Gotham Diary:
29 November 2012

Aaron James, we’re told on the “About the Author” page of his new book, is a surfer, and he is not an asshole — the subject of same, Assholes: A Theory. There. I hope to be done with the unpleasantness. I find the word hideously unpleasant to write in this space, although like everyone else I find it an enormously effective emollient when in need of invective. Although only midway through the book, I am heartened to find that, in general, I use the epithet in conformity with James’s theory. It is also a great relief to learn that, if I worry about being one of James’s subjects, and would be ashamed to be so regarded by anyone else, then, no matter how foolish my behavior, I am probably not one myself. Modified rapture.

But I fasten on the surfing in the author’s CV, which I’d already gathered from the text, since the bad behavior of some surfers provides an inordinate number of examples. (I had no idea that Brazilian louts had made themselves detested on the north coast of Oahu.) Surfing is incomprehensible to me: I cannot imagine devoting so much attention to the swells of the sea, particularly since my idea of a thrill is walking into a cloud of freshly-baked bread. (Actually, my idea of a thrill is a very funny line.) It is all too primordial, to at-one-with-unchanging-but-unpredictable-nature. Nature, as is well documented, I find to be a great bore, at least in its untamed avatars.

So, I am going to attribute the failings in Theory to an excess of sun, saltwater, and perhaps a concussion. These failings are two. (So far!) First, the preoccupation with philosophical argument. I think that it’s possible to study human failings without getting caught up in the conundrum of free will. I hope that it is, anyway, because free will is not going to established or disproved anytime soon. My eyes glazed over as James’s struggled to draw a bright line between psychopaths and his subjects. If society at large is responsible for the creation of assholes — and I believe that it is — then the question of culpability ceases to be interesting. We’re left with a problem — the pains-in-the-neck are still with us — and we have to figure out what to do about them. Not how to think about them.

One of the worst failings of philosophy is its complete ahistoricism: it dismisses changes in circumstances as “accidents,” and deems “essence” to be eternal. There’s no question that James is going after the essence of his subject, and there’s no question (in my mind) that he might as well be pondering the zodiac. The simple fact is this: assholes are a modern problem, an after-effect of the dismantling of structures of birth-determined status. (Once upon a time, in the ancien régime, affairs were so managed that assholes were a protected class, the aristocracy.) This is the other error of the book at hand. It is fatuous in the extreme to appraise a figure such as Cecil Rhodes in terms of the Theory, because the terms of James’s three-pronged test don’t translate meaningfully back into the Nineteenth Century. Or to any earlier time, or to any culture that isn’t, officially at least, “liberal democratic.” There were moments, as I read the book last night, when I expected James to come out and declare a correlation between the phenomenon that interests him and the individualism and obsessive personal autonomy that flourish particularly among Anglophone males. (He does share a brilliant, highly localized hypothesis: Anglophones prefer to line up in orderly queues because they dislike touching and being touched by strangers.) So far, alas, the connection has not been made.

Here is the Theory, Aaron James’s three-pronged test: An  asshole is someone who

(1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
(2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
(3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

In the ancien régime, this sense of entitlement was legally protected. It is true that we have moved on, or tried to move on, but it seems to me more useful to consider the asshole as a relic of historical conditions, a would-be member of an extinct social class, and bear in mind that his now annoying behavior used to be conventional, than it is to tramp through the semantic swamps of personal responsibility.

I have a third problem with this book, but it’s not a shortcoming on James’s part. It’s an uneasiness about the egalitarian claims that underlie it. We learned, over centuries of experience, that status based on birth is a terrible idea. So we got rid of that, or thought we did. But it has been shown in case after case that the children of wealthy people are more equipped to cope with life’s ups and downs (especially the downs, which are heavily upholstered) than other people, and also better able to manipulate circumstances in their own favor. Taken too far, egalitarianism gives these unofficially privileged children the power, if not the right, to pursue separate and superior trajectories, and they seem to do a good job of taking their money with them. As France’s miserable record with the assimilation of outsiders proves, the declaration of equality, without more (much more), is an empty thing. We have to be more candid about our inequalities, many of which are the result of circumstances beyond human control — if only to determine which them aren’t.

But Assholes: A Theory is a helpful, timely book, simply for having inaugurated a conversation about civility and socialization. We all tend to think that we’re nicer than we are (and than other people), and smarter, too; and yet we’re all jerks now and then. A firm grasp of Aaron James’s three-pronged test will go far to help us from thinking too highly of ourselves while being jerks as a matter of course.