Jerks 00.D: What happened to manners?

Jerks come in every imaginable age, size, sex, and type, but they all share one common quality:  They have absolutely no manners, and, if they ever had any, they have put them away in the attic with the jackets and ties they will never wear again, even to their mothers' funerals.  They call up their friends when they are stuffing their face and treat them to the sound of their chewing and swallowing; they never say, "please, after you," when they are entering a building or boarding a bus, because it is always Me First; and they think nothing of revving up their motorcycle at 6:30 AM, when their neighbors are still sleeping--"Hey, I got to get to work.  If you're a light sleeper that's your problem." 

Many Jerks take refuge in the argument that since times have changed, all those old-school manners are obsolete.  Perhaps they are, some of them.  It is rare to see an engraved wedding invitation these days, though thank-you notes from nieces and nephews, however uncommon, are still expected by some elderly curmudgeons who may be rewriting their wills.  Men may no longer worry too much about when to wear brown shoes or the latest date on which they should put on a white suit and Panama hat, but the principles underlying good manners are more basic:  self control, kindness, patience, and some human regard for the other person's feelings.  These are not technicalities about what fork to use with caviar or whether or not to go white tie or black tie to the ball at the Lithuanian embassy.  They are matters of fundamental decency.  

Even if social conventions vary from culture to culture, it does not mean they should not be observed or that alien conventions should be introduced.  A loud belch may be a polite way of indicating satisfaction with the meal in China, but here in the West it is simply the mark of a lout.  Of course, social conventions vary more than traffic regulations, but anyone with a sense of shame or personal honor will do his best not offend people by violating the code.  My  wife, who spent some of her formative years in England, is an Anglophile, but here in the States she does not drive on the left.

As Jerks proliferate, it is harder and harder for us to remember—if we ever learned—how to behave in public.  We don't like the noisy party next door so we blast our stereos so loud we wake up the whole block.  We so dislike talking to chatty strangers on airplanes that we scowl at our seat-mates as if they were terrorists.  The more we feel ourselves forced to behave like Jerks, if only in self-defense, the more mean-spirited we become on the inside.  Thomas Jefferson once advised one of his nephews to cultivate "artificial good manners" because while in the beginning the young man may be only going through the motions, in the end he will have a good heart to match his good manners. 

The reverse is also true: Act like a Jerk and you become a Jerk.

Jerkitude can only stop in one place: with ourselves.  For every one of us who quits acting like a Jerk, a dozen others may be inspired by our example.  But the process of detoxification will not be easy, especially for people who have grown up taking bad manners and thoughtlessness for granted, like seasonal allergies or acid reflux after eating junk food for lunch.  It is not enough to have a good heart, if we do not care how we behave in public.   

Since the 1960's (and I am a child of the 60's), we have admired spontaneous men and women, who grabbed for life without thinking too much about the consequences, and we have correspondingly tended to look down on well-mannered people as false and hypocritical and derided social conventions as “the games people play.”  

Our film heroes were Marlon Brando, sneering his way through The Wild Ones, Paul Newman smirking through a dozen pictures as Cool Hand Luke or Butch Cassiday, and the master celluloid Jerk, Jack Nicholson.  (Seen Five Easy Pieces recently?)  Nicholson's performance as the Joker would not be half so brilliant, had he not conjured up the jerk that is hardly ever far from the actor's surface. 

In more recent years, there are no Hollywood film stars who are not, on and off the screen, complete jerks.  The rules are not made for Johnny [Depp, Alec (Baldwin), and Leo [DiCaprio] or Charlie (Sheen), Hugh (Jackman or Grant), and Brad Pitt.  (Jerks only use first names.  Pleased to meet you, George or Barry or Joe.  What’s it like being first President of this country?  Lotsa perks—and the babes!).   Eric Siegel, who was a bad scholar and worse novelist, was—not surprisingly—wrong in his most frequently quoted statement.  It is not love but celebrity that means you never have to say your sorry

In the bad old days of yore, public interactions were part of a complex social drama, as intricate as croquet or cricket, and the only way to play successfully was to know the rules and apply them.  It is just too bad that in the games of postmodern social life, there are no referees to cry foul.

Try to think what it is like to have saved up money to take your wife out for a nice dinner on your anniversary and end up sitting next to a group of dirtily dressed louts who shout obscenities to attract attention to themselves.   What do you do in such  a circumstance?  Insult the louts, provoke a fistfight and end up, depending on your street-fighting skills, either in jail or in the hospital?  (I have two friends who went to jail and almost lost their wives doing just this.)  Perhaps you make some carefully worded cutting remarks that humiliate the Jerks in front of their wives or girlfriends without provoking an encounter.  You feel pretty good about your success until you notice the contempt on the women's faces as they realize what losers they are going out with. 

Congratulations, you have just been enlisted in the great army of Jerks! 

Bores, boors, louts, imposters, bullies, and braggarts  have provided fodder for satirists, moralists,  and comedians for centuries.  Shakespeare's Malvolio and Molière's Tartuffe are brilliant portrayals of the hypocritical bigot, and Susanna Centlivre's "Marplot" has immortalized the self-important busybody who ruins other people's lives—with the best of intentions, naturally.   Some of their portraits have endured throughout the ages, and this book will be enlivened not just by depictions of celebrities behaving badly but also by historical and literary anecdotes that will set the phenomenon in a broader context.   While it is true that the Jerk has reached the pinnacle of success in contemporary America, he has been waiting in the wings, eon after eon, for his big moment. 

