Thursday, January 03, 2008

Matthew Yglesias and David Simon argue about The Wire


Matt's referencing this article by Reihan Salam, which is essentially the same kind of "but it's so bleak! Why can't it be hopeful!" nonsense that Simon's work has always been plagued by.

Yglesias agrees, saying:

I think that's right. What's more, based on what I've heard David Simon say about politics, while he and I are clearly "on the same side" in some sense, I don't really agree with him about very much in detail. Fundamentally, I think his vision of the bleak urban dystopia and its roots is counterproductive to advancing the values we hold dear...Simon believes that we are doomed, and political progress requires us to believe that we are not. But aesthetically it's an extremely powerful conceit. And at the end of the day, it's a television show not a treatise on urban policy. If some viewers are taking it too literally as a statement of truth, that's on them much more than it is on Simon.
First, Yglesias is wildly off-base in that latter statement. What makes The Wire powerful is that it's as close as you can get to non-fiction without getting sued. Pretty much every major character is a pretty thin fictionalization of a real human being, the show has more advisors than you can count, and the creators draw heavily on their own real-world experience. The whole reason The Wire is so powerful (yet oddly difficult to watch at times) is precisely because it is more than just "a television show", and I'd recommend it over any number of dry, numbers-filled pieces of urban policy analysis for those who want to understand what's going on out there.

Oh, and Simon HAS written what amounts to a policy treatise on Baltimore. It was called "The Corner". The Wire is actually less bleak than that book. People were complaining about THAT, too.

Second, "unproductive" doesn't mean "wrong". It's bleak because the situation can get bleak. More importantly, though, it's bleak because people delude themselves about how things actually are. The most important thing about Simon's work is to break down these delusions: about drug policy, about politics, about policing, about the working class, about the urban black experience, and about places like Baltimore that are given a kind of "benign" neglect by Hollywood and Washington.

Besides, the elephant in the room has been, and will always be, the question of decrim or legalization in the face of The War on Drugs. While he was very, very honest about the issues involved when he created "Hamsterdam", keep in mind that most of those problems were because Bunny Colvin was simply too low-level to be able to do anything substantial. The war on drugs is a FEDERAL war, but it has LOCAL consequences; and inevitably those consequences have little-to-no impact on those who call the loudest for the war.

Oh, and Matt? Don't link to somebody who uses the phrase "Or it could lend itself to paroxysms of white guilt". That particular phrase is, incredibly, omnioffensive: it manages to insult whites, blacks, and pretty much everything else. His babbling about "self-help" when talking about the plight of the dockworkers in Season 2 isn't exactly attractive, either.

He's not as big an idiot as Jim Rockford, the commentator who said that "black people in the inner city WANT THUGS", but he's either profoundly misinformed or in deep, deep denial.

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