Friday, December 15, 2006


I love HBO's series The Wire--a near-Dickensian drama set in the ghettoes of West Baltimore--in spite of the bizarre political pronouncements from its creator and showrunner David Simon, as

Thematically, it's about the very simple idea that, in this Postmodern world of ours, human beings—all of us—are worth less. We're worth less every day, despite the fact that some of us are achieving more and more. It's the triumph of capitalism. ...Whether you're a corner boy in West Baltimore, or a cop who knows his beat, or an Eastern European brought here for sex, your life is worth less. It's the triumph of capitalism over human value. This country has embraced the idea that this is a viable domestic policy. It is. It's viable for the few. But I don't live in Westwood, L.A., or on the Upper West Side of New York. I live in Baltimore.

There's so much wrong with this belief that one hardly knows where to begin. Simon apparently seems to think that "human value" is somehow diminished in capitalist societies, which begs the question: What sort of society would not diminish "human value"?

Full-on collectivist socialism? Those sort of places are the worst hellholes on earth, and the horrible "worth less every day" lives of Simon's East European hooker or Baltimore cornerboy--these lives would represent near-Utopian well-being to your average resident of Cuba or North Korea, whose "human value" is typically most forcefully expressed in the act of drowning in the Yalu River or the Florida Straits trying to get the hell out.

Welfare-state socialism-lite as evidenced in Western Europe? These are great places to live as long as you don't care about things like upward mobility. I've lived among European immigrants--hell, I was an illegal European immigrant--and Eurosocialism doesn't offer opportunity, or much of anything at all beyond a lifetime on the dole. In this context I always recommend Stephen Frears's little film Dirty Pretty Things--a film which takes place in London but does not include one white Englishperson--wherein the ultimate goal for every single character is not to make a life in Britain but to figure out a way to get to America. For them, and for the literally billions around the world who would emigrate to the USA if they could, diminishing their human value doesn't seem to be a big concern.

"Traditional" third-world societies? They offer "value"--i.e. food and shelter--to their citizens exactly in proportion to the amount of free-market capitalism they are willing to introduce into their societies.

After the Slate piece appeared, there was an interesting comment on Simon's beliefs from writer James Hudnall on a blog devoted to the show:

I guess it's because Simon's a self confessed liberal that he thinks society owes everyone something. But many of the characters in the Wire are self destructive and damned in their own ways. There's only so much society can do if people don't do for themselves....Life isn't all negativity all the time.

The system is paid for by tax dollars, so those who contribute the most get the most payback. That's not surprising. Nor should it be. That's the way the world turns.

Ultimately, people need to look after themselves and not expect society to do it for them. That's one message you don't see too much in the Wire, and should.

This rather gentle criticism of Simon's political agenda produced this overheated, paranoid, and more or less insane response from Simon on the same comments page, which I reproduce in full:

Did someone actually describe me as a "self-confessed" liberal? Self-confessed?

Since when did liberalism become something that requires confession? After the last six disastrous years, [While I understand that hyperbole is necessary to much political writing, I really have to challenge the idea that a full-employment economy, among other things, is "disastrous", but for liberals this is almost a religious dogma, so one must expect it--Ed] I would think that to have your political allegiances on the other end of the spectrum might be cause for some angst, shame and reflection. But even harboring such sentiment, I would not be so insulting as to call anyone a self-confessed conservative.

I won't go into a long political diatribe about the content of that particular email, its willful ignorance of the profound economic, social and political limitations at work in the West Baltimores of the world, places crippled by decades of deindustrialization, profound social deprivation, political marginalization at the hands of gerrymandering, racialist political parties, a prohibition-induced drug economy that has become the only meaningful economic engine and naturalized unemployment rates at over 50 percent for adult black males -- including those who do buy into the system and make "choices" of a kind that would not not bring the judgment of trickle-down, up-from-the-bootstraps, i-know-the-game-isn't-rigged-because-I-did-so-well-coming-from-the-suburb-I-came-from-m***********s down on their already burdened selves. I am sure there are plenty of people who want to debate whether all the characters in The Wire made all of the right personal choices, will find that they did not -- Randy for example should have never taken that five-spot to deliver a message to Lex; damn his fourteen-year-old ass to hell -- and will find a new way to calculate the degree of personal blame without regard to the two vastly different Americas that we have built for generations now. And I'm sure others will excuse all personal foible by citing political, social and economic conditions -- something that The Wire has also resisted doing with its characters. The two sides can have at each other and argue to their hearts' content. I am indifferent to the nature-versus-nurture pissing match. It doesn't matter to people on the ground, anymore. It doesn't matter to a boy in West Baltimore looking to a future that isn't there. It is the stuff of lame ideologues, each trying to shape facts to fit story. Have at it.

But the next time anyone suggests that I have "confessed" to my political beliefs, they have an invitation to kiss my ass. I am on some issues conservative, on others middling, and on many matters way left of liberal. In Europe, I might be called a social democrat, maybe a green, or, depending on the country, a labourite.
In these United States, I am someone who has spent enough careful time in the other, marginalized America to be wholly contemptuous of anyone who equates raw, unencumbered capitalism -- absent any other social or political framework -- as even a poor excuse for how to run a country and take care of its people.

Self-confessed. Like I'm guilty of anything other than speaking my mind. F*** you, a*****e.

Putting aside Simon's bizarre overreaction to the word "self-confessed"--it's just a word, and not what I would consider much of an epithet--I would point out that Simon doesn't really have a coherent case. In spite of all the abuse he hurls at Republicans and conservatives, the world he describes in his series is not one created by the Right, in spite of his desperate need to believe that it is. The megaghettoes of the American inner cities, and their anticulture of crime, violence, and sociopathy were in fact created by liberal policies of the sixties. Urban America has been run almost exclusively by liberal Democrats offering liberal Democrat solutions, for more than 40 years. It was liberal Democrats who began their "war on poverty" by offering financial incentives for poor families to have no father in the house. If at that time the federal government had carpet-bombed the inner cities of America with B-52s, they would have done less damage to urban America than with their policy of manufacturing generations of poor families with no father in the house, and all the pathologies that came from it.

David Simon is not saying human value is diminished in a capitalist society. Human value is diminished because of technological progress and population growth. Up until 100 years ago, a human laborer was valuable. To create wealth, it was necessary to exploit a human laborer. You couldn't treat these laborers too badly, because you wanted them to keep working for you.

Today, we don't need a lot of laborers. We have machines that allow few or no people to efficiently, cheaply, carry out tasks. The value of human beings has been diminished, and we as individuals are worth less every day.

The argument David Simon made about capitalism is that pure, unrestricted capitalism as a social policy will only work for the few. The few who can find a place in our postindustrial society will become extremely wealthy, and the rest will be poor. The rest will be left behind, because they are not needed any more for the functioning of society. This is why we have an underclass and a growing gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots." Humans are worth less and are completely dispensable. Since we don't need to exploit these people anymore, they can be simply cast aside. This is what we logically do with them because we use pure unrestricted capitalism as a moral philosophy. Unless you have some kind of social policy in place to give these people a purpose and provide for them (or give them a means to provide for themselves), they get swept under the rug and forgotten about. Simon admits that capitalism is necessary as a motivating force to create wealth, but it cannot be something we value over human dignity. We need SOME kind of social policy to restrict it from getting out of control.

We can't just keep starting wars to employ people forever. Sooner or later we need to do something to fix the source of the problem.
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