At times like this, I don't mind having two virtually useless degrees in the humanities, though it is a crushing reality that would normally inspire any reasonable person to routinely sob herself to sleep. There is, apparently, new hope for people like us. People aspiring to publish intellectually meaningful books that will, as an added bonus, unflinchingly scandalize our sighing parents and blushing pastors. Assholes, essentially. Nerdy ones, specifically.
Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His new book, Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, The First Sixty Years, examines the term's movement from purely physiological reference to modern connotations of deluded entitlement.
Asshole describes someone with real or imagined authority who lacks self-awareness and humility and who unduly abuses their position. According to Nunberg, it was historically used in this manner first by World War II GIs in reference to senior officers before adoption into common parlance in the 60s and 70s.
Today, Nunberg suggests that the internet's anonymity and virtually limitless platform have increased its usage exponentially. He also draws a fascinating distinction between "opportunistic assholes," "incidental assholes" and the "asshole as achiever," as personified in Nunberg's mind by iAsshole, Steve Jobs.
Salon posted an extensive excerpt:
This is an age of assholism simply because we find the phenomenon and its practitioners so interesting -- or provocative, or compelling, or compellingly repulsive, or sometimes all of those at once. I'm not thinking so much of assholes of opportunity like Charlie Sheen and Mel Gibson, or of incidental assholes like James Cameron or Brett Favre, whose assholism only adds a colorful sidebar to an independently impressive career. There's little about those people that's particular to the age, save that in earlier periods the public probably would have been spared the details of the personal tics and twitches that qualify them for the asshole label. What's unique to our time is the fixation with certain iconic assholes, who exemplify each in his way the problematic allure of the species.
You can learn more at Nunberg's website.
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