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Let Us Now Praise Famous Assholes

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By William Deresiewicz

January 8, 2012


 

I dream of a world without assholes. We all do, don’t we? You’d have to be an asshole not to. But is it possible? Think in terms of occupations. Doctors are well-known for being assholes. Surgeons even more so. Wall Street masters-of-the-universe: total assholes. Rock stars have a reputation for being rather rectal; great artists and writers also score pretty high on the sphincter-scale. Professional athletes, too, once you get past the spin.

Yet do they have to be? A friend once told me about the husband of a friend of hers. He was in training as a Navy pilot, one of those guys who land planes on the decks of aircraft carriers. Famously brown and puckered, unbearably arrogant, as everybody knows from Top Gun. “Honey,” he used to brag to his wife, “I scored above again on today’s training exercise”—above being the highest possible score. “Sweetie,” she would shoot back, “of course you scored above—I’m sure you all do.” In other words, before they can get you to try to land an F-18 on the deck of a ship in high seas, they have to pump your ego so full of hot air that there’s no living with you anymore. Or get you to administer a potentially lethal drug, or cut someone open, or gamble half a billion dollars on the market. It’s not so much that people like that deserve their overweening arrogance—plenty of others are equally smart or skilled—it’s that they need it to do their jobs.

Rock stars and athletes are a different case. Nothing risky about what they do. But those are lines of work that earn you huge rewards of fame and wealth. Whom are they going to attract, if not the most appallingly ambitious, repulsively self-centered, disgustingly competitive people in the world—that is, the people with the greatest potential to do remarkable things? (Think Michael Jordan, Barry Bonds, Tiger Woods; Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Bob Dylan.) That’s what worries me about the model of creative work to which we seem to be moving, the one where lots of people will be moderately well-known and well-off but nobody will be, well, a rock star. A talent like Jagger’s—an ego like Jagger’s—or Joyce’s, or Picasso’s, is not going to be attracted by those kinds of rewards. They’ll find something else to do instead.

So I’m afraid we have no choice. We simply have to hold our nose and let a thousand assholes bloom.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.


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