Meme Watch: “Arrogant Obama”
Through the election season, memes will multiply like mushrooms. The objective of our new series “Meme Watch” is to examine those memes carefully (whether they come from the Right or the Left), and try to determine what we used to call the “voracity” of each meme.
What is a meme? The Daily Meme defines it at some length, but for those who don’t want to bother with a longer version, here’s mine. It’s a term coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. It’s a cultural idea or theme that is subject to reproduction and mutation, just like a gene. In that way, it’s sort of a combination of a memory and a gene, hence the name.
An example of the purest form of meme is the urban legend, originally studied by folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand and the subject of the Usenet newsgroup alt.folklore.urban which has now itself mutated into the website snopes.com. I was one of the original contributors to alt.folklore.urban, and it was there that I picked up the habit of typing “voracity” when I meant “veracity”. Someone on the newsgroup, long before I came, had made that typing error, and it stuck as a shibboleth, a way that alt.folklore.urban regulars could recognize members of the “in group”. It’s a great substitution, because memes tend to become “voracious”, devouring truth and clarity of thought as they take over popular culture.
When I was a child, I was told a story by my mother that both she and I believed to be true. We lived near White Rock Lake at what was then the outer edge of Dallas, Texas. Mom told me about The Lady of White Rock Lake. Many other towns and cities have their own version. This urban legend (and its twins) was the titular subject of Brunvand’s first book, The Vanishing Hitchhiker. In this urban legend, a man driving near a lake picks up an attractive female hitchhiker who is sopping wet. He gives her a ride home, and she leaves an item of clothing behind in his care (usually a wet sweater). When he attempts to return the sweater the next day, he finds she had drowned in the same lake on an anniversary day one, or two, or more years earlier.
Before Brunvand made it an academic pursuit, this story became the basis for a number of popular songs, such as “Bringing Mary Home”, “Laurie (Strange Things Happen)”, and “Misty Water Woman”. A quick listen to each of these is a good introduction to how memes work.
Memes are particularly useful in politics. Those are the kind of memes we’ll be examining in the Meme Watch series. I’m kicking the series off with a meme that popped up again this week: is President Barack Obama arrogant?
What makes a political meme successful? The same things that make any meme successful. From “Emotional selection in memes: The case of urban legends” (Heath, Bell, and Sternberg, 2001):
…[M]emes like urban legends succeed on the basis of informational selection (i.e., truth or a moral lesson) and emotional selection (i.e., the ability to evoke emotions like anger, fear, or disgust).
This week’s “angry truth” was the arrogance of President Obama. Last Wednesday, the President visited Arizona, the state where Republican Governor Jan Brewer has promoted Arizona SB 1070, a bill viewed (depending on your perspective) either as a necessary response to the onslaught of illegal immigrants in Arizona, or as an unreasonable state intrusion into a Constitutional prerogative reserved to the federal government. In June 2010, the Governor and President met in the White House. Upon leaving that meeting, Governor Brewer said the meeting was “very cordial”:
I am encouraged that there is going to be much better dialogue between the Federal government and the state of Arizona. I hope that’s not wishful thinking, I hope that’s positive thinking.
That was before Governor Brewer had books to sell. In her November 2011 book Scorpions for Breakfast: My Fight Against Special Interests, Liberal Media, and Cynical Politicos to Secure America’s Border (foreword by Sarah Palin), she reportedly called President Obama’s behavior at that meeting “patronizing” and “condescending”.
To drive that point home, when President Obama arrived in Arizona on Wednesday, she gave him a good old-fashioned finger-wagging. Presumably, based on the body language and public statements afterwards, she continued to find the President patronizing and condescending, while the President chalked it up to Republican electoral politics:
It’s always good publicity for a Republican if they’re in an argument with me.
(…a remark that, in itself, was perceived as condescending by those who criticize the President.)
Governor Brewer’s plantings of the Grapes of Wrath found themselves in fallow ground, already plowed and prepared by others. A persistent meme of this Administration is that the President is (pick your descriptor) “aloof”, “arrogant”, or the formulation of Governor Brewer’s ghostwriter: “patronizing” or “condescending”.
Let’s go to the tape.
Karl Rove started this one (at least publicly), with a remark during the 2008 election season from his pulpit on FOX News. It was reported that Rove said to Republican donors at a June 2008 dinner that then-Senator Obama was “coolly arrogant”. Rove lashed out publicly the next day:
I will say yes, I do think Barack Obama is arrogant.
