Jerks 0.b

America, the Land of the Jerk

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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.

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

13 Responses

  1. William Shofner says:

    As more evidence of Cooper’s deep concerns about the rise of democracy and the cry for more equality during the blooming of America and before its wilting, he wrote in “The American Democrat” the following: “Inequalities of condition, of manners, of mental cultivation must exist, unless it be intended to reduce all to a common level of ignorance and vulgarity, which would be virtually to return to a condition of barbarism.” Well, we eschewed J.F. Cooper’s warning and have embraced the barbarian whole hog, slop and all, so it seems.

  2. Clyde Wilson says:

    The Union Army during the War Between the States was the biggest collection of Jerks ever assembled. And they were empowered to harass women and children and other noncombatants all they wanted.

    Those who are interested in Dr. Fleming’s comments on Fenimore Cooper might enjoy my relevant essay in my FORGOTTEN CONSERVATIVES IN AMERICAN HISTORY.

  3. William Shofner says:

    I believe that Tom and maybe even Clyde are being way too kind to call many of our modern Americans jerks. Again, I tend to think, for whatever it may be worth, that our model American today has, as Cooper feared, devolved into a barbarian, not a jerk.

  4. Clyde Wilson says:

    Barbarians are often brave. Perhaps decadent or degenerate is a better term.

  5. Robert Reavis says:

    This reminds me of how difficult it is to distinguish jerks one from another in our time. The jerks won the war and you can’t tell Mitt Romney from that acronym posing as a representative named AOC. A lot of journalists and professor types referred to Romney when he was running (and losing) as “an old Tory” type when in fact the last of the Cavaliers, or anybody resembling one was probably Jeb Stuart and Robert E Lee.

  6. Thomas Fleming says:

    Wes has a point, in attempting to put American Jerks on a scale, but Clyde anticipated me in objecting that barbarians had elements of nobility. In parts of the book I did not post, I made this point. Barbarians, at least the Germanic, Slavic, and Celtic Barbarians who invaded Europe, lived by disciplined codes that took for granted the necessity of courage, honor, and respect for rank. They had a different code from the Greeks and Romans, but they lived by it. Americans may dream of being barbarians but wearing a ballcap and spiting on the floor only makes them Jerks.

  7. Clyde Wilson says:

    Maybe I was wrong about decadent and degenerate. These terms suggest a decline from something previously better—not the case with American Jerks.

  8. Harry Colin says:

    The wearing of ball caps triggered my recollection of a recent report that indicated NFL franchises generate 10 percent of their revenue on game days from the stadium sales of jerseys and hats. Given the huge influx of money these teams make, it astounded me that so much cash came from adults who spend serious money to wear a football jersey with some other person’s name on it. That should qualify for membership in the jerk club; if that isn’t sufficient, certainly paying $50-100 to park, $ 12 per beer and hundreds for tickets so that they can get plastered, curse and vomit all over those same jerseys should secure membership.

  9. Thomas Fleming says:

    Clyde makes interesting point on decadent and degenerate. In biological terms, as I recall, decadence implies the loss of certain faculties of motion and activity and growing dependence, thus parasites are decadent. Compared generally with earlier Americans and their European antecedents, Americans are certainly decadent, though not in the late 19th century sense of aesthetically over-refined.

  10. William Shofner says:

    Maybe to close the loop here, I sense that the “jerks”, as enunciated by Tom and Clyde (circa 2021), are or should be understood to be the same creatures as the “barbarians”, as defined by James Fennimore Cooper (circa 1838) : that low degree of humanity, which exists in any age, possessing crass conditions, manners and cultivation, all of which have been reduced to a base level of ignorance and vulgarity. Hence, the jerk today, as perceived by Tom and Clyde, smacks of the barbarian, as understood by Cooper. If so, then damn Tom and Clyde’s jerks and damn Cooper’s barbarians!

  11. Thomas Fleming says:

    Loops only really close when a knot is tied or the disputants die. For a further clarification let us go back to the beginning. The Greek word barbaros, perhaps derived from nonsense syllables that indicated the way furriners talk, meant non-Greek and included even the highly civilized Egyptians and Babylonians. Used without qualification, it often referred to the Persians. When the Romans adopted it, barbarus was applied to people outside the orbit of Greco-Roman civilization, people who were mostly uncivilized by Roman standards, though the Persians hardly deserved such an interpretation. Anthropologists applied it to peoples who were in between savagery, i.e., the natives of South America and Africa, and European civilization, and it usually implied non-literacy, aggressive heroism, and a kin-based social, legal, and political order. One might be tempted to call men like Boone and Crockett barbarians but never savages. The all-American Jerk, as he has developed, is not kin-based, because he would screw his relatives as readily as strangers; he is anything but heroic, though he will strut his stuff in front of women or bully people he can get away with mistreating. In fairness to Yankees, Cooper’s evil Puritans were more like barbarians than the Jerks to whom they are vastly superior in being family-centered, energetic, and dangerous.

  12. Michael Strenk says:

    William Gilmore Simms certainly saw jerkitude in the South of his time. His description of “Devil Dick’s” gang, at least at rest, gives us jerks at their worst, but that lot were also courageous, daring and somewhat more loyal than a great many modern Americans.

    When dealing with criminal behavior, I would say that not all criminals are jerks, although they be morally reprehensible.

  13. Michael Strenk says:

    Upon reflection, Simms’ The Forayers is full of jerks. There is “Devil Dick” and his gang, but Pete Blodget and his mother are the king and queen of weasels and Captain Inglehardt very well may be the prototype for American jerks everywhere.

    Going to Herodotus I’ve recently finished the scene of the the sacrifice of the three hundred Spartans and however many Thespians. The Spartans brought the Thebans with them presumably to teach them something of manhood in the Spartan vein, but they weren’t up to the lesson even after witnessing the Spartans ferocious resistance to the Immortals’ onslaught and fled at the first opportunity into the arms of the Persians. What a bunch of jerks.