Being petty can feel good.
While we often shoot for grandeur, we frequently land at petty—an offshoot of the French word petit, to be specific. Petty has been a belittling word; calling someone petty would historically have been a derogatory statement. It meant you thought that person was concerned with small things that didn’t matter, things you wouldn’t dare associate yourself with. In other words: bad. Pettiness was bad.
But the internet made petty a badge of honor. The more familiar “petty theft” became “petty af”—accompanied by the laugh-cry emoji, of course, which is awarded in response to the pettiest of quibbles. Pettiness had been reclaimed—first by Black Twitter, and then, as many things are, by the scores of viral sites pandering to LOL seekers. Social media loved petty and petty loved it back.
More recently, though, some of the wind has gone out of petty’s sails, thanks to our president’s petty insults that flirt with nuclear war, and the mobilization of bot and Nazi Twitter armies into the public discourse. But let’s take a step back. World history is peppered with petty—the small-minded revenge seekers and the even smaller-minded ones, too. A building constructed just to block a neighbor’s light; a lawsuit over a too-short Subway sandwich; a 300-year war started over a stolen wooden bucket.
To honor this ignoble part of human nature, we have made the Petty Hall of Fame. It is a massive 60-item mountain of petty, created from humans’ entire history of molehills.
And in case you’ve got your very own petty stories to share, call our hotline and we may feature them!
Tennis runs on unwritten rules about good behavior: you must shake hands with your opponent, watch your mouth, and apologize for cheaply earned points. A BUMP IN THE NIGHT. “There’s this veneer of extreme sportsmanship,” explains Chloé Cooper Jones, GQ’s tennis correspondent. “It’s supposed to be seen as this gentlemanly or -womanly game of being very gracious and based in respect.” When changing sides between games, players are supposed to wait for their opponent at the net, then move past each other smoothly and in tandem. But while changing sides at the 1997 US Open, Romanian player Irina Spîrlea rammed into Venus Williams as they passed one another. (Spîrlea would later claim it was because Williams was too “arrogant” to get out of her way. Williams went on to win the match.)
“In tennis, this is actually phenomenally aggressive,” says Cooper Jones, who adds that the collision, and Spîrlea’s comments, were also seen as being racially charged. This incident is so infamous, it’s known in tennis as “the bump.”
Four years after Taiwan was awarded the chance to host the 2019 East Asian Youth Games—an event with competitions in summer sports such as swimming and tennis—China suddenly decided it didn’t want to play ball.
WHAT CHINA WANTS, CHINA GETS. Instead, it pressured the voting committee to strip Taiwan of the right to host the international sporting event, and the Games had to be canceled. (Meanwhile, the host city of Taichung had already spent about $21.8 million on preparations.) China, which officially considers Taiwan to be a rebellious breakaway province rather than an independent nation, was apparently punishing Taiwan for considering a referendum on competing under its own name at the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (Right now it competes as “Chinese Taipei.”)
TIMING IS EVERYTHING IN PETTY. “It was theoretically quite a benign, regional event, and Taiwan had invested so much money in building the infrastructure,” says Dr. Winnie King, a specialist in Chinese international relations and economic reform at the University of Bristol. “For Taiwan, China’s timing was far from ideal, as construction on venues and infrastructure had pretty much been completed when this happened—and no one was in the position to challenge them.”
From petty pranks to criminal acts, Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet has been a hotbed of vengeance.
THE RUSSIA CONNECTIONS. The worst occurred in 2013, when a masked man flung acid at Sergei Filin, the company’s artistic director. Turned out the attack was the work of a dancer named Pavel V. Dmitrichenko, who was angry that he hadn’t been cast in a ballet.
But there are so many stories that you’d think the place was cursed. As the New York Times details, there was “the rival who hid an alarm clock in the audience, timed to go off during Giselle’s mad scene; [the one] who threw a dead cat onto the stage at curtain in lieu of flowers. There are whispers of needles inserted in costumes, to be discovered in midpirouette, or—the worst—broken glass nestled in the tip of a toeshoe."
Like Succession, but in real life.
THE APPLE DIDN’T FALL FROM THE TREE. Japanese furniture chain Otsuka Kagu, founded in 1969, wasn’t doing so well by the early 2000s. So in 2009, the company’s board brought in the founder’s daughter Kumiko Otsuka to be president, in an attempt to turn things around. She did just that, refocusing an overwrought and expensive retail dinosaur, which had just lost ¥1.4 billion the year before. Their power struggle continued until 2015, though, when Kumiko’s 71-year-old father appeared at the company’s board meeting, demanding that he be able to return and saying that his daughter had taken his business into down-market, inferior goods.
DADDY’S GIRL? “I had five children,” he reportedly told the room. “Kumiko was the first and she was a difficult birth.” He had succeeded in replacing her in July 2014—but the board had brought her back by January 2015 in a rare coup, parts of which were broadcast live in Japan.
It turns out that you can be a NIMBY even in the middle of the road.
STAY IN YOUR LANE. The Southern California town of Coronado, located in San Diego County, has always been a pretty bike-friendly place, with nice paths and a healthy number of two-wheeled commuters. But when it tried to paint bike lanes on some city streets in 2015, it unleashed an inferno of NIMBY fury: at one city-council meeting, residents deemed bike lanes “paint-stripe pollution“ and a “visual cacophony” that would “induce a dizzying type of vertigo.” Yet another local claimed that adding the lanes would be “very similar to personally taking all three of my daughters to a tattoo parlor and having them completely body tattooed.”
TIME TO REDRAW THE LINES. Though other residents supported the lanes, Coronado City Council bowed to anti-lane fury. Typical “bikelash,” says Andy Hanshaw, executive director of the San Diego Bicycle Coalition, who was at those meetings. “They may have been thinking that bike lanes are going to bring too many people to their city,” he adds, “when in reality bike lanes are protecting visitors and people in their own community.”
This will be a familiar story for fans of Wolf Hall, the award-winning 2009 book by Hilary Mantel that breaks down the royal shenanigans in minute detail.
THE CHURCH OF PETTY. When Pope Clement VII refused King Henry VIII’s request for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the king decided that Catholicism just wasn’t for him any longer. Nor, really, was it for the English people. Referred to as the English Reformation, that decision would change the course of history—splitting the Roman Catholic Church into two and making King Henry the new head of the Church of England. Pope who?
It’s hard to imagine a more delicious rivalry.
THE DESSERT WARS. In a 2014 feature called “Conscious Coupling,” Martha Stewart Living wrote: “Our holiday pies honor such partnerships, each spotlighting the perfect marriage of crust and filling so there’s a pleasant mix of textures and flavors in every bite.” However you feel about mixing chocolate mousse pie with phyllo crust (OK: wow), the first thing you probably noticed was the not-so-sly adaptation of a much-mocked phrase, “conscious uncoupling.” The term was used by an equally famous actress turned Stewart wannabe, Gwyneth Paltrow, in her own version of Living, called Goop, when she split from her first husband, Chris Martin, earlier that year. Petty! And lest you think that was the end of it, less than a month later, Goop posted its own “tribute” to Stewart: a recipe for “Jailbird Cake,” an obvious reference to Stewart’s time in jail.
