Follow the meme

Follow the meme

: I hope some journalism/sociology/communications student is studying the birth and spread of political memes — formerly known as party lines and spin — in the era of citizens’ media.

Case in point: After the election in Iraq, we first heard silence from the anti-war crew and the left and then, as if they’d all gotten the fax, we heard an echo of a line something like this: an election does not a democracy make.

The similarity was striking. Somebody started that line. Somebody thought it was good and picked it up. And it spread quickly, in both big media and citizens’ media.

Of course, this happens on the right and the left. This is merely a current example.

I’d love to know who first said it and how it spread. How is spin spun now?

  • Tony

    America is 225 years into our democracy and we’re still figuring it out. It’s ridiculous to believe that Iraq is going to be an immediate, perfect democracy. But being pessimistic and spinning it into the media/blogosphere within 72 hours is absurdly partisan and the reason why those of us on the left don’t control the government. American power is optimism. The left lacks even a shred of that now. As a freedom-loving liberal, that saddens me.

  • Hal

    Um, Jeff, that’s been the belief since *before* the election. In fact, one can easily trace this “meme” back before Vietnam and beyond. It’s your meme that you are trying to push for your own purposes that the left suddenly woke up and figured this out.
    Are you really this dim? I mean, are do you really think that “an election does not a democracy make” just popped up out of no where and that this was only as a result of spin?
    Man, you are one sorry dude. It pains me to think of how hard the gerbils must be spinning on that wheel inside your skull for you to come up with such ridiculous clap trap.
    At least you’re pulling your weight as a propagandist.
    Best of luck in spreading this meme. You’re going to need it.

  • oodja

    No mystery here: I get my Leftist talking points faxed to me every morning, along with menus from select area restaurants.
    /thinking of changing his screen name to Eeyore

  • Glenn

    What has blown me away this week is the utter shock and awe which hit the anti-war crowd on sunday – seeing the numbers of Iraqis voting and seeing the joy and excitement with this election – it’s as if the scene was completely beyond the critics’ comprehension. The anti-war crowd has spoken since March 2003 as if they are completely in touch with the mindset of the Iraqi people and all the neo-cons, ideologues, war-mongers, were in fantasyland. zeyad and the iraq the model guys and hammorabi and the other iraqi bloggers (except for riverbend) were either cia agents or on the absolute fringe of Iraqi thought. That was the anti-war meme. There simply was NO other explanation. Now, that meme has been absolutely obliterated.
    Guess what folks. The desire for freedom and liberty IS a universal value for all mankind. Its a shocker, really. Some truths are self-evident.

  • Hal

    Man, you guys are like a bad episode of Scoobi Doo. . .

  • Alison

    It would be great if someone (Im too lazy) could track this graphically. On one map is a geographic outline of the US/Europe/world and track the idea’s mention in MSM newspapers or newscasts or in the blogosphere. Plot a dot when you see, say “podcasting” or some trendy word where its mentioned, record, then replay in high-speed via flash animation or something.
    Then track it on an politcal compass ideology map: Have a calendar/clock at the bottom to show time lapse as the idea spreads.

  • carsonfire

    Some may read others and agree, but there’s also the fact that “great (eh) minds think alike”. Well, minds of a similar political persuasion think alike, anyway.
    I’ve often found myself reacting to a situation, writing or talking to somebody about it, then finding a “big name” pundit echoing what I said later in the day. Did he get my fax? Did my meme spread from my mind into some television studio? No, people with brains just reached similar output from the same input.
    On the other hand, for some people there may also be an emboldenment factor. A lot of people should be embarrassed by what they said this weekend, but they became more brave after seeing a few other people saying the same thing they wanted to say.

  • Yehudit

    What’s interesting about this meme is that it gets its power from the straw man it sets up: that the Bush admin thinks that one election DOES make a democracy. No one thinks that; after all, this is the election to create the transitional government which will write the consitution and call for elections in the fall to elect the real government, and then the next test will be whether that government will peacefully cede power when their terms are up.
    We have sent judges over there to help the Iraqis develop their independent judiciary, which got a preliminary test in the arraignment of Saddam. Various NGOs have coached local municipalities and overseen their local elections, mostly in the south. All that has been prep for this and future elections.
    No one thinks one election makes a democracy. But this one is a great and necessary step forward.

