Flea dirt: The organic byproduct of a colony of parasites; in politics flea dirt may be used as a synonym for emails..

Definitions by Phil[1]

[This is Phil and it’s my turn to spout off: We did some nifty pieces in the early days, although not everyone noticed. That’s good in a way; when we run out of new stuff, we simply resurrect the old, spruce it up a bit, and spring it on the unsuspecting reader.

Now, some of you may think that’s cheating. Washington, DC, inside the Beltway, is a multi-ring circus, with an endless supply of new acts and something happening day and night. Why would anybody recycle old material when there’s so much new stuff? Well, the circus metaphor is accurate, but it’s a flea circus there, not a real one.]

Fleas and humans have much in common. There are a lot of them, for example, just as there are lots of us. They procreate like crazy, as do we.  “Birds do it, bees do it, [e]ven educated fleas do it, [l]et’s do it. let’s fall in love.”[2] And, according to our literary elders, they come in all shapes and sizes. “Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite them, and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so on ad infinitum.”[3] Humans also come in various configurations, arrange themselves in predatory hierarchies, and bite one another incessantly, at least in D.C.

Like the real thing, human flea counterparts don’t get much respect. “But was there ever dog that praised his fleas.”[4] No, probably not. And normal people don’t spend much time contemplating the hierarchy of power amongst fleas and their competitors. “Sir, there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea.”[5] It’s just too hard for an outsider to tell the difference.

Fleas are limited; they do only a few things well, so they do them a lot; and as it is with fleas, so also is it with the humans. We also repeat ourselves, over and over, simply because we have to. For us, and the insects, there’s not much new under the sun unless, perhaps, someday it explodes. So that’s why an old blog can be relevant today. The political moves and scandals we look at are familiar, simply because they’re replays of old scripts. As long as we have the background, it takes minimum intellectual effort to write about the new ones because, in fact, they’re really old.

That’s all very fine, you might say, but today we have emails; they’re dear to the hearts and minds of politicians and their staffs; and they leak out. They come from the DNC, via WikiLeaks; from a private server Mrs. Clinton maintained when she was Secretary of State; from the State Department pursuant to various investigations and FOIA law suits filed by public interest groups; and possibly from dangerous hackers outside the U.S. Let’s face it; fleas don’t have those kinds of problems. Your metaphor simply doesn’t apply to today’s controversies.

I don’t agree. If you think about it, today’s uproar is all about the Presidency, and what we have basically is a cat and dog fight about it. I see Mrs. Clinton as the cat, not necessarily a house cat, perhaps bigger; conservative, knowledgeable, possibly bureaucratic, and alert. Cats don’t like surprises, and neither does she; so she has a large staff, to check for everything.

Staff depend on her for their existence, and when they thrive, they produce lots of emails. These, of course, are sent in all directions, and leave traces on the internet for outsiders to exploit.  If discovered, and obviously that’s happening, they provide a royal road into the inner workings of her campaign, and who knows what else?

Donald Trump of course is the dog in the fight. He also has fleas, i.e., staff, but not so many. Reportedly he himself does not use email and, if so, that makes him a wily old canine. There’s not so much to leak. Instead he uses Twitter; the advantage is he knows what’s out, i.e., everything on Twitter, and he gets lots of free publicity; the disadvantage is, sometimes he has to take things back. Net, net, given the lack of security on today’s internet, he may have the better approach. At least he’s modifying and explaining public statements, not things unearthed by some hacker. That makes him look a bit more honest.

I submit that emails are a natural byproduct of a staff’s relationship with its host. They’re generated spontaneously [and automatically], much like flea dirt, and can leave a mark. And, as we all know, an animal with too many fleas scratches a lot. So is Mrs. Clinton’s staff too big? Perhaps. She does scratch  at her email problem quite a bit when she isn’t trying to ignore it; no doubt she’d be happy without all that distraction. What’s next? A flea bath? Fire the staff, or part of it?

So if you needed proof, there it is. In politics staff really are analogous to fleas, and emails are the staff equivalent of flea dirt, except that emails are potentially more dangerous. The metaphor holds up. That being the case, what about emails written by the principals, the cat and the dog? Obviously they’re not flea dirt – they’re not written by staff – so metaphorically speaking what are they? I’m not going to say. You should be doing some work here. Use your imagination!

[Next week hopefully we’ll talk about a blog from six years ago, involving George Washington and his rules for civil discourse.[6]The question will be: Should today’s candidates adopt his rules for the remainder of their campaigns?]



[1] This is fair warning to all of you. Phil is assembling material for his own Dictionary of Modern English. Oxford, beware!

[2] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition, 2006) (henceforth, ODQ at __) at Cole Porter, p. 607, n. 14.

[3] See ODQ at Proverbs, p. 615, n. 38. Jonathan Swift said something very similar, including the Latin. See ODQ at Jonathan Swift, p. 767, n. 11, on fleas and poets.

[4] See ODQ at W.B. Yeats, p. 855, n. 23.

[5] See ODQ at Samuel Johnson, p. 432, n. 7.

[6] See the blog of 2010/10, George Washington on Political Campaigns, available at http://elementalzoo.typepad.com/elemental-zoo/2010/10/george-washington-on-politicalcampaigns.html