Bar Jester Chronicles 15: In Praise of Smartassery


Rock Island, IL

If you find yourself called to the lowly ranks of the professoriate; and if, moreover, you find that your first call is to an all-girls’ college; and if years later you find yourself the center of attention in a tenure hearing at another institution, being asked to comment on what it was like to teach at an all-women’s college; and if by way of response you find yourself not at all against your will or better instincts saying, “I felt like a pork chop at a bar mitzvah,” you may be sure your true calling is not so much to the professoriate as to the noble duties and obligations of smartassery.

If in the same hearing you are asked about your “perceived arrogance,” and if, leaning back, legs crossed lockerroom style, you say, “well, I don’t know about ‘perceived,’ but I’m damned sure arrogance is no misdemeanor,” then you may likewise be sure you were marked long ago for—indeed, called from your mother’s womb to—the holy office of (you guessed it) smartassery.

No doubt at one point in your undergraduate career you were summoned by the dean of students, who expressed in sincere and lofty tones his worry that you were developing a “cynical attitude.” (This is because you filled out a questionnaire meant, apparently, to be taken seriously, in blue crayon with yellow illustrations.) And you, no doubt, looking him straight in the eye, said, “I’m afraid you’re a little late.”

No doubt a high school teacher, unable to put to rest your line of inquiry, once pulled out this old chestnut: “Do you think you are the only one who knows the truth?” And you, not quite able to help yourself, said, “No, sir. In fact I know several people who do. Some are in this room. It just so happens that you are not one of them.”

(The Bar Jester doesn’t aspire to autobiography. Invention is ever his principal interest, second only to his disinterest in principles.)

Now the scorn that patient merit of the unworthy takes (like the insolence of office and the proud man’s contumely) is another matter altogether; it goes by various names, including “assholery,” and it is not to be endured. This the Bar Jester acknowledges.

But who can think ill of an untenured man, sitting in a meeting with a rambling colleague going on and on once again about how she has been silenced her whole career, who breaks in and says, “yes, thanks very much for all that, but how do you square it with the fact, apparent to everyone in this room, that not a soul on earth has ever known you to shut up”?

I think you must praise him for his smartassery.

You see, the world’s grown very serious, gravely so since 12:15 p.m. on the Tuesday after Diogenes died. Some say the world needs more tolerance and diversity. Some say it needs more government planning. Some say it needs more brotherhood and free love. Others, coming nearer the solution, say it needs more rums and coke, or gins and tonic, or scotches and soda.

I say it needs more smartassery (and maybe more gins and tonic).

Take the Broncos. They’re winning. What’s there to say about that? For one thing, a lot less than is being said, and certainly not enough in the smartassery vein. To the east of Mile High, in the city of All Time Motown Low, there’s a boy named Suh on whom a lot of spleen could be vented, and yet the members of the Jockocracy are yelling at each other about a guy whose greatest crime (next to his throwing motion) is his apparent goodness. Are there no smartasses out there willing to point this out?

And where is the wag who can develop the matrix according to which the Tebow effect balances out the seasonal War on Christmas, together with its embarrassing red-headed step-child, the War on the War on Christmas?

Apparently too few people grew up on Bugs Bunny.

Or let us close our eyes, plug our noses, cover our groins, and turn briefly to politics. A man apparently bearing the mark of Cain drops out of the presidential race because he’s dogged by charges that are somewhat, ah, injurious to the family-values party, which is having a damned difficult time getting its act together. (Turns out this candidate was Her-man indeed.) And its rival party, which should have been able to but couldn’t get its act together under Clinton, isn’t doing much better under its new guy. Where’s the smartass who will ask the pertinent question, to wit: what does this tell you, America, about your chances under the current arrangements? How long will you go on and on about being the greatest nation on earth and then submit every four years to be governed by the better of two urinal fresheners?

I mean, Haysus H. Xristopholos!

Every now and then, against my will, I must take a long car ride by myself. Normally I print off a couple of poems or soliloquies I want to memorize and I memorize them along the way. But sometimes I take a break and tune in to Krustian radio—just to be sure I’m not wrong about it. And it turns out I’m not.

Recently I listened to a Krustian radio program about sex. (Don’t get the idea that Krustian radio stations are slaves to ratings and advertisers and that they don’t in fact have our best interests at heart.) And while listening attentively—and also counting cornstalks—I learned that sex is good except when it isn’t. An hour was needed to relay this message. When it was over, the radio host announced that he wanted to hear from me. Yes, me!

