Critical Thinking Dies Meme

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I came across a fascinating poem, translated into English as “Slowly Dies.” There are numerous translations online, many by amateurs, but some very well crafted. It goes something like this (a portion from one translation):

Dies slowly he who transforms himself in slave of habit,
repeating every day the same itineraries,
who does not change brand,
does not risk to wear a new color and doesn’t talk to whom doesn’t know.
Dies slowly he who makes of television his guru.
Dies slowly he who avoids a passion,
who prefers black to white
and the dots on the “i” to a whirlpool of emotions,
just those ones that recover the gleam from the eyes,
smiles from the yawns,
hearts from the stumbling and feelings.
Dies slowly he who does not overthrow the table when is unhappy at work,
who does not risk the certain for the uncertain
to go toward that dream that is keeping him awake.

It’s a powerful, moving piece. However, the poem is not by Neruda, as is commonly and frequently claimed on the many sites where the poem appears. I became suspicious when I couldn’t find it in any of my collections of Neruda’s works (printed books). A little deeper surfing turned up that uncomfortable fact: it has nothing to do with Neruda.

In the past, I wrote about how quotations and poems have been mis-associated by people online who either were misinformed or were too lazy to actually look them up and confirm the source. Here’s my original piece on a mistaken Shakespearean quote and another post on a bad Thoreau quote. Sadly, these mistakes take on the patina of credibility.

This is now the Medeiros meme. A meme is, as you know, the self-propagating cultural equivalent of a virus, but rather than spreading its DNA, a meme spreads ideas, cultural practices, thoughts, symbols, ideals, aesthetics and icons of popular imagination. Like a virus, it can be good or bad. In this case, it’s bad because it’s wrong and contributes to our collective stupidity. It gives credit to the late Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda but it really belongs to the talented Brazilian, Martha Medeiros.

Poetry isn’t the big part of our cultural life that it was a couple of generations ago. How many people actually call themselves poets today? How many books of new poetry are published by mainstream publishers these days? Few, I think.

In the mid-1970s, I had the honour of working as a sales rep for Canadian publisher, McLelland & Stewart, in the heyday of Canadian poetry, when poets like Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Earle Birney, Irving Layton, Al Purdy, Susan Musgrave and others were still publishing and, more important, being read and bought. In fact, books of poetry were even bestsellers then – Rod McKuen’s books sold millions in the late 60s and early 70s (personally I thought his writing was thin and shallow, but apparently I was in the minority).

Did you know that a unique form of poetry – the viator poem – was actually invented in Canada, by poet Robert Skelton? Just one of those bits of trivia to amaze and amuse your friends. We have a quite a rich tradition of poetry in this country, although you’d be hard pressed to tell by browsing through most of the bigger bookstores. You’ll usually find the few shelves of poetry hidden somewhere near a back wall, sandwiched between teen-read vampire trash and comic books (oh, excuse me: graphic novels).

When did poetry slip from its height and become a fringe art instead of a mainstream one? There are poets and poetry sites online, and I’ve seen a minor revival of some forms like haiku (and some entertaining Twitter-based forms). But I’d suggest there are more sites dedicated to World of Warcraft or Call of Duty games than to poetry. There are certainly more sites dedicated to astrology, UFOs, angels and other claptrap than to poetry. That deserves a sprightly limerick in itself.

I’ve always enjoyed reading poetry. Among my books, I have a battered, well-read paperback collection of poems by Wallace Stevens I picked up in 1972. I also have books of poems by Li Po, Gary Snider, Leonard Cohen, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Allen Ginsburg, Baudelaire and other poets> Most I bought in the late 60s and early 70s, but a few in the 80s. I still like to pick up a collection and spend an hour or two in an easy chair reading poetry, savouring the words, the construction, the imagery. Poetry has the power to move me; like music, but in different ways.

As one of the various translations of this poem goes,

Slowly dies he who doesn’t travel, he who doesn’t read,
he who doesn’t listen to music…

to which I would add, “he who doesn’t read poetry…” In poetry there is magic, wonder, and imagination to be found it its swirling depths. But poetry itself is not the point of Medeiros’ poem: the point is rather that life is painted on a large canvas, something to be lived, not merely observed, not ignored or controlled by habit.

Let’s avoid death by small doses,
remembering always that being alive
requires a much larger effort
than the simple act of breathing.

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If you use Facebook, or Twitter, have a Wi-Fi connection, watch television or have been to an office Halloween party, you’ve probably encountered them: internet memes.

These shareable, sometimes pithy and often puerile units of culture have emerged as the lingua franca of the 2016 election, and have given the American people an entirely new way of articulating their beliefs. Clinton’s top tweet is a meme. Trump’s taco bowl became one. Through memes, Ted Cruz was “unmasked” as the Zodiac killer. Jeb Bush’s limp plea for applause got him Vined into oblivion. Bernie Sanders shared a moment with a bird that blossomed into something out of Walt Disney’s long-lost Marxist phase.

