I shall assert, with all due modesty, that America, perhaps the world, needs more assholes like me.
I will now clarify that assertion.
First, I cast no aspersions upon the anus, neither that of humans nor more generally. The anus in
itself is an innocent orifice, of great importance in evolutionary
history and to be appreciated by all of us organisms organized around a
Second, America and the planet do not need
assholes not like me, for example and especially macho assholes. Nor
does the world need more assholes like me in my curmudgeon aspect (with
curmudgeons as aged or, to be generous, vintage assholes). As Boomers
move into the twilight years, America will undoubtedly have more than
enough curmudgeons — at least until younger people realize how much
their elders have messed them over with resource depletion, debt,
environmental degradation, and transferring money from them to us, and
we get a crash in the curmudgeon population when we're recycled as Soylent Grey.™
No, what we need more of is me as an inner-directed person strong on
integrity, and willing to be obnoxious in the process. We need more
people like me in my mode of (arguably) a narcissistic, insensitive
Actually, I care a lot about what people think of
me; but at 5'2" tall (157.48 cm), the initial reaction I'm going to get
from most Americans is what I experience as a mild, casual contempt: disregard.
They won't actively dislike me — probably — before I open my mouth, but
they will kind of ignore me. (I have, after all, needed to call out
"Hey, I exist!" on more than one occasion.)
After I open my mouth, then people can dislike me on more solid grounds.
Anyway, I overcompensate a lot and tend to be inner-directed, which is a
very complimentary way of talking about someone who does what he
(usually he) thinks is right without caring a whole lot what other
people think or will react.
Let's start with a harmless example from a simulation game, a variation on "The Prisoners' Dilemma."
In the variation I played, the prisoners got to talk to each other, and
the simulation situation was this: Pairs of prisoners have been
arrested; the charges were not revealed to us and would not be revealed —
I asked; if both prisoners remained silent, there was a chance we'd
both be freed, eventually; but there was a better chance that we'd go to
jail for a year. If one simulated prisoner ratted out the other, saying
the other was guilty … of something — the accused prisoner would go to
jail for at least X years (with X significantly greater than 1), and the
betraying prisoner would go free. If each ratted out the other, we'd
both go to jail for Y years.
I didn't pay much attention to those "X" and "Y" details because I, of course, remained true to my fellow prisoner.
My fellow prisoner — a professor in the Business School if I recall
correctly — ratted me out consistently. He betrayed me even after I
pointed out to him the Kafkaesque situation we were in — not even told
the charges! —and how all we had to depend on was loyalty and integrity.
Every time, I remained loyal, and he betrayed me.
Now, if I had my brain in higher gear, on the third or fourth
repetition I'd have interrupted the script by telling the game-runners
that my fellow prisoner couldn't talk to them because he'd died
mysteriously overnight from blood loss and trauma when someone pushed a
shiv several times into his ratfink guts.
Actually, I think
that a lot of simulation games and psychology experiments should have
their scripts disrupted. E.g., if you know the great Stanley Milgram "shock" experiments on
obedience to authority — someone should have snuck a shill into the
pool of test subjects, and have the shill blithely deliver all the
electric shocks to the supposed victim in the next room, finally saying
to the "Experimenter," something like, "Why, why, I've killed him; and
you're the only witness …."
But that's going off on a tangent, though an instructive one for my point.
At least in a game, a simulation like "The Prisoner's Dilemma," I'm
going to stick to my integrity and not allow the actions or probable
actions and reactions of another player to determine my behavior.
It's a control thing.
I'm not a cynical
asshole — although I was introduced to my adviser at Cornell as "a
cynical little bastard from Chicago" — I'm not lower-case cynical but
try to be something of an upper-case Cynic, with some of the Stoic and
the "Job-ic" (as in the Biblical Book of Job) thrown in.
"What do I have control over?" such people asked; and the answer is "my
behavior": even when told, possibly correctly, "Agree with God and be at
peace," Job insists "till I die I will not put away my integrity […]. /
I hold fast my righteousness and will not let it go […]" (22.21,
Capital "C" Cynics say, "Virtue is its own reward"
'cause virtue is not likely to get any other reward — as Job learns,
certainly not inevitably get rewarded; but all we have is our integrity
and should hold onto it up to, if not including, being told off by God,
personally, face-to-face (Job 31, 37 f.).
So, okay, I'm a wannabe capital "C" Cynical little bastard from Chicago who can be damnably self-righteous.
And we need more people like me; not a lot more, but more.
When people sneer at my recycling, they can say, correctly, that I may
feel good about recycling but it doesn't do much for the environment.
And I can say back, "Screw you! I'm following Kant's 'Categorical
Imperative' and acting so the principle of my action — here, preserving
the environment, responsible citizenship — can be a law for all people.
And if nobody else goes along, that's too bad for the environment and
for the younger among that 'nobody else,' but screw them, too."
