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It's all memes

Frerico's picture

So David Atkins and Jonathan Chait drone on about how terrible beltway/insider/conventional wisdom is these days. (Duh!) And in doing so hit upon something that I thought was quite brilliant though probably an accident. They, of course, move on and ignore the significance of it. I wanted to bring it back up as it's part of the discussion of language we should be using when trying to engage the conventional wisdom and beltway tribalism that we face and the uphill battle against it. From the original article by Chait:

Gerald Seib has a column in today’s Wall Street Journal about how sad and disappointing it is that the two parties cannot come together and solve problems. (“What's lacking is an attitude among the capital's politicians that, while acknowledging they have different views, they must agree that they need to solve problems despite differences.”) That is the same point of a recent column by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, an editorial in The Economist, and vast swaths of commentary by the most respectable members of the mainstream media. It all runs together, day after day, an endless repetitive drone of elite sentiment.

The drone of right-thinking sentiment has certain distinct qualities. One is that it is, in almost the purest sense of the term, a meme — a way of looking at the world that individuals pass one to one another without a great deal of conscious thought, even though thoughtfulness, or the appearance of thoughtfulness, is one of the qualities the opinion imbues upon its proponents. They don’t engage with alternative analyses. They seem to have no idea that their own ideas even could be contested. They are merely performing the opinion journalism equivalent of wishing passersby a Merry Christmas.

Memes. Everything they say, is simply a meme of one kind or another. LOLCats. Honey Badgers. Koreans on imaginary horses. This is the quality of discussion we get from the beltway. It's not reasoned. It's not reasonable. 90% of the time it requires that we actively ignore reality for it to be "logically" acceptable. Chait (in a very soft way) calls the beltway insiders out for basically speaking only and always with memes. Bipartisanship is a meme, Tip and Ronnie is a meme, deficit reduction is a meme, Social Security/Medicare cuts (I will never use the word entitlements, and neither should you) are memes. And just like all memes, all of these discussions are by their nature unserious and distractions. Their use in policy conversations should be taken as a red flag that the person using it is at least uninformed and at worst, quite probably a fraud.

And when you hear someone using these memes you should treat them as though they were injecting LOLCats into the discussion. That is to say, they should be chastised for not doing any serious thinking and possibly derided for falling back on the meme. This is confrontational but necessary. At the end of Adkins piece where he quoted the above, he states specifically that the best way to handle all these meme issues was to simply ignore the pundits and the Sunday shows, etc. But letting them get away with these ideas is a MISTAKE.

Attempting to ignore sloppy thinking doesn't make it go away. Ignoring the calls for trickle-down economics didn't make it go away. Hell, the disasters that resulted from implementing trickle-down economics didn't make it go away. Calling people on the carpet for this lazy self-serving drivel is an important job that must be done. Corrente is one of the few places that does this regularly, but there's no reason why it can't be spread to the dinner tables and the diner counters as we move forward. Calling things out as memes is a very easy and powerful tool in those conversations and it should be encouraged everywhere we go. It's also an easy way to point out the intellectual fallacies of a person's argument without actually directly calling them stupid. Most people aren't stupid, but memes are by their nature hard to get rid of. Unless of course the person propagating the meme knows what they're doing, then only merciless derision will do.

So much of the elite beltway opinion, and as a result popular opinion, can be summarized as simply popular memes people are using to feel clever and smart and in control. But like all memes they have no real place in serious discussion. When someone says deficit reduction is what this country should be focusing on, point out that this is LOLCats. The country will hit the debt ceiling and run out of money. Honey badger don't care. And if you want to, it's really not hard to say reduce unemployment and you reduce the deficit. No spending cuts required. Also, we print our own money. We can't run out. Easy. We have to start taking back the conversation from these people. And calling people out when they use their memes would be a powerful tool to add to the arsenal that's both easy and effective.

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Submitted by lambert on

... but is it unavoidable?

Is "more and better memes" like "more and better Democrats"?

Frerico's picture
Submitted by Frerico on

Since memes are cultural in nature, I think there are safe ways to use them. The trick is when you end up using a meme as a means of discussing policy, then you've crossed over into unserious and poor thinking. As with most things in life, it's the over-use of something that makes it bad.

Of course our pundit class can't seem to do anything but think/speak in these terms which just goes to reinforce the worthlessness of that class.

techno's picture
Submitted by techno on

The Roman Hruska rule applies here. If there aren't stupid politicians and judges, then we really don't have a representative democracy.

And I'm not sure the blame is really Washington. We have utterly foolish people in academe like Glenn Reynolds or Lawrence Summers who bring their own brand of stupid to the public and poison the well with their screwed-up views of reality. I mean, if the leaders of the Ivy League are addicted to stupid, why should those in Washington—who SHOULD be able to rely on them for sound advice—be any wiser. After all, their business is to be popular and they do that by catching whatever current they deem strongest.

One other thing. Social Security was called an "entitlement" by its inventors. There is a REASON why even the rich get a social security check. But do your own historical research. Me, I will call SS and Medicare an entitlement. My mother knew Hubert Humphrey—we OWN the word entitlement and thoroughly object to folks like you ignoring its historical importance.

tom allen's picture
Submitted by tom allen on

Unlike us voters who (often foolishly) elect them, they take an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Further, given the immense amount of power they wield, they have a moral responsibility to wield it for the common good. When they break their oaths and misuse the public trust, they should rightfully be condemned.

We who elect them or advise them certainly deserve our share of blame as well -- we can and should resist evil or corrupt leaders. But that in no way excuses politicians who abuse their office. "If everyone's at fault, then no one is," is one of the oldest dodges around.

techno's picture
Submitted by techno on

Actually no. I am going on what I had to learn on the subject while at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota back in the early 1970s. The question for the final read, "Why do we call programs like Social Security and Medicare 'entitlement programs?'"

As someone who actually got to see HHH debate Medicare as the Majority Whip during a family trip to DC, I thought this question was a gimme.

Submitted by cg.eye on

Why does the sainted HHH consider Social Security and Medicare to be entitlements?

I shouldn't have to do my own historical research in order to understand what you, or HHH, mean. It's a question that, with your mastery of the facts at hand, should be easy to answer.

I should be more polite, but then again, so should you, sir.

Frerico's picture
Submitted by Frerico on

For myself personally, it's not about ignoring the historical importance of the word. It's about how it's used today. Today the word entitlement gets (perhaps unfairly) defined as something you get for nothing. That's not what Social Security and Medicare are. You pay taxes and you get benefits, or you pay money and you get a service. Just like every other capitalistic enterprise in existence. Even if the programs were originally described as entitlements, I think there are better words to use today instead. Especially since our ruling class is so keen on banging the word entitlement over our heads as though we really are getting something for nothing.

The word only helps them to muddy exactly what the programs are and do and as a result I won't use it to describe them. We pay for these services after all. If they want to cut them, they need to explain why our money is no longer any good, not tell me I'm getting something for nothing and I need to suck it up. No historical disrespect is intended.

Submitted by cg.eye on

This is the definition of terms that was considered too rudimentary to share... from Bruce Schneier's blog:

You have business-like politicians refer to the process as "branding". Specifically, how can you harm your opponent's brand?

Really though, it's largely due to the frequent use of "throw everything at the opponent and see what sticks." This just happened to stick the most often.

A prime example in U.S. politics is the discussion of entitlements. Entitlement as it was originally being used was simply the economic definition of "a service or good that a beneficiary has a legal right to." Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are all entitlements under that definition.

Those proficient in the lexical war have continuously (and for the most part successfully) changed public discourse of entitlements from its appropriate definition in relation to the aforementioned programs to one of self-entitlement. Anyone living in the U.S. who pays attention to politics would be hard pressed to disagree with this.

Submitted by cg.eye on

But this is the takeaway concept: lexical warfare -- something more encompassing than just what Luntz puts out -- the Overton Window for terminology:

"Lexical Warfare" is a phrase that I like to use for battles over how a term is to be understood. Our political discourse is full of such battles; it is pretty routine to find discussions of who gets to be called "Republican" (as opposed to RINO – Republican in Name Only), what "freedom" should mean, what legitimately gets to be called "rape" -- and the list goes on.

We can't take the meaning of words for granted -- nor should we fail to help those who want to understand what we mean, because words do change between political cohorts.