  • brewdog

    The oldest instance I could find on Google is from March 1, 2004: in the comments.
    However, Yoda said “Wars not make one great” in Empire Strikes Back, which makes me think the current meme is a repurposing of an older construction

  • None

    One thing I hope doesn’t spread is the term “citizens’ media”. It’s lame. I don’t have a better alternative to offer.

  • Andrew Tyndall

    I picked up on another, contrary, meme from Bush’s opposition. This one can be loosely summed up as “What a nerve!”
    I heard it both on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer and PBS’ NewsHour on Monday and it goes like this…
    Immediately after the invasion the Pentagon wanted to install an exile-led regime…then France called for immediate elections and Paul Bremer objected…then the US appointed a Governing Council…then Bremer proposed a constitution drafted by caucus-selected assmbly not an elected one.
    It was the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who insisted on elections, not the President and Bremer and the neo-cons at the Pentagon…Bush was forced to reverse policy and involve the United Nations in setting up the vote…Bush never succeeded in persuading those who wanted to postpone the elections–the Sunni Arabs–to join in the, universally anticipated, high turnout in the Shiite Arab south and the Kurdish north.
    Furthermore, so-called transitional elections in countries reverting from dictatorship almost always have sky-high turnouts…by comparison to those norms, the Iraqi turnout was low.
    According to this meme, the election is a good thing; Bush deserves no credit for organizing it; instead he deserves criticism for footdragging; and anyway the turnout was disappointing among the Sunnis. So “What a Nerve” he has in taking credit for it.
    By the way, everybody agrees–supporters and opponents of the war–that an election does not a democracy make. There is no left-wing exclusive to that proposition. Everyone also agrees that Iraq is better off with an indigenous elected assembly writing its constitution as opposed to a clique of exiles appointed by an occupying power.
    The gist of the disagreement, it seems to me, is whether invasion and occupation are the productive or counterproductive techniques for accomplishing this desired end.

  • John Cole

    Jeff- Glad you are noticing this, as I have been discussing this meme since Sunday.
    The first I heard say it was Jeralynn Merritt on MSNBC. In that post there is also another meme that surfaced.
    An update can be found here, and in the comments you will finds echoes of the meme in the mainstream media.
    In this third post, I track the genesis of the Vietnam Vote meme started by the Daily Kos.
    Sorry for all the self-linking, but it was easier than writing it all again.

  • rcs

    I object to the use of the word ‘meme’ in this context. ‘Memes’ are self-replicating or at least propagate by obscure means. ‘Party lines’ and ‘spin’ are generated by an agent and can hardly be considered memes. When did ideas, concepts and arguments become obsolete, anyway?
    Hooray for the citizens’ media and all that but it’s no excuse for imprecise writing. Pillory all the reporters if you like but keep some of the copy editors around.

  • oodja
  • rcs

    Voting irregularities, disenfranchisement – sounds like Republicans were running the…
    … oh.

  • paul_lukasiak

    There was “silence” from the left because there was really nothing to say. We on the left have a clue about what this election actually represents, and how many times the “turning point” has been celebrated by the wingnuts only to have things continue to deteriorate.
    (I mean, I remember telling wingnuts that neither the capture of Saddam, nor the “turnover of sovereignty”, were any big deal in terms of dynamic of what was really happening in Iraq, and got the same kind of reaction I get here from saying that the election is no big deal. I was right about Saddam and sovereignty, and the wingnuts were wrong.)
    The ‘meme’ itself developed naturally—I used it here IIRC, but don’t remember seeing it before I used it. That fact that it is now something that is understood by the left as a truism (its not actually a ‘meme’) suggests that the same idea struck others at about the same time.
    Oh, and just in case you want to know what the next truism is, here it is….
    Bush had nothing to do with whatever success this election represented. Bush opposed this election process until it was forced on him by Sistani and the UN, and those who give Bush any credit obviously have no fucking clue about what has been happening in Iraq for the last year….

