Tag Archives: david simon

The Tragedy Writes Itself

22 Sep

Review: Show Me a Hero (SPOILER ALERT)

David Simon is among the last people I would turn to in search of a portrait of a hero, but the man behind The Wire undertakes that very task in his latest project, a mini-series that aspires to give us one. And yet, with some help from an incessant Springsteen soundtrack and some of The Wire’s old bit players, Simon transports us back to Yonkers, New York, in the 1980s, and makes us believe, if only for a little while. Show Me a Hero is Simon at his peak, all of his Wire themes boiled down into six quick hours as a city grapples with its own soul. In a novel burst that shows a different side of Simon, the city finds that soul.

The apparent hero is Nick Wasicsko, the kid mayor who becomes the unlikely force to push through a court-ordered public housing plan. The wealthy denizens of Yonkers’ east side want no part of these units, and the opportunistic Wasicsko plays to that fear to steal an election from a longtime incumbent. But Judge Leonard Sand orders the city’s desegregation full-stop, and Wasicsko quickly comes to see he is powerless to stop the construction. He becomes the reluctant champion of public housing. In just a few hours he endures riot-like council hearings and cantankerous councilors who’d rather go to jail for contempt than face reality, to say nothing of KKK graffiti and a pipe bomb. It takes courage to persevere here, or at the very least an unassailable sense of pride. Wasicsko may or may not have the former, but he certainly has the latter, and as such, heroism is his to claim.

It’s been said that it’s impossible to write a book or a television script that is both broad and deep; one must err on one side. Simon’s work always falls on the broad side. He gives us a rich tapestry of life in the Yonkers projects, and even if viewers only get to know bits of characters and can’t remember their names, they endure. This is politics at its most profound, the human relationships rising above any policy platform or high ideal. On occasion there are back room deals in gruff New York accents, but most of the time the drama plays out through frantic conversations in community centers or living rooms, and no one knows how they’re going to turn out. These people must find their way in the dark, act as if they have history on their side when no one really knows how it will all turn out. They show us the full range of human emotion as the world around them compels them to show us their best and worst sides.

Nick Wasicsko, in the end, is a fairly static figure, and only in the final two episodes do we come to see how sadly shallow he is. The goofy kid who jumped into politics at the beginning of the series has not matured one bit, and instead thinks his heroism has entitled him to glowing love. His steady decline is both glaring and painful, and while he may be a bit one-dimensional, the deep dive into that one dimension is all too real. Nick has fallen for the political game. Even in the narrow world of Yonkers intrigue, which reverts to the public works department totem pole once the housing war blows over, he is too far into the cave.

Those of us with the political bug likely know the power of this allure, and how easily pride can destroy someone with no other anchor for self-worth. When validation comes from votes or political favors, happiness is even more illusory than usual, and life becomes nothing but a series of battles, all life-affirming victories or soul-crushing defeats. Any cycle between the two is dead, and a when the breaking point comes, doom is not far off. For Wasiscko, this most likely comes on the day when he visits the projects he nursed to life and learns that no one cares who he is. Fitzgerald may have come up with the quote that gives the series its title—show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy—but the Greeks were on to this a few millennia ago. Simon, presumably, knows this, and the tale follows the classic arc with exacting precision.

I’ve maintained for some time that there are no heroes; no one can stay on the pedestal for long. No, there are only heroic acts, and we can all aspire to them from time to time, when circumstances align—just as surely as we can sink into the darkness that consumed Nick. But even more heroic than Nick Wasiscko, perhaps, are people like Doreen Henderson and Mary Dorman, women with no claim on the political life before the housing situation thrusts it upon them. Both women find their voice over the course of the series, and in radically different ways: Doreen escapes the crack epidemic and organizes the new housing tenants into a cohesive community, while Mary, first spurred to rally against the housing plan in public debate, becomes its most committed advocate once she sees the human face of her new neighbors. There is no pretense here, no gamesmanship; only people coming examine their conscience and see the world with eyes wide open. Reality doesn’t always work this way, but it’s refreshing to see Simon show this side of the story in addition to the well-worked tragedy.

An aspiring planner can’t help but acknowledge the other star of the show: Oscar Newman, the architect, planner, and father of defensible space theory. His formula is shockingly simple: spread out public housing to reduce the effects of concentrated poverty, and eliminate common spaces that no one can care for. By giving residents ownership of their new townhomes and eliminating the public hallways or stairwells, the Yonkers projects give them the necessary stake in the protection of their territory. The feared blights never arrive, and the series leaves us with children playing in their new lawns, their wonder is the perfect foil to the staring, fearful white neighbors. Simon appears to have more faith in public housing scholarship than anyone I’ve ever met in the academy, and seems to believe a few smart planners can make things right. This is a more mature Simon than the one who went to (literally) absurd lengths to find any decency in the world in The Wire, and in a certain 2012 commencement address. Maybe the man is a softie after all.

