Of Politics and Vice

The philosopher Bertrand Russell once dismissed politics as a kind of work that amounts to little more than “the art of public speaking,” or, as he called it, “advertising.” This may seem a bit impolite coming from Russell, who, prior to the first world war, had established himself as a kind of standard bearer for British respectability. But reports of mangled bodies and collapsed lungs could change the outlook of even those privileged few who preferred to sip cognac from the safety of their gentlemen’s clubs and debate the merits of organized warfare. So after the war, Russell betrayed his bourgeois sensibilities to turn his considerable philosophical talents to social questions like, what is work?

Most people, he said, do the “unpleasant and ill-paid work” of merely moving things and altering stuff at or near the earth’s surface. A lucky few, on the other hand, get to do the “pleasant and highly-paid” work of ordering others around about where to move things and alter stuff. Politics happens when the lucky people giving orders disagree about something and use words, instead of trowels and mallets, to resolve the issue. Most of us do the first kind of work. Some of us do the second kind. A lucky few of us get to sit back and organize those involved in the first and second kind.

This may seem a simplistic analysis for such a complicated thinker, and indeed, Russell liked to get cheeky––in that way that only the British can get cheeky––when he was addressing messy social issues that defied careful logical analysis. Nonetheless, as I’ve stated before, “it is sometimes useful to locate Archimedean points upon which our assertions can rest… until [that time when] we have better investigative tools.” I struggle to introduce my own biases into a piece like this. Strong writing, we are told, eschews the subjective in favor of the supposed objective reporting of facts. But I find Russell’s analysis of work useful insofar as, when it’s imposed on our messy social reality, it appears generally true.

Let’s take, for example, how Weber County, Utah, handled vice in the mid-nineteenth century. At the time, the city commissioner lamented how “commercialized gambling, prostitution, and corrupt morals bred crime and disease, destroyed body and soul, tended to stymie all character-building work that was commendable in the home, school, church, and in all organizations and institutions.” In some sense, I appreciate his perspective. According to Aristotle, a vice indicated the deficiency or excess of a virtue. If someone aimed to cultivate the virtue of honesty, for example, they identified its two associated vices––dishonesty and bluntness––and tried to live honestly within the mean between these two extremes. We don’t always think of virtues as a character traits anymore––which is a shame, really––because of how few truly impressive people we encounter out there in the world. But at the same time, the city commissioner’s work was little more than advertising disguised as persuasive speaking. He used the tools of his trade—words—the way stone masons used the tools of their trade—trowels and mallets—to publicly accuse Ogden’s police department and mayor’s office of not doing enough to clean up the city. He was no Aristotelian. He just knew how to use Aristotle when it sounded good.

Lost in all this pretty rhetoric were the actual people—on both sides of the divide—who did all the “unpleasant and ill-paid work” the politicians debated: the desperate women who, in volatile times, resorted to prostitution to survive, or the police officers who raided brothels to prevent the prostitutes from making that kind of decision—effectively doing one kind of work to prevent another kind from happening. Nobody seemed to know what was really going on on the ground among these workers. Indeed, when the mayor was asked why the police chief had yet to report on the matter, he said, “I can’t speak for him… it’s hard enough to speak for myself.” Politics, in other words, is a funny kind of work that way. It deals in words, and, when words fail, it retreats to silence. While everyone else just keeps working.


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