Saturday, January 28, 2006

Republicans and memes

The common blog usage of the word "meme," now referring to something like a game of tag conducted on the internet, is entirely different from what Dawkins had in mind when he invented the term. Richard Dawkins is a zoologist who a few years ago noticed that some ideas behave like organisms, and invented the term "meme" to refer to an idea that seems to operate in invasive and ineradicable ways—urban legends are instances of memes. They resist disproof, or rather, evolve, like cancer cells undergoing chemotherapy, when doused with rational evidence.

Although the average fundamentalist Republican thinks that concepts like memes are high faluting nonsense, Karl Rove, a man with the genius of Lee Atwater and the scruples of Joseph Goebbels, understands them very well, and using that understanding has built well on the work of his illustrious predecessors. Hence, the success of swiftboating, a demonic stroke of marketing genius, where with breathtaking effrontery, the Republicans realized you can directly attack the strength of an opponent by simply, brazenly, and absurdly claiming that all of those strengths _don't exist_, and that they never really existed. If preposterous imputations of cowardice and fraud, based on the lies of hired shills who released rumors into the night as surreptitiously as the people you never see putting flyers on your car windhield while you are in the grocery store, can work on behalf of a padded codpiece flightsuit against people who displayed actual heroism in military service, like Max Cleland and John Kerry; the same tactic, mutatis mutandis, can work against anyone.

But why does it work better than the leaflets under your windshield wiper?

Republican talking points seem to be received in two ways by non-liberals: "moderates", self described of course, shrug their shoulders and express skepticism but are vaguely receptive to "who knows?" whereas Republican true believers incorporate them into their very being. While Rovian talking points generally are attacked by Democrats, and, rationally speaking, are refuted; the peculiar virus-like nature of those talking points is such that they can no more be eradicated from the minds of fundamentalist Republicans by evidence, or proof, or rational argumentation than you could stop a chicken pox outbreak in a day-care center with reason and logic.

What Rove understands about the fundamentalist mind is that certain kinds of memes can not only thrive in such minds, but indeed, once planted, cannot be removed. (Witness the Clinton-hatred memes, presently lying dormant in the reservoir population, but which spring fully to life if you just use the word "Hillary" within earshot of a red-state hydrophobic Republican.)

Personally, I think the reason for this is fear. The people susceptible to these memes are fearful people, and the memes serve as reassuring assurances that their worldview—which they feel is beleaguered--is in fact safe from harm. People in Kansas sense that something is wrong in red-state America, and it makes them afraid. The genius of Karl Rove (and his predecessors) is the uncanny ability to direct that fear to Republican ends, such that useful rightwing memes thus incorporate themselves into the self-concept of individuals in the endemic host population (Republicans in this case). To carry the biological metaphor (remember, it's just a metaphor) a little further, the Republican faithful thus constitute a reservoir from which periodic outbreaks of irrationality can spread.

And what spreads it? Maybe a small part of it is marketing, the outright purchase of media propagandists. But I don’t think the hired propagandists are the main problem. The main problem, it seems to me, is media corporate structure, which is perfectly willing to fold right-wing memes into their business model, which is show business, not reporting the news. The Republican meme/narrative of a "liberal media" (which is, as any sane person can see, the exact opposite what we really have in this country) has actually been successful outside the endemically infected red-state demographic, such that a "who knows? there may be something to it" response is widespread, even among people who can be reasoned with, and who, if reasoned with, will probably agree that the evidence shows that media bias in this country is the opposite of liberal.

Given the widespread shoulder-shrugging public agnosticism as to liberal media bias, the actual real-world American media, which is corporate and conservative, can get away with abdicating genuine reportage almost entirely, even those news outlets which at one time practiced real journalism, and has felt free to move completely to an entertainment (as in reality-show, or maybe horror-show) model of news presentation. The widely remarked upon pretense-of-fairness process, whereby a preposterous and inflammatory lie is put before the public in the first instance, and then the writer/pundit/talking-suit notes, in “fairness,” that "democrats disagree", shifts public opinion fairly successfully to the realm of the half-lie. This whole business is well known, but democrats lack an effective answer.

I don't know what the answer is either, but I worry it will involve the same fear and dysfunction that the Republicans find so effective--that Republican overreaching and incompetence will reach levels of scandal and public fright that the media apparatus will automatically incorporate it, as happened for a while, during Katrina. But that's a bad thing to hope for--that the only public-perception alternative to Republican mismanagement, war, torture, graft, financial ruin, and erosion of civil liberty, is that the wheels come completely off.

After Bush's "l'état, c'est moi" (which in Bush-speak would be "It's like this, y'see. I'm Commander in Chief, and that means I can do anything"), comes "après moi le déluge."

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