A new term for me, a bit of an epithet I guess, was applied to me several times recently by a genial retired oil industry person sitting nearby at a wedding reception. Smart man, perfectly likeable. He suggested in the course of the evening that some people — I definitely got the impression I was included, although he was too nice to say — might be “bubble-wrapped snowflakes.”
For me, not might. Am. If I understand. Absolutely no doubt about it. Lifelong. My parents were bubble-wrapped snowflakes. Snowflakes and proud.
That’s not what’s bothering me. If I am a bubble-wrapped snowflake, why does it bother me so much when I see people who seem way more bubble-wrapped than me? What am I feeling? Disdain or envy?
I get that there must be a scale of bubble-wrappedness and that I must be somewhere in the middle. But which is the good end? Why am I so worried about sliding down to the super-wrapped end?
Example: Last week The New York Times carried a detailed report on a staff walkout at online publication Deadspin. A lot of things happened at Deadspin. The staff was angry. They walked out. Fair enough.
But this is what bothered me. The Times story included a line describing the firing of the top editor at Deadspin, Barry Petchesky, by a corporate overlord named Jim Spanfeller. Apparently, Spanfeller had Petchesky summoned to his office for insubordination or murder or something and fired him right then and there.
Here’s the line in the Times story: “Mr. Petchesky said Mr. Spanfeller ordered him to leave using an obscenity.”
I guess I’ve just been in the news business way too long. What would seem odd to me about getting fired from a newspaper job would be a person who did not use an obscenity. I imagine getting fired back in the day. Assuming The New York Times gave a damn, which they would not, if the person who fired me had failed to use even a single obscenity, I might well mention that to the Times guy:
“Weird, weird dude. Very odd. Had me hauled out of meeting to his office. Accused me of murder. Fired me. And he never once used an obscenity.”
Here’s the thing. The fact that Petchesky would even mention to the Times reporter that Spanfeller used an obscenity in firing him tells me that Petchesky himself did not use an obscenity in getting fired. It’s a disgrace to the profession.
I am reaching for the word that would convey my feeling about this level of bubble-wrap, and, oh my, we have to be so careful, we bubble-wraps, not to offend in certain ways. But I think the word "ninny" should be safe. Anyone can be a ninny, right?
OK, maybe I need a better example, something to show that bubble-wrap is more than just a matter of manners or a question of being thin-skinned or, as I mentioned, a ninny. It’s a constitutional issue. A huge one.
Let’s go to Facebook. At the end of last month, Facebook announced that it will not vet the truthfulness of political ads posted by candidates, calling those ads political speech. Nick Clegg, the company’s vice president of global affairs and communications (what a job), said in a blog post: “We have a responsibility to protect the platform from outside interference, and to make sure that when people pay us for political ads we make it as transparent as possible.
“But it is not our role,” Clegg said, “to intervene when politicians speak.”
Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, explained the policy in greater detail last month in a speech at Georgetown University. Facebook does use fact-checkers to test the truthfulness of commercial ads. As he explained at Georgetown, Facebook’s policy not to fact-check political ads is an exception to that rule:
“We don’t fact-check political ads. We don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying. And if content is newsworthy, we also won’t take it down even if it would otherwise conflict with many of our standards.
“I know many people disagree,” Zuckerberg said in the speech, “but, in general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy. … As a principle, in a democracy, I believe people should decide what is credible, not tech companies.”
In immediate response, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren raised a war cry against Facebook, telling Zuckerberg, “It's up to you whether you take money to promote lies.”
But that has never been the case. Since the founding of our democracy, the nation has never left truth up to the media — a notion that would have elicited guffaws from the founders. We don’t have to look beyond Thomas Jefferson, a principal architect of American press freedom, to see how the founders felt about the media of their time.
In a letter to a 17-year-old boy written months before then-President Jefferson left the White House, Jefferson wrote: “It is a melancholy truth that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put in that polluted vehicle.”
His expressions of disgust and detestation of the press were some of Jefferson’s most vivid writing. He described the journalists of his time as fiends who “ravin on the agonies of their victims, as wolves do on the blood of the lamb.” In another place he wrote, “I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors …”
As president, Jefferson was under unrelenting pressure from the media-haters of his time to help stiffen up the libel laws so that vile miscreants of the press could be crushed economically or even slapped into prison. For the most part he refused to join that effort.
Why? If he hated the press so much, why didn’t he want to see it punished for purveying lies to the public? Jefferson routinely answered that question in the same way Zuckerberg did, by saying that his trust would always be in the people, the readers, the American public to serve as the high court of truthfulness.
And what was the punishment, then, for publishing lies? In Jefferson’s view, a newspaper’s punishment for printing lies was the same as a tavern’s punishment for serving watered-down rum: The customers would go across the street.
In fact — and here is where we get down to brass tacks and bubble-wrap — if the American public, utterly on its own, can’t tell Russian disinformation from the truth, then the whole idea of democracy is toast. The wisdom of the nation can never be left to reside in a government agency, some board or commission or even a court and certainly never in a company, media or not.
When it gets down to the basic bottom of things, to our fundamental notion of how democracy works, that’s the sole property of people staring at their phones. People staring at their phones don’t just have the right to judge what’s true and right for our country. They have the sole and solemn obligation. If they can’t figure it out, we may have to rethink the divine right of monarchs or something as a way to run this place.
And specifically back to bubble-wrap, here is what sticks out to me, just like the guy who said his boss used an obscenity to fire him. Why is almost all of this anti-Facebook stuff coming from one side? The Dump Trumpers?
Please, I’m a Dumper. I would love to dump him. It’s my dream. That’s why I never balked when the guy at the wedding reception suggested I was wrapped. I figured he could look at me across a big table, right through the lovely flower arrangement, and just see it on me, written on my forehead in red marker pen: “Bubble-wrapped Trump Dumper Snowflake.”
But it still makes me very suspicious that almost all of this jumping on Facebook, making it a national cause, suggesting we may need a constitutional amendment ever hereafter to be known as the Zuckerberg Amendment, seems to be coming from one side. My side. I can’t help putting this together with the guy who told The New York Times his boss swore at him.
In addition to our obligation to parse the truth from lies, it seems to me in a free-wheeling free-speech democracy we have to be a little bit thick-skinned about people lying to us as well as lying about us. People just lie. They do. If the liar didn’t also lift our wallet, sometimes we have to just walk away. Often.
Especially where political ideas are concerned, it’s often impossible to tell if people are deliberately lying or just idiots. I don’t want to pin this on any one person, but you-know-who comes to mind.
Imagine that: fact-checkers at Facebook whose job is to determine whether the president of the United States is lying. And then what? Facebook totally silences the president? I think that’s a concept that comes from way down at the far end of the bubble-wrapped snowflake spectrum. And I admit it: Every time I think I might be sliding down that way, I grab for the rail with both hands.
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