“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
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 or listen to an audio recording of the unedited exchange
at reason.com. ;
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
reason: Does that make them kind of like
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Simon: If it’s funded. If you’re willing to
take the same dollar that you were giving to a public school
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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