  • Mork

    Case in point: After the election in Iraq, we first heard silence from the anti-war crew and the left and then, as if they’d all gotten the fax, we heard an echo of a line something like this: an election does not a democracy make.
    Jeff, never have I read anything on your blog that has made me more want to tell you to go fuck yourself. Your post exemplifies the very worst of the vile verbal warfare that the blogmire has become: first, you group everyone with whom you disagree into a collective caricature (“the anti-war crew and the left”) and then you smear them collectively by attributing to them a single debased motive and purpose.
    And your premise is patently false. You may have been living in the bubble when it comes to Iraq, but serious people have been observing since before the invasion that holding an election and creating a viable democracy are two very different things. Hell – even a lot of the neocons themselves have expressed the fear that the Administration would hold single election then decalre victory and leave the rest of the job undone.
    And you know, this sequence that you observe: it actually starts one step before – with people like you tearing around the internet like some latter-day Spanish Inquisition looking for evidence of apostasy in the form of insufficient jubilance. Look at your posts – look at how you immediately turn from the events themselves to trying to find domestic enemies to skewer. It’s vile.
    And then when the targets of your smears and insinuations trouble to explain why they don’t share your blind euphoria by stating an obvious truth, you retailiate with this despicable smear.
    Once again, Jeff, you demonstrate why blog triumphalism is misplaced: in the absence of an institutionalized set of standards and values, its proponents simply aren’t capable of remaining fair and truthful. You can stick that up your symposium.

  • thibaud

    Jeff, like your blog, like your thinking generally but in this case you’re on the wrong track. In Poli Sci circles there’s long been an academic dispute about whether democracy owes more to civil society– private property, rule of law, courts, free media, other institutions– or to government by popular consent, ie elections. Fareed Zakaria has become, in the public eye, the most prominent advocate of the notion that elections don’t matter as much as progress in other areas such as the development of free markets and other forms of democratic institution-building. He wrote a book on this IIRC a few years back.
    Dan Drezner and plenty of others argue that elections matter, hugely. When Zakaria trumpeted this thesis in the recent Newsweek, he was merely reprising a very old and familiar (for him) tune.
    As to your larger point, I think that strong ideas resonate, regardless of their origin, particularly when they can serve as short-term political ammo. This one is a strong idea that unfortunately gives cover to folks with brains a wee bit smaller than Zakaria’s, people who are looking for an excuse to piss on what was a very significant achievement by the Iraqis and of course the Bush admin. I would like to see more academic blogs– I mean blogs adhering to very high standards of professionalism, research, integrity and courtesy (as opposed to that embarrassment written by the man who now heads the Middle Eastern Studies Association). These could circulate memes into the blogosphere for thorough comment, discussion and digestion so as to avoid MSM journalists’ opportunistic snatching and presenting caricatures of those memes for short-term political or partisan gain.

  • J. Peden

    Special note to the apparently terminally confused paul_lukasiak:
    The meme in question regarding “electons” is nothing more than what Leftist nuance will produce, the attempt to redefine words and language, and the resulting Leftist confusion which they themselves produce in themselves, then glory in as though having reached an epiphany of realization. Not surprisingly, this always manifests as hate, outrage, lividity, and free floating self-righteousness condemning as a “truism” that their opposition is evil, when in fact all they have done is show their utter confusion.
    Thus a successful election [actual vote or voting] becomes a “successful governing”, or an already [impossibly] verified “turning point” according to Leftists, who then take their own nuanced [incorrect] definitions as to what the words really meant as their original use or intent. Then Leftists become dissappointed or outraged that their own intentionally confused interpretations did not eventuate or were not represented by actual conditions. This is at once humorous, pathetic, and pathognomonic of their confused thought processes – what they call “thinking”.
    The identical process occurred in the case of the “Mission Accomplished” statement which referred to an accomplished mission of an aircraft carrier, which they took to refer to the whole Iraq war. The Leftists then became outraged that the war was not over.
    Useful hint to Leftists: “turning point” does not mean the war is over.
    Likewise in the case of WMD’s which everyone in the world, including Saddam himself, seemed to believe would be found in stockpiles in Iraq. When they weren’t found in this condition, the Left claimed “Bush lied”, seeming to think he was the only one in the world who knew for sure they weren’t there. Ignoring what “intelligence” and common sense meant in the concept of going after WMD’s, the left concluded that the idea was a lie, because of ex post facto or retrologic misapplied to the meaning of the original idea.
    Note to confused Leftists: we are currently accomplishing “The Mother of all Inspections”, and rightfully so.
    Such Leftist nuancing is pathologic and pathognomonic of the Leftists’ thought disorder. It is in fact based on the simple-minded resort to simple “truisms” as paul_lukasiak admits: “Bush is evil, ineffective, and wrong. paul and his like-minded defectives are good, effective, and right.”
    It is not very difficult to see how they can then “prove” everything they say by their chaotic and self-serving nuancing “thought”, which is actually really only a cynical word game at best, which Leftists don’t even seem to realize they are doing, and shows the total irrelevance of such thought to real conditions.

