“At some point during the run of The Wire, I became a fellow traveler of the libertarians,” says acclaimed writer and television producer David Simon. “And then a great disappointment to them.”
A self-proclaimed “lefty,” Simon is the creator of the celebrated HBO series The Wire, which depicted with tragic realism the devastating impact of the drug war on inner-city Baltimore. Over five seasons from 2002 to 2008, The Wire told a series of complex, interwoven stories built around major problems afflicting the modern American city: failing schools, faltering newspapers, the decline of the working waterfront, the unseemliness of local politics, and, more generally, the frustration of would-be reformers by bureaucratic institutions.
In writing The Wire, Simon drew on his 13 years as a Baltimore Sun reporter plus the year he spent embedded with the Baltimore Police Department in preparation for his 1991 book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. Producer Barry Levinson later turned that book into an Emmy-winning series that ran on NBC from 1993 to 1998.
Simon also co-wrote (with David Mills) The Corner, a 2000 HBO miniseries that depicted inner-city Baltimore ravaged by drugs, and HBO’s Generation Kill, a miniseries based on a book by Evan Wright about a Marine Corps unit during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Simon’s blistering indictment of the drug war frames Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary on the subject, The House I Live In, and he is an outspoken critic of the state of the newspaper industry. Simon in 2009 testified before the Senate Commerce Committee on the future of journalism.
HBO’s Treme, Simon’s latest project, offers a multifaceted look at post-Katrina New Orleans and the music scene that makes the city unique. Treme premiered in 2010, and its third season began this fall.
In September reason.com Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie sat down with Simon in Baltimore to discuss Treme, the drug war, school choice, Simon’s general antipathy toward libertarians, and more. Watch video of the interview, listen to an audio recording of the unedited exchange here at reason.com.
Editor's Note: Simon reacted negatively to the Reason interview, claiming that Reason had "shanked" the interview. For links to his response, posted on his personal website, go here.
reason: Let’s talk about Treme. Watching the first three seasons of the show, I kept thinking of the William Faulkner line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Your show seems very much focused on people who are trying to maintain New Orleans culture, but then there’s also a recognition that things have to change.
David Simon: There’s always a tension between tradition and the past and organic creativity. That’s probably true in any city, but it’s particularly dynamic in New Orleans. And the amazing thing about New Orleans is they’re not willing to let anything go.
reason: Does that make them kind of like cultural hoarders?
Simon: In a way. I mean if you’re familiar with their actual culture, the music scene down there is more dynamic pound for pound than any I’ve ever seen in the world. I mean, there is a punk sea-shanty band. On some level that’s just gorgeous. Only in New Orleans, as they say.
reason: It’s a complex text. When I first started watching, I have to say I saw the character played by John Goodman, and I was like: “Wow, this is awful. This is a white-guilt liberal.” And I was kind of happy when he died at the end of the first season.
Simon: You might want to reflect on that.
reason: Believe me, I will. But in fact, the show is very layered.
Simon: The reason I think The Wire was intriguing to a lot of people once they found it—and not initially intriguing at all to many people—is they realized it was actually shaped a little bit differently than most television shows. We weren’t interested in straw men. So you could be a conservative and you could come to some conclusions that gratified you. Now I would not agree with those conclusions, but there was at least evidence in there for you to proceed down your path and be moderately content with the storytelling.
You could do that if you were a liberal. You could do that if you were a socialist. You could do that if you were a libertarian. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t have a point of view. But the trick to making anything that matters is not to treat the source material as if you can indulge your own political dialectic by picking and choosing. The world is more complicated than that.
A lot of people who were very opposed to the Iraq war—and I was opposed to the Iraq War as a war of choice—had a hard time with the initial episodes of Generation Kill. The Marines are very profane and hungry to go to war. It’s what they do, it’s what we trained them for, and I don’t blame them in the slightest. But some viewers wanted a dissertation from Ed Burns, David Simon, and Evan Wright about why this war was wrong.
I don’t know how to write for that kind of person. I’m not interested in writing for that kind of person. I’m only interested in writing for the kind of person who first wants to know what it was like and who are these guys.
And when John Goodman’s character says things like “San Francisco is a cesspool with hills,” that’s a clue. San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But it’s very hard to do TV on that level because most people expect somebody to say something and right afterwards somebody else to say, “That’s not right.” To actually correct the record within the scene.
reason: What is it about the HBO model that allows for a kind of Balzacian complexity to emerge?