WHO MADE IT BETTER? But which tastes better: Conscious Coupling pie or Jailbird Cake? Points for Goop for not referencing the “jailbird” part of its pie in the recipe itself (other than with the dessert’s black stripes down its side). But not only does Conscious Coupling have solid concept (partnerships! mixed textures and flavors!), who wouldn't want to dump some chocolate mousse on a piece of premade phyllo dough?
WINNER: Conscious Coupling
Over the past few NBA seasons, the Golden State Warriors morphed from heroes to villains, as their dominance became downright boring. Draymond Green, though, always kept things interesting.
GETTING FOOTSY. Draymond Green, a player for the Golden State Warriors, is notorious for kicking his opponents—mid-jump, post-jump, in the butt, in the head, in the groin, wherever. In 2016, when the NBA tried to come down on him for all the kicking, Green claimed it was out of his hands.
MONEY QUOTE. What’s a guy to do when he’s just really, really flexible? “I didn’t know the people in the league office were that smart when it came to your body movement,” he told reporters. “I’m not sure if they took kinesiology and all this stuff for their positions to kind of tell you how your body is going to react when you get hit at certain positions.”
HONESTLY ... Just read the lyrics.
Perhaps it’s difficult to pinpoint the world’s most contentious divorce, but Bill and Sue Gross’s is up there.
WAR OF THE ROSES. After decades of marriage, the billionaires have dragged everyone in their lives down with them during their breakup, accusing each other of spying, vandalism, and affairs. As reported by the New York Post in July 2018, after Bill lost his giant mansion in Laguna Beach, California, to his wife, he used “foul-smelling sprays” to make her new residence extra disgusting on his way out.
EXTRA CREDIT. He also reportedly placed dead fish in the vents and left “an art installation of cats with their facial features scratched out.”
Who could object to a good, old-fashioned baseball game? One extremely moody pitcher.
RETRO REVENGE. Major League Baseball teams sometimes wear throwback uniforms—meaning replicas of past uniform designs—when they play special games. In the summer of 2016, Chicago White Sox pitcher Chris Sale had a few feelings about being told to wear one of these vintage uniforms. So many feelings, in fact, that Sale used a knife to slice up not only his own jersey but also his teammates’ jerseys, so no one would be able to wear them. The team stated at the time that Sale had been sent home because of a “clubhouse incident,” but journalists later reported his jerseycide.
WHY ALL THE FUSS? Apparently Sale thought the throwback uniforms were uncomfortable. He was suspended for five games for the outburst.
This is a Topic reader contribution.
Oddly enough, this isn’t the only statue in Germany featuring a man pulling down his pants.
CARVED IN STONE. Bonn and Beuel are neighboring German towns located across the Rhine from one another. The towns first decided to build a bridge connecting them in 1898, but Beuel later backed out of paying, so Bonn had to finance the whole thing. Bonn still built the bridge, but added a small statue of a man sticking his butt out in the direction of Beuel.
TWIST! The pettiest part is that now that the bridge has been rebuilt, and relations with Beuel are good (the town has made quite a bit of money marketing the cheeky statue), Bonn has repositioned the butt man to face a new foe: Frankfurt, the city that was chosen as the capital of West Germany.
This is a Topic reader contribution.
The grounds around Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, may be the park with some of the pettiest white people in America. THE PARK OF PETTY. This past May, a white woman called 911 on two black men for barbecuing, making national headlines and earning the moniker “BBQ Becky.” Just a few weeks after that, a 38-year-old white jogger, later known as “Jogger Joe,” spotted the belongings of a homeless black man who had been sleeping next to Lake Merritt and, deeming them “trash,” stuffed them into a garbage can. He then flung the homeless man’s sleeping bag and clothes into the water (and was later charged with robbery, for stealing the phone of someone who tried to question him about it on camera).
TRASH, MEET TREASURE. Like much of the Bay Area, Oakland is experiencing a major housing crisis, with soaring rents and rates of homelessness. Jme McLean, an urban policy and organizational development consultant who works on issues of healthy, equitable, and sustainable development, feels this incident is emblematic of deeper issues. “For some, homeless encampments are an eyesore—litter in the street,” she says. “Jogger Joe felt entitled to remove this encampment because the sight of it made him uncomfortable. But for Drew, the man staying in this spot night after night, the items there, such as sleeping blankets, were necessities. Losing them literally could have been a matter of life or death.”
The world of business is often petty, but few multinational corporations are built on a throwaway comment from a family member.
FALLOUT FROM A SHELTER. Adi and Rudi Dassler were German brothers who cofounded the company that would become Adidas in the 1920s. The two are said to have fallen out over, of all things, a misheard remark made while they were climbing into a bomb shelter during World War II. (While entering the shelter, Adi is said to have exclaimed, “The dirty bastards are back again,” referring to the Allies. But Rudi thought he was talking about him and his family.) After a series of other wartime spats, Rudi left their joint company in 1948 and founded his own, which he would later call Puma, while Adi named the original company Adidas.
The family schism became the stuff of business-school legend: the brothers’ factories were on opposite sides of a river that ran through their hometown of Herzogenaurach, and their employees and associates were reportedly discouraged from fraternizing with each other.
STILL, THEY NEVER GOT THAT FAR AWAY. Even in death, the brothers remained rivals, having elected to be buried on opposite ends of the same cemetery.
MEET THE BUNNIES. You can watch hours and hours of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, or you can take our word for it: former soap star Lisa Rinna and former child star Kim Richards straight up don’t like each other. While they’re both equally crazy (and being on reality TV certainly doesn’t help), it was Richards who, in 2017, took things to the next level—in a scene-stealing moment that is now remembered by rabid RHOBH fans as “Bunnygate.”
HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED. Bunnygate began after Rinna gave Richards a stuffed bunny meant for Richards’s brand-new grandson, Hucksley. During the first part of the season’s three-part finale, when asked about said bunny, Richards stunned just about everyone in the room (well, except maybe her sister, Kyle) when she pulled out the blue bunny, still encased in his cellophane wrap. “It didn’t feel like it had good energy,” she explained, and tried to hand it back to Rinna. (Rinna refused the offer.) Housewives executive producer and reunion host Andy Cohen, for his part, was delighted: “I didn’t realize she was going to pull it out at that moment,” he told Bravo later. “I was thrilled that she did, because it was unbelievable.”
You can also buy your very own petty bunny.
Good fences make good neighbors. But what about a fence so clearly useless that it spawned class warfare?