  • Eileen

    Fascinating, J. Peden; brilliant really.. A few questions if you find the time to reply: By pathognomonic do you mean the pathological adoption of ill-conceived maxims or aphorisms? Are you a psychologist or psychiatrist?
    Do you believe that this confused, delusional thinking also accounts for the left’s inability to state a coherent party line, or to identify a leader (e.g., for the DNC) with a voice which resonates even among the democrats themselves? Is this kind of thinking spawned by desperation, or feelings of impotency, or the need to somehow find self esteem in the midst of failure?
    Do you see similar thought processes occuring among far right wing conservatives?
    Finally, do you believe that the left’s adoption of simplistic, false ‘truisms’ is actually their effort to market ideologies to a public they consider to be intellectually inferior? It seems leftists and MSM believe that if they repeat Any old thing often enough (e.g., Bush lied) that eventually they’ll indoctrinate the rest of us to actually believe it.

  • Mork

    Isn’t it funny when dumb people pretend to be intelligent!

  • Eileen

    You just made J. Peden’s point.

  • J. Peden

    Eileen: as you no doubt know, the term “pathognomonic” refers to a symptom, sign, or act which alone can make the diagnosis of a disease or disorder, or at least lead one to suspect the disorder or process is operative enough to persist as judged by future occurrences. Leftists do the same thing over and over again. They nuance basically as a word game unrelated to anything else.
    The “nuancing” is a pathognomonic sign when comes to be the kind of word-smithing which distorts the intent of the original words as applied to specific situations willy nilly or for another purpose. When you see the disconnect from the reality involved and from the context of the original words, you suspect the nuancing is pathologic in some way or other: either intentional, as in classic propaganda for the purpose of control or “winning”; or automatic, perhaps due to true thought chaos, which I think is really the problem involved in much of Leftists’ thought.
    In thought chaos of this kind I hypothesize that there is a simple [congenital] inablility to understand words and concepts and how they can work to see or understand reality – that is, there is a basic disconnect between thought processes and real situations. There is also a disconnect between the words and concepts themselves as they exist apart from conditions, allowing word games to take over thought.
    Sophism recognizes that words can always be played with ad infinitum. They are, after all, only sounds or appearances [or sensations, as in braille]. So words do not carry meaning around on their backs. Also the uses or connections between words can be arbitrarily changed in pure word-space. So I can say, “A square circle exists” and it looks like it could make sense, and might even make sense, depending on how I make the relevant definitions.
    But in Sophism all you do in the end is play word games or argue about definitions of words.
    Yet some Sophists also think they are stating an ultimate truism to the effect that words really do not ever mean anything. This is false. Otherwise we could not even say that it is either true or false and mean anything at all.
    Or it is simply a definitional mantra or exhortation that “words never really mean anything”, which we must always keep in mind before we then start speaking and contradict it.
    Likewise, “Bush is evil” or “stupid” or “greedy” or “takes orders from God” is a mantra or truism which seems to make a factual statement but does not, because it turns out that such claims are not born out well at all by actual occurrences.
    Yet many Leftists do not seem to realize that they are trying to define or control reality by pre-existing word definitions, or statements about how they will use words, such as “Bush is always ‘evil’or ‘imcompetent’.” They simply don’t know or see that this does not really work – attempting to control reality or the future by use of word definitions or useages.
    When their statements are baldly contradicted by reality, all they do is insist their definitions hold, which is fine, except that now their definitions of “evil” or “incompetence” no longer mean what they want or what we mean by the terms. Leftist seem to need the gratification of stating such things as “Bush is evil” when “evil” does not mean what it used to mean.
    When someone starts talking like this, I expect to see pure word-gaming take over. And I think it indicates or represents a thought disorder or dysfunction as defined by its opposite, the thought capacity which holds and knows that words and concepts do mean something and that it is possible to analyze real conditions meaningfully, rationally, or in effect, scientifically.
    Naturally, those with the disorder do not see it, or see that it is one. Fine, but I see it and can predict what they will do. I could do it myself. But they cannot do what I do, and prove it at every opportunity. They seem to be unable to focus on ideas and conditions, or even upon their own thought mechanisms. I can, so I know it is possible and cannot simply be dismissed as, for example, “really” being like them – biased, seeking control, self-annointing, needing to “win”, and so on.
