Simon: On the End of the American Empire

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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 above 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 that serve them and 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.

Here are Simon’s thoughts about a political solution:

And, it is even out of our control in a democratic sense. If you are going to go out and vote at the next election, your vote doesn’t matter. If you thought you were living in a democracy, if you bought into that, you gotta go to the dictionary and look up the word oligarchy, and you have to really think about what it means.

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.

(ps, I’ll get back to Blog Voices This Week sometime. I just didn’t have much time this week for surfing.)


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  1. can be done to support the value of human dignity in the face of this worship at the alter of capitalism and greed?

  2. when Bunny helps create Hamsterdam was also pretty radical.

    I definitely see it as a larger metaphor for America, actually I thought the theme was pretty overt. The scene in Memphis is very similar to what is depicted in Baltimore. Not only does everybody know how rigged the system is, but most people I work with can tell you exactly which lawyer to call depending on what your trouble is and who they are connected to in the corruption cycle.

  3. First – cops and drug rings

    Second – the port and the death of the unions

    Third – reform

    Fourth – middle schools

    The theme for the fifth season is the media. Here’s how the HBO website describes it:

    Explains series creator David Simon, “It made sense to finish ‘The Wire’ with this reflection on the state of the media, as all the other attendant problems of the American city depicted in the previous four seasons will not be solved until the depth and range of those problems is first acknowledged. And that won’t happen without an intelligent, aggressive and well-funded press.”

    This season of ‘The Wire’ is based in large part on Simon’s experiences in 13 years at The Baltimore Sun. Simon decries recent trends in the newspaper industry that have conspired to make high-end journalism vulnerable: out-of-town chain ownership, an economic climate in which the share price of media companies matters more to industry leaders than the product itself, and a newsroom culture in which prizes, personal ambition and the cult of the “impact” story has replaced consistent and detailed coverage of complex issues as the primary goal.


  4. at the thought of controlled demolition, we are seeing a planned financial meltdown.

    Why?  There’s no power like the power over money/finance, no more clever scheme of entrapment than creating a debt-based society where mortgages are confused with ownership.  In this situation a cashless monetary system can at last be effective.

    Laugh, go on.  Know who John Negroponte is?  Well I was briefly under the tutelage of his kid brother Nick Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab fame, and 25 years ago as a video intern in the same building I got quite an earful about scientists eagerly looking forward to the prospect.  Think about it:  what the terror lifestyle is all about is total control, a police state.  If you get cash out of the picture and force everything through “Central” there is no more effective tyranny.

    The coming financial collapse is no surprise at all to the globalists.

    • robodd on December 16, 2007 at 18:50

    can you tell us more about the show itself?

  5. for The Wire yesterday which includes both Tom Waits and Steve Earle amongst many other cool cats.

    Mighty impressive.

  6. belong here but now is when I’m thinking them.  I have been listening to a book review of a book called ‘The Paranoia Switch’ by Martha Stout, a former Harvard Medical School professor and psychologist. The book is basically about the national fear induced in the American people following 9/11. The switch was  flicked and held open by ruthless warmongering people, and they were not the terrorists who killed us on that day.

    It is obvious now that terror induced paranoia was adeliberate control mechanism imposed by the Bush administration in order to further their own imperial agenda, and political gain.  Not only have they induced fear and hatred in an entire people they have succeded way beyond the expectations of rational people to implant hatred on a global level of an entire belief system, by that I refer to the Muslim religion, wherever it exists but particularly damaging in European nations where mass migrations of ‘minority’ groups has changed the national psyche of entire countries, along with the unification of formerly xenophobic nationalistic nations that led to two major world wars.  

    That fear has now been or is in the process of being extended to anyone who crosses America’s borders illegaly.

    They have managed to create a climate where Americans are being told to view anyone who is the ‘other’, particularly if the other has a differently tinted skin color or a foreign accent or speaks a foreign language and to view them on an individual basis as ‘terrorists’ whose own mission in life is to destroy our way of life and kill americans.  If they don’t suceed in doing that they will take our jobs, they will swamp our schools, overrun our hospitals and pose a terminal threat to our concept of our own superiority.

    They have suceeded in defining ‘human dignity’ as a perk of freedom loving people, which has become a euphemism for rightwing fundamental Christians, and the exclusive privilege of having been born an American, this is the inalienable right endowed in us by our Creator.

    The author calls this ‘limbic warfare’, an asault on the very deepest psyche and soul of an entire people instilled by fear.

    It seems to me that it is up to us to heal ourselves and rid ourselves of this irrational hatred and despair. It is no good looking toward a leader, a spirital guru, a president, a preacher or a poet. We must reach deep within our our own personal reservoirs of love and tolerance  to discover what to us is a ‘dream of humanity’ we must hold for not just us, but for all the other members of the human race in other lands.  Only then can we claim to be fully human entitled to dignity and respect.

    We too often oinvest far too much capital in material possessions to give us this ephemeral ‘American Dream’. Until we can achknowledge and accpet the rality that is A HUMAN DREAm and not an exclusive Americam desire we shall remain fearlful that someone is going to take it away form us.

    The seeds of our alvation lie within and only we can sow and nurture tham in the stony ground left to us today by this cyncial, greedy, arrogant, manipulative fearful bunch of despicable inhuman men and women.

    Let us reclaim the dream for all mankind ourselves. Before we decide who we want to lead us we need to decide where we want to be led.

    • kj on December 17, 2007 at 00:05

    too personal, this is exactly what my husband stood up and did a few years ago. There I was there, sitting at the head table with the muckitymucks in my one good dress and wrap with no idea that he was about to jump off the cliff, right there, right then. It was frightening, thrilling and you really could ‘hear a pin drop. I will never be able to explain how surreal the event was. I felt as if this moment had been written for him, and me by extension, from the day we were born. Everything we’d ever done and believed had led us to that place. He spoke again a few months later. By then, we already knew we were goners, and I reveled in the sense of joy that my husband’s energy translated to the crowd.

    Anyway, long story short… he put it all on the line, career, passion, everything. Painful?  Oh yeah. Professional suicide? Oh yeah.

    We were stuck in the middle of nowhere, no job, no $$ for cobra, no $$ for a move, and went into serious debt until a friend of his gave (who founded an educational non-profit,of course!) him some work to tide us over until he could land another position. It took a year.

    I’m not sorry any of it happened. It had to happen.  We’re only two people in this system and there was no choice to make but the ones that were made.

    This diary, and the others here recently, hit me right where I live. This place is truly a wellspring. I am inspired every day, and thoughts about where to put the passion next get clearer every day. I’m am grateful for this place.

    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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