Call me, he said, and tell me what you think is the biggest threat Krustians face right now.

Mind you, I think I understand this perfectly well. If there’s one thing Krustians can’t abide it’s the thought that they aren’t being persecuted—especially when the radio’s on and they’re on their way in the Suburban to SuperTarget for more Krustmas shopping, whence home to Hamburger Helper and the religious freedom that is Wednesday evening Bible Study at Former Cornfield Christian Harvest Chapel, clear across (and outside of) town.

Thought I: surely some smartass will step up.

Turns out no smartasses listen to Krustian radio. It’s sincerity up one signal tower and down the next. And such threats! I never knew I enjoyed so few freedoms—I, who at that moment was spinning along the interstate to a conference at a Catholic University (where, unlike the good folk at Former Cornfield, I would be at liberty to imbibe deeply, tell off-color jokes, and recite dirty limericks)!

For the first time in my life I wished—nay, pined—for a cell phone. I would have called that cretinous yahoo and said: Sir, I speak in the name of smartassery, and I believe I speak for all smartasses, when I say that you, sir, are the biggest threat Christians face. Indeed, Krustian radio is the biggest threat to Christianity. I expect you believe God hears all things; pray he tunes most things out, including you and everything else on W-RONG.

But, alas, too much the smartass to own a cell phone, I lost one for smartassery at a time when smartassery, more than anything else, was what was called for.

(How it takes me back to the days—O, the languor of youth!—when we used to call in to the late-night TV preachers (on the land line, mind you): “Hello. Thanks for taking my call. I enjoy your show very much, but I also enjoy drinking a beer while I’m watching it. Is this wrong?”)

Some time ago the Bar Jester, for his apparently incorrect views on the War on Christmas, was taken to task by one of the Great Intellectual Giants of the Western World. Such a thrashing! By those stripes has anyone been healed? We’ve yet to discover. This aforementioned Giant, this Large Oompa Loompa, hadn’t nearly enough smartassery in him at a moment when only smartassery was—and still is—called for.

And smartassery, I dare say, is what’s called for most of the time, especially (to get all lowly and professorial again) when Spenserian seriousness falls about us like a schoolmarm’s chalk dust. Reader, do you think I would let Front Porcher Polet’s incorrect opinions—on, say, climate change—get in the way of my letting him buy the one and only Bar Jester a martini? That would be damned foolishness, especially on Polet’s part. Do you really think he’d rather knock back scotch with some humorless bowtied PoMoCon who’s never had his prissy right-wing hands in worm castings than swill beer with a man of infinite jest who has? I think not! (Find me a PoMoCon who, without the aid of High Speed Internet, can tell you what worm castings are.)

Give me smartassery. Give me a yawning match. This Arnoldian high seriousness we’re caught up in is like sin: it’s its own punishment. It’s what you get for jogging through a dog park in waffle trainers.

Allow me to add the first comment to this thread: Brilliant stuff! I agree with myself!

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Jason Peters tends a small acreage in Ingham County, Michigan, and teaches English at Hillsdale College. A founding member of FPR, he is the editor of both Local Culture: A Journal of the Front Porch Republic and Front Porch Republic Books. His books include The Culinary Plagiarist: (Mis)Adventures of a Lusty, Thieving, God-Fearing Gourmand (FPR Books 2020), Wendell Berry: Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky 2007), Land! The Case for an Agrarian Economy, by John Crowe Ransom (University Press of Notre Dame, 2017), and Localism in the Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto (co-edited with Mark T. Mitchell for FPR Books, 2018).


  1. I thought I made it clear that I have no position on climate change. I only have a position on those who have a position on climate change. But I do have a position on martinis (other than prone), and Peters with Martinis, and for this I’ll simply refer the reader to a standard line about how many martinis are appropriate, and refer them further to Peters’ salacious posts, which is to say every one.

  2. Wags of the world unite… too Mr. Polet as you dance about the pinhead of holding no positions on positions. I hoist a dram, if I could to you Mr. Polet, without question.

    As to the insufferable Peters, I doff my porkpie: “too few people grew up on Bugs Bunny”. Sometimes your erudition is epic.

    Cripes Peters, someday I shall squat on yer back porch with my Feist Pooch and then you shall commence to pay dearly for your impudence. We are both quite flatulent but you already knew this. In such an event, it is a very good thing we might find a nurse within earshot so that post mortems might possess a level of professionalism.

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