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What do you mean by that?


The thing about ‘snowflakes’ is this: They are beautiful and unique, but in large numbers become an unstoppable avalanche that will bury you.

► George Takei, actor1

Another insult term found in some conservative and most alt-right circles,2 but, more than most, making a particular point that ought to be more generally addressed and considered.

The political term comes from the sort-of scientific one, the crystalline singularity of a piece of snow; it draws off some of the flake’s more obvious qualities, such as its fragility and delicacy, the unique structure of each, and (less often but occasionally) its whiteness.

The recent3 political use of it may have its unlikely origins in the 1996 novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk; its most famous quote may be the one about not talking about Fight Club, but another had more political import: “You are not special, you are not the beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” The use of the terms seized on the idea of self-important people who, perceiving themselves as “special,” demand either various entitlements or extra praise or consideration.

The term began to take off after a 2015 YouTube video of a shouting match between students and faculty at Yale University went viral; the students were widely slapped with the label of “snowflake generation.” That phrase became a “word of the year” the next year for Collins Dictionary, but it was soon shortened to the more generic snowflake.

In keeping with the shorter usage, the meaning was broadened at bit; Urban Dictionary in 2016 had, “an overly sensitive person, incapable of dealing with any opinions that differ from their own. These people can often be seen congregating in ‘safe zones’ on college campuses.”4

As that might suggest, the term has been flung more by the right at the left than the other way around. Examples: “Devastated by Brexit? Snowflake. Protesting the election of Donald J. Trump? Precious snowflake. Asking to take down a statue of a racist on your campus? Classic Generation Snowflake. Sexual assault survivors requesting trigger warnings on texts that include graphic rape scenes? Special snowflakes.”5

Of course, this does nothing to say whether these things upsetting a person ought to be upsetting; it makes no argument for any of them. It’s an ad hominem attack, of a simplistic kind.

Of course, the word can as easily be sent in the other direction: “Maybe it’s President-elect Trump. He is, after all, a man who has yet to display an ability to laugh at himself. He is offended by, seemingly, everything anyone has ever said about him that is not sufficiently glowing. He is a man who cannot even bear the (really rather soft) satire slung his way by Saturday Night Live.”6

There is one other aspect to this that should be mentioned. In fact – in reality – we are all different, unique, with particular qualities to offer. Or at least we’d better be. If we’re nothing more than “you are the same decaying organic matter as everything else,” then what gives any person the right to fling a snowflake at anyone else? Or is the flinger simply another snowflake who can’t handle the world as it is?


2A 2016 Los Angeles Times article compiled a list of them, including beta (in contrast to alpha), crybaby (not really new, but with juvenile connotations), cuck (see that entry), human biodiversity, libtard, masculinist (in opposition to feminist), and SJW for social justice warrior. More materialize regularly, some more very specific uses; Goolag is used as a criticism of Google; femoid, intended to suggest women are less than human; and GEOTUS, “God-Emperor of the United States,” intended to refer to Donald Trump (usually intended positively). See more at

3Merriam-Webster cites a regional Civil War-era use: “In Missouri in the early 1860s, a ‘Snowflake’ was a person who was opposed to the abolition of slavery – the implication of the name being that such people valued white people over black people.”





The GOP has gone off the deep end w/ conspiracy theories. Things aren’t just things. Everything involves secret cabals of “elites.” (Dog whistle.)
► Kurt Eichenwald tweet, January 26, 2018

They just believe what they believe and they think their job is to drag the rest of the redneck morons toward the light. They don’t understand that the so-called redneck morons, the people they don’t like, are the people that grew up with values, patriotism, all those things.
► Roger Ailes, former head of Fox News (and presumably, non-elite)

The problem – to paraphrase a bit from comedian George Carlin – is that when we talk about elites, we’re not talking about all of them.

Starting with general definition of terms: Wikipedia (and many other definitions are similar to theirs) offers, “In political and sociological theory, the elite (French élite, from Latin eligere) are a small group of powerful people who hold a disproportionate amount of wealth, privilege, political power, or skill in a society.”

