Jerks I: Land of the Free, Home of the Jerk, Part B

Though they are one of America's distinctive creations, Jerks have been observed throughout history.  Meet one from 17th century France, described by one of the most acute observers of human folly, Jean de la Bruyère:

Gnathon lives for no one but himself, and the rest of the world are to him as if they did not exist. He is not satisfied with occupying the best seat at table, but he must take the seats of two other guests, and forgets that the dinner was not provided for him alone, but for the company as well; he lays hold of every dish, and looks on each course as his own; he never sticks to one single dish until he has tried them all, and would like to enjoy them all at one and the same time…. he makes every place his home, and will have as much elbow-room in church and in a theatre as if he were in his own room. When he rides in a coach, it must always be forward, for he says that any other seat will make him fall in a swoon, if we can believe him. When he travels he is always in advance of his companions, so as to get first to the inn, and choose the best room and the best bed for himself; he makes use of everybody, and his own and other people's servants run about and do his errands ; everything is his he lays his hands on, even clothes and luggage; he disturbs every one, but does not inconvenience himself for anybody; he pities no one, and knows no other indispositions but his own, his overfeeding and biliousness; he laments no person's death, fears no one's but his own, and to redeem his own life, would willingly consent to see the entire human race become extinct.

Gnathon's complete indifference to other people's happiness and even to their existence is the hallmark of the true Jerk, who should be distinguished from the fool or boor who simply does not know to behave in public, though there is something of the Jerk in many fools and boors. When we see a grown man making little sculptures out of his mashed potatoes or drinking his champagne with a straw, we are tempted to say, "What a Jerk," even though he may not realize how annoying his behavior is.  This concept of the Jerk as fool corresponds pretty well to original usage. If scholars are correct in relating the word to self-abuse, the original Jerk was the loser who could not get girls and had to be content with his own company.  Before 1900 "Jerk" had come to be used as an adjective with the meaning "ineffectual."

The 21st century Jerk, however, goes beyond the mere loser.  If you listen carefully to how most people speak of the species, the offensive characters that most of us call Jerks are not the unselfconscious fool immortalized by Steve Martin but someone who may well know that he is offending people and simply does not care.  The classic Jerk is someone who is forever saying, "I want what I want when and how I want it and I don't give a damn what anyone else thinks or feels.  If I feel like playing the trumpet, it doesn't matter whether I live in the desert or a downtown apartment building.  I'm going to blow my own horn as a loud as I want to, and if someone complains, I'll tell him he's a Jerk.”

To go back to people who play with their food at the table, some of them, even when someone points out how annoying their behavior is, refuse to desist.  I have a friend—and he will recognize himself in this story—who is generally considerate of other people’s feelings, but, born in the 1960’s, he can be obtuse.  In a French or Italian restaurant, I have watched him pull the crust off good bread, and when challenged, he responds:  “I don’t like the crust.”  I try not to show my irritation, but even when I explain to him that it is a kind of implicit insult to the baker, the proprietor, and the waiter, he shrugs his shoulders:  “It’s what I do.”  I blame his mother.  I cannot begin to imagine what my mother would have done to me, if I have plucked the crust off the Wonderbread.  My friend would retort, as he has done many times, that I can be far more rude and offensive than he will ever be.  Of course I can, but only a jerk will use the retort, “So’s your old man.”  In learning how not to be a Jerk, the hardest part is to listen to criticism from friends and colleagues who may be bigger Jerks than we are.

To understand the inner nature of the Jerk, you have to spend a lot of time around children.  As father of four and the former principal of a small K-12 school, I consider myself an expert in all the little ways that children have of torturing each other and the grownups who are condemned to be with them.  A five year old boy wants what he wants NOW, and there is no point in trying to tell him it is time for his nap, or that he had already promised not to ask for another cookie only five minutes ago when, against your better judgment, you gave him a third one.  Conservatives may blame Dr. Spock and sigh for the good old days when children were well-behaved and respectful, but listen to a description of children three centuries ago.  The source is again La Bruyère:

Children are overbearing, supercilious, passionate, envious inquisitive, egotistical, idle, fickle, timid, intemperate liars, and dissemblers; they laugh and weep easily, are excessive in their joys and sorrows, and that about the most trifling objects; they bear no pain but like to inflict it on others.

The primary purpose of education is to turn these selfish, lying savages into responsible members of a community.  For the most part, I am reserving children Jerks for their own chapter, but a few preliminary words  are in order.  Everyone used to recognize the truth in the proverb, “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” but our entire system of child-rearing and education, from Dr. Spock to graduate school in the softer disciplines, is based on rejecting this simple insight.  Whatever Johnny wants, Johnny gets, and if he doesn’t get it, everyone will have to suffer.

Thomas Fleming

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

8 Responses

  1. Avatar Robert Reavis says:

    Tom,
    First let me admit that I am a deplorable jerk. Having said that and having admitted the obvious, I have often wondered most of my life when and how the manufacturing of the (un)deplorable jerk became so accelerated and extoled in one lifetime. At some point all authority was lost, all consensus, a determinant number of leaders and principles by which to maintain were lost. But like Belloc’s essay, “On Coming To An End”, it is most difficult and complicated to see where and when the beginning of the end and the very end became one. But God knows it had to be years ago.

  2. Avatar Vince Cornell says:

    Mr. Reavis, we could start a Jerks Anonymous . . . Hello, my name is Vince, and I’m a jerk.

