I got to thinking about this subject again and how different aspects of what constitute those attributes of good and bad in human beings are largely to a certain extent culturally driven. Meaning, the notion of good is not universally recognized. Lying and stealing, depending on where you are, can be a good thing (aka a skill) or a bad thing; in the sense that a person who does either of those things is not to be trusted.

I returned to Mexico from South Miami Beach yesterday. I have been in Mexico something like 18 months now, excepting this last short 2 week trip and 3 others like it.

I live in the state of Michoacán and with the possible exception of Sinaloa and one or two other states to the north, it has the fiercest reputation for badass men and lawlessness in the entire country. The mere mention of Michoacán makes the gentlefolk in the bordering state of Jalisco wet themselves in fear.

One of the most extreme manifestations of bad is murder. And according to Octavio Paz, ‘Murder is still a relationship in Mexico’, meaning murder is personal. He goes on to say that ‘When the Mexican kills – for revenge, pleasure or caprice – he kills a person, a human being’. And because there isn’t the mobility in Mexico like there is in the US; it’s highly likely that the murderer knows who he is killing and why.

The subject of death and murder in Mexico is far too complex to be covered and isn’t the subject of this post anyway. I bring it up only for the reason to say that the bad men of Michoacán not just carry their badassness to this extreme, but do so often.

Stateside, the notion of what constitutes bad and being a badass is something entirely different. Domestic violence excepted, murder in the US, by and large is impersonal. Law enforcement, psychologists, pundits, and other experts continually puzzle over why one person went into a given place and murdered a bunch of people. These types of events are in the news time after time again. But again, the subject of this post is not about murder.

In Mexico there is a very fine line between good and bad. ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’ as the old expression goes. Here in Mexico a person is either good or bad. Good people do not associate with bad people. A Mexican can’t be just a little bad. A good Mexican can’t take a single dishonest peso. Doing so would put him on the other side of the line. There is no real mobility in Mexico; chances are where you were born is where you are going to die. So the parents of your neighbors knew your parents and so on. And gossip is the neighborhood past time. Meaning, not just does everybody know what everyone else is doing but they also know the history of everyone’s families. Mexicans are a highly social people and as long as their fiestas survive, their personal and societal ties will continue to be a big part of their cultural identity and the distinction between good and bad will survive as well.

Bad in the US has become a huge gray area. People in the states have come to tolerate and accept certain aspects of bad. Most employers lie and some steal. For example, my last stateside employer still owes me $40,000 which was stolen from me with lies and under false pretenses. The money is not recoverable due mostly to the legally ambiguous art of the theft. The owners who stole my money did so with eyes wide open knowing that they would get away with it. The only crime – or what constituted wrong on their part – would be getting caught.

Such behavior was unheard of thirty-some-odd years ago when I began my career. Engineering used to be an elegant profession and engineers received a modicum of respect due, if for nothing else, for the demanding rigors and responsibilities of their profession. But it is a brave new world out there and America has changed. Bad behavior has become so pervasive in American society that a lot of it is no longer even recognized as bad. I put it down to two primary factors: transience and electronic mass media. I’ve said it before; America has lost its cultural identity. We as Americans no longer know who we are anymore. We keep ourselves shut away in our homes and consume large amounts of other people’s content. And as a general rule we don’t create and as such we’ve lost the ability to think and reason for ourselves.

There really isn’t any social personal interaction apart from the workplace. If it can be reasoned that most interaction happens mostly through electronic media then it’s not a stretch to say that both personal and societal values are also from there which derived. And it can be said with little or no argument that value-wise, we are no more than the sum of what we put in our heads. This has always been true. The modern day equivalent might be more correctly stated that you are what you consume. For instance, tell me with what you entertain yourself and I’ll tell you who you are. Ouch.

There is a lot of pent up rage in America. Anger at the government, anger at the economy; anger over why everything is so screwed up and that no is doing anything about it. American’s don’t realize it but the keys to the kingdom and the keys to change are in their hands. The key to change is simple. Change your life. If you want to get the government’s attention change your spending habits. If you want to affect change in the Middle East quit burning their oil. If you want to see a little less belligerence coming out of the mainland Chinese then quit buying their shit. Turn off your electronic devices once in a while and throw block parties in your suburban neighborhoods and talk to one another. Organize yourselves. Do a Gandhi and practice a quiet civil disobedience. But above all change your consumption habits and I guarantee you will see change. Tired of animal cruelty? Quit buying those big brand packages of pork and chicken. If you and your neighbors did that you’ll see change. Those items are stocked in the grocery stores because you buy them. Quit buying them and they’ll disappear.

Americans’ view of right and wrong began to change in the 20th century. There is an American literary tradition in the form of noir (Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, etc.) that predates the modern electronic era by half a century. Noir introduced persons with roles where good and bad had no pure set point. Where everyone involved in the story was at some stage of corruption.

Historically in literature, prior to noir, it was always the good guys versus the bad guys. The possible exception was that there was some good guy in the story who made that one time mistake or momentarily succumbed to some weakness of character. In 19th century literature the flawed good guy typically always found redemption whereas 20th century literature was not so kind. With this anti-hero, the flaw proved fatal and the fall from grace was permanent. But even so, there existed in the prevailing culture a distinction between good and bad. This distinction began to blur with the mobility that came with the advent of the modern interstate highway system and accelerated with the evolution of electronic media.

Which brings me back to my trip to South Miami Beach. I saw very little good there and I saw very little bad. What I did see fell mostly into that indifferent band of gray. I saw lots of posers pretending to be bad; men with lots of muscles, scowls, and tattoos affecting an attitude of badass. For me, this affectation of badass and attitude is just another way for someone to admit that they lack self-discipline and self-control. Such men are not their own masters but are slaves to ignorance. It has been my experience that truly bad men – like mean dogs – don’t feel the need to growl before they bite.

In conclusion I’d like to say that I love living in Mexico. In fact if I could exchange my US passport for a Mexican one I’d do it in a heartbeat. And if I had my way I’d never set foot on American soil again. You don’t realize what a police state the US has become until you re-enter the country and have to go through DHS, Customs, and Immigration. Those agencies say they’re there to protect you?

Yeah, right –  on 9/11, the Pentagon couldn’t even protect itself.

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