    I know I can be wrong and am looking for it at all times the best I can. I do not say what I say because it has simply popped into my mind and therefore must be right. This is, in contrast, exactly what Howard Dean does, and he has admitted it. So it is not too surprising that Dean hardly ever makes any sense, and that his fellow nuancers and pop-up thinkers want him to be the DNC leader.
    It is also easily seen why such Leftists cannot hold a coherent policy, such as enfranchising people and women in particular, which the Iraqi election issue has just proven beyond any doubt, unless I am really missing something. Incoherence and inconsistence in effect becomes a value of nuance. In such nuance, the more odd, condtradictory, or absurd an idea becomes the more true it is.
    This is somewhat similar to the “big lie” tactic, or faith by virtue of the absurd, which I see Christian Fundamentalists doing all the time. Fortuneately they believe in freedom and self-defense, so I am happy to have them as allies. Actually the Left’s intolerance for this kind of religion [nuancedly not applied to Islamofascism] has led me to reaffirm or value my own tolerance for Christianity.
    Conservatives do this also if they say “Capitalism is always good”, or “America is always right”, and so on. I can easily see that capitalism is nearly always better and America is nearly always right, so can tolerate extreme Conservative belief or statements much better than the directly opposite dogma, which again seems to me to be a result of the thought disorder Leftists display, thought chaos or thought Relativity, capped off with a contradictory self-annointment of themselves with an ability to to see truth or channel the Ideal somehow. [Just as Communist activists somehow escape the mentality of both the benighted workers and the evil bourgoise and capitalists, whose consciousnesses are all determined by their economic activities or natures. I guess the activists must be some of the “good” rich, just as are the Hollywood rich or the Hines or Kennedy rich – or the Moore or Franken rich. The rest of us rich are bad because we disagree with the former. The attempt at thought control here cannot be more obvious.]
    I am not a psychologist, but I am an M.D. who majored in Philosophy. But actually anyone with what I call free-thought can see what I claim I see. They are free to do this, look at things with their own powers of thought, which is actually the only way to self-knowledge and knowledge about things like existence, the Universe, creation, and “what we are here for”. Not really too metaphysical, it is very odd and significant that we were created with a capacity which I call free-thought which wants to understand its Maker, the Universe.
    If Leftists want to not see this, or can’t see it, it’s fine with me, except that I am not going to go down with them because of their pathologies, tolerating my own death and the death of my principles merely to satisfy the needs of their mental disorders.
    Actually I see Leftists as functional sadomasichists regarding thought, similar to the sadomasochism of the Islamofascists, Communists, and the like. In fact I see Leftists as anti-free thought racists. Nothing they have done shows me anything different, but I could always be surprised.
    Leftists do see the populace as inferior, which again is pathognomonic of nuance in which some truism such as “Redstaters are not enlightened or have lower I.Q.’s, or are less educated, or are rednecks or racists or Neanderthal-like” merely equates to “they voted for Bush”. It is a false and dangerous mistake to make because it again shows or allows their divorce from reality, based upon an attempt to dictate reality from definitional pronouncements: what is the case is what I say is the case apart from observation. Some redneck uneducated non-intellectuals I know would have Leftists for lunch without raising a red or purple finger. They know how things work and are not victimized by anything, least of all by bigoted self-serving pronouncements. [Dean has come up with another “new” one, that redstaters like those in Mississippi distrust big corporations – another definitional evil – so that redstaters will be susceptible to voting for Democrats. Wrong, and indicative of Dean’s powers of thought and sight, which Leftists see as their own, not noticing the defects. Leftists seem to not even be able to recall anything, which is perhaps another congenital part of their problem, a memory defect. I’m being serious here.]
    Another one I’m fond of is “You are rural, therefore you are backward, inferior, and need our salvational help.” I live in a county nearly three times the size of Rhode Island, with a population of 7100. Although we a stuck in caves looking at the shadows, somehow we see things better than those of the asphault jungles, or at least the Leftists who inhabit these climes. [And I certainly don’t want to disparage jungles.]

