Now, a book about assholes would be no fun if it included no examples, and James doesn't disappoint. But I do wonder about some of his examples. Is he really applying his own definition when he identifies Richard Dawkins as a specimen of the "smug asshole"? The allegation of smugness is supported with this complaint:
He writes cocksurely that the views of millions of reasonable and intelligent people (even if ultimately mistaken) have no merit whatsoever and feels entitled to give sloppy treatment to arguments for the existence of God that have seriously engaged philosophers for thousands of years.Even if that were all true, to be an asshole is not just to be smug. It's to have a sense of entitlement that immunizes one against the complaints of other people. Is Dawkins like that? James doesn't offer evidence to that effect.
James's three conditions are part of the story of assholery, but I wonder if they're the whole story. There's such a thing as earned entitlement. You feel entitled because you are entitled. For example, suppose you're a professor who's given an exam on X, and you're an expert on X. A student complains that you've graded her exam incorrectly, and the answer is really such and such. You pull rank on her, saying that it's up to you to decide what counts as the right answer. You do this not to gratify your ego, but because you realize she will contest her grade endlessly, if you don't firmly establish your authority. You do feel immune to her complaints, but based on a well earned sense of entitlement. I can imagine the student going away and calling you an asshole, but were you really one?
Now, to the extent that Dawkins does act as if he's entitled and immune to complaints--to repeat, James doesn't provide evidence of this--it could be a case of earned entitlement and earned immunity. Must Dawkins really take creationists seriously, despite the fact that he understands evolution much better than they do? I wouldn't call someone an asshole for being aware of the expert-amateur gradient, and taking some complaints less seriously than others. Note: I have a sneaking suspicion that James discusses this somewhere in the book, but (a) I'm not done, and (b) I'm reading it on a Kindle, so it's hard to look things up.
This is a book full of goodies, such as a discussion of the difference between bitches and assholes, and an argument that assholery is largely a product of socially constructed masculinity. Most assholes, he argues, are men. A bitch is inches away from being an asshole, but has more empathy. Women are socially conditioned to stop at bitch-hood, and not go full asshole.
Fun stuff! I met some first class assholes at a Shins concert last month, and find this book gives me exactly the right tools to dissect what was so annoying about them. So--more about assholes to come, in my next TPM column.