We might as well include here the “establishment,” a term maybe most widely used in the 60s (more often on the left then), but still popping up regularly (more on the right). William Safire’s description from the 1970s locates the “eastern establishment” as “a cluster of legal, financial and communications talent centered in New York, generally liberal Republican in politics.” He pointed out that the term “establishment’ was used generally first in Britain, where journalist Henry Fairlie was said to have coined it, and where the National Observer in 1967 criticized, “If someone wishes to complain about something but hasn’t a very clear idea of what, all he needs to do is blame the problem on the ‘establishment’ and people will sagely wag their heads … It is one of the great blessings of America that it has no ‘establishment.’”
The Observer spoke too soon.

Holding all of those elements in mind is tricky, because they wobble a lot, and the exact roster of the elite can be hard to list. But what becomes especially important, in political speak, is who we choose to name: Which elites we decide on, taking care to include our preferred bad guys rather than favorites.

Who or what are the real elites? Who ought we to focus on when using the term – and when it is simply being thrown around in an attempt to slur some group that happens to be on the other side?

In 1957 sociologist C. Wright Mills released a book intended to answer that question, called The Power Elite; his sense was that the most powerful group of people in the country was an interlocking, and closely-associated, group of political, corporate and military leaders, many of them members of families that more or less stay in the elite for decades and generations. Outside the core business and governmental leaders, he did include a smattering of “celebrities” linked to them.

The book has gotten a mixed response over time, but reactions to it have tended to become more approving as time has passed.

He did at least make an effort to suggest in some intelligible way where the power is – and that at least should give a clue as to who might be considered “elite.” If it relates to actual power or influence in society, then “elite” ought to relate to raw power of some kind, the ability to make something happen – the kind of raw power you get only through either certain types of government office, by mass persuasion of large groups of well-organized people, or by control of large amounts of money. In American society, there are really no other highly concentrated sources of mass power, and the search for true elites – as opposed to a person who flashes in and out of public attention and maybe generates a conversation for a while – logically starts there.

Most conservative descriptions of “elites” will have none of that.

In his book Talking Right, Geoffrey Nunberg lays out what this looks like on one side of the fence (the side where “elite” is used most):

“The way the right has narrowed the use of the word elite, so that it’s more likely to be used to describe ‘liberal’ sectors like the entertainment industry, the media and the academy, than leaders of business or the military. It isn’t surprising that on Fox News, references to the business elite are outnumbered by almost 50-1 by references to the media elite. But even on ‘liberal’ CNN and in the daily press, media elite outnumbers business elite by 2- or 3-1.” He goes on to note that in Great Britain, where discussion of “elites” also is lively, it’s far more likely to refer to economic than education or communication elites.

The Conservapedia description of “liberal elite” refers to “those high-ranking members of society – politicians, college educators and celebrities – who regularly promote the liberal agenda to unsuspecting teenagers and young people. The Liberal Elite believe they are superior to others. Not in a physical sense but mentally, they have their high ground and nobody dare challenge. If you challenge the Liberal Elite thinking and beliefs, you risk being ridiculed.”

But how “elite” are they, really? What does it mean to call a college professor or this year’s celebrity “elite” but leave out the nation’s billionaires and top setters of public policy that govern the nation? It means the transformation of the word elite from a specific if fuzzy meaning to a simple target of anger.

It also marks, in a way, the difference between illusion and reality.
Years ago, I was editorial page editor of a daily newspaper in a small town. I had some visibility in the community (a regular column among other things) and some flexibility in what I could write. On a local level, by a conservative standard, I might even have been considered a part of the “elite,” and maybe some local (probably conservative) political people or others saw me that way. I certainly didn’t, and not only because I knew my modest pay and the limitations I worked under. It was also because I could look across the room and see the office of the publisher, whose approval was needed for running an editorial, and next to his the office of the man who actually owned the paper. Neither of them could have been described as “liberal” by any definition I know of, then or now. But if someone in that newspaper building properly should have been considered a part of the city’s “elite,” that person definitely was not working at my desk.


A prepper – a term getting lots of fresh attention in the time of the pandemic – is close to what we used to call a “survivalist” – used to, until that term grew some negative connotations.

Merriam-Webster calls a survivalist “one who has prepared to survive in the anarchy of an anticipated breakdown of society.” This can be taken to modest levels or to great extremes. Many people put aside some extra food or supplies in the event of the unexpected; that’s commonplace. The point is in how far you push the principle.

