By:Thomas Fleming | March 30, 2011
There must be some reason or reasons, why the Jerk has become the archetypal American character. Without going too deep into themysteries of social history, here is a little experiment that might stand in for several hundred pages of tedious social history. Herewith a little theoretical foundation for my continuing study of Jerkus americanus.
Try to think of a world populated by non-Jerks, the sort of people American novelists used to describe in the early 20th century, nice people, who could take it for granted that other people in their little corner of America would also be nice, considerate, and kind—or at least act that way. Think, for example, of the characters in The Magnificent Ambersons. Apart from the hero, Georgie Minafer, they treat each other with courtesy and respect. Of course each of them has his (or her) problems, but—again, apart from Georgie—but they do not deliberately offend their friends or even the servants or put themselves constantly on stage as the center of attention.
One characteristic of such people is that they do not cheat or take advantage of each other, because they know that in their little corner, whether a town of a few thousand or in a neighborhood or social niche in a large city, the cheater, whether in business, marriage, or poker, gets a bad reputation.
To hold your own or get ahead in such a society, you have to play by the rules, because otherwise, people—and people in little tribes and villages have long memories—will hold your peccadilloes against you. I spent several years in a South Carolina village of about 500 inhabitants, most of whom were related at least to the degree of second cousin. They never forgot a blessed thing, and people went to their graves knowing that everyone else still remembered the dark secrets of their past or the stupid things they had done in their teens.
Sometimes the treasured anecdote had to do with something serious, like the story—told breathlessly in secret on three separate occasions by someone who claimed to be the only one who knew the facts—that rich old Mr. Johnson, who had recently returned after an absence of nearly 50 years, was really the illegitimate son of a pillar of the Episcopal Church.
More often, the secret was something silly. When a new family moved in about 1960, their precocious and pretentious son went into Mr. Bob's grocery store and asked for "5 cents worth of your best bubblegum." If the poor fellow had not had the wisdom to leave town once he graduated from college, he would have gone to his grave not as Chatsworth Osbourne Jr., but only as Bubblegume—no last name.[i]
As principal of the local academy, I was soon privy to much of the town's gossip, but I could still be taken by surprise. One day, when I was taking the English teacher's class, I was explaining that part of Macbeth's problem was his excessive passion for his wife. "You all understand?" "Oh yes," said one of the girls, "Just like Jennie's mama and my uncle." Jennie turned red, got up and slapped the other girl—her first cousin, by the way--and I had to give up on Macbeth. Everyone knew the story, because Jennie's parents had left the village ten years earlier to escape the gossip.
Poor Jennie's mother should have known better than to carry on even a flirtation in a small town whose moral rules were determined by four institutions: The Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches. For all their doctrinal differences, mainline Protestant churches (in the South at least) were uniformly and adamantly opposed to adultery. If Jennie's mother had merely got a divorce and remarried, there would have been some difference of opinion, especially if the village had had a significant Catholic population. In some Muslim cultures, the mother might have been stoned to death for adultery, while her lover, by contrast, could take several wives and cheat on all of them.
In each case, custom sets the rules, and, as Pascal so wisely observed, "custom should be followed only because it is custom, and not because it is reasonable or just."[ii] If men and women only followed laws and customs they believed to be just, the result would be perpetual chaos and revolution. The moral customs of the village were, for the most part, Christian and Protestant, and, while they might have offended any Muslim who came to live there (none did), they provided a pattern of expectation for everyone. Those who played by the rules or did not get caught violating them, could get along; those who were caught cheating would suffer.
According to Robert Axelrod's Theory of Cooperation, most people can be expected to play life's little games by the rules, so long as they count on interacting in the future with the same people. But, if you are leaving town—or have even thought about leaving town—the incentives to cheat rise quickly. You can bounce a check, defraud a partner, abandon a wife and escape at least the social consequences by skipping off to greater Los Angeles.
Jerks are not tolerated in small-scale societies: they are talked about or driven into exile or sent to Coventry. But imagine if you constructed a city of 10 million people, most of them from out of town, who spend a good part of each day in the company of total strangers they will never see again. This city would not operate according to a single moral code, because it would include large numbers of Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, atheists and skeptics. There might be some common agreement against murder and theft but not on such large social issues as marriage, divorce, and abortion, much less on public drunkenness, proper behavior in public places, and the tone and volume of conversations in a restaurant.
Imagine that you jammed hundreds of thousands of diverse into crowded subway cars. The result? The New York subway system, which has to be experienced to be believed. (I welcome anecdotes that I can rip off.)
Diversity breeds moral confusion, which is aggravated by the high population density that encourages a comfortable sense of anonymity. Anyone who has lived 50 or 60 years in North America can understand what has happened. As a student I used to go to various uninhabited barrier islands off the coast of South Carolina. My friends and I could bill a fire, set up tents or a lean-to, fish and swim and drink until we could not stand. At two o'clock in the morning, we would be bellowing out songs and urinating into the surf. A few years later, we would run into other parties, and one had to be a bit more careful about noise and exposure. But, despite differences of class and age, everyone shared a common sense of what was expected, and frictions were minimalized.
A decade later, when the island had been made a public beach run by the state, swimmers, fishermen, and boaters had to follow an elaborate code of rules to prevent them from interfering in each others' activities. The differing ethnic, religious, and social groups created frictions. Roistering college students came into conflict with church picnics, and Latinos, blacks, whites, and Asians soon discovered that other groups had different assumptions about public hygiene and behavior. Natural anarchy had given way to an informal community that, in the end, became so diverse and overpopulated that it required laws and armed policemen to enforce the laws.
People who live in border towns or have experience (from either side) of military occupations have often found cultural diversity confusing. American soldiers stationed in Europe in the 1950's have told me that when they got into a vituperative quarrel with young Frenchmen, the Americans would eventually throw a punch, much to the astonishment of the poor locals who thought they were engaged only in a war of words.
Jerks have always been with us, but one of several reasons why they are the dominant character in American society is precisely the density and diversity that has resulted from immigration, and every time a fight breaks out in Denny's, Burger King (just this week in Panama City Beach), or Chuck E Cheese (a fresh incident in Chicago yesterday), it means more laws, more cops. Here is the formula, for those of you who like nonmathematical subjects presented mathematically: Diversity + Density = Despotism.
[i] The real name is even stuffier than the name of the Warren Beatty character on the 1950s sitcom Dobie Gillis I have borrowed.
[ii] Pascal, Pensées, Sect. 5. 325.