Jerks O: Introduction, Part A

Everyone in America is constantly complaining about Jerks:  the Jerk who cut them off in traffic, the Jerks at the office who never wash their lunch dishes and leave them for their junior colleagues or overworked secretaries, the Jerk father who lets his toddlers run around screaming in the nice restaurant where you have taken your girlfriend to propose, the Jerk that pushed his airline seat back so violently that it sent your coffee flying--he's the same Jerk who shouted for 15 minutes into his cellphone and then delayed the take-off because he would not turn it off when he was told to.  Yes, everyone complains about Jerks, especially the Jerks themselves.

Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive study of this omnipresent phenomenon.  While there have been books on how to deal with Jerks at the office or with boyfriends who are Jerks, the beast has never been fully described.  If we cannot spot them and know their ways, Jerks have us at their mercy.

Some Jerks—and these are the most pardonable type--simply do not know that a man is supposed to take his hat off in a bar or that it is considered rude to read the newspaper or check you email while you are having drinks with a friend or co-worker.  Others may dimly recall some good manners their mothers taught them, But, hey, when everyone else is doing it, you know, Howzat go?’ When in Rome, eat pizza and die?..”   Maybe not die, exactly, but I’ve had pizza in Rome that made me ready to kill the cook.

Men and women who are not Jerks sometimes feel they are under siege from alien life forms that have invaded our planet to suck the energy out of everyday life.  At the simplest level, the problem is a conflict between two cultures, the old culture that clings to what remains of civilized life, and the new post-civilized culture that insists the old rules of polite behavior were chains that enslaved men and women to the fictions of class, age, religion, gender, and culture.  Where is it written that young men should treat women with respect or listen attentively to the "wisdom" of old men? 

 (Actually, it is written in lots of places, like the Bible or in the books we used to call classics that no one has to read in school.)

There may be some truth in this claim.  In the bad old days before the French Revolution, peasant boys could not expect to grow up to be generals or bishops, much less kings or cardinals, and terms like monsieur and madame were reserved for members of the upper classes.  But the Jerk's lack of respect for class and tradition is among the least of his sins:  Jerks are far more likely to insult the poor and weak than the rich and powerful.  No, beneath the surface argument, that manners are useless except as a tool of repression, lies the simpler urge:  I do whatever I can get away with.

Every culture has been aware of a broad spectrum of socially offensive people, and the fop, the bully, the pedant, and the puritan have all had their moment in the sun.  In America today, however, the Jerk is not just a common type of offender.  He is so prevalent that without exaggerating too much we could say that he defines the American character of the 21st century.  Like Santa Claus, the Jerk is everywhere—in stores and hospitals, at the office and in your home—but unlike the jolly old elf, the Jerk never gives people what they want (he either gives gag presents or "re-gifts" the macramé suspenders he was given by another Jerk last Christmas), and he does not go away on December 26.

America, the Land of the Jerk

There must be some reason or reasons, why the Jerk has become the archetypal American character.  Without going too deep into the mysteries of social history, here is a little experiment that might stand in for several hundred pages of tedious social history.  Try to think of a world populated by non-Jerks, the sort of people British and American novelists used to describe in the early 20th century, nice people, who could take it for granted that other people in their little corner of America or Europe would also be nice, considerate, and kind—or at least act that way.  Think, for example, of the characters in The Magnificent Ambersons.  Apart from the hero, Georgie Minafer, they treat each other with courtesy and respect.  Of course each of them has his (or her) problems, but—again, apart from Georgie—but they do not deliberately offend their friends or even the servants or put themselves constantly on stage as the center of attention.

One characteristic of such people is that they do not cheat or take advantage of each other, because they know that in their little corner, whether a town of a few thousand or in a neighborhood or social niche in a large city, the cheater, whether in business, marriage, or poker, gets a bad reputation.

To hold your own or get ahead in such a society, you have to play by the rules, because otherwise, people—and people in little tribes and villages have long memories—will hold your peccadilloes against you.  I spent several years in a South Carolina village of about 500 inhabitants, most of whom were related at least to the degree of second cousin.  They never forgot a blessed thing, and people went to their graves knowing that everyone else still remembered the dark secrets of their past or the stupid things they had done in their teens.

Sometimes the treasured anecdote had to do with something serious, like the story—told breathlessly in secret on three separate occasions by someone who claimed to be the only one who knew the facts—that rich old Mr. Johnson, who had recently returned after an absence of nearly 50 years, was really the illegitimate son of a pillar of the Episcopal Church.

More often, the secret was something silly.  When a new family moved in about 1960, their precocious and pretentious son (with a name to match) went into Mr. Bob's grocery store and asked for  "5 cents worth of your best bubblegum.  If the poor fellow had not had the wisdom to leave town once he graduated from college,he would have gone to his grave not as Chatsworth Osbourne Jr., but only as Bubblegum—no last name.

As principal of the school, I was soon privy to much of the town's gossip, but I could still be taken by surprise.  One day, when I was taking the English teacher's class, I was explaining that part of Macbeth's problem was his excessive passion for his wife.  "You all understand?"  "Oh yes," said one of the girls, "Just like Jennie's mama and my uncle."  Jennie turned red, got up, and slapped the other girl—her first cousin, by the way--and I had to give up on Macbeth.  Everyone knew the story, because Jennie's parents had left the village ten years earlier to escape the gossip.