Memes can be fun, or they can be dumb – but as an emerging medium, they haven’t provoked a lot of debate or analysis. In fact, they seem to defy scrutiny.

And slowly, before anyone can even take note, memes are ruining democracy.

Memes – from the Greek for “that which is imitated” – were once defined as being self-replicating units of culture. This included anything that could be learned, remembered and spread from one brain to another, such as the concept of god all the way to the popular Budweiser “Wazzup” catchphrase.

Through the internet, the idea moved from the conceptual sphere into the viscous reality of data and pixels, transforming it into something more traceable: a segment of media that is copied rapidly. This includes images, text, video, a combination of all three and sometimes real-world actions.

Political memes have always existed. Recall Ronald Reagan’s Welfare Queen or Howard Dean’s euphoric howl. And of course, more recently, we had Yes We Can.

What’s novel here is an inversion of control – political memes are no longer rare flashes of uncensored personality or intensely manicured visual messages. They are now born from the swamps of the internet in real time, distributed from the bottom up. They have grown into a form of anarchic folk propaganda, ranging from tolerable epigrams to glittering hate-soaked image macros akin to a million little rogue Pravdas.

Like me, you probably have more than a few Facebook friends who make it their life’s work to circulate political memes in hopes of influencing how you see the world. They are our deadbeat uncles, former co-workers and long-forgotten high school acquaintances. They are agents of nowhere, apparatchiks of nothing in particular. And through the raw power of mass replication, even their most insipid ideas are able to surface from below. By typing some text on an image and sharing it with friends, they too have a voice capable of reaching a critical mass.

The reason why it is now possible for Darryl from Accounting who hates “social justice warriors” to have the same communicative power as a television network is down to the DNA of the medium: speed and lack of gatekeepers. Memes thrive on a lack of information – the faster you can grasp the point, the higher the chance it will spread.

They also favor extreme perspectives: a recent study from Texas University found that individuals who are socially isolated and more likely to be characterized as “on the fringe” have a greater chance at creating a successful meme.

In order to grasp why this is so significant, we need to go back to the last time we were making similarly grandiose proclamations about how the internet changed everything.

Picture yourself in the year 2010.

The possibility of the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series is as depressingly remote as ever. Barack Obama still has that new car smell and is being hailed as the first “internet president”. The world is awash in a fresh wave of tech-centric optimism and the Middle East’s Twitter revolts have yet to burn to a cinder.

It was a more innocent time, when Uber and AirBnB were still known as Ubercab and Airbed and Breakfast and neither had been blamed for homelessness, unemployment and the wholesale destruction of the working class yet.

I was a staff writer at Adbusters Magazine at the time – a radical, anti-consumerist magazine based out of Vancouver, British Columbia, that bills itself as the journal of the mental environment and got famous off their 1990s “subvertisements”.

The art director, a few graphic designers and myself would often spend long nights in the office drinking beer and churning out content to fill the spaces that would be traditionally used for advertisements. We created memes, but not just any memes – political ones meant to trigger paradigm shifts that would upend the prevailing logic of late capitalism, such as this one:

We called it “meme warfare”, a term that was originally coined by social change activist Andrew Boyd.

“Social movements cannot live by meme alone. Yet memes are clearly powerful –both analytically and operationally,” Boyd wrote in his essay Truth is a Virus: Meme warfare and the billionaires for Bush (or Gore). “A vital movement requires a hot and happening meme. Truth is a virus whose aim is to subvert the corporate mememachine with a sly guerrilla war of signs.”

Much of what we produced was mischievous, maybe even poignant, much of it verged on self-satire but most of it was strictly for the LOLs; in-jokes to keep the blood pumping through those long and sedentary pizza-filled production nights. But every once in a while, the Adbusters office turned out something that proved to be profoundly effective.

For instance, the black and white image of a ballerina gracefully perched atop the charging bull of Wall Street, while masked figures charged forward from the background. “Bring tent”, it read underneath, alongside the now famous hashtag that sparked the Occupy movement.

Back in 2010, the idea of using memes to political ends was still housed within a fairly slim leftist-activist corridor – it was a tool that seemed entirely of our own creation, and entirely under our control. We viewed memes as a vehicle through which activists could speak truth to power – they were molotov Jpegs to be thrown at corporate hegemony’s bulletproof limousine.

Never in our most ironic dreams did we the think that the spirit of our tired, lager-fueled pisstakes would end up leading to a resurgence of white nationalism and make the prospect of a fascist America faintly realistic.

But the internet is weird like that. It takes things and twists them.

