The Audacity of Despair

During the Olympics, President Bush sat down for a rather lengthy interview with Bob Costas.  Costas began a question about China’s problems by saying, “I know America has its share of problems, but….”  Almost before Costas could finish his question, Bush rushed and said, “America doesn’t have problems.”  Clearly President Bush and David Simon are not looking at the same America.  Simon, former journalist for The Baltimore Sun, acclaimed author of Homicide and The Corner, and the writer and producer of the greatest television series ever, The Wire, is currently serving as the writer-in-residence at Cal Berkeley.  Yesterday afternoon, he gave a lecture entitled “The Wire:  The Audacity of Despair.”

The hosts of the event, The Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities, seriously underestimated his popularity as they used a room with only about 180 seats or so.  Almost that many more stood or sat in the aisles.  Before he began, Simon quipped, “Where were you people when we were trying to pull numbers on HBO?” Simon spent much of the lecture bemoaning the state of politics and journalism in America and the influences they had on the creation of The Wire.  “The Audacity of Despair” was such an appropriate title given the likes of Bush’s naivete and McCain and Obama’s inability or unwillingness to get beyond petty bickering to talk about real key issues.  Simon argued that our politicians will never get past ad hominem attacks because our eviscerated journalists will never hold their feet to the fire.  A former journalist himself and the “victim” of a 1995 buy-out, Simon spent much time discussing the downfall of serious journalism, the barrenness of internet news, and the possible return of serious reporting through smaller, local, on-line subscription services.

Simon settled into his discussion about The Wire by recalling a recent trip to Harvard.  When the question and answer portion at the Harvard lecture came around, he grew nervous anticipating the intelligent, impossible-to-answer questions that these brilliant audience members would ask.  The first question from one of those ivory tower academicians:  “Why did you kill Stringer Bell?”  He knew then that he would be o.k.

So much of The Wire‘s revelation of government inefficiency and corruption seems unconscionable.  Simon, however, reminded the audience to consider Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav, and especially the reports of barges left in the canal.  During Katrina, one of these barges rammed into the levee and caused it to flood.  In a recent report on the eve of Gustav’s landfall, Simon read another account of three barges left in the canal.  Why could these barges not be moved away from the levees?  Simon argued that, in light of instances such as these, evil is not necessarily sinister people doing sinister deeds, although our country certainly has its fair share of that.  Rather, evil often involves people who simply do not care or people who simply want to have a better day at someone else’s expense.  Their mindset, Simon argued, “As long as it doesn’t fall on me.” Simon asserted that as a society we are culpable in this evil because we fail to ask the epic “Why?”  Instead of holding our leaders accountable for their failings and shortcomings, we accept their “shit” and call it gold.  Again, he referred to the loss of the “why?” in journalism as the main source of its downfall in America.

Simon wanted to assure the audience that he was remaining non-partisan in these comments.  He added, “My liberal ass is too busy running around beating up on as many people as possible.”  This is one of Simon’s great attributes, and The Wire‘s as well.  No one gets away easy.  During the question and answer session, he referred to his show as a parable.  If pressed further, he might have drawn similarities between his parables and Jesus’ parables, both of which undo the ruling powers of the day, expose injustice, shed light on virtue in strange places, and re-order the status quo.  The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

When Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin ridicule Barack Obama for being “just a community organizer,” they implicitly ridicule and belittle the communities in which he worked.  Simon and The Wire‘s gift to American society is that he takes those communities seriously, humanizing them in a way few other television series or politicians ever do.  The problems that face these communities are gargantuan, and these problems, along with society and the government’s inability or unwillingness to respond efficiently to them, enrages Simon.  He peppers his speeches with the occasional curse word and claims that anger, while not useful, is certainly not useless.  Perhaps we can harness a righteous anger creatively to combat implicit (and explicit) racism, greed, homophobia, and violence in our society.

Simon quoted Camus’ predicament:  to commit to a righteous cause in the face of extreme circumstances is absurd.  To not commit to a righteous cause in the face of extreme circumstances is also absurd.  However, only one choice offers the opportunity for human dignity.  Simon concluded, in part, by encouraging the audience to pick one of those righteous causes with which they connect and to fight, all the while knowing that you will not necessarily solve anything.  “At the least,” he said, “those bastards can’t say they weren’t told.”

One highlight of the lecture was a brief reference he gave to his current project and upcoming series, Treme, which focuses on a community in the ninth ward of New Orleans that is home to many local musicians.  The series, not a crime or war drama like his last two outings, focuses on these musicians as they return to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

David Simon, his writing, and his television series are not for the faint of heart.  He is no idealist, nor will he abide any, especially those that blindly claim America’s innocence and purity.  At an environmental conference at Yale earlier this year, I heard a speaker describe a prophet as simply someone who describes the situation as it is.  If that is the case, then Simon is one of the greatest prophets of our day.  Unfortunately, I am also reminded of the ways in which prophets are treated throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  It certainly did not seem like Simon was too bothered by his series’ low ratings.