David Simon, creator of the seminal television of our time - The Wire, along with Treme, Generation Kill, The Corner and Homicide - observes that the shift away from advertising to a subscription model in television (through cable and, dominantly, HBO) was that which allowed Television to be ‘about something’. The structural shift meant that TV could stop being about ‘getting another season’ and aim about being about something worth being about, worth talking about, worth personally investing in, about Ideas. It should be acknowledged that this was a particularly American problem that needed solving as elsewhere in the world such as the UK and Australia, TV with rich long-form episodic storytelling had long been made by broadcasters whose economic model was not advertising based (witness the BBC and Australia’s ABC as well as numerous public broadcasters in Scandinavia and Europe) But Simon’s point is well observed and poignant. And in this lecture given at the University of North Carolina David takes time to articulate what it was that The Wire is about.
I watched and listened to David Simon speak in this video with a mix of wonder and terror. Wonder at the clarity, insight and intelligent humanity in his words; and downright terror that he is, in fact, right. That America is dead and there is no coming back from the abyss because Americans cannot bare to face their social problems let alone address them. Indeed he observes that just when he thinks his cynicism has gone too far he is “out manoeuvred by reality….”
Being Australian but having lived some time in the US I understood in some personal way the issues he speaks about and which The Wire explores. I came to the US from a country where going to the doctor cost nothing and all your medical bills are covered by a small contribution from your tax return. And if you didn’t get a tax return you didn’t pay anything. A country where a university education was a government subsidised loan barely out of 4 figures and which you only paid back through incremental tax proportional to your income. Going to America with that kind of sensibility about social institutions like Health and Education made my confrontations with the US Health and Education systems very confronting and not just a little baffling. How can the richest country on the planet function like this? How can it live with itself? How can it justify this absurdity….?
And yet when I listen to Simon speak in this video I strangely do not find myself smiling smugly and thankfully that Im not American, I don’t find myself thankful that me and my family are not trapped in the demise of this rusted machine we call the USA. Instead I feel terrified…. For when i hear the discourse of Australian politics over the past 2 decades, when i reflect upon our own privatisation of public assets, the demise of the unions, the monetization of the poor, i look at the current America as a prophecy of an Australian future. When i hear popular discourses in Australia use the word ‘socialist’ as if it were an insult, or see left and right political parties speak with the same language that plants unregulated Capitalism as an Idealogical truism that somehow cannot be questioned, I am terrified…. Why are we following the American experiment when it has proven to fail so badly?
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