Assholes largely share a thick sense of moral entitlement. Just as hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue, late 19th and early 20th century businessmen like Cecil Rhodes, Albert Beveridge and John D. Rockefeller all felt a need to invoke entitlement on a cosmic scale, in effect sensing that something might be majorly amiss. In stark contrast with the grandiose reasoning of the era of colonialism, the asshole in more recent modern life often requires little or no pretext of larger cause for the special privileges he feels entitled to enjoy. He will usually have some sort of rationalization ready at hand — he is not the psychopath who rejects moral concepts altogether — but the rationalizations are becoming ever thinner, ever more difficult to identify. This newer, purer style of asshole often just presumes he should enjoy special privileges in social life as a matter of course and so requires little by way of reason for taking them as the opportunity arises.
The older style of asshole is comparatively easy to sort into types, according to their different thick entitlements. To the extent we can identify a definite moral outlook and confidently reject it as wrong, we can even take comfort in our sense of clarity about how the asshole goes awry. The newer style of asshole is more disquieting because he is harder to pin down. His thinned-out and shifting rationalizations won’t necessarily settle into any particular sustained moral perspective that we can confidently identify and challenge as wrong. Instead, his sense of entitlement is mainly identifiable in functional terms, as the stable disposition to come up with some such rationalizations or other, as the situation requires. Because the newer breed of asshole is harder to pin down, we will pay even greater attention to the details of our exemplars, if only to illustrate that there is indeed a newer, thinner, and purer asshole style. (And, again, where you don’t share my moral and political opinions, you might think of different examples of the same general type.)
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Earlier assholes presented examples of self-aggrandizement in the name of a larger moral cause. The newer style of self-aggrandizing asshole needs little or no such pretext.
Donald Trump plainly likes being on the air. He is convincingly portrayed as an asshole in the documentary "Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?" (answer: Trump, as one man’s greed and ego brought down a whole sports league). Lately, however, Trump has become something closer to a media buffoon—except that he does not seem to be joking. Like Falwell, Trump believes there is something important in his appearing and reappearing in the news and on TV, without betraying any sense that a lot of us have a hard time seeing what that important something would be.
In Trump’s defense, it may be said that he is merely an “ass-clown” or, still more charitably, an elder master of the attention-getting game now played daily by the Facebook youth. He may in that regard seem a role model, an accomplished media entrepreneur, and while this isn’t quite a public service, it is at least the kind of thing modern society loves. In a culture of narcissism, you don’t need any special reason to lay claim to the attention of others; you simply get attention as you can, as anyone else of course would (“if you don’t flaunt it, you don’t got it,” to reverse a familiar saying). On the other hand, if we find our current zeitgeist mistaken, on the grounds that laying claim to the attention of others does require good enough reasons — whether for the sake of modesty or just for the sake of not adding to the deafening contemporary media noise machine — then we can view narcissistic attention seeking as a way of acting like an asshole. Our narcissistic age thus might help explain why assholes seem to be everywhere of late.
THE CABLE NEWS ASSHOLE
With the invention of twenty-four-hour TV news cycles, the wonders of technological change have created assholes specifically designed for TV. The cable news asshole is self-aggrandizing but not purely so; there is a slight pretext of service there. While few of them nowadays would pretend to be engaged in distinguished public service in the fourth estate, many will say they are really pleased to be giving people what they want.
People apparently want to listen to blowhards. Thus Chris Matthews has a popular show on MSNBC. The faux blowhard Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central blows harder, except that Matthews is not staging a ruse. He traffics in attention-grabbing — every day is D-day intensity, even when he is saying little of consequence, as though little or no reason to claim our attention were required. Another left-leaning bloviator, Keith Olbermann, at least offers moral outrage as grounds for our concern, even as he is a worse asshole for feeling entitled to set aside any sense of measure in making outrageous, indulgent moral criticisms.
When it comes to cable news assholes, however, we need not bother to attempt evenhandedness between left and right. The right-leaning version of being “fair and balanced” — that is, Fox News — is our gold standard. It pioneered the genre; it dominates in viewers, ratings, and profits; and it leads the way in innovation of the new asshole styles. We therefore pause to dwell on the case.
