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Bad to be good

Mon, May 19th, 2014
Posted in All Commentary

Is there any value to being good? It seems to me that, the more I read and the more I experience, being good can be more of a liability than a virtue in the years that have followed the terrorist attacks, the two wars, and the 2007 meltdown. Think to yourself: how many times have you heard the exact phrase “we did everything right” coming out of the mouths of people now underwater on their mortgages, or exploited at a job that works them too hard for too little money, if they can even find a job at all? Something is wrong here, when the aspects that everyone can agree are “good” are now seen as aspects that will often signal your failure.

But first, I suppose, we should qualify exactly what we are talking about when we say “bad” and “good.” In this case, “good” has a very simple set of definitions one might recognize more at a local scout meeting than in your average walk of life: don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal; love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, and all those other ideas that certain politicians usually claim to believe in while actually doing the opposite. For those of you of a certain age, it can be summed up thusly: Gallant, not Goofus.

But what happens when Gallant grows up? Can the ideas we instill in our children almost from the day of their birth actually hold up in this brave new world? Will my children actually be hindered in their lives if I raise them to be honest, hardworking and humble Americans? This may sound like an over-exaggeration, the sort of complaints you might hear from someone twice my age… but allow me to dig a little deeper.

If Mark Zuckerberg had just been “good,” he just would have been another kid from Harvard instead of the man who made Facebook. The same could be said for Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, or nearly any success story you can think of in the past 30 years. More often than not, the idea of following the rules is seen as something only a “loser” would do, because everybody knows nowadays you have to be just a little bit ruthless and, dare I say it, a little bit “bad” to get ahead. I was shocked to my core to hear a close relative tell me that the reason I couldn’t find a full-time job was because I had no desire to lie to prospective employers. I’m sorry, but that’s just not the way I was built.

And as if it couldn’t get any worse, there is the situation where a “good” person is held to a much higher standard than the others, making them doubly damned if something should ever go wrong. Minnesota’s own Walter Mondale, who I’m sure no one would call a “bad” man, recently found himself embroiled in a small scandal regarding equal pay for women. Now, I’m not just using this example because I happen to be one of Mr. Mondale’s biggest fans, but also because Mr. Mondale has been a champion of equal rights for decades now. He is one of the last of a breed of admittedly “good” and (dare I say) idealistic public servants of the New Deal era, and because of that he is called out more than, say, the heirs to the Walton family fortune. After all, we expect the Walmart folks to be devious, so they get a free pass. But if you actually try to be “good,” then you can look forward to a lifetime of hard work with few rewards. The more you look at it, the more you start to think it just isn’t worth it.

So what do we do? Do we all give in to the temptation to be “bad” in order to enrich or empower ourselves? I can think of several people off the top of my head who would be considered classically “bad,” and yet have much more successful lives, if we go by the scale that we rate success on these days. Perhaps, then, it is the scale that’s broken and, if you’ve met me, you’d know I know a thing or two about broken scales. Perhaps we need to start looking at different ideas of what makes success, or power, or what makes someone worthy of our admiration. Perhaps we can start appreciating “good” people simply for being “good” instead of loving the rule-breakers. Perhaps, of course, this is all just sour grapes from a goody-two-shoes who never got wise to the ways of the world. Still, it is a question that we should all be asking ourselves at some point in our lives: do we want to be “bad,” or “good,” and have we reached a point where we need to redefine what each of those words actually means?

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