At their most basic, meme warfare presented an opportunity for individuals to seize control of the means of media production from corporate interests. It was a viral and open-source medium that would allow individuals to compete for attention against the all-consuming hydra of advertising, marketing and public relations.

This line of thinking was, in retrospect, breathtakingly naive. It assumed that the act of meme generation by a non-corporate entity would be innately good. Like many instances of the tech-centric idealism, it would unravel in spectacular fashion. It’s not that anti-corporate activists were wrong about how the internet could be leveraged to change politics – it’s that they were terribly right.

There isn’t a straight, causal line connecting the Occupy movement and its many slogans with the neo-Nazi image macros that have been frogmarched out of 4chan to spread hate across the internet in support of Donald Trump. But they share some conceptual DNA. They are both indebted to Guy Debord and the Situationists, specifically the practice of détournement: hijacking expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself. They both also share a deep cynicism about the mainstream media. But this is where the similarities end.

When appropriated by the emerging alt-right, memes become a different weapon. They call it “meme magic” – a phenomenon which has helped vocalize and activate the more extreme wings of the Trump base and introduce white nationalism to a new generation of disaffected nerds. Meme magic is almost identical to meme warfare in that it attempts to use shareable images and ideas in an effort to engender real political change.

To date, their most effective memes have been those questioning Hillary Clinton’s health status. Google image search “Zombie Hillary” or “Hillary Short Circuit” and you’ll be treated to a series of imagery made up of equal parts blood and robotics.

As explained by Andrew Anglin, publisher of The Daily Stormer, a faux-contrarian neo-Nazi blog, meme magic “comprises not only an attempt, but a successful attempt, to formulate a new culture for ourselves, separate from the mainstream culture, which is largely the result of Jewish social imperialism”.

In a post-truth landscape where distrust of the media has gone mainstream, nickel-and-dime propagandists like Anglin are able to resonate with an audience because they trade in the allure of dark fantasies that appeal to alienated young white men.

When the activist left decried corporate control over media, its strongest arguments leaned heavy on well-plodded reasoning. Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent instantly comes to mind, in which he painstakingly examines the New York Times’ coverage of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor.

The alt-right, on the other hand, is far less interested in thoughtful critiques and far more concerned with control. This mirrors the classic left/right divide of analysis versus action. While the left is typically comfortable with endlessly analyzing what’s wrong with the reality, the right seeks to impose their own reality, currently existing reality be damned.

Traditionally, mass media have provided a protective membrane between the public and overly toxic ideas. The mass effect of this delivered a relatively standardized view of politics and world events. For a number of reasons – a decades-long lowering of journalistic standards, the deterministic effect of ratings and clicks, and the generalized paranoia created by the internet, to name a few – this membrane has broken down.

The recent #draftourdaughters meme provides an instructional example.

On 16 May of this year, Hillary Clinton voiced support for legislation that would require women to register for the draft. This was largely received as a rare instance a bipartisan support for a purely symbolic gesture, aimed at promoting gender equality in the military.

For a maverick like Ted Cruz, it was a chance for him to put on his daddy hat, lambasting the bill because it would “forcibly conscript young girls into combat”. To the paranoiac mind it fed into a conspiracy theory that the next world war is imminent. For the alt-right, it was a perfect opportunity to launch a “weapons-grade persuasion” campaign.

The result has been a series of widely shared fake campaign ads meant to promote the idea that Hillary wanted to send young women to their deaths in a war against Russia. The imagery had a distinctly feminist flavour, with slogans like “He died for his country. Now, it’s her turn” and “Men make up 97% of combat deaths. It’s time to end the combat gap.”

Those orchestrating the campaign instructed their followers to “Remind folks when they say it’s fake … It’s real”.

Perhaps this is all a just a garbage mirage brought about by this election cycle’s hate-bubble. But regardless of their long-term viability as a fringe pantomime, those meme creators are at the vanguard of a broad directional trend, and seem to be exploiting it with some measure of success.

Irrespective of your personal political leanings, for anyone who thinks sensible dialogue is a critical component to a functioning democracy, there is a large problem to solve here.

In his 1946 essay Politics and the English language, which scrutinized the connection between ideology and the proliferation of empty language, George Orwell said:

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

We face a similar challenge, albeit one that is punctuated with reaction gifs. If you look at the latest iOS keyboard update, complete with a massive repository of looping imagery, we can see how intimately memes have meshed with language, and how we face a far more daunting challenge than Orwell ever did.

The tools we use to communicate are becoming counterproductive to actual communication. It’s only getting easier to spread lies and respond with shrugs. The internet has become an endless theatre of virtual conflict, one in which we are all either willing or oblivious participants, and like it or not, it is on this battlefield that the nature of our reality will probably be decided.

There’s no clear answer to this dilemma save for one basic fact: those who value truth desperately need to find a way to make the truth more plausible.

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