THE CITY BY THE BAY (BY THE FENCE). Spite houses are usually built by vengeful people to deny despised neighbors views, light, and a good quality of life. But not every spite structure is an actual residence. In the 1870s, California’s railroad barons started building mansions on what came to be known as San Francisco’s Nob Hill, buying up land from the residents to claim its panoramic views. In 1877, German immigrant undertaker Nicholas Yung refused to sell his property for the initial asking price to Charles Crocker, the fat cat who had moved in next door. Crocker, who pretty much had limitless money, did not want to offer Yung a better price. Instead, he erected a 40-foot-tall fence at the rear of his manse, cloaking his poorer neighbor’s home in darkness.
IT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY! Yung had been asking for just a few thousand dollars more than Crocker wanted to shell out, but the rail baron decided he’d rather put that money into a fence, which cost about $3,000 (the equivalent of around $70,000 today). The fence quickly became a local cause célèbre, the site of prolabor protests that saw the towering wall of wood as a symbol of the excesses of the railroad robber barons of the time.
This is a Topic reader contribution.
It really undermines the spirit of healthy competition when every athlete is thrown out of the race for small infractions.
NO PARTICIPATION MEDALS HERE. It’s not hard to get disqualified in competitive track-and-field events; step on the wrong line once and you’re out. But it shouldn’t be as easy as it was for competitors in one heat at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, England, this year, where, after finishing a 400-meter race, all five runners found out they had been disqualified for petty violations such as a false start and stepping on lines. MAKING HISTORY. It was the first time in history that every single athlete in a race had been eliminated.
It all started back in 2013, when the Chinese meme-generating public noticed that a recent photo of their rotund president, Xi Jinping, positioned next to the lanky Barack Obama looked a liiiittle bit like Winnie-the-Pooh walking next to Tigger.
POOH PICS. Then someone discovered that a 2014 photo of Xi with Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe looked like the bear alongside longtime friend Eeyore, and, well, the Pooh really hit the fan. By last year, anything related to digital dissemination (or search) of the character had been banned by the Chinese government. (The 2018 feature film Christopher Robin was also banned in the country, prompting Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to tweet, “Make no mistake: All bears are created equal in Taiwan.”)
“There’s a long history in the Chinese population mocking or satirizing government leaders, but Xi’s efforts to secure his position as China’s leader have made the current leadership particularly sensitive to this,” says Dr. Winnie King, a specialist in Chinese international relations and economic reform at the University of Bristol. “And Chinese people are very, very creative, but the government has an army to trawl its internet, censor content and images, and secure the Communist Party’s political narratives.” PEPPA TOO? Pooh is not the only illustrated children’s character to be given the boot in China: earlier this year, China added Peppa Pig to the no-fly list.
Athletes are notoriously superstitious about game-day rituals and sensitive to the conditions of play. Throwing a fit about the sound of coins, though, is unusual.
ONE HAND IN YOUR POCKET. At this year’s Porsche European Open golf tournament, player Patrick Reed refused to take a shot until a camera crew moved to the other side of the green, claiming that the cameraman was “rattling change” in his pocket.
The creation of “spite houses,” structures that are made solely to anger neighbors or city officials, is a global phenomenon. Spite skyscrapers are a more recent innovation.
A VIEW FROM NOWHERE. When Buenos Aires’s Art Deco Kavanagh Building was completed in 1936, it was, at 31 stories high, the tallest skyscraper in Latin America. That also made it the tallest spite house in Latin America. Built by Corina Kavanagh, an Irish-Argentine heiress who (legend has it) had fallen in love with the scion of some local blue bloods, the Anchorenas, the building was constructed after the Anchorena matriarch forbade her son from marrying Corina, whom she considered too nouveau riche.
HELL HATH ... In revenge, Corina bought the land wedged between the Anchorena palace and the Catholic church they had commissioned—and instructed her architects to design a building large enough to block her nemeses’ view of their precious cathedral. If she couldn’t have her man, they couldn’t have their sightline. And, soon, they didn’t.
Comedy legend Joan Rivers excelled at insult comedy, but like many of her brethren, she was incredibly sensitive to slights.
FROM MENTOR TO STRANGER. Johnny Carson gave Joan Rivers her big break as a stand-up comic on The Tonight Show, first beckoning her over to his desk for a chat in 1965. By 1983, she was a regular guest host. It wasn’t such a crazy idea that she would replace him when he eventually retired, but after those negotiations with NBC stalled, she accepted an offer from Fox in 1986 to become late-night TV’s first female host. She claims Carson was the first person she called; he disagrees. Either way, he would never speak to her again—neither when she left the show after only a year, nor after her husband committed suicide.
IN HER OWN WORDS. Several years after Carson’s death, in 2005, Joan wrote in the Hollywood Reporter: “I think he really felt because I was a woman that I just was his. That I wouldn’t leave him. … I think it was a question of, ‘I found you, and you’re my property.’”
Screaming obscenities at a sports rival—normal. Killing living things, including trees, is a crime.
ROLL FOLIAGE. The University of Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn University Tigers, also from Alabama, have a long-standing football rivalry. Every year, they match up in a game called the Iron Bowl, and the Crimson Tide usually wins. But in late 2010, Auburn won the Bowl, and an aggrieved 62-year-old Crimson Tide fan decided to get back at Auburn for beating his beloved team by pouring pesticide around the roots of a pair of iconic oak trees on the college’s campus. (The trees were planted at a corner where Auburn fans gather to celebrate football victories.)
THE MILLION-DOLLAR TREE. The oak killer was caught after calling a local radio station to brag about his deed, and he has been billed almost a million dollars in damage. The trees never recovered.
His nickname really sums it up.
SULTAN OF SWIGS. Why does a leader feel the need to overrun borders in order to grow his or her empire? Ego, mostly … or money. In the case of Selim II, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1566–1574, legend has it that the leader invaded the island of Cyprus in 1570 for its treasure—namely, grapes that were made into delicious wine. (The sultan’s nickname was “Selim the Sot.”) Venice, which controlled Cyprus, fought back, but by 1573, the war was over and the Ottomans had won Selim II his wine.
Many fans of Evil Twin Brewing and Mikkeller beer companies have no idea that they are drinking the product of years of petty behavior. WHAT IS THE OPPOSITE OF CHEERS? Danish twin brothers Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø have a personal animus that hasn’t just affected their business; it has defined their lives. The pair have hardly spoken since 2010, though they have more in common with each other than just DNA and last names: The 42-year-olds are successful beer entrepreneurs. Mikkel is the owner of the Copenhagen-based Mikkeller, a brewery and chain of bars, while Jeppe owns Evil Twin Brewing—which he founded the year the brothers stopped speaking.
COMING TO AMERICA. Although sibling rivalry is nothing new, these twins also happen to do a lot of things in tandem—a result of pettiness or just genetics. (The exact cause for their animosity is unclear.) Both opened warehouse spaces in Queens just months apart, and both created Twin Peaks–inspired limited-edition brews soon thereafter. “He doesn’t even live here,” Jeppe sniped to the New York Times earlier this year. “He’s only been here five times.” Mikkel, of course, disagrees, the Times avers, “saying that he has visited New York at least 50 times.”