  • Beau

    J. — Do you not see the inherit pot-and-kettlism in this statement:
    “Leftists do see the populace as inferior, which again is pathognomonic of nuance in which some truism such as “Redstaters are not enlightened or have lower I.Q.’s, or are less educated, or are rednecks or racists or Neanderthal-like” merely equates to “they voted for Bush”.”
    Mork pretty much nailed it. The problem with blogs like this one is that they go around searching for an extreme point of view that they can then hang up as the sins of “the Left,” “the Right” or “the MSM.” No wonder so many bloggers claim to be Libertarian even though the Libertarian Party can’t seem to finish above fourth in a national election — if you’re Libertarian, most bloggers aren’t going to take the time to slur your entire school of thought.
    That’s roughly like saying, “I’m above name-calling, you pinko scumbag!”

  • Beau

    Hmmm … switch paragraphs 3 and 4 above. The “Preview” got a little confused here. My bad.

  • Eileen

    Many thanks for your instructive reply, Dr. Peden.

  • J. Peden

    Beau: what I’m saying is that I can prove it about Leftists, their superiority complex which comes through their own definition and annointment of themselves as specially perceptive compared to everyone who is not them.
    For example,apart from their assiduous attempts to prove redstaters are unintelligent and even to tar whole states as “red” when the vote might have been 51/49, Leftists are determined to see people as victims and thereby incapable of acting on their own. Just conveniently the Leftists are there to save them. Just how do Leftists escape the same forces which they claim afflict everyone else to bring about or indicate their inferior abilities? Answer: they are themselves, by definition superior. This is a classic superiority complex at work.
    Women and minorities are always victims and assumed to possess some defect on a sexist or racist basis! The rural are defective, the elderly are defective, those who speak a different language in this country or have a different “ethnicity” are presumed to be unable to learn English and in need of someone to help them maintain their ethnic practices so they don’t become totally denuded of personhood.
    Leftists have an idea that if someone is “offended” that this causes some kind of permanent disability. This view of people as inherently impotent is what college speech codes are all about, and what underlies the drive on the part of elitist whites to literaly outlaw words such as “squaw” and “redskin”. Of course the real purpose is the imposition of “correct” thought or speech, again conveniently what Leftists say it is.
    Leftists also seem to think that humiliation or affrontery is what creates terrorists. Like the people humiliated are unable to keep themselves from becoming suididal-homicidalists if they are merely insulted.
    It just goes on and on. Leftists think rich people cause poor people. They think people are enslaved by capitalism. They use anecdotal cases to prove things about whole groups. Do you recall when Gore was unable to come up with even one valid case of the elderly having to hunt cans in order to feed themselves or pay for medicine? Yet the elderly are nearly universally seen as weak, except for elderly Leftists.
    People are seen as unable to figure out how to vote. People can’t manage their money but need the government to do it.
    You can’t see it? I could go into many more examples. But in sum, Leftists have what is basically a religious view in which they are the saviors and the rest the confused, or the evil, the latter being necessary for the confused to be saved from.
    Leftists seem to have no view that people have inherent capacities, or that the only way to really know something is to form your own view, and that people can do this. Least of all do they have any idea that what does not kill you makes you stronger, that is, if you are allowed to deal with things yourself. They disparage the whole of humanity. Look what just happened in Iraq. Surprise, surprise, nuance, nuance, nuance. No one wanted the crutches of Leftist “understanding” which said the Iraqis couldn’t do it because of inherent defects, such as terminal acculturation to Despotism, and ultimate cowardice.