Just when I think things can’t get any worse in our country, I go to the movie theater and watch the previews of the upcoming shows. They are, without fail, movies about futuristic police forces fighting villains in an American city laid waste by a nuclear bomb. It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys because they both wear black and carry guns. When I was growing up, the bad guys had the courtesy to dress in black so we could tell at a glance that they were evil. Then the good guys changed the rules and started dressing like bad guys. Say what you will about bad guys, at least they don’t flout the rules of apparel.
Ever since George W. Bush gave his speech about evildoers, everyone has been against bad people, which makes me feel sorry for them because I tend to favor the underdog. It’s easy to forget that bad guys have their good points. Many of them, for instance, have dogs that like them. Who am I to think my judgment is superior to a dog’s? Any man who has won the heart of a dog can’t be all bad. Cats despise all people equally, so their affection is a poor barometer of an owner’s character. A cat’s meager store of love is used up adoring itself. I have never read a story of a cat mourning at the grave of its former owner. But I digress.
The first bad guy was Satan, Old Scratch himself, who had been in cahoots with God before staging a coup in which he failed to gather supporters, the other angels being God’s yes-men. He decamped for the south, to Texas, where he has lived ever since, enjoying the warmer weather and working through his earthly agents—banking executives, politicians, and Donald Trump. Satan hasn’t fared well in literature. The Bible doesn’t say one good thing about him, though it’s only fair to point out that the Bible was written by God’s friends. It isn’t popular to say nice things about the devil, though I must say I admire his work ethic.
My favorite bad guy of all time wasn’t a guy at all, but a witch, the wicked one from the west in The Wizard of Oz. Now there was a liberated woman who cared little about the opinions of others. My fondness for the witch has a direct correlation to my annoyance with Dorothy, whose bipolar swings from sunny optimism to whiny gloom make me wish the house had landed on her. Her friends were no better. I have pleasant dreams of me, armed with a blowtorch and a bag of marshmallows, alone with the trussed-up scarecrow for five minutes. Oh, that wicked witch, how fascinating it would have been to spend an hour with her over a cup of coffee while she spilled the beans about Glinda, the good witch of the south, whose virginal demeanor didn’t fool me for a second. I wager her phone number was written in every bathroom stall in Oz.
The most famous bad guy of all time is Adolf Hitler, whom I never cared for due to his designing and manufacturing of the Volkswagen Beetle, two of which cursed my life, almost causing me to renounce automotive travel altogether. I know he did far worse things than invent the Beetle, but let’s face it, that thing was a lemon.
Every population needs at least one bad person for others to feel virtuous by comparison.
We’ve killed off a lot of bad people these past few years—Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and Muammar Gaddafi, to name a few. If we’re not careful, we’ll rid the world of every bad person and won’t have someone to blame for the spike in gas prices. Every population needs at least one bad person for others to feel virtuous by comparison. When we killed Osama bin Laden, I worried the young people in our country wouldn’t have someone against whom they could measure themselves and feel superior, but I had forgotten about Congress.
I’ve long been fascinated by behavioral science. I’m especially interested in how bad people get that way. There seem to be as many explanations for evil as there are varieties of evil, all of them mystifying. Why did Pol Pot kill so many Cambodians? What drove Lizzie Borden to give her parents 40 whacks with an ax? Why was Jeffrey Dahmer so recklessly demented? Why does Adam Sandler continue to make movies? The psychologist who solves these profound mysteries, making sure they aren’t repeated, will be a hero to future generations.
As far as I know, there has never been a universally agreed-upon bad person. One country’s tyrant is another’s hero. It’s hard to believe some people were sad when Hitler died, though that was the case. It makes one cautious about assuming everyone in the world defines evil the same way. I know for a fact some people like Adam Sandler movies, a proclivity I neither share nor understand.
When I was growing up, the most evil person in our town was a kid I’ll call Bernie. That isn’t his real name. His real name is Donny, but let’s call him Bernie. Whenever people talked about Bernie, they would say, “That kid is going to land in jail one day.” Instead, he grew up, went to college, got married, and had three children, all of whom turned out well. I see Bernie from time to time around town. He goes out of his way to greet me.
“Hi, Phil,” he says.
“Hi, Bernie,” I respond.
“Why do you keep calling me Bernie?” he asks.
As I said, evil is mystifying.
I’m fortunate to not have any evil people in my life these days. I read about them in the newspaper, but they live at a distance and we never cross paths. There was a man down the road from me I once thought was evil, but it turned out he was just a jerk. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. Because I’m generally optimistic about the human condition, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make jerks nice. It never works. Being a jerk is sort of like being an alcoholic; the jerk has to want to change. Interestingly, the jerk and I have a mutual friend who thinks the jerk is a great guy. This only confuses me.
I miss the old days when we could tell bad guys by their clothing, though there is still one sure-fire way to tell a good guy from a bad guy. If you meet someone wearing a leather belt whose name is embossed on the back, you can be sure he’s a good guy. If he’s wearing a seed-corn cap, he’s probably a saint. I’ve never seen an evil person wear a seed-corn cap. Evil people wear New England Patriots hats.
Illustration by Ryan Snook.
This column originally appeared in the July 2012 issue.