Exam­ple of an Inter­net Obama meme. Source: whits​blog​.com

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”.

Gov. Jan Brewer gives Pres­i­dent Barack Obama a piece of her mind. Source: AP/​Politico.

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.

Google trends map of searches for the terms “Obama arro­gant”. Key news arti­cles are also flagged by date.

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.

Google Trends graph for “Obama uppity”.

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.

Lib­eral com­men­ta­tors have formed their own “‘arro­gant’ means ‘uppity Negro’” anti-​​meme and were just say­ing it out­right (for exam­ple, here, here and here).

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.