It was a condescending question.
“Are you a flake?” Chris Wallace asked Michele Bachmann, GOP presidential candidate and congresswoman from Minnesota, during a Sunday interview on Wallace’s “Fox News Sunday.”
“I think that would be insulting to say something like that because I’m a serious person,” Bachmann replied. She did not accept his apology, which was not delivered directly to her but appeared in a web video posted Monday.
And there’s no reason for her to do so — this was by no stretch of the imagination something you should ask a legitimate candidate, which is what Bachmann is increasingly proving to be, polling just one percentage point behind Romney in Iowa.
But suppose she’d said yes. What’s so wrong with being a flake?
The first trouble with flakes is that the definition seems to have shifted.
According to Merriam Webster, a flake is “a person who is flaky; oddball” perhaps from “flake out,” first used in this sense in 1964. Flaky means “tending to flake,” which is the sort of circuitous logic one of these oddballs would employ, or “markedly odd or unconventional,” if you hold the dictionary at gunpoint and demand that it tell you everything it knows.
But ask most people under thirty what a flake is, and we will give you the Urban Dictionary definition, “an unreliable person; someone who agrees to do something but never follows through.”
Urban lexicographer DirkDiggler88 apparently had a bad experience with someone of this description — his definition elaborates: “A useless, shady, deceitful person who is so unreliable and selfish they cause you much anger and frustration. A Flake’s only agenda is what they want to do. They have a weak character, often the products of bad parenting/spoiling kids. A Flake will make plans, never attend, and give no reason for their absence, even after they spent hours calling, texting, or emailing you.” He continues for several more sentences, but you get the gist. If you ever make plans with him, make certain you keep them!
So even if one leaps to identify as a flake, there is some ambiguity. Do you hold odd beliefs? Or do you never show up at concerts even though you told DirkDiggler88 that Mozart was your thing? Or both?
“Yes, I am a flake,” Bachmann could have said. “Flake and proud! When I am not maintaining strange, far-out beliefs, I am failing to show up at events to which I have RSVP’ed.”
But no self-respecting flake would say that. The real charm of flakes is that they do not believe that they are flakes.
Flakes, like People Who Smell Weird, are always defined from the outside. We will admit that, from time to time, we’ve flaked on plans or held flaky notions about the moon landing. But are we flakes ourselves? Never! It’s an allegation that generally comes from people with differing opinions or plans to go ice skating that did not come to fruition after you failed to show.
And in either sense, everyone’s a flake these days. That the world revolves around us is nothing new. It’s only logical that we should be able to do whatever we want all the time — and that equally means leaving undone whatever we don’t want to do, skipping out on that croquet evening when we see that DirkDiggler88 is less fun in person. Our culture depends on flakes. They supply most of our ideas! And if everyone always went everywhere and did everything we said we were going to do — well, we can’t have that! We’d run out of canapes!
Besides, who asks a question that way? It wasn’t merely condescending. It was downright stupid. If you want someone to identify as a flake, maybe a more efficient query would be “Hey, I would like to go to the Creation Museum later to discuss What Really Happened, are you game?” Asking point-blank if someone is a flake is like asking if he’s a liar — even if it’s true, he’s not going to say yes.