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."