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Friday, February 14, 2014

Assholes: the Italian Connection

RST has been reading Aaron James's 2012 book, Assholes: A Theory (Boston: Nicholas Brealey).   Although the title has the sound of pulp fiction, James is to be taken seriously: Harvard Ph.D., teaches philosophy at U. Cal. Irvine, recipient of a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, time at Stanford's Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, and so on.
If you wonder whether James is really a philosopher, try the discussion in Chapter 4 on whether it's appropriate to blame an asshole.

An avid surfer, James got the idea for the book from observing "asshole" surfers who violate the long-
established surfing custom of deferring to another surfer who is in perfect position on a critical portion of a good wave.  The asshole is the guy (and assholes are mostly guys, though for James the term encompasses Ann Coulter) who "has decided that he should have almost any wave he wants"--and, when challenged for his violation of surfer etiquette, just gets angry and self-righteous. 

The surfer example illustrates James's more theoretical description of an asshole.  The asshole, he writes,

"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." 

More concretely, the asshole cuts in line, interrupts conversations often, drives as if he owns the road (and you don't), and regularly brings up the flaws of others.

OK, so you've thinking you've got the concept.  You wouldn't be an asshole to be wondering just what this has to do with Rome, or Italy.

Worse than an asshole
For one thing, James makes clear that Mussolini (or Hitler, or Stalin), though they might fit the definition, are not the people he's writing about.  "There are not enough harsh names for these figures, and it s fine to add 'asshole' to the list.  But it would be deeply offensive to only call Hitler or Stalin [or Mussolini] an asshole; there are much more important ways to describe them morally." 

For another, assholes are not evenly distributed across nations and culture.  According to James, some societies produce more assholes than others:  Brazil, Israel, the United States--and Italy.  Although James appears to offer little evidence for including Italy in the ranks of the cultures most likely to produce assholes, he argues that Italy has produced what he calls "asshole capitalism"--essentially a condition in which systems that would normally keep assholes in check have broken down.  (One could add that an American driver, in an automobile on Rome's streets for the first time, might conclude--erroneously--that all Italian drivers, and hence most Italians, are assholes.)

James may be on firmer ground in locating in Italy one of the turn-of-the-century's biggest assholes: Silvio Berlusconi, the "paradigmatic asshole of public life." 

Berlusconi: the "paradigmatic asshole of
public life," celebrating with another
Here is James's argument:  "We for years heard lurid tales of parties and underage prostitutes; of embezzlement, fraud, and judges bribed; of laws passed to protect him from prosecution and promote his business ventures, usually followed by a Berlusconi charm offensive.  Berlusconi was not ashamed and clearly felt entitled to all of this, despite the fact that many Italian reviled him and felt deeply ashamed of the spectacle.  It is not that rationalizations are offered but they are flimsy ones; no attempt at rationalization is made.  That seems to be Berlusconi's point:  he pillages Italian public life for private gain, out in the open, not because it is right but because he can."

Although Berlusconi might claim that he is simply following in the grand tradition of "rule Italian style"--from Machiavelli to Mussolini--and hence only serves as Italy's latest "king," James disputes that reasoning.  "The trouble with the argument is that Italy is now a democracy, which itself makes Berlusconi not royalty but corrupt.  His royalty is at most the royalty enjoyed by assholes of a special royal kind."

In short, he's an asshole.

1 comment:

gettefox said...

This is brilliantly fun - and has been a welcome source of mirth on yet another frigid gray winter day! Keep them coming B & D!

P.S. I am gripping your directions for Limoncello, hoping to take on the challenge....