Jerks 01.B: Peter Pans

To go back to people who play with their food at the table, some of them, even when someone points out how annoying their behavior is, refuse to desist.  I have a former friend who thinks of himself as someone  generally considerate of other people’s feelings, but, born in the 1960’s, he can be obtuse.  In a French or Italian restaurant, I have watched him pull the crust off good bread, and when challenged, he responds:  “I don’t like the crust.”  I try not to show my irritation, but even when I explain to him that it is a kind of implicit insult to the baker, the proprietor, and the waiter, he shrugs his shoulders:  “It’s what I do.”  I blame his mother.  I cannot begin to imagine what my mother would have done to me, if I have plucked the crust off the Wonderbread.  My friend would retort, as he has done many times, that I can be far more rude and offensive than he will ever be.  Of course I can, but only a jerk will use the retort, “So’s your old man.”  In learning how not to be a Jerk, the hardest part is to listen to criticism from friends and colleagues who may be bigger Jerks than we are.

To understand the inner nature of the Jerk, you have to spend a lot of time around children.  As father of four and the former principal of a small K-12 school, I consider myself an expert in all the little ways that children have of torturing each other and the grownups who are condemned to be with them.  A five year old boy wants what he wants NOW, and there is no point in trying to tell him it is time for his nap, or that he had already promised not to ask for another cookie only five minutes ago when, against your better judgment, you gave him a third one.  Conservatives may blame Dr. Spock and sigh for the good old days when children were well-behaved and respectful, but listen to a description of children three centuries ago.  The source is again La Bruyère:  

Children are overbearing, supercilious, passionate, envious inquisitive, egotistical, idle, fickle, timid, intemperate liars, and dissemblers; they laugh and weep easily, are excessive in their joys and sorrows, and that about the most trifling objects; they bear no pain but like to inflict it on others.

The primary purpose of education is to turn these selfish, lying savages into responsible members of a community.  For the most part, I am reserving children Jerks for their own chapter, but a few preliminary words  will help to bring the character of the Jerk into the light of day.  Everyone used to recognize the truth in the proverb, “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” but our entire system of child-rearing and education, from Dr. Spock to graduate school in the softer disciplines, is based on rejecting this simple insight.  Whatever Johnny wants, Johnny gets, and if he doesn’t get it, everyone will have to suffer.

The exaggerated display of emotions that is characteristic of  children is one of the most outstanding qualities of the Jerk.  Adults who throw temper tantrums are no longer despised, as they once were.  They are often celebrated for their spontaneity or, in the case of successful athletes, adored for getting away with doing as they please.  There was a time when tennis was a gentleman's game, when the loser congratulated his victorious player and did not blame  the umpires.  Even in the 1970's, when crybabies like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were staging their amateur theatricals on the court, Arthur Ashe was still acting like a grownup, on and off the court.  In the flood of eulogies that poured in after his death, one of the most words most often used to describe him was "gentleman."  Pete Sampras, who maintained this tradition, commented: "In our sport the best of players and fiercest competitors are often also gentlemen—good sports and role models.  Just look at Rod Laver before my time, and Roger Federer after it."

Tennis has always been, ideally, a gentleman's game, and there was a time when college football was played by young gentlemen like Hobey Baker, idolized by Scott Fitzgerald.  Professional football, however, was never really a gentleman's game, but it was not until recent decades that NFL players competed not just to win games but to excel in childish displays of rage or exultation.

   Professional sports—and this includes collegiate and high school football and basketball—provide advanced training in the arts of jerkitude. What could possibly be more offensively childish than the end-zone displays condemned but tolerated by the NFL?   Athletic manners have devolved a long way since Giants wide received Homer Jones “spiked” his touchdown ball in 1965.   These days the end zone display is as much a part of the game as going for a field goal on fourth and ten.  Dances, miming, taunts, mock boxing, and assaults on the goal post are now commonplace.  These armored cretins resemble nothing so much as the Stegosaurus.  I wonder if they will follow the small-brained stegosaurus in developing a second quasi-brain to direct their rear ends?  One can imagine them lying awake, dreaming up ever more embarrassing ways of demonstrating the cerebral damage they have incurred.

I wonder if some of them don’t hire professional advisers—comics who enjoy insulting their audience—as in the Simpsons episode in which Homer hires out as choreographer to various football and basketball stars, including Warren Sapp and LeBron James.  The episode failed to click with audiences that may have found it faintly blasphemous to ridicule an institution that so exemplifies the American character.

Gone are the days when a Walter Payton admonished players who acted up in the end zone:  “Act as if you’ve been there before.”  It was Payton who also reminded sports stars, “When you're good at something, you'll tell everyone. When you're great at something, they'll tell you.”  Unfortunately, Cassius Clay’s antics and constant reiteration of “I am the greatest” are the truest expression of the modern code of the sportsman.  If you really are the greatest, then why not charge money for autographs, taunt opponents on the field, or try to lie your way out of any of the consequences of your misbehavior? Why not kill your ex-wife, if you feel like it.  You’re a star.  You’re what every American dreams of becoming:  a world-class Jerk.

Once upon a time, in the bad old days we always call Victorian, it was felt to be unmanly to display too much emotion.  Sportsmen congratulated each other on making a good shot, and even a few decades ago, collegiate players would sympathetically call out “good effort” to a competitor who came up short.  In those days educated people could recite Horace's lines

Aequam memento rebus in arduis

Servare mentem non secus in bonis

Ab insolenti temperatam 

Laetitia morituri Delli…

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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

1 Response

  1. Vince Cornell says:

    While I’m a fan of martial arts, I have to say the rise of MMA as the premier combat sport as opposed to boxing or kickboxing is a blight on society. In MMA, opponents are encouraged to jump on their opponent when they’re down and to “ground and pound” them even if they’ve stopped being able to defend themselves. Until the referee stops the fight, everything is okay to proceed. People punching other people who have clearly been knocked out already is not uncommon. And that’s in addition to the standard trash talk and absurd celebration antics (or, in some cases, physical assaulting a tour bus with a dolly) – it’s as if being a jerk is codified in the rule set itself. While I have my own criticisms of some of the moribund forms of traditional martial arts, at least they have tried to retain some semblance of honor as a core principle.