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.