Jerks 01.A–National Stereoptyes

Every human society has had its share of offensive or annoying people: busybodies and bores, poseurs and bullies, cheapskates and check-grabbers, hypocrites and egomaniacs.  You might even be able to define some societies by the offensive characters they tend to produce or by the qualities they find most offensive.  Southerners used to regard Yankees as psalm-singing hypocrites who whined through the nose about Christian virtue while all the time they were buying and selling slaves. Yankees, on the other hand, found Southerners overbearing, self-important, and bullying hypocrites who pretended to be friendly and courteous while nourishing arrogance and hatred in their hearts.  And, although there are plenty of northern braggarts and Southern hypocrites, the arrogant man was a typically southern product and the moralizing hypocrite a Yankee specialty.  

Someone will say, immediately, that these are just stereotypes, and we have all been taught since kindergarten to reject stereotyping.  Ethnic stereotypes represent an attempt to make sense of human life by reducing complex characters to the simplistic level of cartoon figures.  Scots are cheap, Germans are domineering, and Jews are pushy.  Anyone who has been to Scotland, Germany, or New York City knows two things:  first, that the stereotypes are inaccurate and second, that there is more than a grain of truth in them.  As psychologist Steven Goldberg has explained, stereotypes would not exist if they did not reflect reality, but what outsiders see as a vice, members of the group regard as a virtue.  Scots regard themselves as thrifty, Germans think of themselves as masterful, and what non-Jews describe as pushy behavior can also be viewed as enterprising.  

Of course, some stereotypes are silly, offensive and inaccurate: As anyone knows who has worked with them, Mexicans in the United States are not lazy—quite the contrary.  They don't enjoy working and will evade it if they can, but in this they are like Italians, Greeks and other civilized people.  Who but a Puritan finds virtue in doing something tedious except out of necessity?  Other stereotypes are outmoded.  For centuries the French were famous for their reckless gallantry in battle, but since their premature surrender in World War II, they have acquired the reputation for being cowards--"cheese-eating surrender monkeys," as they were described on an episode of The Simpsons.  In fact, the cowardly Frenchman is not really a popular stereotype; it is the product of political propaganda ginned up by American Republicans who were annoyed at France's refusal to join the United States in its invasion of Iraq.

The French stereotype is among the more complex.  The French are typically portrayed as gourmets and wine connoisseurs.  We Americans think of them as philandering husbands, though opinion polls suggest that American husbands are more likely than French to cheat on their wives. Closer to the mark is the belief that the French can be irrationally rational and argumentative.  Thus a stereotypical French Jerk would be a food-and-wine snob who tried to seduce your wife and then prove on the principles of Jean Paul Sartre that she will be better off with him than she was with you.  

The stereotypical French Jerk is in a good company that includes the John Bull Englishman, Ivan the drunken Russian bear, and Guido the Neapolitan who divides his time between singing “O Sole Mio,” eating tons of spaghetti, and carrying out little jobs that require a stiletto deftly used.   By looking at the ethnic stereotypes encountered around the world, we can begin to gain some understanding of the phenomenon we are seeking to understand.  Here, the American is clearly king.  Our stereotype is the Jerk incarnate.  What the hypocrite was to Puritan New England, the braggart to 16th century Spain, and the pretentious fop to 18th century France, the Jerk is to America today.  

We could almost say that the Jerk defines the American character.  Ask any foreigner, and he will tell you amazing tales of badly dressed obnoxious Americans who treat restaurant owners as slaves, snap their fingers, demand service by screaming Garcon! Garcon!, and complain about everything they eat.  I was once staying in a nice hotel on Lake Como.  A very rich friend of mine who should know better, complained every morning: "Why can't I have bacon with my eggs.  No, I don't want prosciutto or pancetta.  I just want BACON."  The waiters had no idea of what he was talking about.  If he had bothered to learn a little Italian, he might have discovered the closest thing to bacon is the fatty salted pork jowls called guanciale, but guanciale is not typical of northern Italy, and it is not typically served as a breakfast food.  Too many Americans have seen too many Burger King commercials.  If you really want to have everything your way, stay home.

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 masturbation, the original Jerk was the loser who could not attract women.  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 unself-conscious 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."

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. theAlabamian says:

    I found myself laughing reading this article but unfortunately the descriptions of the jerk are common in this society.

  2. Roger McGrath says:

    I’d love to see a discussion sometime on ethnic and racial stereotypes, only because as Tom says “there is more than a grain of truth in them.” Of course, we’d all get in trouble telling the truth even if we prefaced our remarks with all the usual disclaimers. It has also seemed obvious that different population groups have different proportions of certain characteristics. And here comes the critical disclaimer. It’s not that group X has this characteristic exclusively and group Y does not. It’s that group X has a disproportionate number of people with the characteristic. In today’s highly charged and irrational atmosphere, all groups must be the same and yet at the same time your identity is supposed to determine everything. Square that circle! Cognitive dissonance and irrationality rule the day. Another element to this discussion is good versus bad characteristics. Again irrationality rules. It’s perfectly acceptable to attribute a good characteristic to a particular “minority” or “victim” group but don’t dare attribute a bad characteristic. Those groups can only have a disproportionate percentage of positive traits.

  3. theAlabamian says:

    For what ever it’s worth on the topic of stereotypes of various people groups for whatever reason Titus 1:12 came to mind:
    One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, the Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies.

  4. Thomas Fleming says:

    I recommend Steve Goldberg’s writings on this subject–I published an essay of his years ago. Famous for his defense of patriarchy, Goldberg was quite frank in regarding stereotypes as a folk alternative to a statistical average. There has been altogether too much exclusive focus on the race and IQ connection–real as it is. I don’t much care for any methodology that reduces human qualities to numbers. I once had lunch with the infamous Philippe Rushton, who calculated the subsaharan African IQ to be well below 80. He was a nice man, pleasant to talk to, but I thought uncomfortably of Coleridge’s ancient mariner with the glittering eye. His work has been inevitably challenged–his critics would say debunked–but by people using even more abstract and reductionist methods.

    There are so many distinctions. For example, an ethologist did an experiment on Newborns, I believe in San Francisco. A very light cloth was placed on top of a black, an Asian, and a caucasian infant. The black and the white babies kicked off the blanket, but the Asian baby made no effort. Asians of certain backgrounds are quite intelligent, but when I meet them in Rockford, I find them timid in the extreme, although we know that they can make fine soldiers.

    Anyway, I won’t run on, but it is would be interesting to confront some liberal philosopher at a major university, the type that worships Kant, and ask him what he thinks of Kant’s essay outlining the character differences of the European nations.

  5. Michael Strenk says:

    Some of what is said about poor, no doubt flatulent, Gnathon was said in the New Testament about the Pharisees.

    While I was living in Poland, when one young woman learned of my ethnic background she proclaimed that she knew my people and we were all drunks and smelled bad, all the while her rather fragrant father was nearly comatose with drink in the next room. The Poles and the Russians have the same attitude toward each other and the Russians have a saying, “Drunk as a Lapp”, meaning the Finno-Ugric, reindeer herding nomads who inhabit the far north of the Eurasian continent. It seems that the other is generally given to excessive drink and infrequent bathing.

  6. Thomas Fleming says:

    As a child, my family were close to a farm family in which the husband was Swedish and the wife was, as people said, Finnish. Later my father revealed she was a Lapp, but even Finns were felt to be superior to Lapps.