Like all good memes, this one branched out and grew and became multi-faceted. Some on the Left claimed that Rove and others were just using thinly veiled racist language and were, in essence, calling Obama an “uppity Negro”. Interestingly, while there was a predictable spike in Google searches for “Obama uppity” around the 2008 pre-election kerfuffle, there has been a more recent spike. Who or what is driving this is unclear.
The subtext of the 2008 campaign played strongly on a mutation of this meme. David Gergen, who is scrupulously moderate and has been no particular friend of the Obama Administration since the election, pointed it out in a August 3, 2008 ABC This Week with George Stephanopoulos panel discussion:
When you see this Charlton Heston ad, The One. That’s code for “he’s uppity”. He oughta stay in his place. Everybody gets that who’s from a Southern background.
(I was born in the South and have spent over 30 years there in aggregate, and I agree wholeheartedly with Gergen here.)
By 2010, the Left and Right were in open warfare using the “Arrogant Obama” meme as fodder for their arguments. Jonah Goldberg, in a column entitled “Obama’s Outsized Ego” dated October 2010, described an incident that occurred at a Presidential speech:
“That’s all right, all of you know who I am,” President Obama joked last week when the presidential seal fell off his podium during a speech in Pittsburgh.
Even though the incident made headlines for no discernible journalistic reason, it was noteworthy as a succinct example of Obama’s arrogance problem. Rather than make a self-deprecating joke, he opted instead to make a self-inflating one, as if to say that the title mattered less than the man.
I find Goldberg’s interpretation tortured, a bit of shaving the interpretation to fit a pre-existing mindset. This would be characteristic of someone infected with a meme virus. (“Don’t bother me with the facts, I’ve already made up my mind.”) However, I have to agree with him when he says:
Of course, all presidents have healthy egos. You cannot become president, or even think you’re qualified to run, if you don’t think highly of yourself. Obama’s arrogance problem isn’t a matter of psychology but of strategy.
Pakistan’s military dictator Pervez Musharraf also called President Obama “arrogant” in an interview following the Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound. I’m not sure whether that’s a complaint or a compliment coming from a tinpot despot.
Genes have promoters that turn on the gene when it’s needed for essential cell functions. Memes have promoters, too. Now that the election campaign is in full swing, the “Arrogant Obama” meme is being replicated at the maximum rate, and has even spawned attempts to block the meme.
The Heritage Foundation’s Nile Gardner, in a January 2012 op-ed, calls him the “most arrogant U.S. President in decades”.
Representative Dennis Cardoza (D-Merced, CA), a retiring Congressman considered a conservative Democrat (his 111th Congress DW-NOMINATE of –0.251 places him to the right of Obama’s –0.403) gives us the Blue Dog Democratic congressional version of the meme:
President Obama projected an arrogant “I’m right, you’re wrong” demeanor that alienated many potential allies.
…which of course received much play on FOX News.
And then this week’s Witch’s Brewer, a charm of powerful trouble hit President Obama once again:
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
Replication rates for the meme shot sky-high. For example, sales of Governor Brewer’s book rose by a reported 22,240 times on Amazon after the incident (which just goes to show how low they were before).
This story, whether true or not, neatly fits the criteria of Heath, Bell, and Sternberg: it’s offering up a moral lesson, and it evokes anger, fear, or disgust. It’s interesting to me that all of these criticisms come from the right of President Obama and none from the left of him. As he is a relatively moderate Democrat based on his DW-NOMINATE, with plenty of politicians on his left, you’d think there would be a least a few complaints from that political wing.
But this meme is definitely a right-wing example.
- Dawkins’ Memes and Wetzels’ Grace (bangaricontentgallery.com)
- AZ Governor Taking It To President Obama (annem040359.wordpress.com)
- Raw Video Shows Gov. Brewer Warmly Greeted Obama Upon Arrival (newsbusters.org)
- Brewer Releases Obama Letter (newser.com)
- Memes (lazyoptimist.wordpress.com)
- Meme Machine: 5 Hilarious Videos Trending Right Now (mashable.com)
- What’s The Oldest Internet Meme You Can Remember? (buzzfeed.com)
- A Meme Proposal! (since1910.com)
- Outcry to Brewer-Obama Exchange Reflects Growing Hispanic Political Awareness (news.firedoglake.com)
- Meme Machine: Top 5 Viral Topics This Week (mashable.com)
- Dawkins’ Memes and Wetzels’ Grace | Bangari Content Gallery
- Logarchism » Unpacking the Court
- Logarchism » Presidential Debate 1