by Joe Schwartz
[UPDATE 9/30/2011: Video of the full lecture is now embedded at the end of the story.]
David Simon warned Monday night that America’s “great engine is beginning to rust,” the middle class is being destroyed, the poor are cast aside and the sale of the political system to the highest bidder along with wars on drugs and the Middle East spell the end of the country’s ability to lead and prosper.
No one is going to confuse Simon, the screenwriter and director for The Wire, Treme and Homicide: Life on the Street, for an optimist.
“Every time I try to reach a level of cynicism that goes too far, I find out I’ve been outmaneuvered,” he said.
Simon delivered the 2011-12 Frank Porter Graham Lecture to a crowd of 800 at UNC’s Memorial Hall on Monday. His blunt, biting talk was entitled, “The End of the American Century and the Triumph of Capital Over Labor.”
The lecture series, sponsored by the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence, focuses on poverty because of former University President Graham’s commitment to providing education for all, regardless of social status.
“For those unfamiliar with my work, there will be some profanity, partly because I work for HBO, and it’s in my contract, and partly because I just like it,” Simon warned at the outset.
“My father said you don’t need to use profanity if you have a good enough vocabulary, but fuck it, I like how it sounds.”
Despite the critical acclaim he has garnered, Simon offered a humble description of himself, just a University of Maryland graduate who did poorly in his coursework and developed his opinions from his "front-row seat" as a journalist.
Questions about Omar's coolness and Stringer Bell's killing follow Simon from lecture to lecture, but at an engagement at UC-Berkeley discussion moved from surface level TV queries to something deeper: a debate of the underlying issues—poverty, corruption and the War on Drugs—that permeate The Wire.
“TV gets to tell a story now and then, something has changed,” Simon said, blaming advertising and the need for a quick buck for dumbing down programming to “sex, violence and easy redemption” and championing commercial-free stations such as HBO.
“I would like to think my shows are hyperbolic and pessimistic, but I just don’t believe it,” Simon said. “I don’t believe we have the stomach to see our problems, let alone address them.”
Simon asked audience members to raise hands if they identified as a socialist. Almost half did. He then asked to raise hands if they believed in group health care. Almost everyone did.
“If you believe in group health insurance, that it’s a reasonable thing … you are a socialist or you are a hippie,” he said. “To be called a socialist in this political environment is to be marginalized.”
“Socialism is not a derogated term in Europe,” he said. “By making it a term of derogation it allows capitalism to act with a certain degree of fear.”
In America, suggesting anything other than the free market is the cure for all our woes is to be silenced, he said, but “free market enterprise is rarely the answer to any social problem.”
“I make too much money,” he said. “I need to pay more taxes.” Anyone in his income bracket who disagrees and calls raising taxes on the rich “class warfare” is exhibiting behavior that’s “shocking, embarrassing and a failure of citizenship.”
Much of his talk focused on the drug war, which he framed as a massive and venal fraud.
"It’s a war on the poor, who Americans have said, 'we don’t need anymore.' We don’t need these people, so the least we can do is hunt them, and when we hunt them we provide jobs for lawyers, for cops and for judges.
"It’s no longer a war on dangerous drugs, it’s a paycheck,” Simon said.
"Those who support it are essentially saying, 'In order to create some mild additional bit of distance between drugs and my middle class children, I will suffer, from my perch, seeing places like West Baltimore become free-fire zones. … I’m willing to fight my drug war to the last Mexican.'”
The privatization of the justice system means lobbyists in Washington push for stronger enforcement so they can guarantee a 6 percent profit to their Wall Street investors, Simon said.
Case in point: Simon shared the plight of Felicia Pearson, who played Snoop on The Wire.
Pearson grew up on the streets of West Baltimore and served time before escaping that life and building an acting career. But, because of her past, everyone she knew from home was either a drug dealer or user. She loaned a struggling friend $30, and when she called to get the money back, the phone was tapped, part of a drug sting. She was accused of trying to buy $30,000 of heroin.
“I don’t know what’s true, but neither does the government,” Simon said.
Pearson’s trial was set for two years later, and the only way for her to continue acting was to call a private company that would outfit her with an ankle bracelet for $400 a week. The fee had to be paid regardless of the outcome of the trial.
