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The Embattled Conscience of American Male Geekdom

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.
Arthur Chu with Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek. (Photo: Sony Studios)

Arthur Chu with Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek. (Photo: Sony Studios)

Jeopardy! champion Arthur Chu’s one-man quest to rid American male geekdom of misogyny, defeatism, and rage.

Peter C. Baker's Pacific Standard feature is currently available to subscribers and will be posted online on Monday, May 04. Until then, an excerpt:

The term "nerd" has come a long way since the 1980s, when it simply denoted an awkward social loser, usually a bespectacled, physically graceless male too book-smart for his own good. Today, it encompasses ever more subtypes: the loser; the intense (or even just mildly intense) fan of this or that pop-culture phenomenon; and the wealthy Silicon Valley coder or CEO wielding power over the American zeitgeist. The idea that “we are all nerds now” is increasingly common: See the Guardian in 2003, New York magazine in 2005, Esquire in 2013, and the New York Times last year.

Chu recognizes that many nerds are thriving in the post-industrial economy and that many once-nerdy interests are now mainstream. But he is careful to stress that the more painful variety of nerd-dom, the kind you don’t adopt by choice, still exists. He knows there is still such a thing as not fitting in, or being unable to get a date. And he knows how much it sucks, because he’s been there himself.

Chu’s parents are fundamentalist Christians who immigrated to America from Taiwan. They lived in Rhode Island until Chu was 12, then moved to Boise, and by the time Chu was in high school they had settled in Cerritos, California, near Los Angeles. “Growing up evangelical was a real double bind,” he says. He didn’t accept religion easily, arguing the fine points of C.S. Lewis with his Sunday school teachers, which made him an outsider in the evangelical community. Meanwhile, being an evangelical Christian—not to mention an Asian-American child with an advanced vocabulary and precise diction—marked him as an outsider everywhere else.

“I was the kid who probably spent fully 10 times as many hours reading books at school [as] exchanging words with any of my classmates,” he wrote last year in Salon. “It was years before I learned to talk something like a normal human being and not an overly precise computerized parody of a ‘nerd voice.’ People felt uncomfortable around me, disliked me instinctively.”

Chu joined a clique of what he calls “bitter angry guys” who desperately wanted female attention and felt antipathy toward women for not giving it to them. Even when Chu managed to get a high school girlfriend, he resented her for being, as he saw it, above him, as an automatic result of being female. He says he and his friends had “tunnel vision” and couldn’t understand that “it could suck to be sexually wanted as much as to be sexually invisible.”

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