Simon: Did you just call me a ball sack?
reason: I called you a ball sack, yeah.
Simon: I thought so. I knew we were going to get down to this. Damn you, libertarians!
That’s true of all TV. I didn’t used to pay for television 25 years ago. I had rabbit ears like you did. And it beamed three or four channels, and that’s what you got. And when they hooked you up to the cable that created a revenue stream and they were able to create more programming, it was a remarkably shrewd and effective way of expanding the television universe and for the better. And I would argue that, tellingly, the newspaper industry went the opposite way.
What happened was Wall Street. The great sin was taking what were community-based, family-owned newspapers and linking them together in chains, making them public companies and going to Wall Street with them because Wall Street did to the newspaper industry what it did to other industries.
(Interview continues below video.)
reason: When you say “Wall Street,” do you mean “the Tribune Company”?
Simon: I mean the operating dynamic of Wall Street—capitalism. Talk to any Baltimorean about what The Baltimore Sun has become. There are 130 people in the newsroom now. There used to be 600. At a certain point, nobody’s covering the city courthouse.
reason: I don’t know Baltimore, but I know a lot of people at the Los Angeles Times. And it would be hard to argue it’s any worse than it was in 1995, or 1955.
Simon: I don’t know what to say to you. You’re bringing things that are not rooted in empiricism. You have some emotional disconnect.
reason: No, I’m just saying that the Los Angeles Times has always been first and foremost a booster for the idea of Los Angeles.
Simon: You’re bringing some sort of weird ideology into it.
reason: What are you doing?
Simon: I’m bringing the amount of ground covered. When it’s healthy and you have enough to do and you have enough people to do it, the agenda is to cover the ground and to cover it smarter and to find out what really the fuck is going on.
Like anything worth trying and anything worth doing, you fail as much as you succeed. But I never had anybody say to me, “We’re doing this, and we think this is good or we think this is bad.” They basically just planted me on the beat. And they planted five of us on the crime beat. There was a court reporter every day that you could work with. There were three police reporters at any given moment. There were general assignment reporters that could be thrown into law enforcement issues.
And we covered more ground. There’s one guy left. There’s one guy. He’s working his ass off. That’s true at The Baltimore Sun. That’s true at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. That’s true at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. That’s true at the Los Angeles Times.
reason: What I’m saying is that you might have more people covering stuff, but you did not have a moment where the Los Angeles Times was interrogating the power structure in Los Angeles, even when it had twice as many reporters. Now, you can read many sources coming out of Los Angeles, including the Los Angeles Times. I think probably city hall and the power structure are more aptly covered than they were under a traditional model.
Simon: I couldn’t disagree more. And I can only cite what’s going on in Baltimore. There’s more commentary. There’s more debate. There’s more discussion. The Internet is a great democratization tool—
reason: I would argue there is also more firsthand reporting, observational reporting.
Simon: I don’t know what to tell you. It’s not happening here in the city in which you are sitting. It’s not happening in New Orleans. It’s not happening in any city where mainstream media has retrenched. It is not happening.
reason: In a recent interview you did with Bill Moyers you said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I don’t believe in institutions anymore; I believe in individuals.” Have you boxed yourself in? If you don’t believe in institutions then what? How do individuals change them?
Simon: I’m a grownup. And this is where I get exhausted with the notion that there has been corruption there so let’s throw up our hands and declare there’s too much government.
What is your freaking alternative? There’s never going to be permanent institutional stasis. Everything will corrode. Everything will rust. Everything will need to be replaced. Everything will need to be challenged and continually policed. Somebody much wiser than me—my father—used to say at every single Passover Seder, “Freedom can never be entirely won, but it can be lost.” And the way in which you lose it is not by acknowledging the inevitability of communal action and institutional necessity. But it’s by walking away from our collective ownership and demand on the performance of those institutions.
reason: Things like charter schools, like school vouchers, getting out where you can, getting on a lifeboat—these are libertarian ideas. They are a way of changing the institutions so they serve the individuals they’re supposed to serve.
Simon: If it’s funded. If you’re willing to take the same dollar that you were giving to a public school system.
reason: We have not stinted on increasing the amount of money we spend per pupil over the past 40 years. We have nothing, literally nothing, to show for it.
Simon: You will not get me defending the performance of public education. But the idea of public education, lower case p, lower case e.
reason: As we go through the third season of Treme, would you say that you start to show the green shoots?