Neil Cavuto, a Fox News host, was actually called an asshole on the air. Here is an exchange from his show about fiscal stimulus and its relation to job creation with the mild-mannered AFL-CIO chief economist Ron Blackwell:
Ron Blackwell: Why don’t you let me finish my thought?
Neil Cavuto: You never answer a basic question.
Blackwell: I’m answering you right now.
Cavuto: Why will spending work?
Blackwell: These programs created jobs but not net creation. We lost more jobs because of the recession than were created by these programs.
Neil Cavuto: Wait a minute, Ron. You’re the chief economist there. Where did you get your degree? A baking school? Where are you cooking up these numbers?
Ron Blackwell: Oh that’s an insult. You’re a joker. You’re an asshole.
Blackwell apparently felt it was not sufficient to call Cavuto a “ joker.” Cavuto was not trying to be funny, nor is he dull or uninformed and pretending to be otherwise. Cavuto fully grasps the difference between job creation and net job creation, and he knew full well what point Blackwell was making. He therefore cannot be classified as a mere “ass,” with the suggestion of donkeylike stubbornness of mind combined with obliviousness to basic concepts or the social situation. Cavuto in fact staged a ploy: a dodge. He shifted attention away from the point made to the qualifications of the person making it in order to score dialectical points with the audience.
This is at the very least an asshole move. One often can permissibly shift attention in a conversation, but here it is at best unclearly justified. Interrupting Blackwell several times and then accusing him of not answering his question does not count as even half-cooperative discourse, not even by the low standards of American politics. Even that would not have been so bad if Cavuto had meant to initiate something like a meta- conversation between the two speakers, a conversation in which Blackwell could have later complimented the tactic of diversion with a “touché!” or “well played, sir.” Cavuto betrays no hint of metacooperation. He simply feels entitled not to wait his conversational turn. He does not have to actually listen to an opposing perspective, even from the person he is talking to. Cavuto could perhaps argue that the host must exert heavy control over the terms of debate, because polite terms will not do. Or maybe he feels justified in his bullying as long as he is scoring points in a kind of televised game show, with influence, profit, and fun as his justly deserved reward. Either rationale could constitute a sense of entitlement — something like the right to rule, or at least to shut the opposition out, while taking the moral high ground.
Bill O’Reilly is the original cable news asshole and among the founding Uncompromising Arbiters of Real American Values Who Heroically Fight Corrupt Liberals as a Moral Bulwark Against the Decline of Civilization. So it is interesting to observe that O’Reilly has become less of an asshole in recent years. Why is unclear. He enjoyed marked success as a politico-asshole entrepreneur. But with others flooding into a new, well-rewarded role, perhaps he was out-assholed on both the political left and right. What to do then? Out-asshole the out-assholers? Perhaps O’Reilly didn’t have it in him. Perhaps this just seemed unappealing or lowly. Perhaps he was admira- bly tempered by an authentic need to be, or at least be seen as, the Reasonable Common Man. If so, this is laudable and good, and it takes some of the edge off watching him. It even encourages appreciation for his mastery and formidable display of the dark asshole arts in verbal debate: the selective outrage, marshaled in defense of the victimized common man; the dogged quibbles over petty details; the seizing of any interlocutory moment of weakness (such as a pause for thought); the refusal to see and understand, supposedly on righteous principle but mainly to distort and distract. One would almost admire his scrappy tenacity were he a real underdog rather than a very rich and extremely influential member of the political elite. (The real victimized common man has stagnating wages and uncertain work, perhaps a TV but not his own show on TV.)
It is not just Fox News commentators but Fox News itself that has the appropriate, in-your-face, I’m-entitled-to-do-this, especially-because-you-dislike-it vibe. Which should not be surprising from a tightly controlled outfit in which everything flows from a single source, chairman Roger Ailes. Ailes has personal flaws that do not necessarily make one an asshole but that clearly shape the coverage, including his paranoia and his extreme politics. We find more telling evidence by considering the man in a happy moment, a victory lap. In an event celebrating Fox News’s success, Ailes said of the competing networks’ talent, as though sharing in the agony of their defeat: “Shows, stars, I mean it’s sad, you know? . . . I called and asked them all to move to the second floor wherever they were working. Because when they jump, I don’t want it to hurt.” By which he meant that he wouldn’t mind at all if his competitors not only lost the contest but felt humiliated enough to kill themselves. He meant of course to gloat but also to show his contempt. He meant to broadcast his contempt and to have a laugh about his being in a position to advertise it.
