Saturday, December 15, 2007

Simon: On the End of the American Empire

I am wholly pessimistic about American society. I believe The Wire is a show about the end of the American Empire. We are going to live that event. How we end up and survive, and on what terms, is going to be the open question.

David Simon, creator of "The Wire"

This week I spent every evening watching the dvd's of the fourth season of HBO's "The Wire." I know that Armando plans to write about the fifth season that starts January 6th, so I thought I'd give some background about how the creator has envisioned the show and its purpose since it seems to echo so many of the themes that we talk about here.

The quote at the top is from a speech David Simon made over a year ago at Loyola University. If you've got half an hour, I'd highly recommend watching the three segments of this on youtube here, here, and here. I'll summarize some of his main points. But of course, I can't do the whole thing justice in a few words.

Simon explains the reasons for the end of the American Empire this way:

We are in the postindustrial age. We do not need as many of us as we once did. We don’t need us to generate capital, to secure wealth. We are in a transitive period where human beings have lost some of their value. Now, whether or not we can figure out a way to validate the humanity of the individual, I have great doubts...

As for the characters on the program, their lives are less and less necessary. They are more and more expendable. The institutions in which they serve are indifferent to their existence.

I don't know about you, but I can relate to this statement. Other than mirroring the reality I see in this urban area on a daily basis, it also captures the way I feel about affecting our current political situation. As I watch Bush/Cheney or Congress respond to us about issues like the war, it seems clear that we are expendable and they are totally indifferent to our existence.

Simon goes on to say...

I didn’t start out as a cynic, but at every given moment where this country has had a choice - its governments, institutions, corporations, its social framework - to exalt the value of individuals over the value of the shared price, we have chosen raw unencumbered capitalism. Capitalism has become our god. You are not looking at a marxist up here, but you are looking at somebody who doesn’t believe that capitalism can work absent a social framework that accepts that it is relatively easy to marginalize more and more people in this economy. Capitalism has to be attended to. And that has to be a conscious calculation on the part of society, if that is going to succeed. Everywhere we have created an alternate america of haves and have-nots. At some point, either more of us are going to find our conscience or we’re not.

Simon ends his speech with this:

The Wire is certainly an angry show. It’s about the idea that we are worth less. And that is an unreasonable thing to contemplate for all of us. It is unacceptable. And none of us wants to be part of a world that is going to do that to human beings. If we don’t exert on behalf of human dignity at the expense of profit and capitalism and greed, which are inevitabilities, and if we can’t modulate them in some way that is a framework for an intelligent society, we are doomed. It is going to happen sooner than we think. I don’t know what form it will take. But I know that every year America is going to be a more brutish and cynical and divided place.
emphasis mine

I think Simon is both prescient and prophetic in his analysis of our situation. He leaves us with a dilema that is at least as much personal, social and even spiritual as it is political. He does not claim to have the answers to this dilema, nor do I. But, as "The Wire" demonstrates, we are creating a jungle mentality in service of this god of capitalism. There is certainly impending doom if we can't find a way to begin to place human dignity FOR ALL above profit, capital, and greed.

One of the things that season four of "The Wire" dealt with in several situations was the way this dilema manifested personally for various people in law enforcement and politics. Moments came when people had choices to make about whether to maintain their integrity or "go along to get along" so as not to ruin their careers. They could always rationalize playing the game as a way to maintain their position - and therefore their power to have some positive influence. But ultimately, it was their capitulation that allowed the corrupt systems to be maintained. This gave me a sense of what I need to think about and where courage may actually comes into play. Am I willing to risk my ego, my career, my security in order to challenge a corrupt system? Perhaps, when that choice presents itself, I'll be more prepared to take a risk and make my statement on behalf of human dignity. I hope so.

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