A tough, culinary-based stand against our ally, France.
POTATO HEADS. In 2003, Republican congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina made a powerful statement in support of American troops in the Middle East. “I represent a district with multiple military bases that have deployed thousands of troops,” explained Jones. “As I’ve watched these men and women wave goodbye to their loved ones, I am reminded of the deep love they have for the freedom of this nation and their desire to fight for the freedom of those who are oppressed overseas. Watching France’s self-serving politics of passive aggression in this effort has discouraged me more than I can say.”
Jones was, of course, suggesting that the congressional cafeteria rename its French fries “freedom fries” to fight back against France’s opposition to the war in Iraq. The actual effort was taken up by another Republican congressman, Bob Ney—whose committee actually oversaw the cafeteria administration—and roundly ridiculed by Americans all across the country, as well as by other members of Jones’s own party, including majority whip Tom DeLay, who said, “I don't think we have to retaliate against France.”
In 1805, the administration of the University of Cambridge delivered an edict that profoundly displeased Lord Byron, the famous poet: No dogs allowed on campus.
LORD OF THE BEARS. Not content to keep, say, a cat, Byron made a bold choice and announced to the university that, despite its rules about dogs, nowhere in the rules was there an admonition about bears. It’s not entirely clear where he acquired it, but before long the 17-year-old poet was seen walking a bear around campus. (It supposedly lived with him as well.)
IN HIS OWN WORDS: “I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear,” Byron wrote at the time. “When I brought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was, ‘He should sit for a fellowship.’”
POSTSCRIPT! Strangely, Lord Byron wasn’t the only notable figure looking for loopholes in rules about owning pets. Whitey Bulger, the recently deceased Boston mafia kingpin, also bent the rules. From his incredible Boston Globe obit: “Even as a boy, Mr. Bulger was a rule breaker. He once brought home an ocelot, a small leopard, and his mother was appalled, fearing they would be kicked out of their apartment, his brother William wrote in his 1996 autobiography, While the Music Lasts: My Life in Politics. But James Bulger reassured his mother, saying he had read the lease and noted that it only specifically barred cats and dogs. ‘It doesn't say anything about ocelots,’ Mr. Bulger told his mother.”
For fans of these pop superstars, keeping up with intricate feuds is just part of the job.
HITTING HER WHERE IT HURTS: ALBUM SALES. At midnight on June 9, 2017, in celebration of her album 1989 selling over 10 million copies worldwide (and the Recording Industry Association of America announcing that her song catalog had hit 100 million certified units), Taylor Swift posted her entire back catalog on every streaming service. (Although her music was available on Apple Music, she had famously pulled it from Spotify three years earlier, and users were thrilled that she’d decided to return.) But it didn’t take fans long to notice something else: that Swift’s return to streaming was also happening on the exact day that Katy Perry was dropping her fifth album—an ill-fated record called Witness. One could argue that the timing was just a coincidence, except the pop stars already had “bad blood” dating back to around 2013, when allegations surfaced about one of the women stealing the other’s dancers.
THE DARK HORSE RIDES. When asked directly about the timing of Swift’s catalog release, Perry answered: “I don’t know. I can only do me.” (A source would tell Billboard the timing of Swift’s return was “not an attempt to steal Perry’s thunder.”) Anyway, the two reportedly “made up” in early 2018, after Perry sent Swift a literal olive branch. Are we out of the woods yet? It may be too soon to tell.
“Pettiness in presidents is always attached to ego.”
THIN-SKINNED FOUNDING FATHER. If you know John Adams only as the force behind the 1798 Sedition Act, which criminalized published work that criticized the government, you are merely scratching the surface of his extremely petty nature. From presidential historian and author Alexis Coe:
“As Adams's private letters reveal, he was incredibly petty toward his contemporaries, too. He knew that George Washington had to, as the head of his widowed mother’s household, drop out of school while still a teen, and worked hard to catch up to his more educated peers, and yet, Adams wrote, ‘That Washington is not a scholar is certain ... That he is too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station is equally beyond dispute.’ But what he said about Alexander Hamilton was even pettier: ‘That bastard brat of a Scottish peddler! His ambition, his restlessness and all his grandiose schemes come, I’m convinced, from a superabundance of secretions, which he couldn’t find enough whores to absorb!’”
Hard to discipline Mother Nature, but this king tried.
NEPTUNE’S REVENGE? Xerxes I reigned as the king of Persia from 486–465 BCE. He was not known as a temperate man (he once stole and melted down a sacred golden statue to spite his Babylonian foes), and he spent most of his time as ruler trying to conquer parts of Greece and getting pushed back. But perhaps his most dramatic action was his attempt to force the sea to bend to his will.
As recorded in Herodotus’s Histories, Xerxes ordered his men to build a bridge across the Hellespont—a Turkish strait now known as the Dardanelles that forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia—during one of his Greek invasions. The bridge collapsed during a storm, and Xerxes ordered his men to whip the sea with lashes and throw chains into it as punishment. No word on how the water changed its ways as a result.
This real estate dispute might be the longest running case in Massachusetts Land Court.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. It’s a fact that two Massachusetts men have been fighting over a single piece of beachfront property for more than 25 years—a battle so contentious that, in 2016, the Boston Globe profiled not the men but their fight. After developer Evan Wile bought a plot of land next to art dealer Jeffrey Horvitz’s house (land that he at one point had intended to buy) in the summer of 1991, Horvitz made it his life’s mission to prevent his new neighbor from actually building anything. Wile put up a swing set on the property, and Horvitz immediately filed suit, claiming that it was a “structure.”
AN ABBREVIATED LIST OF PETTY ACTIVITIES. Since then, both have been dragging the case through court (to the tune of millions in fees) and have resorted to comically villainous actions, such as Wile lining smelly Porta-Potties along the property boundary and, according to the Globe, dropping “rusted scrap metal, a crane bucket, and other construction debris” in perfect sight of Horvitz’s pool. Is it a coincidence that both properties have a clear view of a place called Great Misery Island?
Before Hulk Hogan was busy putting Gawker out of business, he was competing in superstar WWF matches. But perhaps his strangest, and most petty fight was a 2005 SummerSlam competition with Shawn Michaels, another wrestler who had a following in the ’80s. HEELS DUG IN. From the beginning, there were disagreements about how the fight would be framed. Michaels was hoping for a kind of “legend versus legend” match, while Hogan wanted a “heel versus babyface”—industry terms for the personas they would take on during the fight. In essence, Hogan wanted to be the hero, and he wanted Michaels to be the villain. Without a firm agreement on how they would work together in one of the stage-managed bouts that constitute WWF wrestling, Michaels and Hogan were headed for a collision course. THE PROVERBIAL MASK DROPS. Michaels bounced into the ring and proceeded to “oversell” his act, to the point that the audience could tell that it was all essentially fake. While this seems like an obvious conclusion for onlookers to draw, Michaels’s actions were radical in the context of the sport. As an Uproxx analysis described it:
“The ending was the money shot, though. Hogan gave Michaels his infamous big boot. Michaels responded by hitting the deck, getting up and doing a front flip onto the mat. It’s one of the most insane moves I’ve ever seen. Diehards complained that the move was unprofessional and exposed the business. Hogan responded by milking the crowd and taking his time to leg drop Michaels for the win.”
