The left can’t meme. It’s never had to.
Charlottesville, Virginia. August 12, 2017.
The Unite the Right rally sees various militias, white nationalists, klansmen, and neo-Nazis marching in unison. The full range of the far right’s diversity is on display for all the world to see. “You will not replace us” and “blood and soil” along with other Nazi refrains are chanted during long marches by supporters and fans alike. There had been few rallies of this type and none of this size in decades. Public gatherings of these groups were virtually unheard of until they suddenly appeared in droves, unconcerned with national news coverage, and descended on Charlottesville. These numbers and their brazenness were unprecedented in modern times and much of the nation was horrified to see just how many supporters these ideologies had. To most, it was almost as though these members of the far right were birthed overnight or passed through some membrane from an alternate reality.
Far more likely, they were always there and you just didn’t know about them.
The far right went underground long ago. Pushed out of the mainstream media that is overwhelmingly run by leftists, the right as a whole lost most of its ideological territory save for a few bastions like Fox News. The agency did not become the most watched news station in the US because of its high standards of journalism or dedication to integrity. It has about half the country’s politically inclined watching it because there is no alternative if you find yourself wanting to watch news that affirms your opinions. That is to say, if you are an average person. If you find yourself on the left you can choose from a variety of channels to suit your specific tastes and just how far left you would care to go. But keep Fox News off and you generally will not hear much from that 50% fringe known as “the right.”
The situation is the same in academia where the majority of professors identify as left of center to one degree or another. Universities and colleges state openly that their intentions are to create activists, not solely educate, and there is no thought given toward so much as pretending to dole out a neutral political curriculum. This comes as no surprise given the climate on campuses across the country that see right leaning or conservative speakers shouted down, their talks threatened and, at times, the speakers themselves attacked. They are certainly not hotbeds of reasonable political discussion and left leaning speakers do not see a fraction of the intimidation or silencing tactics that are now commonplace and accepted by faculties nationwide. Key institutions and other bottlenecks are controlled almost exclusively by the left as society has seen a shift toward that brand of politics over the last few decades. In short, leftism is the uncontested rule of the day.
This is an understandable state of affairs, especially in an environment so steeped in all-pervasive political discourse. As people’s tastes change, so too does the society they inhabit. That has tangible effects on the institutions that run that society and the culture that flows through it. For the most part, that has not necessarily been a bad thing. The injection of leftism into the largely conservative politics of the past has created a better balance and introduced formally unheard of concepts like universal healthcare and acceptance of gays and lesbians without the devolution into the predictable and well documented miseries socialist nations share.
Looking over the crowd in Charlottesville, it was not a sea of old white men struggling to wield both their tiki torches and walkers in unison. These were not merely the racists of old as there were large numbers of young men in attendance. Their futures bleak and seemingly without any real sources of support. So they joined that underground. It is not often you see people in large groups chanting Nazi slogans and, contrary to popular belief, these adherents were not created by Donald Trump in 2016. They were always there. You just didn’t know about them.
After being thoroughly discredited and thrown out of every organization worthy of note, the far right did not simply vanish. It left our field of view but remained very much alive and well. (The plain old right in favour of lower taxes and smaller government without the flavouring of conspiracy theories and racism was an intentional casualty of this purge. To the point where many will erroneously state that there are no conservatives or right leaning people who are not racists through and through. This nonsense stands as a testament to the totality of the purge and the degree to which the left controls today’s institutions.) Mainstream adoption of high speed internet paired with a generation in turmoil created the perfect breeding ground for new recruits and the far right’s language changed. The longform manifestos still remain lost in an endless sea of opinion pieces and calls to action but short, encoded messages that could pass as the online time burners of any young person became the new vector to transmit the ideology.
Triple parentheses and merchants denote Jews, a reference to the idea that they wield immense wealth and influence. Dindus referred to blacks because they didn’t do or “dindu nothing,” a saying black people supposedly use when caught committing crimes. Pajeets are Indians, the ones who are stealing your jobs. The term comes from an image that insinuated Indians defecate in the streets en masse. An obscure frog drawing somehow became the mascot for it all.