Facing a choice of paying $41,600 for the bracelet or spending two years in jail, Pearson accepted a plea bargain, which placed her in probation.
“Anything you thought not possible by the rules of ethics and fairness, the drug
was war has taken,” he said.
He compared incarceration stats from 1982, when he started as a cops reporter for the Baltimore Sun to now, when the country is locking up more people but is experiencing lower rates of violent crime, he said.
The percentage of people in jail who have committed violent crimes has gone down from 32 percent to 7 percent during that time, he said, yet the U.S. puts more people behind bars than any other country.
“All the factories closed, and the only factory that opened up was the drug trade,” he said, terming it a “totalitarian contempt for the poor.”
In his 13 years on the police beat, Simon saw more lives ruined by alcohol than anything else, but there’s no war on alcohol because white people make it, he said.
He implored citizens to refuse to be part of a jury that convicts a person for nonviolent drug offenses and practice jury nullification.
The thrust of Simon’s lecture focused on the idea that America will rise and fall with labor.
Simon said the 10 states with the highest level of poverty are all right-to-work states. He pointed to PATCO as the beginning of the end. NAFTA should give preference to countries that allow collective bargaining, he said.
“Our leaders mistook capitalism for anything more than a tool in a toolbox. We let it triumph over labor. Labor is human beings. As a result, some individuals are worth more, but collectively, America is worth less.”
“There are two Americas, but we’re all connected,” Simon said. “At a certain point, they’ll come for us, for the jobs you thought were safe, for the jobs you were holding onto.”
They came for his job at the Baltimore Sun. Simon was part of the third round of buyouts, which came in 1995 before the Internet became a major factor.
“Wall Street found out you could make more money putting out a shitty newspaper than a good one,” he said. “The need to cover news didn’t shrink, but the jobs did.”
Newspaper companies didn’t invest in the product, so they didn’t feel comfortable charging for it online. Even a community college business student knows you either have a product that you charge for or you don’t have a product, he said. As a result, the Sun has gone from a newsroom of 550 journalists to just 120 today.
Simon also took aim at charter schools, especially those in New Orleans where the affluent have sent their children as the public schools, which were struggling even before Hurricane Katrina, are still fighting to rebound.
“If your parents can afford schools, that’s great,” he said. “But if they can’t, ‘Tough shit, little 8-year-old-boy, you’re fucked for life.'”
Public schools such as UNC, which suffered an 18 percent cut in state funding this year, are being “thrown on the altar of militarism,” he said.
Though Simon outlined problems facing the country in great detail and made a salient case for the death of American prosperity, he offered few solutions.
“We’ve made wrong decisions for so long, embraced our ideological decisions with such fervor, that there’s no way out of it,” he said.
As it stands, the country is covering up the issues, juking the stats, to use a phrase from The Wire. Instead of educating children, schools teach to the test. Instead of curbing addiction and providing jobs that are an alternative to street life, we show higher arrest statistics.
“We’re complicit because we want to hear this shit,” Simon said. “Politics is now what’s in it for me. We’re masters of that. … We look at our democracy as a la carte.”
He expressed disdain for an oft-quoted idea on the campaign trail of “small town values,” noting that 80 percent of Americans live in cities or suburbs.
“We aren’t going back toward an agrarian piece of pastoral wilderness,” he said. “Small towns can’t help us.”
Simon said the only thing that will help, regrettably, is when people start starving in larger numbers.
“The good news is, it’s going to get worse,” he said. “Eventually, someone is going to pick up a brick.”
He pointed to the Haymarket Riot of 1886 and the Detroit Riot of 1967 as examples of progress. We’re yet to duplicate those efforts today because “You can’t lead a revolution when you’re high” and because of the end of the military draft, which isolates the middle class from starting a movement.
When asked if President Obama, a noted fan of The Wire, learned the political lessons from the show, Simon said, “The Wire is about systems, how power and money wrap themselves. … Abandon the Great Man Theory. It no longer applies. There are no more Roosevelts, no more Lincolns. The elements that purchased democracy are bigger than Obama. They’ll wait him out.”
“It’s not who we elect anymore, it’s the process which we’ve created to elect them.”
The UNC Johnston Center plans to post video from Simon's lecture online later this week.