This is the story of how a sprawling estate owned by George Washington’s adopted son became the source of a fight as bitter as the one that divided the United States—but for considerably lower stakes.
FROM FOUNDING FATHERS TO CONFEDERATE GENERAL. It all started in 1802, when the property in question, Arlington House, on 1,000 or so acres in Arlington, Virginia, began to undergo construction. Owner George Washington Parke Custis spared no expense on the home’s Greek Revival design (a style new to America), completing the property in 1818. A frequent visitor to Arlington House was Robert E. Lee, the future leader of the Confederate Army, second cousin to Custis’s wife, Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, and the future husband of the Custises’ only surviving daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis. The two were, you guessed it, married in at Arlington House, and when the elder Custis died in 1857, he left the property to Mary Anna and Lee.
After officially joining the rebels in 1861, Lee had to abandon the beloved Arlington House, which now had military significance because of its relative closeness to the nation’s capital. But with the Lees gone, there was no one to pay property taxes, so the American government seized the mansion and land around it. To further add insult to injury, in 1864 Union generals began ordering dead bodies to be buried on the property’s grounds. Soon there were the remains of Union soldiers all around the Lee estate.
After the war, though, Lee’s son sued the US government for unlawful property seizure and won—choosing then to flip the land back to the government and collecting an impressive amount of money for the place (the equivalent of almost $4 million today). It is now, of course, the location of Arlington National Cemetery, where the fallen members of our armed services are honored.
Excessive holiday decorations can make for annoyed neighbors—they bring burdensome extra traffic, for instance—but it takes a special soul to rage back.
THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT. Every neighborhood has that family—the one that’s just a little too extra about the holidays. In Ross Township, Pennsylvania, this distinction goes to brothers Bill and Robert Ansell, who started mounting an elaborate Christmas display outside their residence in 1988, drawing hundreds of visitors and collecting donations in a box, which they said they gave to the Salvation Army and Children’s Hospital (and their own electric company).
GETTING SCROOGED. But around 2005, neighbors started to complain about the visitors clogging their small street and tried to get the township to shut down the Christmas display. In response, Bill Ansell tore down the festive decorations, and in 2010 replaced them with a display of rage: decapitated plastic carolers, a pissing plastic Santa, and crude signs, including the words “FUCK ROSS TOWNSHIP” spelled out in Christmas lights. “It was huge. It was probably four feet high,” Josh Keebler, a neighbor, told a local reporter. “I jokingly referred to it as the Hollywood sign of Ross Township. I mean, you could see it probably for a quarter of a mile when you come off the hill there.”
It’s hard to upset King James, but who wouldn’t hate this?
A LOT ... of hot air.
There’s often a bit of showmanship in politics. And then there’s petty. TINY FURNITURE. When Turkish ambassador Ahmet Oguz Celikkol was made to sit on a tiny sofa during a meeting with Israel’s deputy foreign minister in 2010, it seemed to be an unprovoked attack to the Turks. Does it seem excessive that Turkey would temporarily suspend diplomatic relations with Israel after the incident, which was commemorated with a photograph? Well, would you look at these seats?
IS THERE A MORE MEAN-SPIRITED FRONT OFFICE BOSS IN THE GAME? In 2018, James Dolan, CEO of the New York Knicks, the New York Rangers, and the Madison Square Garden Company, blacklisted sports radio station WFAN and its parent company, Entercom, after WFAN host Maggie Gray criticized Dolan for a woeful ballad he performed with his band, JD & the Straight Shot. Called “I Should’ve Known,” the song was widely understood to be an ode to Dolan’s disgraced pal Harvey Weinstein. (Gray called out Dolan for having been involved in a prior workplace sexual-harassment scandal himself and branded him a “vile piece of trash,” among other things.) Dolan responded by prohibiting all his companies from working with Entercom and all Knicks and Rangers players from talking to WFAN.
BONUS MINUTES. Dolan hasn’t just made enemies out of local media. In 2017, he managed to offend former Knicks star Charles Oakley by having him arrested at a Knicks game for, according to the Knicks, behaving “in a highly inappropriate and abusive manner.” Oakley responded by pursuing criminal charges (to no avail) and a civil suit (pending) against the executive. On the night the incident happened, according to ESPN, Oakley yelled, “Dolan did this! Dolan did this!”
Most wars are pointless, but a bloodless border dispute between Michigan and Ohio set the bar extremely high (or low?).
THE WAR OF NORTHERN AGGRESSION. The problem arose from poor mapping operations in the recently formed United States. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 drew a line from the bottom of Lake Michigan to claim the area for Ohio, but when Michigan Territory was created in 1805, cartographers realized that the actual southern tip of the lake was farther down. This created a wedge-shaped contested area of around five by eight miles that Ohio still wanted to fight for. And fight they did: Ohio tried to block Michigan’s entry into the Union over the Toledo Strip, as it became known, even though Michigan had begun policing the area because it was actually in Michigan.
Both sides began to build up militias, but save for one stabbing in a barroom brawl, no one was actually hurt. Finally, President Andrew Jackson stepped in, and Michigan caved to Ohio’s terms for becoming a state. According to the official website of Michigan, the state gained as compensation the area of the peninsula: “9,000 square miles of the most valuable timber, iron, and copper country in America.” As the site goes on to say, “In retrospect, it’s obvious who won the War.”
There are divas and then there is Mariah Carey. GOD BLESS MARIAH. Sure, she hasn’t “known” Jennifer Lopez for years (an iconic burn), but Mariah Carey’s pettiest power move came in the form of a post-breakup “inconvenience fee” she levied on her ex-fiancé, Australian businessman James Packer. They were never married, never signed a prenup, and if you’ve never heard of an “inconvenience fee” before ... well, you’re not alone.
SO DID SHE CASH OUT? Some outlets reported that the singer asked for a paltry $50 million, while The Blast reported that the singer ended up getting $5 to $10 million (including a 35-carat engagement ring). Aside from the demand for money, according to a source, Carey requested that Packer “apologize for breaking up with her so publicly. She feels like he used her to increase his profile in America and globally to help further his business interests.” As it turned out, he’d rather fork over the millions.
Taking “write what you know” to its logical extreme.
CSI: DEFAMATION. Melinda and Scott Tucker are two characters from a 2009 episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation—part of a story involving a “hard-drinking extensive porn-watching man” who kills his wife during kinky sex.