Poor Jennie's mother should have known better than to carry on even a flirtation in a small town whose moral rules were determined by four institutions:  The Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches.  For all their doctrinal differences, mainline Protestant churches in the 1970s were uniformly and adamantly opposed to adultery.  If Jennie's mother had merely got a divorce and remarried, there would have been some difference of opinion, especially if the village had had a significant Catholic population.  In some Muslim cultures, the mother might have been stoned to death for adultery, while her lover, by contrast, could take several wives and cheat on all of them.

In each case, custom sets the rules, and, as Pascal so wisely observed, "custom should be followed only because it is custom, and not because it is reasonable or just."  If men and women only followed laws and customs they believed to be just, the result would be perpetual chaos and revolution.  The moral customs of the village were, for the most part, Christian and Protestant, and, while they might have offended any Muslim who came to live there (none did), they provided a pattern of expectation for everyone.  Those who played by the rules or did not get caught violating them, could get along; those who were caught cheating would suffer.

According to Robert Axelrod's Theory of Cooperation, most people can be expected to play life's little games by the rules, so long as they count on interacting in the future with the same people.  But, if you are leaving town—or have even thought about leaving town—the incentives to cheat rise quickly.  You can bounce a check, defraud a partner, abandon a wife and escape at least the social consequences by skipping off to greater Los Angeles.

Jerks are not tolerated in small-scale societies: They are shunned or banned or sent to Coventry.  But imagine if you constructed a city of 10 million people, most of them from out of town, who spend a good part of each day in the company of total strangers they will never see again.  This city would not operate according to a single moral code, because it would include large numbers of Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, atheists and skeptics.  There might be some common agreement against murder and theft but not on such large social issues as marriage, divorce, and abortion, much less on public drunkenness, proper behavior in public places, and the tone and volume of conversations in a restaurant.

Imagine that you jammed hundreds of thousands of diverse  into crowded subway cars.  The result?  The New York subway system, which has to be experienced to be believed.

Diversity breeds moral confusion, which is aggravated by the high population density that encourages a comfortable sense of anonymity.  Anyone who has lived 50 or 60 years in North America can understand what has happened.  As a student I used to go to various uninhabited barrier islands off the coast of South Carolina.  My friends and I could build a fire, set up tents or a lean-to, fish and swim and drink until we could not stand.  At two o'clock in the morning, we would be bellowing out songs and urinating in plain view.  A few years later, we would run into other parties, and one had to be a bit more careful about noise.  Despite differences of class and age, everyone shared a common sense of what was expected, and frictions were minimalized.

A decade later, when the island had been made a public beach run by the state, swimmers, fishermen, and boaters had to follow an elaborate code of rules to prevent them from interfering in each others' activities.  The differing ethnic, religious, and social groups created frictions.  Roistering college students came into conflict with church picnics, and Latinos, blacks, whites, and Asians soon discovered that other groups had different assumptions about public hygiene and behavior.  Natural anarchy had given way to an informal community that, in the end, became so diverse and overpopulated that it required laws and policemen to enforce the laws.

People who live in border towns or have experience (from either side) of military occupations have often found cultural diversity confusing.  American soldiers stationed in Europe in the 1950's have told me that when they got into a vituperative quarrel with young Frenchmen, the Americans would eventually throw a punch, much to the astonishment of the poor locals who thought they were engaged only in a war of words.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

7 Responses

  1. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    The problem with following customs that are not reasonable is the destruction and chaos that results. Here I am thinking of our well-established custom of women having children out of wedlock and easy divorce resulting in serial cohabitation and marriages. As a result, most of our children are not raised in a home with a father and mother who love and support each other. That is the gold standard for raising well-adjusted, civilized children and young adults.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, indeed. One reason I have never liked the term “traditionalist” is the obvious fact that some long-standing traditions–cannibalism, suttee, etc., are really terrible. I strongly subscribe to Falkland’s “Whatever it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” Falkland was actually a moderate who initially sided with Parliament’s opposition to Charles I but joined the monarchists in the end to save the British constitution. Jim Easton likes to tell the anecdote of General Charles James Napier, when he was Commander-in-Chief in India.

    When Hindu priests protested his prohibition of Sati (religious funeral practice of burning widows alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. on the grounds that it was their tradition, he replied: Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.

  3. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Alas, it is also our current custom to teach all of our children that one family arrangement is as good as another. I suspect that at least some of those children know they are being lied to.

  4. Clyde Wilson says:

    Another name for Jerk is Yankee

  5. Dot says:

    Fools argue with fools.

  6. Robert Peters says:

    Among the Jerks whom we have in Louisiana are the politicians. Louisianians spontaneously organized into the Cajun Navy and rescued thousands of people in the flooding two weeks ago. Now the politicians demand that in future floods they must get training, licenses and permits before they will be allowed through barricades to rescue people. In Texas, federal authorities are appropriating land along the Red River to which farmers have held deeds for years. Just yesterday in a local store I heard a “lady” cursing a clerk and a manager because food items which she had chosen were not covered by her federal allotment. She threatened to sue the store. I heard the manager tell her that she could purchase the items not covered with her own money. I went to another cashier. The “lady” was still screaming when I left the store. Jerks at the federal level; jerks at the state level; jerks at the private level.

  7. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    This morning’s paper reported on the front page (approvingly) how the local school system is going to implement the Obama-mandated policy for bathroom and shower room use by “transgendered” students, which was just suspended by a sensible judge in the lawsuit brought by some of the state’s (but not Maryland). Apparently, according to the paper there are a number of other (imaginary?) genders that will be accommodated in addition to the actually existing two. This goes to the level of super jerks.