The comment was at least poor sportsmanship. A longtime practitioner of blood sport media politics, Ailes has emerged as its undisputed heavyweight champion. Politics is indeed a rough sport, but there are still boundaries that while crossed are nevertheless there, or sort of there. It is possible to have a minimal sense of respect among fellow sportsmen, seen as equals off the playing field, and even to display grace in both victory and defeat. Ailes’s comment suggests that he makes little effort at this, even as he does make an effort to draw attention to the fact that he cares not. He keeps it personal, on and off the court.
Ailes is a poor sport but not in a set contest fairly won. His main victory was to redefine the whole sport itself — that is to say, to redefine news. While American TV journalism has always walked a fine line between informing the public and satisfying media capitalism’s demands for viewers, ratings, and ad dollars, the line was more or less there, and it represented respect for what some regard as the fourth branch of government and a democratic society that depends on real news. Ailes obliterates that line with his “orchestra pit theory,” which he puts as follows: “If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?” The implication of course being that TV can and should cover the sensation rather than the substance, that it should move still further away from professional journalism and toward infotainment in a pure ratings contest. Fox News has changed the game and won, with an ever-thinner pretext of service. (It has very little actual news gathering and reporting staff; it freely crosses its own purported division between reporting and editorializing; and it now boosts for and even instigates protest movements and financially backs specific political candidates.) For its loyalty and attunement to its fans, it has been richly rewarded with outsized profits and unprecedented political influence.
If we ask why Ailes fought so long and so hard for all this, however, the answer is not simply the ample rewards. His victory lap comment also suggests fundamental contempt. It suggests contempt not just for his competitors but for a society of people who have always counted on news with a lot of information shaped by a good-faith attempt at impartial presentation. Our fundamental need in a democratic society, for each of us to make up our own mind, now goes unmet by the whole media environment. It reflects not the minds of equals deliberating together about what together to do but the tenor and voice of a single asshole’s mind.
Cable news assholes are distinctive for their knowing awareness but willful disregard of how they are perceived by others. They are flush with Frankfurtian “bullshit,” where bullshitting (speaking without regard for the truth) is something that can be done with a tacit understanding among speaker and audience that truth is not being told. A quite different class of asshole, by contrast, is marked by his utter failure to appreciate how he is seen.
Such was the display in Paris at the fashion show debacle wrought by Kanye West’s rough transition from pop music performer and producer to clothes designer. West had promised, with his fashion debut, to “change the course of fashion.” When ill-fitting dresses, pants, and jackets, styled with bits of fur, were not well received, West complained bitterly, but not simply out of rudeness. As one reviewer explains:
What was most confounding about Mr. West’s behavior, after years of obsessive study of the industry, was that he demonstrated very little understanding of how he might actually be perceived by retailers and editors who have a vast amount of experience at detecting utter nonsense.
West is not exactly shameless, which would require his having a clear sense of how others regard him. He is interesting more because he seems unable to piece that regard together, even from readily available material. Nor is it that he lacks a basic human capacity of self-observation, caused by some cognitive malfunction. His album Graduation begins “Mr. Fresh, Mr. . . . by his self he’s so impressed,” and the track “Barry Bonds” shows some grasp of how this must look to others: “I’m high up on the line you can get behind me / But my head so big you can’t sit behind me.” But beyond general impressions, and his awareness of obvious sneers (he complained in Paris that the fashionistas keep looking at him “like I’m Hitler”), West seems unable to pick up his reflection in the eyes of others, from what is evident to all. Would fur in the summertime really be the Second Coming in the fashion world? Was it unthinkable that people would question that as a design idea?