In other modes and moods, I care a lot about influencing others and
about consequences, but in inner-directed, Cynical asshole mode, I
I write letters to the editor that I know few people
will read — and I can look up hard numbers on how few people have read
my blogs. I continue to write, but in part in the manner of the Hebrew
Prophets or satirists. I.e., I write such things mostly because I have
to vent the words and partly because of an archaic belief that if the
Word "goes forth" (as a mashal)
it will do some work in the world. Similarly, as a teacher I strongly
encouraged my students to read my comments and revise their papers, but I
suspected from the beginning and was damn sure after a few years that
many, perhaps most, of my comments were ignored. I continued to write
comments: critique is part of teaching, teaching was my job, "teacher"
was in large part who I was and remains a significant part of who I am.
Push varieties of such "inner-direction" too far, and one gets to
sociopath, but the mode is useful for avoiding "group think," at least
when "group think" is more like "group feel."
Feelings are important; empathy is central to responsible morality. Still, sentimentality
is not — emphatically not — compassion, and sentimentality can get in
the way of ethics; too much squishy feeling for others can stop you from
doing the right thing.
Obviously with squeamishness if,
for example, we're hiking together and you get bit by a rattlesnake and
I'm too sensitive to cut into the wound and way to fastidious to try to
suck out the poison. Not so obviously, consider a scenario where you're
an emergency-room nurse in the midst of a major and wide-spread
disaster. If that's your assignment, you had better be willing to
perform triage on
incoming wounded. And as an effective and ethical triage nurse you have
to be willing to condemn a probably mortally wounded cute little girl
to certain death, if limited resources could be directed to probably
saving a severely-wounded, ugly, adult male.
there's a story about emergency food-aid workers in a village who
acquiesced to the demands of the village's armed men that they and their
starving wives and girlfriends should be given the very limited amount
of food available rather than giving it to the young children and
infants. "We'll make more babies," the adults said. The doctrine of
"Save the Children" and "Women and Children First" might have the aid
worker fight to the death against the armed men. The insensitive asshole
view might defend the workers from a charge of mere cowardice by noting
that the best of a bad situation might be acting to save the village,
not individuals, and allowing as legitimate here the adults' argument
that, indeed, the younger the children the more quickly they can be
replaced, and the weaker the young victims the more likely they would be
to die even if fed.
(For a quick aside I'll supply an
infallible law of ethics: Thou shalt strive with all thy heart, with all
thy soul, and with all thy might to minimize the instances in the world
where the dilemmas are brutal and triage becomes an ethical
Quite unobviously but more relevantly for most
of us, we need more cold-blooded, cold-eyed assholes like me as
citizens and politicians: as decision-makers who ask to see the numbers
before getting carried away by pathetic images and stories about victims
of Disease of the Month or the Disaster of the Week.
Breast cancer and prostate cancer are
horrible diseases and have afflicted family and friends of mine,
prostate cancer killing a favorite uncle, and a close friend; but breast
and prostate cancer are primarily diseases of the old, and we should
refrain from unnecessarily scaring young
people about such cancers and putting more resources into combatting
obesity, diabetes, and asthma, plus putting more money into foreign aid
to combat malaria and enteric diseases, and finally stamp out polio.
(And if you seriously want to decrease "excess mortality," a few bucks
more invested in anti-smoking campaigns would be money well spent.)
Kids' getting murdered at school is horrific, but rare. Concern and
sensible precautions are appropriate, but we need more assholes (like
me) to stress that schools are very safe places for kids and should be
made less, not more, like prisons. If SOMETHING MUST BE DONE
about school shootings — and this is an imperative regardless of the
numbers — it should be SOMETHING involving minor Second Amendment
sacrifices by adults, not placing more restrictions on kids. A
Sarah-Connor style pump-action shotgun (and a heavy door) should be all
even the most nervous grownups need for home defense, and really serious
shooters really ought to stick to bolt-action rifles for the personal
touch appropriate for civilian weapons.
Beyond that, as
with terrorists on airplanes, we need more non-macho but also
non-neutered, nasty folk to say that groups of grownups should have the
adrenals and gonads to rush a shooter and bring him down, even if that
means some of us will die.
We're all supposed to do the
right thing, and kids shouldn't have to take classes in an armed camp
because American adults have timidity issues.
solid rule to follow no matter what others are doing: Don't allow kids
to die unless it's really, really, clearly the least bad alternative.)
I've grown impatient — feeling kind
of disgusted — with an American culture where feelings get in the way
of moral judgment, starting with the emotion of fear. Americans are
afraid of crime and afraid for their kids and occasionally terrified by
rare horrors from obscure diseases to shark attacks. And fearful people
do bad things, as is clear from America's overcrowded, budget-busting
prisons to dangerous arguments for encouraging fire-fights in schools to
more dangerous campaigns against vaccinations.
people, feel less, think more. Follow the crowd only if they're going
some place sensible. Hold fast to your integrity.
A lot of people you know may think you're acting like an asshole, but odds are you'll be a useful asshole.