Rawls and The Wire

John Rawls, son of Baltimore: 1921-2002 (photo: Steve Pyke).

Recently I’ve started renting episodes of The Wire, the brilliant series first broadcast on HBO. The show is set in contemporary Baltimore, and revolves around of a group of police who struggle to reign in a drug-dealing gang. The program is extremely well-written (particularly the authentic inner-city speech of the criminal characters) and more realistic than any other show I’ve seen. Most of the actors are black, for example, a rarity for a television drama, but in keeping with real-life Baltimore. More than anything, however, The Wire stands out for the way it conveys a particular mood and worldview, one that might be called pessimist realism. Rather than being the obvious good guys, the show’s police characters are largely amoral, and spend as much time combating each other and their department’s bureaucracy as they do fighting crime.

The show was created by David Simon, who also wrote and produced Homicide. Simon used to be a police reporter, which perhaps explains why so many of the show’s details ring true. According to Simon, The Wire doesn’t aspire to be a regular cops and robbers TV show with lots of bang-bang. Instead, it is “really about the American city, and about how we live together. It’s about how institutions have an effect on individuals, and how… whether you’re a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge [or] lawyer, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you’ve committed to.”

The show has attracted considerable attention from critics, but so far few of them have expressed much interest in the character William Rawls, played by the talented actor John Doman. Rawls is the superior officer to homicide Detective Jimmy McNulty, the closest thing The Wire has to a hero. As a boss, Rawls is a bureaucratic nightmare. In the episodes I’ve seen, he is far more concerned with his unit looking good on paper than actually solving murders. As he comes to resent McNulty’s attempts to crack a big case, Rawls gradually grows more vindictive and menacing.

The Wire‘s William Rawls, played by John Doman (photo: HBO).

Is Rawls’s name a reference to the philosopher John Rawls? That was the question I asked myself as soon as I heard the character’s name. As it happens John Rawls was born in Baltimore, so Rawls may simply be a common surname in that part of Maryland. But whether or not Simon was making a conscious allusion, it adds a layer of interest to interpret The Wire in light of William Rawls’s philosophical namesake.

Like Simon, Rawls was interested in institutions, particularly institutions of justice. His writings also frequently address the issue of rights and liberties, a subject that often comes up in The Wire (the show is something of a crash course in all the regulations that prevent police from conducting surveillance without a warrant, or committing other civil-liberties violations). That is where the positive parallels end, however. Rawls the philosopher was an idealist, deeply committed to a vision of justice as impartiality. The Wire by contrast is the opposite of idealistic, and portrays a moral universe in which impartiality is a distant dream.

John Rawls was famous for devising what he called the Veil of Ignorance, a philosophical tool he asked us to use when deciding what rules and principles public institutions of justice (the police, the legislature, the courts etc.) should uphold. The Veil prevents us from knowing any particular aspect of our identity, such as our race, gender, class, religion, etc. With this restriction in mind, we imagine that we are debating what the principles of justice should be with people who are also unaware of their personal identities.

In this way, Rawls argued, we will avoid settling on laws and principles that favour this or that group of people based on their race or other personal characteristic. Instead, the law will apply impartially to everyone. As part of his commitment to impartiality, Rawls also believed that a just society should minimize differences in wealth. For a Rawlsian, economic inequality can only be allowed when it is somehow to the benefit of the worse-off members of society. The CEO of a company that creates jobs for the poor, for example, can legitimately be paid more than his workers because job-creation helps the worse-off. Were that same CEO to leave a fortune to his children on which he paid no taxes, however, it would run afoul of Rawls’s philosophy.

It is a subject of dispute just how much inequality a Rawlsian society would allow. Some critics have charged that Rawls’s work was a rationalization of American thinking about justice. Rather than criticizing the society around him, this view portrays Rawls as a defender of the status quo. The sheer scope of inequality depicted on The Wire, however, suggests that this view is mistaken.

Much of the show is set in the West Baltimore ghetto, where black characters live in a world of drug abuse, crime and degraded city blocks that recall wartime Beirut or Baghdad. When the police travel out to the suburbs they enter a separate universe of stately homes, well-maintained soccer fields and ivy–covered schools. How the massive disparities that define Baltimore life might benefit the city’s underclass is hard to fathom. As a result, the show illustrates just how demanding Rawls’s economic standards would be, were they ever applied to the modern United States.

The universe of The Wire is also deeply anti-Rawlsian in the way it gives wide scope to partiality. For one thing there is Rawls the character’s highly personal vendetta against his subordinate (if there were such a thing as John Rawls for Managers, this would be the worst possible approach). But the primary anti-Rawlian element is the all-pervasive influence of race. In Rawls’s ideal theory, skin colour is something we can get beyond. On The Wire, it is not. The HBO page on William Rawls for example says that rather than attempt to undermine his black boss, Rawls has instead remained loyal, “knowing perhaps that his path to the top position is blocked, in the majority-black Baltimore, by his race.” Similarly, among the criminal characters, when one of them goes out to buy drugs, the police grow suspicious and arrest him, simply because he is a white person in a black neighbourhood late at night.

As for the black characters, with the exception of the black cops, most of them live in grinding poverty, in neighbourhoods that are overwhelmingly black. Their double segregation shows just how far modern Baltimore is from living up to the standards of its most prominent philosophical son.

5 thoughts on “Rawls and The Wire

  1. I was looking this up, as I was convinced there was a connection! It seems nobody else has drawn attention to it.

    A real masterpiece of a show, and David Simon has proven himself a heavy intellectual.

  2. You’ve missed the point here, and seem to be using idealist in a pejorative sense – John Rawls says there is a difference between the way things are and the way they ought to be.

    The Wire does highlight the extent of the disparities between wealth and institutional justice in urban Americain — you’re right–and so presents us with a huge challenge, but that in no way makes the show anti-Rawlsian, and in no way absolves us from the struggle to make things better.

    1. Joycemate, did you even read the article?

      Rawls is one of my favourite philosophers and I would never use the term idealistic in a pejorative sense.

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