West is also awfully rude (he constantly swears, and famously crashed Taylor Swift’s MTV award acceptance speech, insulting Swift to boot). And of course many a self-styled, self-described genius has lived in massive error about his greatness. West is of special interest because he seems almost unable to move from huge self-absorption to a rudimentary grasp of the public world. He probably is able, and so we recoil from his failure to treat others decently. But the sense of inability is enough to turn pure revulsion into mixed sympathy. For all we really know, we, too, could be a brain in a vat, or subsisting on an experience machine, or living inside the Matrix. (How would you know otherwise?) It is hard to watch someone who is in effect living that out, someone who is trapped in a giant delusion.
It is instructive to compare West to asshole artists such as Pablo Picasso or Ernest Hemingway or Miles Davis. None were mistaken about their greatness. All were wrong about what their greatness entitled them to by way of special treatment from others. Here it is harder to be understanding. It is indeed desirable for a society to afford its great artists special opportunities for creative production for the good of all. But there are limits, and many true geniuses do manage well enough to abide by them, perhaps by nurturing a grounding sense of gratitude for being endowed with special creative privilege. Those who don’t are pure asshole. They take full credit for their achievements and expect further benefits in return, despite the fact that their success would never have happened without society’s gift of creative opportunity. (Artists who must fend for food or fight against an invading army tend not to get a lot of art done.) Things could easily have gone differently and the artist would never have succeeded. Gauguin, for example, might have never made it to Tahiti if the boat from France had encountered bad weather or mechanical troubles, much as many great talents fail simply because they are ahead of their time. We put up with the artist’s delusion that his work is only to his credit, that it is we who are chiefly in his debt, because we find our world better with his artworks in it. Without that, however, the asshole artist becomes thoroughly repugnant. Imagine a failed artist who is not a genius, who continually demands further creative privilege, perhaps at a significant cost to society, and who cannot be moved by or even grasp gentle advice that he should consider working at Starbucks, where people are actually served. This guy, we want to say, is an asshole in spades.
THE DELUSIONAL ASSHOLE BANKER
Artists are of course usually more prone to self-loathing than to delusions of grandeur. The same cannot be said of bankers of late. Bankers, as a culture, have an extraordinary sense of their own importance with a correspondingly extraordinary sense of entitlement to monetary reward. This amounts to a grand delusion, which the recent global financial crisis has helped almost everyone except bankers to see through. Bankers sit somewhere in between West and Picasso: not entirely delusional about their importance but wildly delusional about what that importance means.
To see this, we should rehearse some properly uncontroversial truths. Financial markets do indeed have an essential function in a capitalist society. A capitalist society’s guiding idea is precisely that a society will put its savings to its most productive uses, for the sake of an overall improvement in living standards, by allowing resources to be allocated by financial markets rather than centralized decisions. The goal is not freedom per se. It is not enough that traders are left free to transact (and so pool information, spread risk, and so on). If the basic purpose of financial markets is to be served, the functioning system has to actually lead to improved living standards by boosting production in the real economy. This by no means happens automatically. World history is replete with financial crises that did lasting and catastrophic damage to whole economies (e.g., the Great Depression, the “lost decades” in Argentina or Japan) and to people’s whole lives (e.g., people lost their homes, retirees lost much of their savings, eager workers were left unemployed, college graduates saw worse employment prospects over the longer haul, and so on). In recent decades, after many insisted that “this time is different,” because the risks of crises have been reduced, the 2008-9 financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession made it abundantly plain that painful crises can and will continue to break out. Few issues compare in importance with whether financial markets function in the right way, such that their basic function in a capitalist economy is well served.
To continue with basic truths: with the United States, where the crisis first broke, as an example, the economy saw its greatest rise in general prosperity during the “boring” postwar years, before financial “innovation,” when the “best and brightest” did other things, largely of a scientific or engineering nature.
A key cause of the recent crisis (among many causes) was that, through mathematically sophisticated “innovation,” firms and traders were allowed to take on far too much risk. Once it became clear that the prices of fiercely complex financial instruments had little connection with the real value of real assets (e.g., homes), the whole system unraveled. The markets have continued to function only because large firms were bailed out by governments, with taxpayers picking up the tab. With little choice in the moment of crisis, society in effect assumes the risk so that firms and traders can continue to reap huge rewards.
