Alex Balk is an asshole.
Now, I’ve never met Mr. Balk. I wouldn’t know him from a hole in the ground. I’ve never seen him interviewed, don’t know any of his friends, and know next to nothing about him. He is, for all intents and purposes, a stranger to me.
But I know he’s an asshole. He says so himself, in an article in Slate about not one but two new books about what it is to be an asshole:
Discard for the moment the idea of political assholism (although I would be remiss if I did not mention Nunberg’s flawless observation about how much of it these days is predicated on the joy the political asshole and his adherents take in the assumption that they are infuriating their opposites through their assholishness). Forget those times you have been unpleasant to a customer service representative (no matter how convinced you were that you were completely in the right). Let’s dispense with that day when, mid-commute, you buried your face deep in the newspaper and read the same sentence over and over rather than acknowledge the human being in front of you in desperate need. Instead, if you dare, allow yourself to summon up a Big Cringe.
I offer you my most sincere sympathies. Though I am an unrepentant asshole, that doesn’t mean I am somehow immune to the cringe. Indeed, sometimes I spend my entire day in a near-catatonic state of shame and regret. What I mean by unrepentant is that I continue to be an asshole, I don’t take proper steps to prevent being an asshole in the future, and sometimes I am actually aware that I am being an asshole in the exact moment that I am being an asshole. I have spent more time than I care to remember explaining why “gender essentialism” is a theory absurd in its very conception to women who have spent years studying—and living by—the ideals of feminism. After a friend lost a not-insubstantial amount of money on a risky but tenable proposition, I passed the better part of a week forwarding him various spam come-ons, with the subject line: FW: Investment Opportunity! Naturally, I cc’d a large group of our acquaintances in such a jovial manner that it seemed churlish for the mockee, surely heartsick, to call me out. I once went three hours listening to someone very close to me describe, in choked-up detail, the end of a relationship that had lasted six years, which coincided with her being laid off from her job. When she finally dried her eyes and asked how things were on my end, all I had to say was, “Oh, same old, same old.”
Oh, dear. I’m afraid he really does seem like an asshole. Kicking a friend while he’s down for your own amusement is a pretty damn asshole-ish thing to do. I can’t help but agree with Mr. Balk’s self-assessment.
Mine would be “assholes who you’re supposed to like”. The canonical example would be Daniel Tosh–his show isn’t funny, it’s just him being a dick interspersed with occasional Youtube videos. Han Solo is about as far as I can go on the “lovable rogue” spectrum without getting annoyed.
There is a phenomenon in American popular culture that I find utterly confounding. Daniel Tosh is its apotheosis, but you can find plenty of other examples. Any of the denizens of “Jersey Shore.” A randomly selected “Real Housewife.” Chelsea Handler. I’m sure you can supply your own illustrations.
I refer, of course, to people who are perfectly happy to act like horrible human beings on camera. People whose fame is predicated entirely on how awful they are. People whose behavior is jaw-dropping in its nastiness, crassness or cruelty, and who seem not only not ashamed but positively pleased with themselves for behaving thusly. Often this behavior seems to be accompanied an ersatz claim to authenticity, that these people are just being their honest selves or saying what the rest of us are thinking. The obvious rejoinder that civility and decency are admirable traits that sometimes must be cultivated seems to have been lost to the ages; that their honest selves are repellant and what we choose not to say is a sign of maturity and kindness are truths left unspoken.
Then there is this:
In short, my bloated sense of entitlement will overcome my massive collection of insecurities every single time. Yes, I am that kind of asshole. You know someone like me. You are inexplicably friends with someone like me. Perhaps you have, on one or two regrettable occasions, been someone like me. [emphasis added]
I wonder if this is true. I know it is true for me, and (as it happens) for Rose. Back when we both lived in New York, we had a mutual friend who was thoroughly, persistently obnoxious. He wasn’t obnoxious as an extension of some other character trait (eg. stubbornness, self-centeredness, hypersensitivity, etc.), but was simply obnoxious in and of itself. And he was not only obnoxious, but was proudly, exuberantly so. It was not something he aimed to hide, but rather something he flaunted.
And yet we were friends with him. (I have not discussed this post with Rose in advance, but I guarantee that she knows exactly who I am talking about.) We told ourselves that his unpleasantness was somehow charming, that there as something winning about his abrasive nature. But some time after we were no longer in regular contact with him, Rose and I agreed that this was some kind of collective delusion, and really he was just kind of a pain that we had all decided to make our friend for reasons that were certainly lost on me. (Truth be told, I’m still in occasional contact with him, and he seems to have mellowed a lot over time. Maybe we all just saw something nice waaaay down deep?)
Anyhow, that’s the bifurcated topic of this week’s Question: 1) What do you make of this cultural celebration of the flamboyant, unapologetic asshole? Is this an older phenomenon than I appreciate, or is it a sign that we are decadent or (at least) losing something valuable in what holds society together? What motivates it, and what keeps us watching, giving this ugly people their fame? 2) Have you known someone like our erstwhile friend? Were you chummy with someone who constantly left you wondering why you were? What kept your friendship going?