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Assholes: A Theory Hardcover – October 30, 2012
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Hot on the heels of Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word (2012) comes another discussion of assholes and what to do about them. Actually, that’s a bit too glib: James, a philosophy professor, takes a slightly different approach than Nunberg. Where Nunberg focused on the history of assholism (with side trips into such subjects as the difficulties in writing about assholes without censorship), James proposes a theory of assholes (a person is an asshole when his sense of entitlement makes him immune to complaints from other people) that explains not only why assholes are a vital part of human society, but also how to recognize them and coexist with them. The author addresses some fundamental questions—such as whether assholes are born or made, a sort of nature-versus-nurture debate for the asshole crowd—and rigorously avoids what must have been a strong temptation to go for the cheap laugh (although it must be pointed out that this is definitely a lighter book than Nunberg’s more academic study). --David Pitt
Praise for Assholes: A Theory:
A New York Times bestseller!
"James neatly does what philosophers must do: he defines his terms, organizes and codifies, declares his own loyalties; he locates himself on the spectrum of assholery and suggest origins both psychological and sociological. The result is a delightful combination of the demotic and the technical."
—Jane Smiley, Harper's Magazine
"James’ research is both thorough and imaginative; his impressive source list ranges from obscure philosophy books to popular websites to Rudyard Kipling to Kanye West, hip-hop’s greatest asshole. The author’s enthusiasm for the subject makes it possible to get through the book quickly.... [T]here are moments of great insight and outright hilarity."
"James's volume is equal parts philosophical meditation and historical survey, but its true value lies in his attempt to precisely define the term."
—Joe Keohane, New York Magazine
“Aaron James provides us with a delightful philosophical romp through the world of assholes. I was especially tickled by his analysis of different types: smug assholes, royal assholes, the presidential asshole, corporate assholes, the reckless assholes, to name a few.”
—Robert I. Sutton, Stanford professor and author of the New York Times bestsellers The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss
“Aaron James explores a very rude term that many now find unavoidable in the description of an alarming human type. His witty and accessible study of the personal and social problems the asshole creates draws on his lucid and brilliant accounts of the best in contemporary moral and political philosophy. James’s analysis of asshole capitalism is a tour de force of philosophically astute political analysis and criticism. This is a book that should appeal equally to the general reader and the philosophical specialist.”
—Marshall Cohen, founding editor of Philosophy and Public Affairs and university professor emeritus, University of Southern California
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Top Customer Reviews
This book is probably too long, or perhaps too short, to fulfill its intended purpose. Parts of it sparkle, but much of it strikes me as the author's attempt to finish over his own biases with a thin veneer of what passes for propositional discourse. And I tried my best to read generously.
At its best, the book develops a solid definition of an A--hole and at least a partial taxonomy of the kinds of them we encounter in the world, and the chapter on coping with A--holes does a good job of going beyond traditional Stoic recipes. To its credit, the author develops his argument from philosophers publishing today (e.g., Nagel), as well as established some classics like Kant and Rawls. The concluding "Letter to an A--hole" is well done (although problematic to his case). That said, the book is rife with blind spots and biases that the author might do well to consider.
Starting with the blind spots: James' notion that women are somehow culturally not predisposed to be A--holes strikes me as rooted in politically correct gender-studies ideology rather than actually observation and reflection. I say this based on 18 years of teaching at a women's college and observing how some "mean girls" (certainly a small fraction of women) never change after middle school. His idea that somehow women in this category aren't fully A--holes because they take a moment to listen to the aggrieved party totally misses their point: this is part of the torture from which the A--hole woman derives much pleasure.
Second, James has a long chapter on A--hole capitalists and bankers (derived largely from the memoirs of aggrieved parties rather than first-hand research), but no chapter on a--holes in government. In his few mentions of such sorts, he brings fire and brimstone down on Dick Cheney, perhaps with justice (I don't know and have never worked for the man so I can't speak to his personal qualities), but risibly refers to Barack Obama as the "anti-asshole." To be fair, when James was writing this book he was probably doing what the rest of us were, and that is projecting our best hopes and values onto the tabula rasa that Obama was shortly after his election. Subsequent events have proven the president to be quite otherwise (and clearly contrary to the positive portrait James presents); the best evidence is the way he seethed and lashed out when confronted with evidence and cogent arguments that conflicted with his world view, perhaps encompassed in his all too frequent sneering. He's insulated from that now, as he's surrounded himself with sycophants. And to ignore John Kerry as a supreme A--hole? Here's a fellow who has publicly invoked, several times, the "do you know who I am" that James confronts in his "Letter to an A--hole".
But that's only the big characters in government. What of the other many A--holes, like prosecutors who refuse to reconsider a conviction even after overwhelming evidence of innocence is presented? What of the purchasing agent who smacks down the lowest bid in favor of a friend or ally? (I live in New Jersey -- it's the way of the world here at county and state level). How about that EPA regulator who said publicly that he likes to go in first and "crucify" a few businesses whether they are guilty or not to set the tone? What of the IRS agents who grind down political organizations out of favor, or police who selectively enforce traffic laws to meet monthly revenue quotas (on the backs of the poor or minorities)? But, as (to his credit) James states, he's a man of the left, so I imagine he hasn't even considered criticizing government.
The other real problem of this book is that its remedy seems to be that we should be a more "cooperative" society, like Japan, and the cooperative norm should prevail. Sorry, but no thanks. My time in Japan has convinced me that I'd rather live in a society where a--holes are possible and very real rather than a society where individualism (which need not lead to becoming an a--hole) is smashed through shame. And, as his own "Letter to an A--hole" notes, there are solid arguments grounded in the philosophy of Nietzsche and others that contest the idea of cooperativeness. Indeed, no field of study has done more to break down (the preferred term is "demystify") cooperative culture -- the institutions of religion, the family, and traditional ethics -- than has philosophy. Derrida has committed propositional discourse to the abyss, Foucault has made all morality to be about power, Marx has made it all about economics, and Nietzsche has made it all about -- well, mostly himself. But there's the archetypal a--hole for you.
James appeals to John Rawls' "A Theory of Justice," which is probably the best moral foil he can use in this case. As appealing as I find some aspects of Rawls, in the end his idea that we divorce our ideas of "fairness" (or its obverse, a--holeness, okay, not a Rawlsian term) from our experience, aspiration, or station in life is naive.
So it was an interesting read -- it made me think about things I hadn't much thought about -- but I found the book wanting.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This is not a joke. You live with people like this. Dear Abby asked: Are you better with them or without them.