Simon: Yes, individuals start doing what they can. And there is nothing in The Wire and there is nothing in Treme that argues against individual responsibility toward the collective. And that’s where I find patriotism and citizenship. You’re not seeing people in Treme in Season 3 begin to police themselves and to make their neighborhoods safer. That’s beyond their capabilities. For that they need law enforcement professionals. But you do see them start to stand up on their hind legs and say: The way you’re behaving, as an institution, is unacceptable.
reason: And by creating alternatives. I mean, they’re building their businesses, or they’re creating art that is empowering to themselves and the people around them.
Simon: Well, they’re seeking reform. And sometimes that involves trying to reform the necessary institution. And sometimes if they’re starting a new business, that’s a new business. I’m not arguing against venture capitalism. What I am arguing against in that piece is disaster capitalism.
reason: Or disaster socialism. And the two things may be inextricably linked.
Simon: Disaster socialism?
reason: Disaster socialism. I mean the amount of public money that floods into New Orleans and the way that it gets diverted from meaningful purpose is part of the show.
Simon: Where do you think it went? You think it actually got to people?
reason: I know that it came from the government, and it came from taxes. I think we’re talking about twin sides of the same process.
Simon: Let’s journey down this road together because Louisiana is the jurisdiction in the world that jails more human beings per capita than any other state. That’s pure market forces. There’s profit to be made. They’ve monetized the poor down there. That’s what they’ve done. Laissez-faire. We’re all paying for that. But people are getting rich.
reason: In California the single most powerful group in state government is the state prison guards union. And they’re not lobbying to get people out of jail.
Simon: Right, and they damn near bankrupted the state. Look at the Rockefeller drug laws. Look at the drug war. There are some things that the market is not supposed to dictate.
reason: But is it the market?
Simon: Of course it’s the market!
reason: In the case of immigrant incarceration and deportations, it’s the Obama administration, which has doubled the rate.
Simon: Absolutely. Very disappointing.
reason: I understand where you’re coming from, but these people might be drafting off of policies that were put in place ahead of time. Nelson Rockefeller didn’t need drug laws to get rich or to make his cronies rich. He was doing that already.
Simon: No, he needed them to get elected, but I absolutely agree with that. It has got to be across the board. Politicians will follow the path of least resistance if you let them and reward them for that. The whole idealized notion that the private sector can do this better than government—I don’t want the private sector doing prisons better than government. I want government doing it reluctantly. I want my prison department. I want my corrections department in the state of Maryland or any state that I’m in to be a reluctant agent of government.
reason: About drug laws, do you see any positive trends? I mean, there are marijuana legalization initiatives out there.
Simon: I do. The only positive trend that I see that really matters is that more people are calling bullshit. And this is where at some point during the run of The Wire I became a fellow traveler of the libertarians. And then a great disappointment to them. But the libertarian position on drugs absolutely works. It absolutely works because it’s morally correct.
reason: Do you take Obama at his word that The Wire is his favorite show? Because it seems odd that he and Attorney General Eric Holder would have watched the show and then be pursuing the policies they have.
Simon: I do take Eric Holder at his word because he hosted the actors, and they told me he knew the show. And I don’t disagree with Obama’s fundamental politics or some of his purposes. I’ll be voting for Obama. I have a choice of two, and I’m not wasting my vote. It can always get worse.
reason: Do you think New Orleans is getting better? The show is a couple of years back in time, but the actual number of people who have returned is higher than the initial projection or expectations. Is it actually flourishing?
Simon: It depends on who you are. They called the area that didn’t go under the water “the sliver by the river,” “the isle of denial.” There is a schizophrenia. You go out to the Gentilly area, and there are blocks where you’ll see two or three people back and house after house still not restored.
But before the storm, 77 percent of the population was born there. That’s unheard of in America. Everyone is from somewhere else in this country. But if you’re born there, if you grow up with that culture and that essence, it’s very hard to say goodbye.
It’s not a museum piece. The number of Latinos—Central Americans and Mexicans—that came to New Orleans to do construction work after Katrina and now have stayed on means you’re going to start seeing some version of the Mariachi second line band, and it won’t just be on Cinco de Mayo. They’re going to contribute to the musical culture and to the cuisine.
All the attendant problems of the American city are there, and I think city living is what Americans have to master. But, man, they make it hard. That’s the 21st-century challenge, among other things. There are a lot of 21st-century challenges, but one of them is how do we learn to love a city for what it is because we have no choice.