Here’s an email that I sent on August 4 to Elizabeth Licata, the editor-in-chief of Buffalo Spree – “The Magazine of Western New York” – that I thought I’d share:
I discovered yesterday that Buffalo Spree had included me in its “BEST OF WNY 2017” list as “Best Gadfly.” I find the award humbling – in a number of ways – and greatly appreciate the description that followed my name.
Perhaps you’ll find amusing my changing comfort level with the label “gadfly.”
Several months ago, I expressed to my twin brother David [who, for a number of years, has been playing a role similar to mine in his current hometown of Schenectady – see his blog at https://snowmenatthegates.com/about/] my discomfort with the use of the word “gadfly” to describe a person who persistently engages in the sort of advocacy activities he and I find ourselves immersed in. Someone had used the term to describe him. I explained that the word has always carried with it – from my perspective – an implication that the individual superficially flits from issue to issue criticizing everything without doing the requisite homework. He and I have always attempted to thoroughly research and meaningfully address the matters that concern us.
My Jesuit-trained brother (Rochester’s McQuaid high school and Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service) tried to assure me – to no avail – that history has known many noteworthy and honorable gadflies, not the least of which being Socrates.
[Back to your magazine.] It was a bit confusing to me when I received an email yesterday morning from a business trying to sell me a commemorative wall plaque regarding Buffalo Spree’s “The Best of WNY 2017” awards. I had no idea what the message was referring to. The August edition of your magazine had arrived in the mail (surprisingly) a number of weeks ago. I briefly glanced at it – noting the attractive photo of the Kim and Terry Pegula, the “Best Power Couple” – and placed it at the corner of my desk, expecting eventually to relaxingly read its pages. That day never did arrive, and the Buffalo Spree slowly became buried under publications from my alma maters (U. of R. and Harvard law school).
When I dug up the “Best of…” edition, and discovered (adjacent to the smiling faces of the Pegulas) the “Best Gadfly” piece, I had mixed feelings. I was grateful for the thoughtful description, but my lifetime of discomfort with what-I-viewed as the implied superficiality of a gadfly caused me concern.
So I did what I’ve always urged my children (now 20 and 17) to do: I picked up my most recent dictionary, a “Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary” 10th Edition (1993). I discovered the following definition for “gadfly” (after reference to “any of various flies … that bite or annoy livestock”): “A person who stimulates or annoys esp. by persistent criticism.” It was comforting to see a definition that did not appear to qualify or demean the nature of the criticism.
So, although I still have some reservations about the label “gadfly,” I suddenly find myself – thanks to the Buffalo Spree award – a bit more open-minded regarding its connotations.
P.S. Given my efforts over the years to thoroughly research issues, and a belief that I am a fairly observant person, it was humbling to realize that I had managed to admire the photo of the Pegulas my first time through the magazine, without noticing my own name in bright red print immediately adjacent to the Power Couple’s smiling faces.
P.P.S. FYI: Here are various bits of information and miscellany regarding “gadflies” that my friends have sent to me the past 24 hours or so:
Greek for gadfly is muops. It’s what the Athenian fathers called Socrates when they were working up his prosecution and execution of Socrates as the “gadfly” of the state (4thC BC).
Plato in his Apology for the life of Socrates reminds us that all societies need a “gadfly” to sting the “steed” of state into acknowledging its proper duties and obligations:
I am the gadfly of the Athenian people, given to them by God, and they will never have another, if they kill me. And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God by condemning me, who am his gift to you. For if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long 1and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me.
About this Quotation:
According to the words put into his mouth by Plato, Socrates believed that he had been sent by the gods to act as a “gadfly” to the Athenian state. He saw the state as “a great and noble steed” which had to be reminded of its proper duties. Socrates believed he did this by stinging the steed of state “all day long and in all places”. No wonder it wanted to get rid of him by forcing him to commit suicide!
[From a retired college librarian] Here is the OED on gadfly: 1. The popular name of a fly which bites and goads cattle, esp. a fly of the genus Tabanus or of the genus Œstrus; a bot-fly, breeze.
1626 T. Hawkins tr. N. Caussin Holy Court 120 It was like..as a bull stung with a Gad-fly.
1744 J. Thomson Summer in Seasons (new ed.) 75 Light fly his Slumbers, if perchance a Flight Of angry Gad-Flies fasten on the herd.
1831 W. Youatt Horse xi. 201 A species of gad-fly, the œstrus equi, is in the latter part of the summer exceedingly busy about the horse.
1841 R. W. Emerson Hist. in Ess. 1st Ser. i. 18 The nomads of Africa were constrained to wander by the attacks of the gadfly, which drives the cattle mad.
2. fig. One who irritates, torments, or worries another. Also (after Latin œstrus), an irresistible impulse to some course of action.
a1657 G. Daniel Trinarchodia: Henry IV cccxlvii, in Poems (1878) IV. 87 Rather then have the Gad-flyes of an ill-Disposed Army on their shoulders feed.
1807 Salmagundi 14 Aug. 279 It is our misfortune to be frequently pestered..by certain critical gad-flies.
1864 J. R. Lowell Fireside Trav. 314 Bitten with the Anglo-Saxon gadfly that drives us all to disenchant artifice.