There’s a website called Survivalist, which sells all kinds if equipment and supplies for roughing it, but the interpretation you place on what you see there is, well, your own.

Preppers are similar, but with this distinction: They seem to be more urban than survivalists, and more oriented to surviving in urban locations, as opposed to finding an outpost in the woods.

Parallel to survivalists, there is, yes, a

The perspective of preppers and survivalists does seem to overlap.

Author Mark O’Connell, who said he had been pulled into the mindset at one point, remarked in an essay, “The doomsday prepper vision of the world is unapologetically bleak: society as a fragile edifice, a thin veneer of behavioral norms over the abyss of greed and violence that is human nature. Among preppers, one of the preferred ways of reacting to a severe crisis is to batten down the hatches and retreat to one’s home, which is lavishly stocked with food and supplies and, in many cases, weapons.”

It sounds like the result of reading too many dystopian novels and watching too much dystopian video, of which there has been an explosion in the last couple of decades.

It has the feeling more of symptom than solution.

The [whatever] virus

Most commonly, we’re calling this bug that’s hit the world – and is spreading around the United States – the coronavirus. The more technically spoken among us have taken to referring to it as COVID-19.

But there are other names. And there’s some history here.

The coronavirus is something like the flu – not exactly the same, and the differences are significant – so it’s worth revisiting some of the names given various strains of flu over the years.

Maybe the most deadly form ever appeared around the end of World War I in 1918, a worldwide pandemic involving the H1N1 virus that may have infected 500 million people around the globe and killed 50 million (One of whom was a grandfather of Donald Trump). They key efforts to combat it were “isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly.” (Sound familiar?)

It was dubbed the Spanish flu, though Spain doesn’t seem to have had any special role in connection with it (the virus apparently came from birds).

That was the worst, but there have been others, from the Asian flu of 1957 to the Russian flu of 1977 to the swine flu of 2009 (which actually was linked to pigs). Except for the wine flu, most of them seem to be named – with the naming effort mostly centered in the United States – for places from far away, whether they had much to do with the illness outbreak or not.

This week, President Trump referred to a “foreign virus” (do virii have citizenship?) as the culprit behind the current illness. A number of Washington figures have taken to calling it the “Chinese flu” or the “Wuhan flu,” which at least is a connection to where the illness first erupted, but may be an indicator of an intended marker: Who to blame for this. (Never mind, of course, that China is one of the nations hardest hit by the pandemic.)

It seems the naming of flus tends to relate more to what we think about ourselves and who we don’t much like, than about the actual origins of a strain of flu. For which, after all, no one really wants to take credit.


In a political sense – the focus here – a politician’s base is one’s core support, the people who are with you whatever may come … or at least to a further point than most people.

It is not an entirely new term, even in this context, and the larger sense of it has some generally obvious meanings. A military base is the place where troops are stationed, armaments and other secure supplies and materials are located and to which – in a combat area – forces can retreat or collect in comparative security. In a loose sense, its a localized home territory, a refuge.

Some of that carries over into politics: One’s political base is a political refuge of sorts.

The term got its biggest push in that context in 2004, when the George W. Bush campaign, seeking re-election, calculated it was more likely to get the votes needed to win (in the right places) by pushing hardest for turnout within the core support – the base – rather than by trying to reach across to pull in broader support.

Bush’s campaign strategist, Matthew Dowd, recalled in an interview figuring how many persuadable independents were out there as opposed to how many already-sympathetic non-voters: “nobody had ever approached an election that I’ve looked at over the last 50 years, where base motivation was important as swing, which is how we approached it. We didn’t say, “Base motivation is what we’re going to do, and that’s all we’re doing.” We said, “Both are important, but we shouldn’t be putting 80 percent of our resources into persuasion and 20 percent into base motivation,” which is basically what had been happening up until that point — look at this graph, look at the history, look what’s happened in this country. And obviously that decision influenced everything that we did.”

