David Simon and the Audacity of Despair


Reihan Salam critiques The Wire: "David Simon thinks he’s constructed a critique of capitalism, but in fact he’s prepared an elaborate, moving brief for despair and (ultimately) indifference."

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. That said, I think the show succeeds not in spite of these lacunae in Simon's political vision, but almost because of them. Trying to do a piece of extended drama that embodied the values of pragmatic progressive reformism would be impossible. The results, if serious and true to the spirit, would be deadly dull. Moderate optimism about human nature and the possibility for change is, if done in an entertaining way, the stuff of light romantic comedies, not big-time drama.

And I think everyone recognizes that on some level. But part of what gives The Wire such great power is its creator's conviction, wrong though it is, that his tragic vision constitutes telling it like it is. While departing from both reality and realism in any number of ways, The Wire is resolutely committed to verisimilitude in a way that almost no other show is. The result is the creation of a world -- Simon's Baltimore -- that feels eminently real, but is imbued with all the artifice of Greek tragedy.

In political terms it's a dark vision that, like Dostoevsky's, veers wildly between radical and reactionary and that exists, fundamentally, outside the lines of "normal" arguments about policy. 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.