According to a $6 million defamation suit filed later that year, the characters were based on Melinda and Scott Tamkin, real estate agents who were part of a deal by CSI producer Sarah Goldfinger, whose first draft of the script used the couple’s real names. (The suit was eventually dropped.)
Truth in advertising, or consequences.
MILE-LONG LAWSUIT. John Farley and Charles Noah Pendrack hired a lawyer after they read that Subway’s $5 foot-long sandwiches were often clocking in at under 12 inches. In 2013, the two friends filed a petty lawsuit, charging the chain with false advertising (“The case is about holding companies to deliver what they’ve promised,” the plaintiff’s lawyer told the New York Post) and ended up settling for half a million dollars (which mostly went to lawyers’ fees).
SIZE ISN’T EVERYTHING. As the court later commented: “As a practical matter, the length of the bread does not affect the quantity of food the customer receives.”
Burt Reynolds died on September 6th, 2018. RIP, you petty giant.
TABLOID TRASH. Throughout the 1970s and until his death in 1988, Generoso Pope Jr., then the owner of the National Enquirer, proudly put up a huge Christmas display at the tabloid’s Florida headquarters—lights, lights, lights, and a huge tree. This became a target for one of the paper’s big subjects in the 1980s—Burt Reynolds, who hated the tabloid’s ongoing coverage of his private life. His retribution took a most unusual form in 1985. Here he is in his own words, from a 2015 interview with ESPN radio host Dan Le Batard:
“I had about 100 horses at the time, and that’s a lot of horse shit. So I took two huge nets and filled them both, and about 3:00 in the morning, my ranch foreman and I took the helicopter down to the wonderful National Enquirer—which was just down the street here from me in Lantana. I didn’t think it was right that they had the largest Christmas tree in the United States. It wasn’t right. So I dumped it right on top of the tree, and it just cascaded down. It was a beautiful sight! I felt so much better.”
It takes quite a bit to shock folks in Silicon Valley, where many CEOs openly enjoy the hedonistic, Burning Man lifestyle. But YaVaughnie Wilkins did more than stir the pot; she blew the lid right off.
THE SIGNS WERE ALL THERE. This really speaks for itself. At the time of the billboards’ release in 2010, Charles E. Phillips was still married.
Curtis Jackson is really an unstoppable force for petty. THE GOD OF PETTY. “Something you always got to think about when you go to war with somebody: ‘Do I give a fuck more or less than this person?’” once advised the radio personality Charlamagne tha God. “You do not want to go to war with someone who gives a fuck less than you.” He’s talking about Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent, a man who could be credited with bringing the word “petty” back into style. 50 has used social media to come after Ashanti, Jim Jones, Diddy, Ja Rule—and even blocked his own son on Instagram, posting a child-support-countdown clock. (“Child support release party Friday 13, Club Lust 1:00 AM Happy Hour drinks on me. Tom petty is alive! Ladies with no kids, free admission. Ladies who didn’t collect child support, free admission.”) He once challenged professional boxer Floyd Mayweather to an “ALS/ESL challenge,” writing on Instagram: "I will donate $750k to a charity of your choice, If you can read a full page out of a Harry Potter book out loud without starting and stopping or fucking up.” In return, Mayweather FaceTimed Curtis’s estranged son.
IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY. When you’re this petty, you can only inspire other people to get on your level. 50’s petty is so powerful, it’s even genetic. His son responded to his child-support gag by commenting, “Damn, if only your new TV show was this funny.”
BREAKING PETTY NEWS! 50 Cent just won’t quit! In late October, he took to social media to brag that he had purchased 200 seats close to the stage at rival musician Ja Rule’s show—just to leave them empty. Their social media war is ongoing.
When hypebeasts meet petty.
DURANT’S REVENGE. When Nike designed special-edition sneakers in honor of Golden State Warriors player Kevin Durant and his team’s 2017 NBA championship win, it didn’t just deck them out in signature Warriors blue-and-gold; it made the insides of the shoes a masterpiece of petty vengeance. Durant, who assisted in the design, had Nike list every mean name he’s been called in the past (from “soft” to “snake”) on the insoles of the shoes, with his accomplishments printed on top in gold (including stats from games won against rivals the Cleveland Cavaliers).
Now, for around $300, you too can walk the walk of the truly petty.
It will not surprise any viewer of the film Amadeus (1984) that Mozart was petty.
MAESTRO, PLEASE. Many books about Mozart’s Così fan tutte opera (loosely translated as “All women do it, but it depends on whom you ask”) mention his distaste for soprano Adriana Ferrarese del Bene, who was his librettist’s mistress and for whom the role of Fiordiligi had been created. (The opera, first performed publicly in 1790, centers on two couples who both claim to be faithful; Fiordiligi, the fiancée of Guglielmo, becomes the lover of Ferrando.) “Madame Allegranti is far better than Madame Ferrarese, which I admit is not saying much,” Mozart wrote after first hearing Ferrarese in Dresden in April 1789, comparing her to another singer.
But only one book, William Mann’s The Operas of Mozart, goes as far as to say that the composer put that distaste into his composition. He knew she would drop her chin on low notes and throw her head back on high ones, so he filled her aria with jumps from low to high to make her head “bob like a chicken” onstage.
The battle over paint colors might not even be over.
WHO OWNS A COLOR? “Artists at war after top sculptor is given exclusive rights to the purest black paint ever which is used on stealth jets,” announced the Daily Mail in 2016, breaking the news that London-based artist Anish Kapoor had purchased the exclusive rights to NanoSystems’s Vantablack, a pigment so dark, it absorbs “99.96% of light,” according to the company. Kapoor, one of the wealthiest artists in the world, ignored the criticism that followed, namely that he was hoarding the color, made of vertically aligned carbon nanotube arrays, all for himself.
INTO THE PINK. He ignored it, that is, until an artist named Stuart Semple took a jab at Kapoor by releasing “The World’s Pinkest Pink,” a hot-pink power paint with this fine print: “This ultra-bright paint by Stuart Semple is available to everyone except Anish Kapoor.” (Semple also hashtagged #ShareTheBlack on social media). Soon after, Kapoor posted an image to Instagram with his middle finger dipped in (supposedly) Semple’s pink—“Up yours,” it read. In response, Semple released a new pigment, “Black 2.0”—which is also “not available to Anish Kapoor.”
In addition to the petty behavior detailed below, Michael Crichton has taken a firm position—against the science of global warming.
FULL DISCLOSURE. “And now, like a mighty t-rex that has escaped from Jurassic Park, Crichton stomps across the public policy landscape, finally claiming the influence he has always sought,” wrote journalist Michael Crowley about the author’s 2004 book, State of Fear, in the New Republic. “In this sense, he himself is like an experiment gone wrong—a creation of the publishing industry and Hollywood who has unexpectedly mutated into a menacing figure haunting think tanks, policy forums, hearing rooms, and even the Oval Office.”
