In the new millennium, the Americans acting badly are spoiled children who have never learned what it would mean to grow up. 100 years ago, this type was already developing, and Booth Tarkington describes some of these characters in his fiction—the Penrod stories, Little Orvie, and, most effectively, the character of Georgie Minafer in the Magnificent Ambersons. Georgie was a spoiled rich kid, who despised his social inferiors as riff-raff, but hard times eventually taught him how to be a man.
Georgie had been spoiled by a doting mother and aunt, but most boys had to undergo the harsher judgment of their fathers and the even more severe criticisms of their peers. I thought I was clever, as a boy, and used my clever tongue a bit too freely. One time, when I had got myself beaten up, I complained a bit to my father. "Well, you used your best weapon—words—and your inarticulate friend used his best weapon, his fists. You really cannot complain." No, I couldn't.
In time boys growing up chastised by older boys, would develop a code, or at least pretend they had: Games have rules that must be observed, and it is bad form to cheat. They may even understand that if "what's mine is mine" then what's yours must be yours. But this is a development imposed on the boy's naturally bestial desire to possess everything he wants. By 10 or 12, boys used to know how to play by the rules, but that was in the bad old days before child psychologists revealed the natural goodness of children.
These days many boys grow up believing they are rulers of the world or at least the heir apparent to the throne. In studying the lives of some of the more colorful Roman emperors—say, Nero or Caligula or Commodus (the villain of The Gladiator)—I have often thought how much they resembled the typical American teenage boy. Instant gratification of every whim is all they wanted. Is that too much to ask from an unfeeling world? The only thing that prevents all the little Justins and Jeremies and Tylers from acting out their imperial fantasies—apart from the juvenile justice system--is the ugly fact that every little Brad and Bret and Jason is on the same mission to despoil the universe.
Popular psychologists have described a certain kind of American male as suffering from the Peter Pan syndrome: They never want to grow up. But their inability to make attachments is a comparatively minor problem that only affects us if Peter Pan happens to be our son-in-law.
The Jerk, however, is omnipresent. We cannot leave our house, get in a car, travel by plane, or pick up the telephone without the risk some Jerk ruining our day. Admittedly, there are degrees of Jerkitude, and there are many species with the genus. We can easily recognize the egoist who has to have things his own way, the Egotist who spoils parties with his endless accounts of personal triumphs, Don Juan the Jerk who is God's gift to womankind, the pushy Jerk who has to be at the head of every line, the self-righteous Jerk who goes through life correcting everyone else of bad driving and uncouth behavior without ever stopping to consider what others might be saying of him, but underneath all the apparent distinctions varieties there is the spoiled child who never learned to play by any rules except the ones he makes up as he goes along. Life for them is a never-ending game of "Calvinball," which may never be played the same way twice.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.