So many images told the men who look very much like those at Charlottesville to “come home” because a better life awaited those who joined. This is merely scratching the surface — a few of the more well known examples — of the lexicon. This language changed and evolved regularly with no central governing authority, becoming unrecognizable to anyone who has not taken part in these discussions with regularity. You understand it because you are a part of it and becoming a part takes a very long time. In hateful environments like these, the average person arriving to ask a question or gain some insight will find themselves making a hasty exit, either because of the toxicity on display or the brutal hazing one initially receives. The lonely and lost young man with no alternatives may find the camaraderie among existing members appealing and is far more likely to put in the effort needed to join what promises a better future. This is why the far right’s underground, while perfectly accessible to anyone with an internet connection, is a sprawling labyrinth of inside jokes, coded images, and seemingly unintelligible conversation to the untrained eye. It is a strange amalgamation of irony, satire, humor, and ideology mixed in such a way that separating one from the rest is nearly impossible. This is why well meaning journalists have done so poorly in shedding light on this world that lies just below the surface of our own.
The far right may not have invented memes but it certainly perfected them. There was no other option when attempting to communicate to a broader audience while being constantly monitored on the platforms they were using to reach out. While it may have taken some time, the most egregious among them have been shuffled off every social media platform and consigned to third rate and unregulated hubs. That may be for the best, but we should keep in mind that these people festered and grew in the dark. Perhaps relegating them back to where their views can never be challenged or openly discredited may not be the wisest course of action. Considering Charlottesville and the upswing in support for white supremacist views, it has not been a winning strategy thus far.
Generally, a meme is a simple image with some minimal text overlaid that is used to deliver a message. These are about as old as the internet itself when jokes were sent in endless email chains between friends and families. Eventually they were commonplace and did not draw much attention. You saw one and laughed or did not quite get it and moved on. But an image can convey a great deal of information. More importantly, it can say specifically what you are trying to communicate without the bother that is a well thought out and reasonable argument. They are meant to be bite sized and the reader does not expect to see all angles nor are they inclined to research your tongue in cheek image that might just be a little more than meets the eye. Over the last decade they have been distilled to perfectly portioned little arguments with no one to argue against them. What are you going to do, argue with a joke?
Now those same images are essentially written in a language you do not understand and are shared in little corners of the internet that you did not know existed. The senders attempting to tighten their grip on the receivers, the largely disenfranchised and vulnerable young men who feel they have finally found a home. This takes place all day, every day, with a willing and growing audience that rightfully feels no one else is listening. Suddenly those young men have a group. A community, inside jokes, a place to share and confide in others who are feeling the same way. Suddenly they have exactly what they were searching for.
As they spend time in this new reality, they are slowly and gradually taught about the (((people))) who run the country. About the conspiracy to import millions of nonwhites to destroy their race. About the plot to disarm the country before the final dominoes fall so that there can be no retaliation. About the global schemes to use climate change as an all encompassing excuse to deny the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. About a stolen election. About what to do to stop it all.
When you are the mainstream there is no reason to hide your true intentions. You do not need to encode messages or subtly push your point. The far left still sees itself as distinct from the mainstream and has begun the process of creating its own underground. Yet they are unpracticed and well over a decade behind their ideological rivals, having enjoyed far more platforms because of their tangential connection to the mainstream. The standard, more common left speaks plainly and openly as those in control do. “The left can’t meme” is not so much an opinion as a plain statement of fact. One cannot be expected to excel without practice.
The racists of yesteryear learned their beliefs in the home. Many years spent around the dinner table discussing the white man’s status as an indentured slave to some and simultaneously responsible for the financing of others, both groups being undesirables. These views are still taught almost exclusively in the home. Only that home now includes yours. There is a direct line of constant communication between them and you but the teeth are straight and the syntax perfect. The racists of today are clean cut and educated and they have done an excellent job of finding new and innovative ways of influencing others. You have seen their work online and in passing, likely garnering a brief look of confusion or skipped without a second thought. Just another silly internet meme. It was theirs and it not only made perfect sense to their audience but it connected, built more trust and grew the movement a little bit further. You just didn’t know about them.
(After implying that each side has its merits, I realize that I have alienated virtually everyone who sees themselves as far anything. I am comfortable with this. I am further still comfortable with the average far leftist scoffing at the idea that the media or academia does not lean to his side because it does not go so far as to topple over. It does not change the fact that most of what you watch or pay to be educated by would back you long before it would ever consider a compliment lobbed toward the GOP. At this point, refusing to acknowledge the left bias in our media or schools is on par with denying man made climate change. Ed.)