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW? In return, Crichton would cast Crowley in his next book, Next, as a child rapist (with a small penis): “The defendant, thirty-year-old Mick Crowley, was a Washington-based political columnist who was visiting his sister-in-law when he experienced an overwhelming urge to have anal sex with her young son, still in diapers.”
YOUR MOVE, MICHAEL. Crowley would respond, again in the New Republic: “In lieu of a letter to the editor, Crichton had fictionalised me as a child rapist. And, perhaps worse, falsely branded me a pharmaceutical-industry profiteer.”
When you take a new job, it’s important to set a strong tone. In Pope Stephen VI’s case, that involved digging up the body of the previous pope, Pope Formosus, and putting the corpse on trial for heresy. TRIAL AND ERROR. In his 1969 book The Bad Popes (1969), E. R. Chamberlin details this spectacle: “The corpse was provided with a council, who wisely kept silent while Pope Stephen raved and screamed his insults at it. The pretext for the trial was that Formosus, contrary to canon law, had accepted the bishopric of Rome while he was still bishop of another diocese. But few, if any, in the council chamber were impressed by the charge.”
NO BAD DEED WENT UNPUNISHED. The story ended badly … for both popes. Formosus’s corpse was found guilty, stripped, mutilated, and dragged through the streets before being reburied in a common grave. Pope Stephen, for this part, was not long for this world either; by the following year, he had been thrown in prison and strangled to death.
The history of Saddam Hussein and the United States is long and bloody, but it is also petty.
A LITERAL DOORMAT. In 1991, on the eve of the first Gulf War, the Iraqi president decided to decorate the entrance way of a Baghdad luxury hotel called the Al Rashid with a mosaic of then president George H. W. Bush. Designed as an insult—visitors would have to walk on Bush’s face to enter the building—the mosaic was intentionally unflattering, with a twisted scowl and text reading “Bush is criminal” adoring the doormat.
PETTY DIDN’T SKIP A GENERATION. Then, in 2003, after Saddam Hussein’s defeat and capture, the next President Bush got the murderous dictator back when the US ordered that mosaic destroyed and another image, that of Hussein’s face, installed in its place. According to Fox News, American soldiers relished their unusual task of installing the piece. “Everybody walked over it and wiped their feet on it,” said Lieutenant Colonel Rick Schwartz, the battalion commander.
Lore has it that in the 1920s, a woman agreed to divorce her husband on one condition: that he build her a house of her own that was the exact replica of the one they already lived in.
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART WAS. Her husband agreed—but because she forgot to specify where the house should be, he built it in the worst place he could find: in the middle of a swamp on Plum Island, near Newburyport, Massachusetts, where it was impossible to hook up the plumbing system to fresh water.
NEW LIFE FOR THE ‘PINK HOUSE.’ It’s unclear whether the woman ever moved in, but a family did eventually come to inhabit the house full-time. What started out as a vengeful act has now, in keeping with the times, become the object of a crowdfunded campaign to “save the Pink House,” as it became known after it had been abandoned in the 2000s. A wildlife group that had taken over the island didn’t see the point in keeping the house around—it wasn’t doing much to save local avian life. For now, it appears to be still standing. Spite is hard to kill.
The 36th US president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, was a man of incredible ego. But as leadership expert John Baldoni tells Topic, acting from ego isn’t necessarily being petty.
‘BLOOD FEUD.’ There was one arena of total pettiness for LBJ, though, and that was his relationship with Bobby Kennedy. “It went back with the days Bobby was working with Senator Joseph McCarthy,” he says. “He didn’t stand up to acknowledge LBJ when they first met, and then [their bad relations] escalated.” This relationship has been termed by LBJ biographer Robert Caro as “perhaps the greatest blood feud of American politics in the twentieth century.”
So what happened, exactly? It wasn’t just that Bobby didn’t rush to shake LBJ’s hand. As Caro has detailed, LBJ seized the moment and forced Bobby to accept a crushing squeeze, in full view of the Senate cafeteria. From that meeting came more petty moments. Once, LBJ gave a shotgun with a violent recoil to Bobby, on purpose, just to see Bobby fall on the ground after firing the gun. After his brother’s assassination, Bobby took every opportunity to hurt LBJ, doing things like delaying the new president’s move into the Oval Office and coming late to cabinet meetings.
EPITAPH. The bad feelings morphed into such an intense hatred that when word came that Bobby had been shot, LBJ’s reported response was, “Is he dead yet?”
Divorce lawyers often claim to have seen it all, but this was a new one.
INTERNAL AFFAIRS. Splitting the assets is one of the hardest parts of any divorce, but some people take reparation to new heights. In 2009, Long Island doctor Richard Batista demanded that his estranged wife, Dawnell, pay him $1.5 million for the live-saving kidney he’d donated to her eight years before. She’d “repaid” him, he claimed, by sleeping with her physical therapist. “It put a hole in my heart that still exists,” Batista told the New York Daily News.
Who knows if he got that checked out, but a judge ruled in favor of Batista’s ex: The kidney was a gift, and asking for money in exchange for an organ? That’s illegal.
There is something comforting about the bratty young British rockers from the 1990s becoming middle-aged men but still staying, somehow, children.
OASIS DENIED. No brothers have defined petty sibling rivalry quite like the Gallaghers. The Oasis brothers were more famous for fighting than they were for performing, even when the band was at its peak. Rock-star antics are one thing, but these two seem to go after each other in ways so personal, so petty, that it transcends mere band rivalry. For example, when the band won best album of the past 30 years (an actual award) for (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? at the 2010 Brit Awards, Liam showed up to accept the award, thanking everyone but his brother Noel—and then throwing the award into the audience. (The two were already estranged.)
ONCE AGAIN, TWITTER TO THE RESCUE. Thanks to Twitter, the sibling rivalry has taken on a new, more digital dimension. In 2016, Liam tweeted a picture of Noel and the word “Potato.” As the former told Q magazine in August 2016: “Lots of people say I need to chill out about Noel. Not until they stop Twitter. That cunt will always get it from me.”
The former New Jersey governor has been the object of much public scorn, much of it unfairly related to the shape of his body. But he’s also one of American politics’ most Shakespearean characters: a man who has seen his fortunes fall due to his own acts of petty hubris.
CROSSING BRIDGEGATE. The most famous incident, of course, is the bridge imbroglio. In 2013, the then governor took the totally unnecessary and ill-conceived action of retaliating against the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, for not endorsing him in the previous election. This retaliation took the form, three weeks later, of closing down busy lanes on the George Washington Bridge under the flimsy pretext of a “traffic study,” causing massive backups and many raised middle fingers. It was the first day of school, and there were reports that even short trips were taking longer than four hours. People were pissed, emergency services were affected, and the Fort Lee mayor was helpless against the state’s actions.