That decision was significant in the management of presidential campaigns; it was the first explicitly to focus as much or toward toward maximizing the hard-core support as opposed to broadening support. That has had significant effects on both sides of fence, chiefly by deepening the political canyon between them. Many people in whatever remains of the middle are left stranded, and many on either side see the opposition in ever darker terms. During the Donald Trump presidency, notably, the effort please the base has specifically meant displeasing or even damaging everyone else.

Are we far from the point where being considered a part of a “base” becomes less a badge of honor with a small group than a criticism – a perjorative – with the large remaining majority? Maybe not far. And why not?


Not so long ago, communicating with large numbers of people meant broadcasting – sending one message out to lots of people. That still happens, but alongside it we see micro-casting: Using technology to send different messages out to specific people, or groups of people.

The technology has been adopted in the 2010s to remarkable degrees as mega-databases have accumulated immense amounts of information about, well, each of us. And the the resulting capability in microtargeting has become increasingly important in American politics.

It also has led to a whole new language of its own.

A January 29, 2020 column by Thomas Edsall remarked on some of this, noting the degree to which the Trump presidential campaign has been bearing down on this (more than the Democrats have).

He noted that “The explosion of digital technology has created the opportunity for political operatives to run what amount to dark campaigns, conducted below the radar of both voter awareness and government oversight. In some cases, the technology is very simple: the anonymous transmission of negative images of candidates by individuals to Facebook groups. This activity is neither reported to the Federal Election Commission nor linked to official campaigns.”

A new language has developed out of it, too. He cited some of the terms associated with it: “geofencing, mass personalization, dark patterns, identity resolution technologies, dynamic prospecting, geotargeting strategies, location analytics, geo-behavioural segment, political data cloud, automatic content recognition, dynamic creative optimization.”

The growth term, and the one with maybe the largest application – commercial and otherwise as well as political – is geofencing.

A marketing application for it is described this way: “Geofencing is the practice of using global positioning (GPS) or radio frequency identification (RFID) to define a geographic boundary. Then, once this ‘virtual barrier’ is established, the administrator can set up triggers that send a text message, email alert, or app notification when a mobile device enters (or exits) the specified area. So, businesses can section off a geographic area and communicate with devices within that space.” The information often comes via smartphones through all those apps that you allow to share location and other information.

Businesses can use it as a device for communicating with people who have interacted with or visited their businesses.

Politically, it can be used in other ways. A National Public Radio report said that “CatholicVote has already identified some 200,000 Catholics in Wisconsin, which of course is a key state heading into 2020. They’re able to discover that half of those Mass-goers are not registered to vote.” That would be valuable political information.

Of course, there is the potential for blowback, as a reporter for the National Catholic Reporter noted: “it’s not illegal, but the idea of mining data of people while they’re at worship in a church was causing outrage to some of our readers. And the fact then that that data is going to be used for political purposes added to their problems with this.”

Watch for more of these deep data terms to stick their heads up as the campaign year progresses.

Human rights

What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right? How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right, is it true, and therefore, ought it to be honored? How can there be human rights, rights we possess not as privileges we are granted or even earn but simply by virtue of our humanity, belong to us? Is it, in fact, true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts, that as human beings, we – all of us, every member of our human family – are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights?
► Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, July 8, 2019

As an article in the New Yorker suggested,1 Pompeo’s answer to the question may be found in the members appointed to a new Commission on Unalienable Rights, whose chair, Mary Ann Glendon, is best known for opposition to same-sex marriage. Among other members, “Peter Berkowitz, of the Hoover Institution, has argued that human rights are, in essence, religious rights – indeed, that the source of all human rights is Christianity. …

Christopher Tollefsen, a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, has written that embryos are human beings and has argued that the Pope went too far when he suggested that the use of contraceptives may be permissible to prevent transmission of the Zika virus to newborns.”

The rights in question seem to put those of religion – certain religious ideas, obviously not all – at the top of the heap. Beyond that, the article said, “In effect, the new commission will contemplate who is and isn’t human, and who, therefore, possesses inalienable rights. Most of the commissioners appear to believe that embryos are human. Many of them also appear to subscribe to the Trump Administration’s general position that trans people do not exist.”

Some of this is a response to an expanding list of human rights over the last – well, three or four hundred years. But what’s being looked at in cases like this is a regression to almost no rights at all, unless your religious beliefs comport with those of the politically powerful.