The full title should be: Jerks, How to Spot them and How to Deal with them without becoming one of them yourself.
The Jerk is the defining character of postmodern America. What the Man of Faith and the Man of the Sword were to the Middle Ages, the Jerk is to our own age. To do justice to the American Jerk would require many volumes, answering such questions as: Were there Jerks in the ancient world? (Yes, but far from defining the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, Jerks were derided as the counter-example to proper behavior.) Are there Jerks in other countries or does the US have a monopoly? (It depends on what you mean, but Communist countries, Russia in particular, have been veritable factories producing millions of jerks per year.)
When moviegoers hear the term Jerk, they immediately think of Steve Martin's amusing film, but they are quite wrong. Martin's Jerk was more of a rube or a fool, and, while he often acted like a Jerk, he lacked the monomaniacal obsession with his immediate gratification that typifies the Jerk everywhere.
Another way to look at the Jerk is that he is a five year old boy in the body of an adult. I was speaking with my daughter on the telephone yesterday and was constantly interrupted by her three year old son, "I want to go on my walk, I want to go on my walk." He had done some piece of mischief on the walk and had been sent home, but right and wrong, cause and effect don't matter to a child his age.
"I want a cookie, give me a cookie, I want it no-o-o-w."
"Well, dear, let me break one of these big ones in half and if you finish..."
"No, I want a whole one no-o-o-o-w. Don't break it don't break it don't break it. You broke it and I won't eat it."
"All right, don't eat it."
"No, give me a cookie no-o-o-w!!! No, not the broken one."
Put up with this for two decades and you have an American college student. Remember the Doors' classic statement of the American adolescent's credo, "We want the world and we want it now"? They were serious, too. Put simply, the Jerk is the greedy selfish brat of five who goes to his grave refusing to grow up.
It is easy to spot the Jerk when you are traveling. He is the forty-something adolescent who wears a backpack, and as he pushes his way through the aisle of the plane, he inevitably swings it from side to side, knocking off an old lady's glasses and spilling someone's drink. And no, he will never say, "I'm sorry" or "Pardon me." He is probably unaware of the minor havoc he is creating, because he doesn't care. If he is flying First or Business Class, he inevitably stands up to look for something in his carryon, just as the horde of cattle-car customers is trying to get by. What is the point to getting an upgrade, if he cannot enjoy the chance to rub your nose in his temporarily elevated social status?
The Jerk is the last to switch off his telephone, because he is too intent on sharing his business and personal life with several hundred strangers. Overheard not long ago:
"He did WHAT?!! Put the little bastard on, yes, now. Listen, you little bastard, I am not buying--no, I said NOT--buying you another car. This is the third car you've trashed in two years . . . "
The worst cellphone behavior is on a commuter bus, where the passengers never have to turn it off. The Van Galder bus driver from O'Hare usually mumbles something about respecting the feelings of other passengers, but such admonitions are wasted on the Jerk--more often female than male.
"I'm on the bus. No, not fuss. I said bus. Yeah, bus. I'm on the bus from O'Hare. No we're still at the airport. No I don't know when we get in. I'll call you. Just calling to say hello. So whatcha doin? Whadidja have for breakfast? I had cereal. No, not beer, cereal. You know I don't drink before noon..." Ring
"Yeah, this is Jack, who's this? Sam? Sam who? Oh, Sam in marketing. Say, Sam, did you hear what that b--tch Lorraine done yesterday? Jeeze..."
"I'm on the bus. Yeah, the bus, from the airport."
Never have so many gabbed about so little for so long. What to do about the cellphone shouters
Strategy one: Talk very loudly to your travel companion in an effort to humiliate the shouter, who may turn out to be hard of hearing and the one person for an excuse. Now the poor guy will spend the day feeling sorry for himself and angry at the Jerk who insulted him.
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.