The philosopher Aaron James defines an asshole, in his wonderful book Assholes: A Theory, as a person who: “allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically; [doing] this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.”
It’s a solid definition and James devotes plenty of time to separate what makes a true asshole different from the everyday jerk, dick, tool, or that guy who just gets cranky when hungry. An actual asshole is somewhat rare. Everyone is a bit off from time to time and can act like an asshole. But to be an asshole, that takes a special breed, a person you might not meet just walking down the street.
Nevertheless, as with most definitions rooted in philosophy, it can be a bit abstract, a bit Big Idea. After reading Kari Lydersen’s Mayor 1%, I think a clear example of an asshole can be found in Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emanuel.
For those unacquainted with Lydersen’s book, and the narrative of Rahm “Fuck the UAW” Emanuel, it’s the brave story of a rich kid from down-and-out Wilmette, who beat up patients that came to his father’s medical practice, and went on to a short career making millions as an investment banker, a stint in Congress, and, as Chicago’s mayor, found the courage and wisdom to close down numerous mental health care clinics, shutter dozens of public schools in impoverished neighborhoods, and give noogies to reporters. You know, an all around good guy.
OK, maybe the noogies happened before he was mayor, but you never know what happens on city hall’s 5th floor! Hide your heads, here comes the mayor!
My interest in local politics has always been minor. I didn’t know who to vote for or, even, when to vote. This would be sad if it wasn’t already tragic that I’ve never voted. Ever. In any election. Some member of our demos I am.
A book like Lydersen’s is what will drive me to participate. It’s a wake up call. The alarm is buzzing and the tone is: “no more assholes.”
The lack of engagement with community leaders in the very neighborhoods he is having the most drastic impact on is, I think, enough to constitute a sense of entrenched entitlement that immunizes him from criticism: I’m Rahm and I don’t need to hear from you.
This is probably the most frustrating part of the asshole that James identifies, the immunization from criticism. Calling a true asshole out on what he (James is clear to identify that assholes are overwhelmingly male and white) has done is a fool’s errand. The sense of entitlement is Teflon for critiques. More infuriating isn’t that an asshole won’t listen to your criticism, it’s that you don’t even count as a moral subject worthy of consideration.
One’s words are ignored along with one’s self.
James also makes the point that assholes are morally responsible for their conduct. True assholes are made from their circumstances and, therefore, might be just as much a victim of assholery as those they encounter. Perhaps they just need therapy. Maybe we should empathize with Emanuel and how hard he has it. Mothballing 50 schools must be hard work.
However, their inability to count others as moral subjects is still incorrect for the functioning of a cooperative, pluralistic, democratic society. It’s their lack of empathy and consideration for others, despite their blindness, that renders them guilty. Consider the case of the ‘Affluenza‘ boy in Texas as a benchmark for the level of injustice that can occur when an asshole is deemed innocent of actions and deeds.
Lydersen makes clear that Emanuel’s political ambition won’t stop at Chicago. His whole life has been an exercise in achieving greater and greater success. Tip O’Neill’s famous comment that “all politics is local,” should be the watchword in case there’s ever a Candidate Emanuel on a national ballot.