The first time I asked my wife out, I lied to her.
I told her I had tickets to a concert this Friday, and the friend I usually go with had cancelled on me, and would she like to come along instead? She said yes. The next day, I bought the tickets.
I used this little bit of misdirection because she probably would have said no if I'd simply asked her out, given that she was dating someone else at the time.
Ten sunny, faithful years later, we’re domestically blissed out with a baby on the way. My tomcatting days, such as they weren’t, are long behind me now, but I like to wonder about what would have happened - or not happened - if I hadn’t been dishonest. And with another generation on the way and me tasked with instilling moral responsibility, I have to ask: should I teach my children to be direct in affairs of the heart and stay away from the taken ones? And if I do, should they break that rule?
You don’t have to have a very serious case of the human condition to realize that doing the right thing isn’t always the right thing. In fact, from a tiny personal scale to a giant political one, a little bit of evil seems to go a very long way.
There’s an old saying that behind every great fortune is a great crime. Without leaning too heavily on ideology, it’s shockingly easy to find an original sin at or near the core of any powerful entity.
America has genocide and slavery; Europe has colonialism; China has oppression; JPMorgan has the housing bubble; Exxon has global warming; Hollywood has copyright evasion; Microsoft has monopoly; Monopoly has Star Wars Monopoly. It’s what we usually call the dark side, or the seedy underbelly in our more fanciful moments. But for each of these examples, the evil wasn’t a by-product. The power these institutions managed to accrue wasn’t despite the ills they engendered - it was because of it.
The United States became as powerful as it did on the backs of slaves and on the land of others: its massive wealth acquisition and ensuing global dominance would never have been possible otherwise. Half-frozen global backwater Europe would never have achieved its dominant position in modern history without its brutal colonial program. China has relied on a carefully controlled, subjugated populace to enrich and strengthen itself. JPMorgan profited from the market instability it caused through reckless and predatory loan practices, then was rewarded for it with a government bailout. Exxon extracted and distributed a product that accelerates human life in the short term and has a good shot of abruptly ending it in the long - the body politic’s version of crack dealing. Hollywood was founded in frontier-ish California to evade copyright lawsuits brought by east coast manufacturers of camera equipment. Microsoft inaugurated humanity’s era of digital innovation with a ruthless project to seize it for themselves alone. And all those cross-branded versions of Monopoly had the twin effects of killing the whimsy of toy store board game aisles everywhere and making the Parker Brothers stinking rich.
The evil of these (and pretty much any other) powerful entities isn’t the underbelly. It’s the belly. It’s what makes them go. And that evil, in a moral reckoning, often surpasses the good they brought into the world. A little evil goes a long way, but a lot of evil goes much too far.
There’s a moment in the last season of Breaking Bad when high school chemistry teacher-turned-meth dealer Walter White could have gotten away clean. Worse men than he - we can tell by the swastikas - go wholesale on the evil he’s been letting into his life little by little. They try to force him into a buyout, which would mean millions of dollars for himself, his family, and his partners.
Of course he says no. His explanation to an incredulous partner, who has gone from being a dropout meth head to a potential millionaire, is telling. The now-famous line goes: ‘I’m not in the money business. I’m in the empire business.’
‘Empire’ is a word we use to denote not wealth, not authority, not prestige, but power. It’s the word critics of American foreign policy use to underline the far-reaching influence of the United States - and one that defenders of that same policy reject. Power isn’t supposed to be the aim of good guys, so using or not using the word ‘empire’ is a way of declaring where you stand on America’s moral worth.
The money Walter White could have taken would have kept he and his family rich, safe, and healthy - but not powerful. Having lived his life as a man capable of having power but whose lot in life essentially forbids it, he’d had enough. He didn’t want to be good anymore. Good made him weak, and bad made him powerful.
One of the last scenes of the show finds Walter standing in the living room of his bland pre-fab home, alone, sick, hunted, and close to death. Once not long ago he had an empire; now it’s crumbled to dust, after an episode fittingly titled ‘Ozymandias’. Like countless anti-heroes in the history of the cinema, he has met the end dictated by God and the Hays code.
And then something interesting happens. We see a flashback to that same living room, years before, where he and his family live together in peace - even his brother-in-law, now dead thanks to his descent into a life of crime. In the memory, his brother-in-law teases him for being boring, for being too simple and good. We see Walter’s pained expression as he nods along, an expression all too well known to the weak and cowed everywhere. It’s quiet desperation in a picture. Then, the cold, hard, lonely present again.
As he finally confesses to his wife, he didn’t do any of this for her and their children. If he had, he would have taken the buyout. ‘I was alive,’ says the man whose dark journey began after being told he was going to die. After seeing how Walter White the meth cook contrasted with Walter White the high school teacher, we finally understand that when he says that, he means that it was for the first time.
The chilling, oblique conclusion of this long cinematic meditation on evil is that the bad guy would have done it all over again. For however nightmarishly everything turned out for the Whites and everyone in their orbit, it wasn’t quiet desperation. It wasn’t yielding. It wasn’t death.
Good is fragile. It’s weak and meek. It doesn’t slay the boar or fight the war. It doesn’t make money, it doesn’t win the game, and it doesn’t get the girl.
Everything we achieve in life, everything that gives substance to our dreams, is rooted in some kind of negative: the rock star who neglects his family; the hip-hop magnate who wallows in cynicism; the influential politician who ignores things that matter most because they’re not popular or expedient; the wealthy industrialist who ignores the environmental fallout of their actions; the senior manager who overburdens their team so as to employ fewer people; the once-a-terrorist who becomes a nobel peace laureate when they win; and on and on.
Doing something wrong gets you fun, beauty, sex, power, money, influence, and most everything else. It even feels good.
In another philosophically minded TV show, Northern Exposure, a kindly sage character is found to have committed a senseless but harmless crime. After giving a long, impassioned explanation touching on the wildness that’s all around us, he stops himself and smiles.
'Well that and...Sometimes. Sometimes, Ed...You’ve just got to do something bad. Just to know you’re alive.'
Evil is wrong. It’s also unstable. Introduce too much into our lives and we fall apart. From the inside out and the outside in, we’re not built to manage the kind of violence it requires and the chaos it engenders.
Yet good can’t survive on its own. A little bit of evil is woven into the most harmless and mundane of existences. It can be exploited to horrendous ends, but usually it's just a kind of white noise. You work a long day at something you don’t like for someone else. You buy yourself a burger and eat it on a park bench at sunset. Someone needed the money you spent on that burger. It takes an inefficient amount of water to produce the meat, and there's a developing global water crisis. The cow, a living thing, was killed.
But we’re creatures of flesh and blood and time, and a cheeseburger at sunset is a pleasure that redeems us - an evil that makes up for all the good we’ve had to live through. The powerless, self-annihilating condition of living to help others and never hurt them, whatever it may do to our souls to live without fulfilment of the desires that light us up.
The truth is, good wears on us. It will tear us down if we let it, just as surely as evil will. More than anything it’s boring, which is why even the most placid of us appreciate a good rock concert once in a while, or a nice pub drunk, or a trip to Vegas. We break bad or we break - assuming we’re good to begin with.
It didn’t take all that much evil for me to win my wife's hand, but it did take some. (Probably more than some, if you asked the other guy.) Now we have a baby to show for it, another generation born out of a tiny original sin. Evil is salt, and enough of it can ruin the meal. But we live once, and food is more than life - it’s joy. And joy is worth it.