People of the Book David Simon’s Baltimore

David Simon (Photo by Hannah Monicken)

Were you at Beth Am Synagogue last Kol Nidrei, you would have seen David Simon standing at the Aron with his young daughter and all the other new members with last names starting with S through Z. Two feet to his left was another burly Jew, a foot shorter, his jaw on the floor. Except on Monday, I never again saw David Simon at Beth Am, so I think I’m safe — this column’s readers makes “The Wire’s” original audience look like “MASH’s.”

David Simon is what passes for an A-list celebrity in Baltimore. When The Wire was on, nobody watched it. After it went off, many called it the greatest show ever. I think The Wire deserves neither fate. I’m the only Baltimorean who hasn’t binge-watched it, but from the 20ish episodes I watched, it’s a very good show whose preachiness disguises a police procedural. It’s funny, has great characters, but not as insightful as fans think.

It’s worse than fans think, better than fans deserve. It insists affluent whites recognize plights of people they’d never acknowledge, but gives them a prurient view for which they congratulate themselves. When radical-chic fans turned on Simon for decrying the 2015 riots, he reaped what he sowed.

“The Wire’s” subject is the modern city’s mechanisms — characters exist as cogs in that machine. I’m amazed its characters are interesting because individuality in “The Wire” is present to show how it’s crushed, and every personality becomes what the system demands of him (and why are there so few women?) Those who cannot adapt self-destruct. If that’s the way the world is, then a show criticizing the system wouldn’t find an audience, so why do millions love “The Wire”?

And what system does The Wire rail against? Is it capitalism? Bureaucracy? All I’m sure of is that it hates “the system.” Ideologues see “systems” as the problem, not the messy humans who invent and maintain them. I even wonder if Simon hates the system he decries. He takes us through its details as only someone who loves it can.

Whether or not “The Wire’s” Baltimore is accurate, we live in David Simon’s Baltimore. He’s more a presence than John Waters ever was. To find a Baltimore colossus his size, go back a century to H. L. Mencken. I doubt either self-identified as “progressive,” but both were taken up by their day’s progressives, and gave their biggest fans vituperation in return. Mencken was even more an idol to early 20th-century progressives than Simon is to early 21st. A century ago, progressives looked at urban decay and blamed the democratic machine. Today’s progressives look at urban decay and blame the capitalist machine. Neither Simon or Mencken were 100 percent against the systems they blamed, but both would probably light a match if they could have. Will Simon seem any more a giant in 2117 than Mencken is now? I’m skeptical, but who knows? Maybe today’s progressives get it right where yesterday’s were wrong, but doesn’t it say something that opinions of David Simon’s shows are tied to political confirmation bias?

Like Mencken, Simon’s more complicated than his hatreds. Within its constricting framework, it’s a miracle that “The Wire” is as good as it is. “Treme” is better still — even if I’m the only one who thinks so. Maybe New Orleans deserves more dignity than Baltimore, but even with Simon’s preachiness, the characters of “Treme” seem much freer to be themselves. Better still is a speech Simon gave about the “Two Americas” at a festival in Sydney, Australia, which, aside from the subtitle “My Country is a Horror Show,” is actually quite nuanced. You can find it on The Guardian’s webpage.

But the most nuanced production my non-expert eye ever saw from him was, of all things, the immigration rally he staged at Beth Am this week. I wouldn’t have gone were I not a Beth Am member, but were I there for any other reason, I’d be blowing trumpets about what I saw, because this event was what advocacy should always be and never is. Just a dash of the usual personal stories and cheerleading, and in their place, education on the problems’ history, instruction on conceptual thinking, technical advise on how to fight adversity and demanding money.

Perhaps all this time, Simon was just being an activist of genius. Maybe “The Wire” and “Treme” and “The Corner” were all a little lacking as popular art because they’re meant as gigantic works of didactic advocacy, and if they take on the qualities of art, it’s because he’s just that good an advocate for what he believes. If they are, then 59 more events like what he put on at Beth Am could be his masterpiece.

Evan Tucker is North Baltimore-based writer and composer. He is the violinist and lead singer of the Yiddish rock band Schmear Campaign and has a monthly podcast, “Tales from the Old New Land,” which is a Jewish version of A Prairie Home Companion. Listen at podomatic.com/podcasts/oldnewland.

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