We consider how this might reflect a larger culture of entitlement in chapter 7. For now, let us focus on particular people and, in particular, an unusually candid conversation among two bankers and two journalists in a Wall Street bar. The journalists are suggesting that the bankers should be grateful to society that it bailed out their industry and saved their jobs. The bankers disagree, arguing that their jobs are to their own credit and, in particular, their smartness.
Jane Feltes: You think you got to keep your job because you’re smart? You got to keep your job because you guys got bailed out. You guys got bailed—
Bar Patron 2: No, no, no, no, no. That’s not what happened with my job. I mean, survival of the fittest.
Bar Patron 1: Because I’m smarter than the average person.
Davidson: And even if the government bails out your industry that failed, you still say it’s because you’re smarter.
Bar Patron 1: No. The government bailing out an industry was out of necessity for whatever the situation was. The fact that I benefited from that is because I’m smart. I took advantage of a situation. Ninety-five percent of the population doesn’t have that common sense. The only reason I’ve been doing this for so long is because I must be smarter than the next guy.
Bar Patron 1 credits his job entirely to his own talent. Notice that he does not deny the plain fact that society has just bailed out the whole industry, saving many “smart” people from together wrecking the whole system. What he claims is that this plain fact is nevertheless wholly irrelevant to what bankers are due. The feeling seems to be widely shared in the industry. Bankers feel very sure of their entitlement to enormous benefits, and therefore feel mystified and even victimized by the suggestion that they are overpaid. Indeed, in interviews with bankers about the Occupy Wall Street protesters, bankers privately say that their critics lack an appropriate sense of gratitude.
To say that this point of view is a massive delusion is of course to assume that there are good reasons, available to all, for taking the facts of the matter to be otherwise. There are many widely cited reasons for this. There is, for example, the sheer enormity of social costs of the crisis: by some estimates, enough to put the banking industry out of business if it was actually asked to pay for the damage done. There is the implicit government subsidy, which allows “too big to fail” banks to take ever-greater risks, knowing that they’ll be bailed out if things go too far south, allowing bankers to take huge profits while taxpayers assume the risks. And, if nothing else, there is the fact that the run-up to the recent crisis involved fraud on a massive scale, which has largely been left unpunished, with profits intact. With some exceptions, few have paid for breaking the law.
Why do these reasons fail to move general banker opinion? Bar Patron 1 might simply be reasoning as a psychopath: he’s not using moral concepts like deserts or gratitude but simply reporting what happened — the government bailed out the industry — and then reporting that he has in any case, in the “survival-of-the-fittest” manner, profited as a result of his smarts. That is no reason, however, to think that he shouldn’t feel grateful for having his industry bailed out, for being able to keep his well-paid job. Yet Bar Patron 1 seems to be saying precisely that he owes no debt of gratitude, a clear moral claim. In that case, his reasoning is better put as follows: he deserves his rewards, because our system reliably and justly rewards talent, and because he is especially smart. He must be smart, because he is in fact well paid, and because our system is in fact the kind of system that reliably metes out just deserts.
This thesis is of course pretty rich in light of the fact that our current system has just done inordinate damage to the real economy (unless of course the system is reliably rewarding the talent for doing inordinate damage). But let us assume that Bar Patron 1’s perspective is grounded more in a philosophical outlook than in facts. Bar Patron 1 seems moved not by facts but by a certain idea of a capitalist society, the idea that, in a free market, people get what they deserve.
Even on philosophical grounds, however, this view is exceedingly hard to defend. That is true according to none other than the archconservative twentieth-century apologist for capitalism, F. A. Hayek. He writes:
There is little a man can do to alter the fact that his special talents are very common or exceedingly rare. A good mind or a fine voice, a beautiful face or a skilful hand, a ready wit or an attractive personality are in a large measure as independent of a person’s efforts as the opportunities or the experiences he has had. In all these instances the value which a person’s capacities or services have for us and for which he is recompensed has little relation to anything that we can call moral merit or “deserts.”
The billionaire investor and oracular philosopher Warren Buffett echoes the point:
My luck was accentuated by my living in a market system that sometimes produces distorted results, though overall it serves our country well. I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions. In short, fate’s distribution of long straws is wildly capricious.
