Friday, August 24, 2012

Good Guys and Evil Deeds

I was listening to a radio interview earlier today and the guy being interviewed had travelled with former President Bill Clinton. He said, just in the course of conversation, "Yeah -- Clinton is a good guy."

This got my gears turning with thoughts about human nature versus human behavior. After a few miles of contemplative driving (and then getting snapped out of it by a panicked thought that I was extremely low on gas and had forgotten to stop with no more stations for miles, even though I actually had stopped and filled-up somewhere in the midst [and in the mist] of my little conceptual journey) the question formed itself: Can a guy who does heinous things be a "good guy."

This is one of those occasions on which I am sure someone will swoop in and explain to me that Cerebellus Maximus, in the third century, asked this very question -- but, so it goes. I guy can't have read everything, you know. (Someone once mentioned a book that I hadn't read and I told her I hadn't read it. "Aren't you, like, a literature guy?" she responded, aghast. Apparently, we "literary guys" are supposed to have read everything ever written.)

Anyway, old Bill is famous for lots of things -- like having been a not-so-bad-at-all President. He blew a mean sax, too. Unfortunately, he was also in the habit of keeping company with a certain infamous White House intern who had a similar talent, if you take my meaning. In short, the guy cheated on his wife. Or, more accurately, I think: he cheated on his family. That's the way I see it, anyway.

Still, he is called a "good guy" by some.

We tend to equate "good" and "evil" with an individual's actions, right? So, isn't Clinton a "bad guy"? Cheating on one's wife is one of the worst moral transgressions I can think of. (Sorry -- "literary guy" rewrite: Cheating on one's wife is one of the worst moral transgressions of which I can think.)

But do actions really define what we are? Can a guy truly, deeply, love his wife, but cheat on her, anyway? Can a good kid habitually steal nail files from the local drug store? Are you a bad person if you like to get into bar brawls?

For me, our actions should have consequences, of course. Like, one definitely gives up the right to marital happiness when he (or she) cheats. Any legal or social repercussions -- losing access to one's children, for instance -- can be justified by the fact that a serious and horrible transgression has been committed. But is it justified to decide a person's nature by his or her actions? Maybe there is a difference between "being good" and being "good-hearted"? (Please note the question mark, here: maybe there's not...)

Over the years, I have worked with a lot of musicians I would call "good guys" whose behavior, especially with women, has been borderline cruel. Am I a jerk for referring to them as "good guys"? (Disclaimer: this example excludes members of my current band, whose morals and actions are damned near perfect, if not beatification-worthy...)

An interesting question. Maybe only parts of us are bad and good. Maybe we are just patchworks of dark and light panels, in the end. Still, stepping back, one would be able to get a sense of which panels are more abundant...

I dunno.

(Afterthought: It's like smoking. Smoking is idiotic. It is stupid thing to do. Are you a stupid person if you smoke?)


  1. It strikes me as a very New Jersey thing to call someone "a good guy." Even some of us Garden State exiles still say it, but your post has made me rethink what it means. I'm not sure it's a summation of someone's full character as it as a statement of his basic reliability--as if you can be assured that the "good guy" has something resembling a personal code, with certain bright moral lines he's unlikely to cross. (And if that's the standard, then Clinton probably doesn't count as "a good guy.")

    1. Sometimes, Jeff, I fear that some guys refer to others as "good guys" if they are just fun at a party -- which I'm sure Clinton is.