Sunday, January 15, 2012

When do people doing bad things become bad people?


On a recent Saturday morning, at 7:15am, a car driving down my road swerved across the sidewalk and took out part of the chain link fence in front of one house and most of the white picket fence of the next house. I saw it when I was walking the dogs not much later; the policewoman was just arriving on the scene, and the owners of the house were standing in their little front yard still agape. “It sounded like an explosion,” the woman said, and I’ll bet that it did. The front gate was across the street and down about 20 yards.

It wasn’t a tragic event; no one was killed or even hurt. Still, it was pretty scary looking. Not only will it be a big job to fix, it emphasized their vulnerability. It is a little house with a little front yard; the damage extended to within 6 feet of their front door, much less than the distance that the car was off the street where it should have been. “I imagine alcohol was involved,” I observed somewhat inanely to the policewoman, who responded “Yes, still from Friday night.” She was not much less inane, asking the homeowners if they had gotten the license number. If they were not in bed, they were having breakfast at the back of the house; the car didn’t stay around.

So this driver did a bad thing. It makes me want to say he (“he” because there is no gender-neutral pronoun, and it is epidemiologically more likely) was a bad person, but that is not necessarily true. Probably, given that it was early Saturday morning (or for some, very late Friday night!) alcohol was involved, but it didn’t have to be. He could have been texting while driving, and lost control on this curving road. That’s pretty common; in Kansas it is not even illegal (the texting-while-driving part, not the hit-and-run part), and done by many folks who would tut-tut and condemn drunken drivers. In either case the damage is the same. It could have been the first time anything like this happened to him, or he could be a regular offender. But how many times would he have to be irresponsible, drive drunk, cause property damage, kill someone, before he went from being someone who did bad things to being a bad person? I imagine that both philosophy and theology have much to say about this concept, but some of it must have to do with intentionality. I doubt that the driver was trying to take out the front yard of this house.

I have been thinking about the difference between committing bad acts and being a bad person lately, as a result of the discussions over whether to raise taxes on multi-millionaires and billionaires and huge businesses, on the financiers and bankers who caused the economic crisis and have been doing just fine, thank you, despite the destruction that they have caused. Their flacks, both in Congress and in the media (and now themselves) are angrily denouncing Occupy Wall Street demonstrators and other critics for criticizing them for being wealthy. Jamie Dimon, CEO of Chase, says “Acting like everyone who's been successful is bad and because you're rich you're bad, I don't understand it.” He is quoted by Edward Murray in The Huffington Post, “Nobody hates the rich…but everybody hates the bad”. Murray takes on this very issue, noting that there is no objection to people being rich, but answering a square “YES!” to the question that he puts in the mouth of these billionaires "Is it too much to ask that everyone just sit down and be nice while we destroy the middle class?" In a reference to the fictional Henry Potter, the rich villain in It’s a Wonderful Life”, Murray concludes that “…the Potters of the world aren't bad because they're rich. They're not bad because they're successful. They're bad because... they're just simply bad.”

I fear – and expect that Edward Murray would agree – that this is oversimplistic, or, more important, decreases the responsibility these folks have for their anti-social, destructive, selfish, and evil behavior by implying that they couldn’t help it because they are “bad”. There is a history in literature of evil rich people, who sometimes transform (Ebenezer Scrooge) and sometimes don’t (Henry Potter). Sometimes they are not “people” but non-people who it is easier to hate, and sometimes they transform (the Grinch) and sometimes they don’t (Sauron from “Lord of the Rings”). The comic books have a long history of often-deformed (maybe this is why they are bad) villains who we cannot imagine as anything but evil (Batman’s Joker and Penguin and the whole retinue of Dick Tracy’s Flattop and BB Eyes and The Brow), and we use aliens when we want to create bad guys who are really the “other”. And Nazis are always useful. The folks Murray writes about are certainly rich, but they show an amazingly antagonistic, selfish, non-caring attitude toward the rest of us. They are not the redeemed-becausethey-have-some-social-values rich such as FDR or the Kennedys or even Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. They are greedy pigs. They do lots and lots of bad things.

They are not bad because they are wealthy. They have done a lot of bad, non-productive things to get their wealth, these financiers. Far from being “job creators” (the Republican use of that term does not make it a synonym for “rich”) they are job destroyers, life destroyers. They do not manufacture or create, they manipulate money and people’s lives. Those are really bad things. What makes them seem like, maybe be, bad people is intentionality. They created nothing but wealth for themselves at the expense of everyone else, and they knew what they were doing. To say they are bad because they are bad implies that, like Sauron, they have no choice. They did. They could have been good people, or OK people, or reasonable people. But they weren’t and aren’t.

We call the house where the white picket fence was knocked down “Smokey’s house” because that is the name of the dog that lives there, a dog that ran around inside the small yard and barked at our dogs when we walked past. It will be a while before Smokey can be let out in that yard again because there is no longer a fence. But I’m pretty sure that the person who hit it, drunk or texting, was, while irresponsible and displaying poor or no judgment, not planning to destroy it. The financiers were planning to do what they did and remain unapologetic.

We should hate them and we should punish them. Not because they are wealthy, and not because they are “bad”. We should hate them and punish them because they did very bad things that have seriously and maybe permanently damaged the economies of the world and the lives of the people in it.

And they did it on purpose.