retrospect by Gary Webb, who, of course, was slandered, smeared, disgraced, and driven to suicide by the state and media (on behalf of their mutual owners), a campaign that continues to this day. Following his “Dark Alliance” series that revealed the CIA’s role in flooding America’s inner cities with crack, Webb realizedhow sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. It turned out to have nothing to do with it. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress.”

Webb discovered and publicized a big piece of a puzzle that should answer questions about the war on drugs’ intentionality. The drug war wasn’t just a solution to a surplus labor force, but a response to the 1,000 uprisings between 1960-72 in American cities (and even off the coast of Vietnam) and a continuation of the work of the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program, which pursued “long-range goals” to destroy black nationalist resistance. To follow this through-line of repression back across history would ultimately lead to the creation of modern white supremacy before the colonies were states, much less America. Marrying a quest for justice to an objective accounting of these facts could likely lead to a reckoning with capitalism, which uses this brutality to maintain the wealth of the ruling class.

However, as he’s said, Simon rejects working toward this end. Like many other liberals and right-wingers who look fondly upon the ’50s, Simon’s worldview is pegged to the decency of bygone American institutions and a breed of tough guy, can-do spirit. The veneration of newspapers, the paeans to the American manufacturing industry—these, not radical humanism or radical anything, are the core of Simon’s art. The frequent performances of his own outsider status obscure the centrism of his hand-wringing, patriotic appeals to remember a time when “we used to build shit in this country.” Scratch the surface, and Simon has the politics of a Chrysler commercial.

Anger is a central component of David Simon’s mythos. He’s been called, and he calls himself, “the angriest man on television,” and he describes his shows, particularly The Wire, as “angry.” However, David Simon is angry because America has lost its way as the institutions he values most have withered. It’s a conservative anger, out of a desire to see things the way they once were. To consider this transgressive is categorically wrong, in the same way calling Aaron Sorkin idealistic is wrong. Sorkin is another writer and beloved Hollywood institution with a hard-on for truth-telling newsmen who’s hailed as an idealist; really just a Cold War liberal wishing for a return to the era of Tip O’Neill and The Gipper throwing back highballs. Like the more openly reactionary Sorkin, Simon isn’t envisioning a new world—just hoping to see his beloved past restored, to see a renaissance of his favorite elite institution. Compare Simon and his performative anger to revolutionaries like Assata Shakur and activists like Angela Davis, and how much talk about love and hope is a part of their philosophies. Anger can be an extremely useful emotion, but creating a less oppressive world takes more than that. Building a new world is revolutionary; wanting to make things the way you remember them in the good old days isn’t radical, it’s conservative.

h/t to Kevin Dooley for his April 2015 David Simon piece, and Tarzie’s writing on Gary Webb

Postscript: to his credit, David Simon also thought starting a piece of rapturous praise with an apology was excessive.

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6 thoughts on “The conservative anger of David Simon

  1. Thanks for this article. I never watched a David Simon show but know lots of people who love him, esp. The Wire.

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    • I had read that one–I think that Ishmael Reed and Adolph Reed, Jr. are the only two remotely prominent writers to have critiqued Simon’s work from a radical perspective.

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