By spring of 2015, whispers about the real reason for the road closures began to leak out. What had started as a minor, if annoying, incident became a multiyear scandal, resulting in the convictions of two top Christie aides. The man himself avoided being charged with a crime, but his political career never recovered. A fitting coda of petty, however, occurred in the twilight of his governorship, when in July 2017, another closure made the news.
BEACHGATE RISES. In this case, it was the closure of public beaches throughout the state thanks to a state-government shutdown. Enterprising reporters got wind that Christie was on vacation, and took some aerial shots of the man on one of the shuttered beaches, surrounded by his family and no one else, enjoying the warm day.
In 1325, two Italian city-states, Modena and Bologna, came to blows over a wooden bucket. KICKING THE BUCKET. A group of Modena soldiers conducted a raid to seize the bucket, which was the property of Bologna. Allegedly full of loot, the bucket was just one element of a long-standing feud between the regions over who they believed should head the Catholic Church. The bucket theft prompted a declaration of war by Bologna, resulting in a conflict that claimed over 2,000 lives.
MISSED CONNECTION. Even though the fighting ended, Bologna never got its bucket back. It is currently housed in a Modena bell tower.
The Queen of Soul ruled over a petty empire. JUST THE FAX. Who had a fax machine in 2017? Luckily, the Associated Press did, because in came a clarification from the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, to comments made by Dionne Warwick at Whitney Houston’s funeral five years earlier. “Ree’s not here, but she is here,” Warwick had said of Franklin, who was busy performing at Radio City Music Hall. “She loves Whitney as if she were born to her. She is her godmother.”
SO WHAT DID ARETHA SAY? Well, in said fax, Franklin felt the need to address Warwick’s statement, explaining that she was never Whitney’s godmother: “She first met Houston when Houston was a child,” summarized the AP. “And she was far too busy to be anyone’s godmother.” End transmission.
This is a Topic reader contribution.
“I might quit trolling. This wouldn’t be a permanent retirement as much as it would be a shift in focus. I intend on doing fewer in frequency but higher-impact public performance art style trolls (e.g. Wu-Tang). I have been heavily influenced by a loved one in this regard.” —Martin Shkreli’s blog, August 12, 2018.
#FREETHEALBUM Martin Shkreli, the “Pharma Bro” who became infamous for inflating costs of prescription drugs as the owner of a pharmaceutical company, has had a whirlwind past few years. He is a self-admitted troll and now felon, having been sentenced to seven years in prison in the spring of 2018 for securities fraud. But perhaps his pettiest act was buying Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, an album by the Wu Tang Clan, in 2015 for $2 million just so no one else could listen to it. (Only one copy of the album has been made and it was sold at auction.)
OUR TAXPAYER DOLLARS AT WORK. The album was seized by the Feds after Shkreli tried to sell it on eBay, where bidding went over $1 million.
It’s one thing to fight the city demolishing your property. It’s another to memorialize that fight in perpetuity.
EMINENT DOMAIN? I DON’T THINK SO. By 1910, New York City was in a period of rapid expansion, including of its public transit system. As part of this, a row of buildings in lower Manhattan’s Greenwich Village was slated to be torn down for the Seventh Avenue subway extension. One landlord, David Hess, did not accept this state of affairs. When the city demolished Hess’s building and repossessed the land in 1914, he and his family were delighted to see they didn’t quite get it all—the city had somehow missed one little corner of the property, measuring no more than a few feet wide. And when the city tried to buy it from them, they refused.
MADE A MARK. The Hess family triumphantly claimed this forgotten wedge and eventually installed a mosaic plaque in the sidewalk that read, “Property of the Hess Estate Which Has Never Been Dedicated for Public Purposes.” They held on to that tiny triangle of land—known at the time as the smallest piece of privately owned real estate in New York—until 1938, and the mosaic remains today.
It’s hard to know where to begin with Donald J. Trump.
SMALL HANDS, PETTY HEART. His pettiness goes back decades—think, for instance, of when he promised the Metropolitan Museum of Art that he would donate some Art Deco panels on a historic building that he was razing, and then went back on that promise when he learned it would cost him $32,000 to safely remove them, saying, “The merit of these stones was not great enough to justify the efforts to save them.” (The budget of the construction project was around $100 million.)
COMMANDER IN CHIEF OF PETTY BRIGADE. But for the purposes of this list, let’s focus on some of Trump’s presidential pettiness. The death of John McCain was a low-water mark. The two men had clashed openly throughout Trump’s campaign, and when McCain provided the surprising vote denying Republicans the chance to gut Obamacare, Trump declared war through a series of nasty tweets. Though Trump issued a brief, vague tweet, saying his “deepest sympathies and respect” went out to McCain’s family following the senator’s death, the president also reportedly rejected a statement written by his staff that would refer to him as a “hero.” On the Monday following McCain’s death, flags in the capital remained at half-staff, which is normal when a sitting senator dies—but the White House flag was flying high, and the president ignored reporters’ questions about McCain.
Were we this petty before Twitter? Probably, but it wasn’t as fun. THE WAY WE WERE. If social media is where petty goes to thrive, then Twitter is its ground zero. The “microblogging" platform is home to the best and pettiest clapbacks, meme responses, and GIF threads. Short and sharp, thrown effortlessly like basement darts, petty tweets distill discourse into a 280-character (formerly 140-character) counts. Whether the tweets exist as a response to some real or imagined affront—practically everyone’s at your disposal to @reply—or just a missive to the universe at large, Twitter was a great place to drop something you’ve been dying to say, with no one to say it to. A cleverly deployed retweet could pack a wallop. Take model Chrissy Teigen, who, in a now-deleted 2017 tweet, RT-ed a hateful missive saying that Donald Trump’s block was the “best thing” that would happen to her and added: "I have a best selling book, great boobs, a family I love, am literally eating pasta on a lake in Italy and I married rich." How is this website free?! It was Black Twitter, of course, that took the perfectly crafted insult to a new dimension. As Amanda Hess put it in a 2017 New York Times piece, “On Black Twitter, a certain brand of pettiness—the kind that involves gleefully asserting yourself over the smallest points and meticulously cataloging and avenging the tiniest of slights—is celebrated as a virtue and a skill, the comedic equivalent of possessing strong attention to detail.” THE WAY WE ARE. Before Donald Trump ruined petty Twitter for everyone by being our first Twitter-troll president—one who retweets racist nonsense and conspiracy theories (for more on that, see number two on this list)—the platform was a battle of the wits, where everyone had a chance to practice insult comedy without feelings getting hurt. (Most of the time.) We still have a few fleeting moments (the 2017 Trump misfire #covfefe, for instance, which gave everyone a few hours of fun) but apart from the always-fabulous Bossip headlines, there’s not much pride (or enjoyment!) left in being petty. The downfall of Twitter probably began in earnest with 2014's rancid Gamergate controversy; by 2016, it became a place where Nazis hung out, and anyone could, at any point, be mercilessly targeted, abused, and harassed. The question is: after Twitter is completely left to the haters and losers, where will petty go next?