    Mr. La Bruyère is spot on in his observations on children. What exasperates me is when I see parents in public held hostage by their jerk child. They coo and simper and make nervous, apologetic glances to other adults while their child yells, jumps, and otherwise acts the fool. They behave as if they’re powerless against this midget tyrant. I’ve often wanted to lean in and explain that all this would go away with a good hard spanking, but then somehow I would become the jerk.

    These midget Jerks are growing up into Generation Snowflake, perhaps the biggest conglomeration of Jerks to have ever roamed the planet.

    Dr. Fleming, is there a chapter on animal Jerks? Surely dogs are folks, but cats are clearly Jerks.

  3. Avatar Vince Cornell says:

    Also, “I was born a poor black child,” gets me every time! Surprised that movie hasn’t been banned yet as a microaggression or been covered with trigger warnings. Maybe I should aquire a copy before it becomes contraband!

  4. Avatar Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Mr. Cornell, my wife and I have had cats and dogs. We are dog people now, but as apartment renters when we were first married, we had a couple of cats. Each had its own personality. The younger female was much smarter than the male. When Numa (the male) chased Simba when she was smaller than he was, she would duck unnoticed into some hiding place and he would go right on by. When he returned, she would jump out and ambush him. On the other hand, she was very protective of him. One time Numa climbed into a drawer to sleep and my wife, not seeing him, closed the drawer trapping him inside. A little later Simba came up to my wife and meowed frantically until my wife followed her into the bedroom to free Numa.

    Numa and Simba were indoor cats, but before we married, my wife’s family had an outdoor cat named Gray Boy. He was a mighty hunter and would leave dead mice on the back porch as evidence of his prowess and skill. Maybe I do not understand what jerk means, but I would never describe these cats as jerks. I could probably write a small book about the antics of Numa and Simba during the too short time they lived with us.

  5. Avatar Vince Cornell says:

    Mr. Van Sant, I am fond of cats as well as dogs. The only reason we don’t have a cat is because of allergies of folks in the home. I was just making a crude stab at the stereotype of cats being more aloof, more self interested, and less likely to come when called. I also see that auto-correct on my phone changed “fools” to “folks” – I had meant to write that surely dogs are “fools” – which is another stereotype.

    Nothing genuinely negative intended in my comment. In fairness I’ve known many dogs who were jerks, although they were usually on the short and yappy side.

  6. Avatar Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Mr. Cornell, I agree with your assessment. Cats are very independent-minded. Dogs are more needy.

  7. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    If by independent-minded, you mean ruthless, predatory, and completely dedicated to getting what they want exactly as they want it, I agree entirely. I like to say I do not like cats, but that is hardly true. Of the several cats who have grudgingly decided to share our humble living quarters, two were splendid creatures, and one–a golden coon cat–even seemed to like us as companions. She remained friends with the father of her one litter and she had an almost canine attachment to her family. I have run into a number of pleasant cats but do not expect to meet another Marja–a shortened nickname from the Sanskrit for cat. (I made the mistake of taking Sanskrit one Summer.)

    Some dogs are needy, but healthy dogs are simply sociable animals who understand hierarchy. I have had four Scottish terriers, and none of them was needy. They liked to sit on the sofa near someone but without touching. Bitches are a bit more affectionate. Meg (Merrilies McDuff) actually sat at my wife’s feet, when she was recovering from an operation, and tried to console her. It goes without saying that Emma, the snooty Manx who adopted us, made herself scarce.

    Once, driving back from Charleston to McClellanville, I listened to an NPR show in which the “expert” was arguing that people get dogs that match their temperaments. Needy people get spaniels and golden retrievers and labs, while women especially who need a companion or a baby get funny flat-faced Asian dogs. Some woman called in to say her husband liked Scotties, and she was told that Scotties are completely independent and do not give a damn about anyone’s opinion of them. I almost drove off the road, laughing.

  8. Avatar Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Dr. Fleming, cats definitely want things their own way.

    We have had a long string of dogs. Our first was a Maltese-Poodle mix for our older daughter. Next we got a Bichon for my younger daughter. My wife bred the Bichon, which led to quite an assortment of Bichons over time. I have lost count of the number of pups I have delivered in a playpen in our kitchen. We would keep them in the playpen to socialize them as they matured until we sold all but one of each litter at the appropriate time.

    At one time we had three generations of Bichons living with us. The last one, who we did not breed, is about 14 now. As she has aged and suffered from back problems, she has become more dependent. She does not like being left alone and has become fearful of thunderstorms. Recently, she was even afraid to go out into the yard at night when the cicadas were making a racket. This dog, Pumpkin, actually belongs to our younger daughter who left her with us when she got married. She recently got herself a Havanese puppy, Waffles. (All of our dogs have been named after “food”: Pudding, Taffy, Sugar, Peaches.) Pumpkin is even afraid of little Waffles, who just wants to play with her.

    Thinking back on it, it may be that Pumpkin is insecure after her grandmother and mother died and then my daughter left. Pumpkin is now very attached to my wife. Many times when we return home after going out, we find Pumpkin sleeping on some clothing that belongs to my wife. If we are going to be away for any length of time, one of our daughters stays with Pumpkin. As fearful as she is, Pumpkin is still a terror when a stranger approaches the house or comes to the door. She will not stop barking until she has examined the stranger and assured herself about him.