Of the many reactions to last week’s bombshell story on the NSA’s telephone and online surveillance programs, perhaps none has generated as much controversy as David Simon’s.
Simon is most famous as the creator of the HBO series The Wire but had a long career beforehand as a Baltimore Sun crime reporter. He wrote a semi-defense of the NSA on his personal blog in which he blasted the Guardian and other news outlets for what he saw as their sanctimony and naivete, and the resulting traffic overwhelmed his server. Simon’s words reached an even wider audience after New York Times columnist Tom Friedman literally copy-pasted several paragraphs for his Wednesday column and called it a day.
The reaction to Simon among civil libertarians has been one of intense disappointment. Gawker editor John Cook snarked, “Television producer David Simon, who made his bones fictionalizing the foibles, corruption, and inescapable humanity of the City of Baltimore's public servants, has complete and unalloyed faith in the NSA's pure intentions in hoovering your telephone data until someone proves otherwise.” Simon, whose acclaimed series can be read as a polemic against neoliberalism, the drug war, and the collapse of the American Dream, now comes across to many fans as either naive or a sellout.
But Simon’s take shouldn’t come as a surprise to Wire fans, or to anyone who’s followed his cantankerous career. Much of The Wire is based on Simon’s experiences embedded among homicide detectives in West Baltimore, where he witnessed the legal intricacies involved in wiretapping suspected drug dealers — and it’s in these very intricacies that Simon grounds his defense of the NSA. For all that the show provides texture and humanity to drug dealers, its sympathies are no less with the police spying on them. Through all five seasons, there are countless scenes in which hardworking police officers sit for hours listening for actionable intelligence, lobby judges to sign warrants, or stake out rooftops watching to see who’s using payphones. As even-handed as it is in its treatment of cops and drug dealers, The Wire still ends up celebrating these police officers for their diligence and ingenuity, so why would Simon be any less impressed by cubicle-bound national security professionals?
All in all, there are two major things to keep in mind when we look at a defense like Simon’s. The first is that the gap between Simon and his critics isn’t just ideological, it’s generational. The 53-year-old Simon may actually regard telephones as more sensitive than the internet, because his own web presence is minimal. He has no Facebook or Twitter account, and his blog is only sporadically updated. The fifth season of The Wire, produced in 2007, covers the decline of print journalism without so much as mentioning the internet. Someone who spends so little time online may be mystified at why those of us who do imagine we have any privacy left to violate. Simon’s many critics have pointed out that the NSA’s permanent monitoring of all social media operates on a vastly larger scale than a few short-term phone taps. Simon answers this and other criticisms in a followup post, the gist of which is that scale shouldn’t matter in terms of the legal and constitutional questions raised. But someone who’s a digital native would have a very hard time accepting this argument at face value.
In explaining Simon’s relative comfort with the NSA program, what’s even more important than his personal media consumption habits is the strain of liberalism he represents. Specifically, The Wire should be seen as a defense of the labor-oriented, New Deal liberalism no longer fashionable among many in the elite media. The show’s second season asks us to sympathize with unionized dock workers who are losing their jobs to automation and globalization. “We used to make shit in this country, build shit,” says union leader Frank Sobotka, channeling Simon. “Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket.” Or to quote Simon himself, The Wire is a “meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class.…[I]t is a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy; that on its own, without a social compact, raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many.” For all its portrayal of government dysfunction, The Wire is ultimately nostalgic for an era when government enjoyed trust and respect, when police officers and school teachers were regarded as public servants rather than corrupt incompetents.
This puts Simon in the same camp as Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall, who has a thoughtful piece on the rift the NSA story has opened on the left. “If you see the state as essentially malevolent or a bad actor then really anything you can do to put a stick in its spokes is a good thing,” writes Marshall. Instead, Marshall stakes a claim for patriotism on the left, rooted in the idea that government shouldn’t be regarded as less trustworthy than the private corporations to which we already entrust our data. He sees the outrage the NSA has sparked among left-wingers and libertarians alike as rooted in a deep contempt for government, the same contempt animating the steady erosion of the welfare state and the idea that private citizens ought to be more heavily armed than the police.
Of course it’s easy to ridicule this logic. One can believe public services should be generously funded while simultaneously fearing the NSA’s potential to overreach and abuse its unprecedented surveillance powers. But even on issues of civil liberties, Simon has often gone against his fellow liberals. In March, he told an audience that he opposes the current movement to legalize marijuana, which came as a shock given his outspoken opposition to the drug war. It shouldn’t have. Simon opposes the drug war because of its disparate impact on poor and minority communities, not because of any affinity for drug culture or individual liberty (indeed, The Wire’s portrayal of drug addiction is enough to scare anyone straight).
Simon believes government is capable of doing good work, including good police and counterterrorism work, if only it were properly enabled to do so. He also sees a distinction between actual government abuses and the potential for abuses, a distinction lost on many of the NSA’s critics. As he puts it, “I’m far more affronted by a half dozen other authoritarian overreaches involving the drug war, Guantanamo, the executive branch’s use of drones against American citizens, or the DOJ’s chilling effect on a free press through the pulling of reporters’ phone records. Get ripe over all of that. Those abuses are actually occurring.”
David Klion is an editor at Bloggingheads.tv. He has watched "The Wire" in its entirety four times, and once asked David Simon a question.