David Simon did an interview with the New York Review of Books.
The interview follows the standard template. We are told: Simon is from near Baltimore (Silver Spring, MD) and got his start with the Baltimore Sun. Yada yada, he learned how to write and learned about the city, yada yada, Barry Levinson, Homicide, Life on the Street, yada, The Wire, sage of Baltimore 2.0. Yada, yada, yada.
Here’s a piece from the interview:
“NYRoB: How do the network police procedurals deal with issues race and crime?
D.S: They clean it up. How often do rich white people get murdered?
NYRoB: On Law and Order, quite often. Their murderers are Park Avenue matrons and spoiled private-school kids.
D.S: They’re protecting the franchise. Those stories are more interesting to the white consumerist audiences coveted by advertising executives. The truth is that violence follows economic deprivation. The vast majority of murders have to do with people who don’t have a lot. They’re chasing after the scraps falling off the table.”
While Law and Order was interesting in its first few seasons and then descended into a kind of procedural television version of a fast food franchise, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how Simon dodges the rebuttal to his criticism. The fact is while they may be “protecting the franchise” that doesn’t mean they’re not depicting the murders of White people. Simon presents these points as being mutually exclusive when, in truth, they are not. In fact spoiled rich White kids, their apathy, sociopathy and sense of privilege are a staple of Law and Order. As are (White) Wall Street executives, (White) models, and any number of other recognizable types belonging to the ruling class.
And pay attention to Simon designating “white consumerist audiences coveted by advertising executives” as somehow being distinct from the White consumerist audiences that have the money and leisure to afford HBO and Showtime. As if, just because HBO doesn’t show commercials, it isn’t a commercial for profit company and its Wall Street shit doesn’t stink. Which of coure is Simon’s way of saying he’s an innocent George Orwell-esque truth teller and let the chips fall where they may.
This is no small point because of how it sets up what for the media are the parameters of how they worship at the altar of Saint Simon, and for (Saint) Simon himself, who has spent the last decade telling anyone who will listen, that he is the sole arbiter of what does or does not constitute the truth of America’s mean streets generally, and specifically in Baltimore.
Which then sets up Simon sticking the landing with the utterly banal and disingenuous: “The truth is that violence follows economic deprivation. The vast majority of murders have to do with people who don’t have a lot.”
Technically he’s not wrong. There are far more murders committed in Pigtown and Winchester in Baltimore, than in Canton or Roland Park. Of course one could change the narrative frame and point out that the majority of lethal drone strikes occur in regions suffering through catastrophic drought and that the decision to launch a drone strike is taken by people with a lot, but is not defined as “murder.”
But we digress.
What goes missing in Simon’s version of the truth, is of course how Pigtown and Winchester and all of the other shell shocked and devastated parts of Baltimore, are that way because of rich people both in Baltimore and elsewhere who inherited their wealth and power from the systemic bigotry of Redlining, and the gangsterism it spawned*(1). Those segregated areas were exploited by assorted mafia who in turn flipped tens of thousands of row houses back to banks and used the money to set up philanthropic organizations who, partnered with Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, as well as banks and trusts, to maintain the current and systemic blight and violence because they turn a profit from it.
Therefore, the greater truth is that the vast majority of murders have do with the chasm between the wealthy, predominantly White haves, and the impoverished, predominantly not White, have-nots.
Notice that nowhere in The Wire does Simon come anywhere near mentioning the banks and trusts who financed the real estate empires, who in turn were laundering the drug money that came from the drugs that Simon has as being of, and particular to Black areas of Baltimore.
Notice that in The Wire it is the regurgitated early 20th and late 19th century racist trope of the mysterious foreigner (The Greek) who is responsible for the heroin trade – as if Baltimore has only one heroin kingpin (hilariously depicted as running his empire from a café in Greektown) and the drug economy is both somehow specific and general – localized in Black areas yet a metaphor that represents the entirety of the city – and somehow there are no White users and dealers. We have dealt with the truth of the Greek elsewhere*(2) but what matters here is how this is part of a continuous pattern with Simon and the complicit media.
He is not pressed about anything and when he is confronted by a contrary point, he dismisses it as if HBO were a not for profit Hipster small batch, artisanal endeavor, and not a wholly owned subsidiary of a gigantic corporate entity committed not to art, but to money.
Consider that in Simon’s narrative violence follows economic deprivation, except that he has yet in over a decade, to portray the executives and gentry, who own Baltimore – the bankers and lawyers who move the money that pays for the development of the Inner Harbor, the transformation of Canton and Fells, and are the people who own Sinclair Broadcasting or are invested in it.
In other words this is standard Simon. He is the Great White Explorer with (self-proclaimed) nobel intent who has gone down river, like Marlow, in search of a Hip Hop Kurtz, and has returned to tell the guilt ridden White liberals that the drug scene in the hood is real yo, and tragic.
Ironically Simon mentions in the interview, going into a bar in Dundalk and remarks about the shit you would hear. He doesn’t actually tell us what he heard and it is worth noting that nowhere in The Wire, are we given a sense of the drug economy in Dundalk, or Essex or Middle River or Armistead Gardens or Pigtown, or for that matter in Roland Park, Oakenshaw or at Hopkins – all dominated by White people both impoverished and affluent. There may not be very many murders in Roland Park but there are users and dealers and the other crimes that are committed are done indoors on laptops.
But that doesn’t make for good television even on HBO. It does not frame the narrative and fix Black Americans as a fetish for White Americans, and it ignores the symbiosis between all facets of the system. But an examination of that symbiosis would mean a hard look at the banks, trusts, philanthropists and Wall Street and the people who finance “event television” like The Wire.
If it’s true that one can follow violence down to where people are economically desperate, then it is also true that one could follow the trail in reverse and ask who is manufacturing the guns, and who is transporting them and who is selling them, and then ask where all the money is being laundered. Following from that reversal of the narrative one could then designate the system in its entirety, as a violent crime.
But in order to do any of that you would have to not be someone who thinks mass surveillance is justified and necessary, and who justifies it with Trump-esque rhetoric full of chauvinism, scare-mongering, neo-fascist tropes and mysogony. You would have to be someone who isn’t making excuses for the utterly corrupt and systemically sadistic Baltimore Police and turning a profit from pandering to White liberals, while harping about the injustice of the system.
In other words, you would have to be someone who isn’t David Simon.
1 The definitive examination of Redlining in Baltimore is Antero Pietela’s, Not in My Neighborhood, How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City.
2 For a look at The Wire and Simon’s reactionary politics and prevarications about mass surveillance, see the following:
The New York Review of Books interview can be read here:
As Robin Williams would say, under irony in the dictionary, see irony: