David Simon

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It’s no mere coincidence painkillers have been the hot drug in America in this new century, because, wow, it’s hurt. 

Until recently, I had relatives living in the Oxy capital of NYC, and when I visited and walked around, it was a bit like encountering zombies, lost souls still hopeful enough to continue buying lottery tickets but unable to wish for more. That’s as much as the Dream lives not only there but in many stretches of the U.S. It’s been decades of decline for the former middle class, and for a lot of folks it feels like endgame. It’s not their imagination.

Big Pharma incentivized doctors to hand out fistfuls of opioid scripts, sure, but the loss of hope was the other toxic half of the equation. Hard drugs were once the province of the poor who were already at rock bottom and comfortably middle class kids who could afford a (temporary) fall, but almost nobody can pay that price anymore, even as the nation grows wealthier in the macro. That’s led some to do the unthinkable, to embrace a Berlusconi who dreams of being a Mussolini, someone who wants to Make America White Again. That’s a lottery without a winning number.

The great David Simon, the Victor Hugo of Baltimore, just conducted a Reddit Ask Me Anything and addressed this topic, among others. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

I can genuinely say that The Wire directly inspired me to pursue the career path that I’m in today. I first watched the show while in college, and it informed me about many issues that I had previously been unaware of or apathetic too. Bubbles story arc connected with me so deeply that I took my first sociology course and began volunteering with homeless populations. Today I’m working as a substance abuse and mental health care coordinator in the field of community health, where I primarily work with lower income and homeless individuals.

The content you create has an impeccable ability to educate the public about real world issues through compelling storytelling that is absolutely unmatched. Thank you for the work that you do and inspiring me to pursue a career in a field that I previously wouldn’t have considered.

At this point what do you believe needs to happen to start making an impact in combating the growing opioid epidemic in our country?

David Simon:

I believe the abuse of narcotics — whether street drugs or pharmasale — is the result of a fundamental existential crisis among working and middle-class Americans in the same way that it was once that for the underclass. We need to return to an economic model that values labor, and the human lives that comprise labor.


Question:

What’s your take on the Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter situation?

David Simon:

Black lives matter. So do blue lives. But the context of the “black lives matter” credo is that unlike blue lives, or white lives — which have de facto mattered in our country for generations — African-Americans have been far too vulnerable to unnecessary and hyperbolic response by law enforcement. This is simply so, and is now evidenced by the smart phone revolution.


Question

Where do you see print journalism heading in the next decade? Any examples of recent work that you find interesting?

David Simon:

I want and we need to see an on-line revenue stream for journalism established that ensures that professional reporters can earn a living covering the quotidian beats of institutionalized America. When stuff is funded, it’s good and fixed and every day. Citizen journalist is not a phrase I take seriously in any sense. I think Pro Publica and Mother Jones and a number of on-line elements show great chops; but the money still isn’t right. People need to pay and copyright has to matter again, or it can’t grow as it needs.

Question:

What can a common person do to stop the death of journalism?

David Simon:

Pay for it. Online. Pay a little bit each month. You did when they dumped it on the doorstep, and you can pay even less than that now to support the salaries of trained reporters and photographers and videographers.


Question:

What’s your bucket list project or subject that you’d like to tackle?

David Simon:

A history of the CIA from post-WWII to 9/11/2001. And a narrative of the American leftists who fought in Spain and paid early for our stated ideals. Also, a small feature film about David Maulsby, a rewrite man, and Jack, a gorilla at the Baltimore Zoo. I’ll say no more about that.•

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In a smart Marshall Project interview conducted by Bill Keller, David Simon, a Victor Hugo of our time, comments on the unrest in Baltimore after the brutal death of Freddie Gray, wisely asserting that ending the War on Drugs would mitigate some of our nation’s racial and class strife. That’s clearly true, but it’s just a piece of the problem, even if a sizable one.

Long before our pharmaceutical folly started during the Nixon Administration, there was a war on black people in America. As I’ve written before, from Jim Crow to George Zimmerman, pre-criminalizing African-Americans has pretended to be about keeping the peace when it’s really aimed at maintaining the power. Until institutional racism isn’t acceptable and there’s one standard of justice for all of us, there will be unfairness and unrest, and it won’t matter if every cop is the same race as the arrested. Remedying this problem isn’t easy, of course, because a lot of our attitudes are ingrained in us and unknown to us. 

Simon’s comments on former Maryland Governor and potential Democratic Presidential candidate Martin O’Malley are particularly worth reading.

The interview’s opening:

Bill Keller:

What do people outside the city need to understand about what’s going on there — the death of Freddie Gray and the response to it?

David Simon:

I guess there’s an awful lot to understand and I’m not sure I understand all of it. The part that seems systemic and connected is that the drug war — which Baltimore waged as aggressively as any American city — was transforming in terms of police/community relations, in terms of trust, particularly between the black community and the police department. Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war. It happened in stages, but even in the time that I was a police reporter, which would have been the early 80s to the early 90s, the need for police officers to address the basic rights of the people they were policing in Baltimore was minimized. It was done almost as a plan by the local government, by police commissioners and mayors, and it not only made everybody in these poor communities vulnerable to the most arbitrary behavior on the part of the police officers, it taught police officers how not to distinguish in ways that they once did.

Probable cause from a Baltimore police officer has always been a tenuous thing. It’s a tenuous thing anywhere, but in Baltimore, in these high crime, heavily policed areas, it was even worse. When I came on, there were jokes about, “You know what probable cause is on Edmondson Avenue? You roll by in your radio car and the guy looks at you for two seconds too long.” Probable cause was whatever you thought you could safely lie about when you got into district court.

Then at some point when cocaine hit and the city lost control of a lot of corners and the violence was ratcheted up, there was a real panic on the part of the government. And they basically decided that even that loose idea of what the Fourth Amendment was supposed to mean on a street level, even that was too much. Now all bets were off. Now you didn’t even need probable cause. The city council actually passed an ordinance that declared a certain amount of real estate to be drug-free zones. They literally declared maybe a quarter to a third of inner city Baltimore off-limits to its residents, and said that if you were loitering in those areas you were subject to arrest and search. Think about that for a moment: It was a permission for the police to become truly random and arbitrary and to clear streets any way they damn well wanted.

Bill Keller:

How does race figure into this? It’s a city with a black majority and now a black mayor and black police chief, a substantially black police force.

David Simon:

What did Tom Wolfe write about cops? They all become Irish? That’s a line in Bonfire of the Vanities.•

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If you trail down the lesser-remembered paths of Robin Williams’ career, you start to reacquaint yourself with stuff like his lead in the television adaptation of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day or his appearance on the second season of Homicide: Life on the Street. That show was adapted from then-Baltimore newspaper reporter David Simon’s book, and the future creator of The Wire was only a part-time TV writer when Williams guested on the ratings-challenged program. Simon has written a recollection of his meeting with the great actor, and I hope he wouldn’t think the segment I’m posting below too long. It’s a story that builds, and I felt like a mohel with a hacksaw each time I approached it for more cutting. The excerpt:

“I wanted to offer something — anything — and I thought about the Penn Street morgue in which we were standing.

‘Have you ever heard of the Nutshell Studies?’

He had not, of course.

‘They’re upstairs, off the hallway up there. I can show you. It’s not anything you could imagine, and since we’re actually in the morgue today…’

He nodded, a bit wearily, I thought, and a nervous production assistant followed us upstairs as I tried to explain the dollhouse-sized dioramas that were on display at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner here in Baltimore. Created as part of the Francis Glessner Lee Seminar for death investigation, a training regimen for police detectives originally funded by Harvard University, each diorama featured the occupants of a dollhouse room in the aftermath of violent death. The scenes were carefully detailed, and a detective in the seminar, as part of his final exam, could stare down at a tableau and determine, from the evidence in each room, whether the doll in question had died accidentally, taken his or her own life, or been willfully murdered.

Mr. Williams looked at each of the rooms, asking questions, fascinated by the macabre display. He guessed at a seemingly accidental death that was in fact a murder, then guessed again at a kitchen suicide by a young girl that seemed at first glance to be a stabbing. I could offer solutions to most of the displays only because I’d learned the answers, years before. The actor took it all in, clicking the buttons to light each diorama and then staring at all of the morbid goings-on until the P.A. told him he was needed back on set.

‘How long has that been here?’ he asked as we walked back.

‘They’re from the 1940s, I think.’

He nodded solemnly. Not a joke to be had.

He smiled for just a moment, but followed the P.A. back downstairs to the set, where the grips and gaffer were still lighting. And then, suddenly, it happened. Nothing specifically to do with the dollhouse horror show, or even the fact that we were filming in a working morgue, but instead the arrival of Mr. Levinson, the executive producer.  I wish I could remember the sequence, but there is no way in hell:

It began, I think, with something about Barry arriving as a mohel to circumcise the cast and crew, replete with an imitation offered up with Hasidic accent, then lurched into a string of jokes about how reluctant crew members could opt for an antemortem autopsy downstairs if they didn’t want to be so fixed by Mr. Levinson. There was a segue into all the other morbid Baltimore locales that would be featured in the episode, and all of the ghoulish degradations that would be endured by the crew, following by some savagery about the film caterer and then some banter with Mr. Belzer, who tried to hang for a few bon mots. But no, Robin Williams was firing all rockets, leaving earth’s orbit. I can’t remember all of the sparks of comic synapse, the absurd connections, the twisting journey from one punchline to the next.  I have a specific recollection of him announcing Mr. Levinson’s new NBC drama as The Pope and Judy, a warm-hearted romp that would make everyone forget that depressing mess about murders in Baltimore: ‘He’s the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church; she’s an adorable puppet.’

And then a mock-Italian voice, as a pope tries to fellate a falsetto-voiced puppet — the comedian’s left hand — with a communion wafer.

You had to be there. And, yes, I know that the phrase is used to connote moments that are less humorous in retrospect, but with Mr. Williams the live-wire volatility, the no-net comic gymnastics was part of the allure. If you were there, and I was, then you could scarcely breathe from laughing so hard and so long. The crew stopped working, forming a semicircle around him. Word went down the hallway and out to the trucks. More people rushed in to catch the shooting sparks, so that the entire production came to a halt as Robin Williams, quiet for days in the role of a grieving, wounded man, finally exploded. He was soaring for at least another five minutes before Mr. Levinson gave the slightest nod to his watch: We were losing the day.

Mr. Williams caught the look from the producer and ended the impromptu routine abruptly, with an awkward smile. His breathing was labored, and he looked to be genuinely embarrassed by his demonstration as cast and crew applauded with warm delight before returning to work. But it seemed that the actor had gone there as much for his own needs as for the audience, that he had come back downstairs from the dollhouse of the dead, readied himself to shoot another painful scene of grief and guilt, and then, in manic desperation, reached out for as much human comedy as ten minutes will allow.

I last saw him in the hallway, using the few remaining minutes before filming to face the wall and reacquaint himself with whatever horror he was trying to channel. He was sweating, too, as if it had taken all he had to rise to that warm summit and provoke such laughter. To my great surprise, his face was that of an unhappy man, and I retreated, saddened and surprised by the thought.”

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Here, in no particular order, are this year’s 20 selections. These pieces, which made me think or reconsider my opinions or just delighted me, are limited to ungated material that’s only a click away. (I included work from publications such as the New York Times which allow a certain amount of free articles per month.)

  • The Reality Show” (Mike Jay, Aeon) Brilliant essay that points out that the manifestations of mental illness are heavily influenced by the prevailing culture. In our case: ubiquitous technology.
  • Invisible Child–Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life (Andrea Elliott, New York Times) A tale of two cities in present-day New York told through the story of a talented grade-school girl trying to make it through the hard knocks of class divisions. What’s expressed tacitly is that if the best and brightest homeless children only have a so-so shot at success, those less gifted have almost none. 
  • The Robots Are Here” (Tyler Cowen, Politico Magazine): The best distillation yet of the economist’s ideas about where the technological disruption will lead us as a society. I’m not completely on board with his forecasting, but this article is smart and provocative.
  • In Conversation: Antonin Scalia(Jennifer Senior, New York) Amazing interview with the Supreme Court Justice which reveals him to a stunning, and frightening, extent.
  • Return of the Oppressed (Peter Turchin, Aeon) The father of Cliodynanics forecasts a dark future for humanity thanks to spiraling wealth inequality.
  • Omens (Ross Andersen, Aeon) With a focus on philosopher Nick Bostrom, the writer wonders whether humans will survive into the deep future.
  • Thanksgiving in Mongolia(Ariel Levy, The New Yorker) Heartrending story of a reporter’s loss in a far-flung place is personal journalism at its finest.
  • Blockbuster Video: 1985-2013 (Alex Pappademas, Grantland): A master of the postmortem lays to rest not a person but a way of life which is disappearing brick by brick and mortar by mortar. 
  • The Corporate Mystique” (Judith Shulevitz, The New Republic) A reminder that a female CEO is not a replacement for a women’s movement.
  • The Global Swarm” (P.W. Singer, Foreign Policy) The author considers privacy as drones get smaller, smarter and seemingly unstoppable.
  • The Master” (Marc Fisher, The New Yorker) A profile of a predatory teacher is most interesting as an extreme psychological portrait of the cult mentality.
  • Why the World Faces Climate Chaos” (Martin Wolf, Financial Times) An attempt to understand why we cling to systems that doom us, that could make us the new dinosaurs.
  • The Hollywood Fast Life of Stalker Sarah” (Molly Knight, New York Times Magazine) Thoughtful article about celebrity in our age of decentralized media, in which fame has entered its long-tail phase, seemingly available to everyone and worth less than ever. 
  • Academy Fight Song(Thomas Frank, The Baffler) The author plays the role of designated mourner for common sense in U.S. higher education, which costs more now and returns less.
  • The Wastefulness of Automation(Frances Coppola, Pieria) A smart consideration of the disconnect of free-market societies that are also highly automated ones.

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David Simon is a Zola, even a Hugo, of his time. I wonder, though, if someone with the perspective of a Zola or a Hugo might be so good at detailing street-level connections and consequences that he might not be perfectly attuned to technology’s broader philosophical questions. Simon fears that we may be headed for an Orwellian state, but I think that’s only part of the equation. I think 2084 will pose very different challenges than 1984. There will be more surveillance, drones and cameras the size of mosquitoes, but there will simultaneously be less central control, far more ghosts in the machines. The anarchy birthed on the Internet will be visited upon us in three dimensions. It will bring many great, innovative things and some scary, dangerous ones. No one, no government, will be able to control it all. The cameras and wires are symptoms of that coming decentralization and desperation.

But when it comes to the destruction that income inequality has wrought in America, to understanding those on the losing end of capitalism, to the realization that the so-called underclass is growing and hungry for more, I can’t think of a person who could better and more eloquently speak to these topics than Simon. From a new article in the Guardian taken from a recent speech he gave:

“Societies are exactly what they sound like. If everybody is invested and if everyone just believes that they have ‘some,’ it doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to get the same amount. It doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be people who are the venture capitalists who stand to make the most. It’s not each according to their needs or anything that is purely Marxist, but it is that everybody feels as if, if the society succeeds, I succeed, I don’t get left behind. And there isn’t a society in the west now, right now, that is able to sustain that for all of its population.

And so in my country you’re seeing a horror show. You’re seeing a retrenchment in terms of family income, you’re seeing the abandonment of basic services, such as public education, functional public education. You’re seeing the underclass hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, in terms of the sheer numbers of people we’ve put in American prisons and the percentage of Americans we put into prisons. No other country on the face of the Earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.

We have become something other than what we claim for the American dream and all because of our inability to basically share, to even contemplate a socialist impulse.

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There are things I dislike (guns and spying among them) that seem fairly impossible to control with the tools we presently have and those we will soon have. It’s almost naive to believe that we can legislate away such things. 

But here’s an idea: What if we’re in the sunset of a powerful centralized government in America? What if the same tools that are making it so easy to snoop are going to make regulation all but impossible? Perhaps the greatest concern in the future won’t be government control but a lack thereof.

An Atlantic piece by Emma Green provides coverage of “Who’s Afraid of Free Speech?” a Google event featuring E.L. Doctorow and David Simon which considered the NSA and the state of privacy. Perhaps the guests’ fears of an Orwellian state are warranted or perhaps they miss the point. Maybe 2084 has a whole different set of challenges in store for us. A passage about the complicity of information companies with a spying government:

Doctorow, a prolific author whose work includes a fictionalized account of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial, agreed: ‘They’re on the same page, as we like to say. The NSA couldn’t work without the agreement or participation of these companies. Their priority is to create wealth for themselves—you’re right to be alarmed.’ 

Google’s [Ross] LaJeunesse jumped in: ‘I really wasn’t going to interrupt the program, because I’m here to listen. But I did want to set the record straight,’ he said.

It is important, when we talk about these issues, to talk with specificity and to speak about facts. It is a real danger to conflate the actions of a government, that are not transparent, with something a company like Google does. We’re completely transparent. We give control to the users—they can use our services without signing in. If you choose to sign in, we give you complete control over that data as well. We even give you a button so that you can delete all that data at once or export it to another service.

Simon, a former Baltimore Sun journalist and the creator of the TV series The Wire, was dubious.

But is it a matter of hunting down these moments where Google … informs you that it is going to use your information in some new and varied way, and you have to negate [that use]?

I had to opt out of a program where stuff I said online could be used in advertising. That’s a rather cynical performance. Shouldn’t I have to opt into it, something that extraordinary?”

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