In other words, ideas of deserts just don’t justify the going rate of rewards. Bar Patron 1 cannot infer his IQ or his deservingness from his paycheck.
Some bankers inadvertently confirm the point by offering plainly bad arguments in place of the appeal to deserts. Some argue, for example, that bankers should be appreciated because, as one money manager put it, “Financial services are one of the last things we do in this country and do it well. Let’s embrace it.” This, again, is not exactly credible after the banking sector has just caused the largest crisis in seventy years. In any case, the financialization of the economy is less a matter of inherent skill than decades of political decisions that in effect passed up opportunities to invest in infrastructure and education that might have supported high-skilled manufacturing. Globalization might then have had a chance of bringing rising wages instead of a three-decade period in which increasingly productive workers have in effect not seen a pay raise.
Given the thinness of the arguments, the honest bankers are perhaps those who resort to cosmic grandiosity. Thus Lloyd C. Blankfein, head of Goldman Sachs, quips — with a definite whiff of Rockefeller or Beveridge or Rhodes — that bankers are “doing God’s work.” Blankfein may not be an asshole, but this is an asshole remark, even if it was mildly ironic. It implies not just that bankers are “doing good things” but that their work is somehow within God’s plan or somehow brings them closer to God. Even if the comment was merely a joke, it was a “fuck you” type of joke, given that it was made in public in the wake of a crisis that had just upended millions of lives. It suggests complete obliviousness to how others will hear the remark, though not simple cluelessness. The man is hardly an idiot, and so his obliviousness is better seen as expressing a sense of entitlement, in this case, apparently of an unspecified God-sized kind.
This attitude among the new bankers stands in marked contrast with bankers of an earlier era. Consider the former Goldman CEO John Whitehead, a member of the civic-minded “Greatest Generation” that ably steered the dynastic wealth of Rockefeller and the like toward the social good. In lamenting that executive compensation today discourages the long view, and so has “got to be changed,” he explains why Blankfein, and by implication the new generation, “doesn’t get it.”
[Blankfein] never thought that if the public is losing their jobs and we’re in a recession, it isn’t a very good time to talk about the justification for a $60 million bonus. He doesn’t get it! . . . He says, “ I’m the CEO of the best financial service firm in the world. And I’m the CEO, I’m its head man. I deserve to be paid more than anybody else. And I’m prepared to fight for it, and boast about it. Because I’m proud of it.”
But, much as with Bar Patron 1, Blankfein’s appeal to deserts rings hollow in an industry that almost drove the global economy off a cliff.
We might put the general lesson this way: the banker’s position of high reward is a privilege. The position itself exists only because of societal need and design. That any particular banker holds a given position is in large measure good luck. Since many people are hardworking enough and smart enough to do the job (again, financial markets worked better from a crisis-avoidance point of view before they became mathematically sophisticated), any given banker is replaceable: it would be equally well for society, or indeed better, if someone else took his or her place, especially if he or she is very talented, since talent is more important in medicine, teaching, or science. For those who do work in finance, the enormous benefits are a societal gift but with conditions attached. The financial system needs to be organized so that it reliably works to the benefit of real people in the real economy. When this requires significant reorganization—including such things as reserves requirements, international securities taxes, the segregation of investment and finance, expansion of IMF and ECB last-resort lending capacity, breaking up “too big to fail” banks — then bankers have no reasonable complaint. If a given banker doesn’t like the gift, he or she can give it back (and seek work at Starbucks, a good high school, or a biology lab).
The banker’s sense of special entitlement is therefore akin to that of our imagined failed asshole artist. Neither the banker nor the failed artist has produced the goods, and yet both go on complaining about not getting what they deserve, seemingly unable to grasp how this could be a colossal, delusional mistake.
This hardly means that all or even most bankers are delusional assholes; some genuinely do understand why the public would be enraged. Carmine Visone, an older-school Lehman Brothers managing director, could never believe his social worth was what he was being paid and so served the homeless out of gratitude and responsibility to society. Still, a delusional banking culture makes being an asshole especially easy, which may itself explain why asshole bankers seem in abundance lately.
Excerpted from "Assholes: A Theory" by Aaron James. Reprinted with permission from Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc.