At Urban Dictionary, a user named Dankulous Memeulon plumbs the wisdom of the ancient truism that the political left tends to generate inept, insipid internet memes. He describes this phenomenon as “an absolute fact: Leftists and their shills CANNOT meme, and any attempt by them to do so ends up as either cringe-worthy and biased propaganda, or [as] cancerously inaccurate.” But Memeulon goes a step further and posits an explanation as to why this is true: “a possible cause […] is perhaps a leftist’s despicable attempts to stay politically correct, like all cucks, and thus they cannot, by their very nature, produce memes without fear of offending a minority who couldn’t care either way.”
“Leftists and their shills CANNOT meme…” – Dankulous Memeulon
I must confess that as a bald, cis-gendered, white, monogamous, conservative, heterosexual, Christian, male, English professor in his early 40s, I am too square to claim any expertise in creating dope-ass memes. But I do study them, along with the ongoing meme war that continues to intensify. Look no further than the WallStreetBets crowd over at Reddit, who have now learned how to burn hedge fund managers by pumping “meme stocks.”
Many scholars have demonstrated the academic relevance of meme culture to understanding how digital communication helped to bring right-wing populism to a new prominence in American politics. But the circulation of political memes (and their resulting formalization as a genre of public discourse) hints at why it is that as mainstream culture moves further left, the culture also grows more ossified, more staid, and more rigid in its demands that people conform to a particular set of puritanical expectations regarding political speech.
Distilled to its essential rhetorical function, the purpose of the political meme is to expand the range of topics that are eligible for public scrutiny. Generally, this is achieved through an imagistic, minimalist lampooning of our culture’s prevailing pieties and the supposedly unquestionable assumptions that undergird them. In short, the key pathos of meme culture is irreverence: a disrespectful attitude toward the things that polite society holds sacred. Understanding how irreverence has operated in modern American life, and how the objects of American reverence have recently changed, not only sharpens the contours of the political realignment that is unfolding, it also explains why the left exhibits such inferior skill when it comes to creating internet memes.
REVERENCE AND ITS OPPOSITE, AMERICAN-STYLE
We cannot properly comprehend irreverence without first defining reverence. To “revere” something is to adore it, to accord it great respect, and to subordinate the self before it. We know which things society holds sacred because we see people’s reverence for them. Historically speaking, it was divinity (of one sort or another) that has been most revered.
Traditionally, the objects of shared reverence for Americans have been associated with the founding principles of the nation.
Of course, different men revere different things. But democratic politics concerns the demos or the public at large, and the objects of shared reverence carry a special social power. Participating in collective rituals that signify this shared reverence is an important way by which individuals come to understand themselves as part of the polis, or the nation at large.
Traditionally, the objects of shared reverence for Americans have been associated with the founding principles of the nation. Generations have viewed the concepts of liberty, equality, and personal and political independence as sacred. The sacral character of democracy was reinforced by a shared reverence for God and the divine providence that was thought to be the condition of a healthy, growing nation. There have always been individuals who do not revere these ideas, but the dissent of a small minority did not undermine the larger shared experience of these things, and the sense that they were worthy of reverence.
As the material well-being of Americans grew and the twentieth century began, bohemianism became fashionable among aspiring elites. This trend invited people to adopt unconventional ways of living: the subversion of convention (whether moral, aesthetic, or political) was a means to signify one’s status as an intellectual elite, sufficiently sophisticated to see the arbitrariness of common values. A number of thinkers have observed how establishing one’s membership within the bohemian subculture depended, in part, on a critique of the status quo. A major part of bohemianism was disavowing and undermining the sacred character attributed to the objects of shared reverence. The poet Ezra Pound served as a prototype of the modern bohemian: an oddly-dressed aesthete and intellectual elitist, whose “free verse” was a rejection of long-held conventions for poetry (which was understood to be an art that was intimately intertwined with reverence). (Later in life, Pound’s participation in Italian fascism embodied an overt disavowal of the principles revered by American democracy.)
The 1920s and 1930s brought a new sympathy for socialism among American intellectuals, and, in the years after World War II, irreverence became increasingly associated with the political left. Generally speaking, conservatives are inclined to favor tradition and established convention, but the bohemian posturing of the left demanded an assault on convention, and irreverence was a major weapon in this attack.
Perhaps the gold standard of irreverence toward the conventions of American life is found in the writing of H.L. Mencken, who famously described our democracy as “the worship of jackals by jackasses.” Later, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, with its explicit references to sex, its cavalier attitude towards traditional religion, and its overtly Communist critique of American culture soared in popularity despite the fact that the book was banned by U.S. authorities. The Free Speech Movement, centered at Berkeley, was an overt defense of irreverent speech. Sexual, religious, artistic, and political irreverence was a favorite tool of the ‘60s counterculture as they pursued a re-invention of American life. (Note how the term “counterculture” itself implies an irreverence: to be opposed to the culture requires a rejection of its conventions.)
Irreverence is also the rhetorical engine of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which heaps frothing disdain on the sacred (and true) understanding of the nation’s birth.
[T]he bohemian tradition that aligns with modern leftism used irreverence precisely as a means to claim superiority over everyday, unremarkable, and uninformed people.
By then, irreverence had become more than a cultural habit among left-leaning elites; it had become a political strategy for leftists more broadly. A classic example of how irreverence is instrumentalized by activists on the left is detailed by the community organizer Saul Alinksy in his notorious book Rules for Radicals, written when he was fighting the unfair treatment of black laborers in Rochester, New York. In an effort to strike back at city elites, Alinsky orchestrated a “fart in.” As a means to bring the battle to the city elites, Alinsky coordinated 100 poor blacks to attend a high culture event in the city. Before the event, they consumed a “pre-show banquet” “consisting of nothing but huge portions of baked beans.”
Alinsky’s target? A performance of the Rochester Philharmonic at the Eastman Theater, the “cultural jewel” of the establishment. This venue and gesture were chosen precisely because it allowed for a double irreverence: the noise of the flatulence disrupted the sound of the orchestra, and the ensuing smell represented a rejection of the refined behavioral expectations one would expect of an audience at such a performance. Spoiling an evening of high culture for the wealthy established the fact that elites could not isolate themselves from the poor, incentivizing them (as employers and landlords) to agree to reforms in regard to labor and housing.
The association between leftism and irreverence continues to this day. Consider the example of the guy who has the sticker of a fish bearing the name “Darwin” consuming the fish symbol that represents Christianity. Irreverence is also the rhetorical engine of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which heaps frothing disdain on the sacred (and true) understanding of the nation’s birth. One might object that the Times is an elite institution and that they speak from a position of power. This is correct, but we must recall that the bohemian tradition that aligns with modern leftism used irreverence precisely as a means to claim superiority over everyday, unremarkable, and uninformed people.
For its part, twentieth-century conservatism defined itself by opposing the irreverence that the left flung at things widely held as sacred. After all, it would be difficult to imagine a conservatism that does not hinge upon conserving the hallowed status of the Founding, of Judeo-Christian morality, of classical liberalism, of the family, and of traditional social conventions. The rejection of irreverence animated McCarthyism: the Communists were recognized as a danger precisely because their critique of the American order refused to recognize tradition and convention as sacred. The urge to affirm tradition and convention—to ensure the proper reverence of the things held sacred by Americans—also explains the visceral reaction of many on the right to Obama’s 2008 promise to “fundamentally transform” the nation.
THE EMPTY IRREVERENCE OF THE NEW POWER ELITE
Readers may be tempted to think of “irreverence” simply as mockery, or an attempt to direct laughter toward something that another holds dear. As one of the foremost contemporary theorists of laughter, F.H. Buckley explains that power dynamics are always in play with mockery: “laughter communicates a clear superiority, and that the butt [of the joke] is indeed inferior.” Irreverence cannot be understood as synonymous with jesting or mockery, but the power dynamics that Buckley references are essential to understanding irreverence. Refusing to revere something that is purportedly sacred is a way to assert that the thing held sacred is not worthy of that status. Irreverence works to bring the elevated thing down a peg or two. While irreverence may direct laughter at the sacred through jest, there are other ways to be irreverent: polemics, feigned ignorance, and more.
[T]he list of sacred things, those worthy of shared reverence and collective rituals—is thoroughly revised.
Over the last two decades the political left has consolidated their control over virtually all the institutional powers of American society (academia and the schools, the media, the corporate world, the government, and the courts). As a result, a radical shift has occurred in what is collectively recognized as sacred, and political irreverence has taken on a much different dynamic. For the bulk of modern American history, irreverence came naturally to the political left because they opposed the default conservatism of mainstream American life. But today, the things held sacred by the left are the things that are revered by mainstream America—or, at the very least, those things are represented as the rightful objects of reverence by the culture at large.
The old things that commanded widespread reverence are no longer revered by the most powerful institutions in the nation. Many private citizens follow the lead of these institutions (especially the educated elite and those who aspire to membership in their ranks). Thus, the list of sacred things, those worthy of shared reverence and collective rituals—is thoroughly revised.
For instance, today, the expression of individual difference is a hallowed concept: whether in the form of race, sex, ethnicity, a novel sexual orientation, or single motherhood, signifying one’s minoritarian or aggrieved identity approaches the level of a sacrament. This can be seen in the new insistence on the capitalization of “black” as a racial category, or the increasing fanfare accorded to Pride Month in government and the corporate world. Also sacred is personal autonomy, the idea that self is sovereign, and that one’s choices should not be constrained or determined by any external authority or convention. This means that traditional Christian ethics are no longer publicly revered because they impose intolerable limitations on personal behavior. The sanctity of marriage has fallen by the wayside for the same reason; “‘til death do we part” is a commitment that does not allow for the prospect that one partner may discover a new lover (or may eventually be happier without one). Sexual expression, too, is revered in its own right, and the rituals that accompany these newly sanctified concepts have also changed—like the public hand-wringing over pronoun declarations.
If you want a primer on the new objects of collective reverence, simply tune in to any of the late-night talk shows, whether hosted by Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, or Seth Meyers. Saturday Night Live is also instructive. Watch and listen to what is accorded reverence and what is deprived of it. You will quickly see that the targets of irreverence are the same old punching bags of the bohemian left: religious faith, traditional views of gender and sexuality, rural life, older folks, white people, men, and conservative thinking in general.
The most powerful people in a given society typically dictate what will be held in shared reverence.
The problem is this: most of this irreverence is directed at things that are no longer revered by the powerful, things that are no longer held sacred. In other words, the cultural left attempts to deny the sacred status of things that are no longer held sacred by the elites of our society. Of course, the minority who have not yet abandoned the old objects of reverence have long since turned off Seth Meyers. What remains are the patricians speaking to their plebian sycophants, aping edginess by denying reverence to things that everyone knows you aren’t supposed to revere anymore.
The most powerful people in a given society typically dictate what will be held in shared reverence. Because irreverence is a refusal to participate in the rituals that honor those things, its effectiveness lies in the risk it entails. The overt rejection of the things that the elite demand us to revere does not merely call into question the status of those things as sacred; it calls into question the elites’ cultural power itself.
The American left has recently (and decisively) wrested cultural and institutional power from the center-right coalition that had unified the nation for most of the past century. Thus, although irreverence has long played a central role in defining the political identity of the left, their late attempts at irreverence fall flat because they lack self-awareness. For example, how, exactly, does stating that “there are only two genders” indicate that one is a “piece of shit?” Even worse, what kind of sad leftist would make a terrible meme that allegedly refutes the idea that the left can’t meme, thereby affirming that obvious truth?
Irreverence works best when it punches up, whereas (culturally speaking) the left is now punching down. Because they now dictate what society will hold sacred, their “irreverence” feels like a nostalgia for a lost past where it was possible (and risky) for them to “speak truth to power.” This nostalgia is pitiful because it betrays the fact the left has either not yet fully come to grips with their cultural victory or that they are not confident it will last. They just don’t get it. You can’t occupy the seat of power and fashion yourself a rebel, waxing intrepid while raining risk-free blows on an army of straw men. And when you try, you’re only inviting mockery. The last thing we need right now is more shitty memes.