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Confronting Baltimore: David Simon at Georgetown, 2012

1 May

Baltimore is in the news this week, and any mention of Baltimore seems to make anyone in my very narrow circle make excited references to The Wire, that pinnacle of twenty-first century television. The Wire, in turn, makes me think of David Simon, the producer and brains behind the whole operation. Three years ago, on a sunny morning in Washington D.C., he gave the Georgetown College Class of 2012 commencement address. It will surprise no one who knows his work that it was a thoroughly depressing speech. Here is the text, coming from his blog named (you can’t make this stuff up) “The Audacity of Despair”:

http://davidsimon.com/commencement-address-georgetown-university/

Alright, that’s misreading Simon’s words. He’s making a deeply existentialist appeal, one that calls on people to continue the good fight in spite of the impossibility. He builds a case for national unity in the face of apparent divergence, and the events in Baltimore only underscore that concern. His diagnosis of Baltimore’s miseries in The Wire proved all too prescient, and it may indeed take a dose of Camus for anyone who has confronted this disorder to believe in any chance of improvement.

Unfortunately, Simon isn’t reading Camus quite right. Camus doesn’t confront the question of suicide because he thinks political change is impossible; he confronts it because he knows that all knowledge is impossible, and because there is always another way to look at things, no single political platform will do. There is no answer, and the world is incoherent. This, and not the possibility or impossibility of progress, is what leads Camus to call life absurd, and to suggest we soldier ahead along the one path that offers dignity, imagining Sisyphus as happy.

Very well; onward we go. Simon certainly offers a worldview; a plan of attack of sorts. He offers one lens that purports to make sense of it all. It uses nihilism, the cheapest of philosophical absolutes, as an attempt to come off as a world-wise sage. Who knows where we’re supposed to reconcile that nihilism with the genuine care for humanity that comes out of his lens. It’s a Western liberal lens concerned primarily with the rights of one’s countrymen. It sees humans in isolation, unequal, struggling for these abstractions we call rights. The policy prescription is liberal boilerplate. Halting steps might be realistic, though the end goal, as Simon readily admits, is impossible.

Yes, impossibility can inspire; I begrudge no one for chasing it. We talk a good game, say we can achieve it, and some people out there really do. But it sets an absurdly high bar, and it’s no wonder the platform faces such long odds. Many people spend most of their lives without daring to contemplate that shadow of doubt, focused relentlessly on what is before them, for good or ill. Many who do recognize it fold before it, unwilling to make Simon’s “absurd” leap. A belief of impossibility, after all, is what drives a teenager in Baltimore to throw a rock through a window. If the call to service requires either naïveté or this high a level of philosophical belief, perhaps the lens shouldn’t be our primary entry to the situation.

This doesn’t mean one who wants to “fix” Baltimore can’t have many of the same end goals or employ some of the same analytical tools as Simon; it’s just that one has to understand their place. They are means to approximate reality, not reality itself. No one lens, nor even any number of lenses deployed at once, can see that. Modern liberalism likes to think it can, and while it may come closer than many others, it still fails. Take it away, Octavio Paz:

Today a universal relativism reigns triumphant. The term is contradictory: no relativism can be universal without losing its relativity. We live in a logical and moral contradiction. Relativism has given us many good things, and the best of these is tolerance, the recognition of the other. Although I have no nostalgia for the old religious and philosophical absolutes, I’m aware that relativism–apart from its intrinsic philosophical weakness–is an attenuated form and in certain ways hypocritical of nihilism. Our nihilism is surreptitious and is coated in a false universal benevolence. It’s a nihilism that doesn’t dare say what it is. I prefer cynics, I prefer Diogenes in his barrel. A relativist society doesn’t admit what it is: a society poisoned by the lie, a slow but certain venom. The remedy, perhaps, requires a return to classical thinkers.

There is an alternative. An alternative that avoids the knee-jerk turn to the failed dreams of a narrow worldview. One that dispenses with the grand sociological theory and anger at systems, and turns attention to the immediate. One that sees history not as a blind arc from darkness to light, but caught up in a tumult of connections and feedback loops. Full understanding is impossible, but we can approximate it, and that calls for the full arsenal of perspectives we can imagine, and the humility to never claim complete knowledge. When we admit our own limitations, wonder at the void we do not know can return, and suddenly everything is a bit less bleak, a bit less doomed to failure. It is a happier, healthier place to reside.

It was at Georgetown that I came to see that different lens for what it was, and, haltingly, embrace it, though I have some fear the latest curriculum decision there will only push Georgetown further toward the vogue lens. The rush to see everything through the lens of “diversity,” I fear, will neglect any attention to a moral language that underlies the most basic human relationships, the ones that go deeper than identity-driven labels and thought constructs and settle on reality. People will settle on the established battle lines and war away, without stopping to take a closer look. Camus, for one, never lost sight of this: when while the rest of the French intelligentsia embraced the anti-colonial revolt in Algeria, Camus, an Algerian of French origin, saw more nuance. “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” He was able to strip away all the rhetoric of the age and see the human drama beneath, entranced by the little details that no one has time for.

To his credit, I think David Simon realizes this on some level. His analysis of the state of the Baltimore Police Department, right or wrong, shows keen insight. Beneath all the sociological sharpness of this and The Wire, though, are a lot of paper-thin characters. Simon’s attempt to study deeper human workings just aren’t there. But that, I suppose, would require an audacity far greater than cheap despair.