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Trust No Meme

Human political memes are cute, until they aren’t

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ken Bone was the man with the colorful sweater, good name, and even better attitude about whom people tweeted as a pleasant change of pace from the dead gorilla. At first, we liked him, but then it was time to find out what was wrong with him. That’s how it works, and this time, it’s a spicy meatball: He openly admitted to a felony insurance scam and said the Trayvon Martin shooting was justified. Oh, and he called pregnant women “beautiful human submarines” on a forum called “PreggoPorn.” Bye, Ken.

The Meme Outrage Cycle has accelerated to a discombobulating speed. It took less than 24 hours for the Great UnBonering to hit. “Actually, Ken Bone Is Bad,” Gizmodo wrote, just one day in. “Ken Bone is actually kind of an awful guy,” the New York Post added. (The Post story is one of the first Google results for “Ken Bone.”) The New York Times chimed in on Friday with “We May Be Leaving the Ken Bone Zone.” Now, backlash to the backlash is already in effect. “Please, Internet, Don’t Ruin Ken Bone,” GQ whined.

Bone’s newfound notoriety is contingent on his status as the meme of the week. He will get kicked and dissected a bit more, perhaps, but his fame will quickly fade and he will live out the rest of his life in the strange obscurity of a human trivia answer, marooned alongside Chewbacca Mom, Antoine Dodson, Left Shark, Ermegherd, and Joe the Plumber. Ken Bone is just a new version of Joe the Plumber; he’s gonna be OK. He might lose whatever his weird endorsement deal with Uber was, but he’s fine.

The notable thing about this iteration of the Meme Outrage Cycle was its velocity (and also the phrase “beautiful human submarines,” which is extremely funny). Everything else has been familiar and boring. Meanwhile, Bone is not the only human political meme that dissolved this week: A beloved female empowerment meme was declared “not your liberal cartoon superhero after all” by The Washington Post.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissents are withering, ferocious, and occasionally exactly what self-identified political progressives want to read. And lo: Ginsburg became a meme. Her notoriety, obviously, is not contingent on memedom, as she has been a consequential legal figure for many years. She has almost nothing at all in common with Ken Bone, but they both have pages on Know Your Meme.

A Tumblr celebrating Ginsburg called “Notorious RBG” became an Urban Outfitters book section clearance-bin score called “Notorious RBG.” People loved it! Amy Schumer wore a Notorious RBG shirt. The New Republic praised the Notorious RBG as a “revolutionary celebration.” The little Jewish dame was worshiped in a digital hyperdulia as a “badass” slinger of “truth bombs.”

Unfortunately, this increased cultural attention to a rigorous legal mind seems to have accomplished more for the benefit of novelty T-shirt Etsy shops than much else, and the pedestal onto which Ginsburg has been awkwardly jerry-rigged holds a living human to the standards of a static legend.

Ginsburg’s meme status has been less volatile than Bone’s, but what goes viral must blah blah blah, and this week, Ginsburg criticized San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s approach to political protest, calling his refusal to stand during the national anthem both “stupid” and “dumb.” The criticism short-circuited the narrative of the Ginsburg meme, in which the diminutive judge not only holds but literally embodies a set of progressive ideals. (She later walked back these remarks, but the damage to the — ugh — brand was done.) The Notorious no longer fit the Narrative.

While it initially seemed heartening that an elderly female member of the judicial branch could arrive at such a preciously regarded cultural celebrity, I suspect “Notorious RBG” will be nothing more than a questionable footnote on Ginsburg’s legacy: “Remember that time we bowdlerized the lengthy career of a brilliant human into a cutesy feel-good rap joke?”

Just as the image of the sweet, huggable Ken Bone didn’t jibe with the creepy gravidity-fetishist Redditor, the iconography of Notorious RBG never did accurately align with the actual RBG; as Slate noted, Justice Sonia Sotomayor is far more ideologically aligned with contemporary progressive politics than Ginsburg, and Ginsburg simply isn’t a radical, plugged-in firebrand. “Her burgeoning reputation as a boat-rocker or even an iconoclast is exaggerated. She idolizes an older era of civil rights heroes, who effected change through orderly marches, carefully calculated lobbying, and brilliant legal strategizing,” Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern explained, correctly. While Ginsburg is certainly on the progressive side of the court, she is a decorous and willing participant in a traditional system of government, not a gives-no-fucks crusader. Yet people bought into an inaccurate, complexity-flattening iconography without questioning its merit.

The dissolution of the RBG meme is also notable for the speed at which it happened — unlike the quick Ken Bone cycle, “Notorious RBG” lasted years before it became apparent that it was a flimsy fiction. The slowness of this puncturing is more concerning than the internet’s quick turn on Ken Bone. “Ken Bone” was a cute meme and Ken Bone is a weird dude, and the tension between the two was ferreted out in record time. The problem in turning to human political memes for relief or encouragement is that the people behind the internet moments are complex, not simple cartoons.

At least, most of the time. That same sort of untangling and deflating hasn’t effectively happened for a more pernicious human political meme — to be specific, the corporeal right-wing meme who is running for president.

Donald Trump is both an enormously prolific generator of memes and a meme himself. He was underestimated during the primaries precisely for this reason. Like the best memes, The Donald is profoundly devoid of nuance and resistant to explanation. He’s more durable than “Ken Bone,” because no matter how many twisted and socially unacceptable statements he puts into the public sphere, the central tension between the man and his viral moment has not yet been fatally punctured. Members of the press have searched for Trump’s own preggo-porn moment, and despite all the things that should’ve been that moment, the things that should have made people feel about Trump as they suddenly feel about Ken Bone, that hasn’t happened. This is because there is no similar friction between Trump the man and Trump the meme. He says politicians are liars, and he is a politician, and he is a liar. He says women are pigs, and then treats them like subhumans. His meme is pompous, brazen quackery, and his appeal is the idea that a wealthy white man does not have to be respectful. Unlike Bone, he was never helped by huggability — like the longer-lasting “Notorious RBG,” the secret to at least part of his longevity is that he’s a beneficiary and member of the ruling class, embraced as a celebrity renegade. And perhaps this is the secret to being a lasting human political meme: Put it all on the surface, and no one can ever discover you.