(Hint:  If you want to get an infallible Jerk-detector, go out and buy a mirror.)  "What are you laughing at?" asked an ancient poet,  "Change the name and the jokes' on you."  

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

6 Responses

  1. William Shofner says:

    Constantly, there is a “jerk” lingering in the shadows waiting to offend each of us, purposefully or not. I know each of us has a tale to share about jerks almost daily. As for me, here is my story for the day:

    Around 6:30 this morning, after I dropped by disabled daughter off at her high school in the midst of darkness and rain, I pulled onto the narrow drive on campus that intersects with the main, and very busy, road in front of the school. At this intersection, there was a traffic light, and it was red when I reached it. While I waited for the light to turn green, a school bus driver, who was immediately behind me, honked his extremely loud and blaring horn and demanded that I turn right on red then and there, although several children were walking in or near the front of my car at this intersection at this time and I could not see well at all the traffic on the main road because of the morning darkness and the pounding rain. Once the light turned green, I turned right and waited for the driver of the bus to pull up beside me on the main road, I signaled to him to open his bus door as we waited together at the next light on the main road . He surprisingly complied with my request…and I unleashed on him my full anger.

    Does such reaction make me a jerk? Maybe. But, I swear on the souls of my grandchildren, I will not be openly abused in public or pushed around at the whim of a public employee, all to satisfy his time schedule and to force me to endanger myself, school children and oncoming traffic. If such makes me a jerk, then so let it be. (For what it is worth, I have seen the wrath of Ole Tom and I tend to think that he would have behaved as well…or as poorly…as I this morning. Maybe. Maybe not. But as for me, I gladly acknowledge and embrace my actions this morning, jerk or not.)

  2. Thomas Fleming says:

    Wes, there’s always room for indignation–righteous or otherwise. Resisting aggression does not make you a jerk, especially when the offender is, A a public employee, and B doing something that is wrong, dangerous, or illegal.

  3. Thomas Fleming says:

    PS Schoolbuses are among the most dangerous vehicles on the road.

  4. Michael Strenk says:

    I can’t blame you, Mr. Shofner. I have done much the same a couple of times, once merely flashing the impudent finger at the king of jerks laying on his horn on a low speed, narrow, residential road in Brooklyn. Most such incidents go by with nothing further, but this 300 lb. moron had two equally corpulent females (I won’t indicate the species) in the car and decided to give chase to prove his manliness. I had to run as I had my wife and a niece in the car and couldn’t tell if he was armed and did a pretty good French Connection impression under the elevated tracks (the same tracks in the movie) until I hit a light that couldn’t be blown because of the traffic. He got up alongside and started swearing and throwing garbage like an outraged ape. Another driver, who I took to be an off duty cop stopped and took our side and the lout scampered. Humiliating to say the least, but the girls were terrified and I couldn’t just stop and take my chances as I would have on my own. All’s well…, but you never know what you’re dealing with these days. The rules no longer exist and women and children are fair game to the scum of the earth that has been gaining in proportion at an ever increasing rate in our society.

    School buses and ice cream trucks Dr. Fleming. I know two people whose lives were nearly ruined by the loss of a loved one, one a brother and the other a son, because of people racing to get around a stopped ice cream truck while children rushed out to meet it. I know another woman who, as a child was hit in the same situation and nearly died, spending over a month in the hospital. But don’t hate the ice cream truck, hate the jerks who drive in and around them. On second thought, hate the ice cream truck by all means. The speaker on the wretched thing could wake the dead with its endlessly repeated electronic tune going up and down the blocks. When I was a kid the gently tinkling bells of the Good Humor bicycle cart was all a child needed to tune in, but we weren’t ever, much less incessantly, wearing headphones.

  5. Harry Colin says:

    I realize that we all have stories to add, but this piece particularly hit home because a few days ago in a neighboring town, a 13 year-old boy, riding his bicycle – without headphones – was run down by a 64 year-old man in broad daylight. This lump of wasted protoplasm told the police upon capture later that he didn’t stop to help the boy because in his drug-addled state he thought he hit a mailbox. Surprisingly, even given the venomous brew of drugs that he admits were running through his system, he managed to post the bail set by the judge, and apparently is free today.

    I am so sorry to hear of Mr. Strenk’s recent troubles with the garbage-tossing goons. It must have been terrifying experience. I don’t know how he feels about second amendment rights and carrying protection, but even that could be problematic as a resident of New York state, which recently again secured its spot as the worst state in America (yes, even worse than the District of Criminals) for concealed carry and citizen rights to arm themselves. We live in perilous times.

  6. Michael Strenk says:

    Thank you for your sympathy Mr. Colin. The incident actually happened over twenty years ago when we were still living in Brooklyn. I am all for carrying firearms but, as you say, in New York in general, but especially NYC you must satisfy a very very narrow set of criteria to get a permit. Permitless carry is out of the question here for any but the glitterati because the consequences are fairly severe.