America, the Land of the Jerk
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.
Jerks have been with us from the time that Cain resented Abel for the favor he had found with the Lord, and every society in every age has been plagued by one or another variety of Jerk. The Greek name for one aspect of Jerkitude was hybris, the arrogant self-assertion that encourages a man to slap an equal or tyrannize over those weaker than himself. Sophocles’ hybristic characters are in most respects too high-minded to be Jerks, but they are self-willed to the point that they do not listen to other people more reasonable than themselves.
Hybris and arrogant self-assertion are a recurring theme in human history and pre-human pre-history. Dominant male monkeys and apes swagger and bully almost as outrageously as their hominid cousins. For monkey-men as much as for monkeys, the single-minded pursuit of power and sex is a perennial incentive to hybristic misbehavior, but, as Aristotle pointed out, every human institution has a natural history. .....
In recorded human history, it has taken nearly 5,000 years for Jerkitude to reach that peak of perfection it has achieved in becoming the dominant character type of America in the New Millennium.
There must be some reason or reasons, why the Jerk has become the archetypal American character. In the early days of the American Republic, Fennimore Cooper warned his fellow-citizens of the dangerous implications of democracy. Cooper was no monarchist or even a defender of aristocratic rank and privilege. As a substantial property-owner, though, he had begun to realize that some Americans, New Englanders in particular, had begun to think that if they the same political rights as the rich—to vote and hold office—they might also have a claim on a rich man’s property, especially if he was failing to put his land to good use. In Cooper’s novel The Chainbearer, a family of fanatical Puritans move onto an estate and cut down trees on the theory that in Eden there was no “mine” or “thine.” When the owner’s son arrives, the Yankees, convinced of their own superior righteousness, decide to kill him.
Cooper’s egalitarian Yankees were Jerks with a vengeance, and, driven by envy and greed, they were setting themselves up as something they were not. This affectation of superiority is one of the defining qualities of the all-American Jerk. In less developed ages, men of superior talent—Alexander or Napoleon—frequently treated colleagues and subordinates with brutal arrogance, but at least their sense of their own superiority was rooted in actual abilities.
In more artificial ages, such as 17th century England and France, undistinguished scions of distinguished families could point to their pedigrees as justification for their overbearing behavior, and English Restoration Comedy is peopled with amusing fops and dandies, who insisted on playing a role in society to which their actual merits did not entitle them, but Sir Fopling Flutter was only a pale anticipation of the American louts who pose as experts on cigars, whiskey, and football, know what really happened on 911 or in the Wuhan lab, and regularly spill thousands of ill-chosen words onto blogs, Facebook, and Twitter which seem to exist for no other reason than the mass production of low-class Jerks.
The hypocrisy and self-deception of the Puritans is only one cause of the Jerk's rise to dominance in these United States. Another cause is the rapid urbanization of an essentially peasant population.
Jerks, unless they have seized power, are generally 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 people into crowded subway cars. The result? The New York subway system, which has to be experienced to be believed.