Lately, I’ve been thinking about memes a lot – not the silly “internet memes”, but the original idea that Richard Dawkins first proposed. Annoyingly, if you search on Google for “Richard Dawkins meme” the first result is actually image results of, yes, Dawkins’ photo with silly captions. Below that we do find the Wikipedia entry for Meme:
A meme… is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.
I’ve been thinking about this in the context of how people develop their ideas. For instance, few people I know wake up one day and decide that, although they are totally neutral on the subject, they would like to inform themselves about Marxism, read Das Capital, Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, and, I don’t know, maybe some later things like Marcuse or Zizeck, and maybe they read a few arguments against Marxism, Communism and Socialism and after about six months or a year of calm detached study, he or she decides to be a Marxist. Now, I know someone will almost certainly say, “But I did exactly that,” and I’m sure that’s true, especially if someone is assigned books in school when they didn’t really want to read them. However, when I think of friends I knew who became Marxists, mostly they didn’t do that. Their move towards Marxism went in fits and starts. First they have a sense that the world is unfair. They are bothered by poverty. The hear Patti Smith sing “The People Have the Power.” Maybe they watch “Metropolis” or read The Jungle. Ideas come in chunks, which is maybe why I’m relating it to memes. By the time they actually read any theory, they have already accepted some ideas without conscious examination.
This behavior has nothing to do with intelligence. One of the smartest woman I’ve known became an anarchist in this way. This was back in the days before the internet. Eventually, an anarchist newsletter started appearing on her coffee table and she started saying things that indicated that she had actually read at least Emma Goldman. She was so smart. I can’t even begin to describe it adequately. She certainly could have read heavy works. Still, she came to anarchism through punk rock and the East Village club scene. It is very possible that my dislike of anarchism comes from the fact that my very interesting, intelligent friend with whom I was once able to have long discussions in which we could disagree on a variety of things started to become filled with certainties and could brook no dissent. She wasn’t alone in this attitude, the new friends to whom she tried to introduce me were similarly certain and unable to discuss too many things for me to enjoy their company.
As I’ve mentioned many times, I grew up with a highly unfavorable opinion of the United States, despite having no real reason for that.
The other day I heard some Billy Joel. Now, I’m a not Billy Joel fan and it’s rare for me to listen to his records, but I was in junior high school when the albums 52nd Street and The Stranger came out. This was not the height of his fame or sales, but it was the height of his reputation. Just having finished bingeing on multiple listens of those two albums plus “Piano Man” I’m really struck by how influential Billy Joel was on my peers. He was one of us in a way that other performers were not. He was very frankly a lower-middle class kid. In “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” he sings, “From a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island, rode a boy with a six-pack in his hand.” Joel was born in the Bronx and grew up in Levittown, a planned suburban community comparable to the one I was living in on the other side of New York City, out in New Jersey. The brutal honesty of “Captain Jack” established a suburban equivalent of “street cred.” For me, personally, as a pre-teen, Captain Jack described a young adult or older teenager who was exactly what I didn’t want to be, an unhappy, dissatisfied person who, instead of trying to change his life, gets high. Now that I think about it, it might done more than all the well-intended anti-drug messages to keep me from over-indulging in drugs. The song evoked the barrenness of suburban life. In the first installment of my memories, I discussed a reexamination of that evaluation, but at the time, growing up in suburbia, I very much felt the dissatisfaction.
The song “My Life” from the album 52nd Street starts with the following lines:
Got a call from an old friend.
We used to be real close.
Said he couldn’t go on the American way.
Closed the shop, sold the house
Bought a ticket to the West Coast.
Now he gives them a stand-up routine in L.A.
When I listened to these lines, which I had heard hundreds of times before and sung along with nearly as many times, but suddenly sounded fresh because I hadn’t heard them in years, an unintended irony made me sit up. We all understood what Joel meant by “the American way,” although it might be hard to put your finger on it. At that time, it was expected that you would go to school, work hard, make a little money, probably not a ton, and spend that money on little suburban comforts, more than necessities but less than luxuries. A slightly nicer car. Slightly nicer clothes. A big teevee. A barbecue grill in the back. The friend in the song rejects this empty life and moves out to L.A. What, however, can be more American than doing a stand-up routine in L.A.? Americans had been railing against suburban conformity for almost as long as that middle class suburban life has existed, but it was the thing they were rebelling against, not the rebellion, that was seen as “American.”
A long time ago, I had a boyfriend from England who, upon arriving in the U.S., wanted to finally do what he saw as a stereotypically American thing that he had always fantasized about doing. He got a motorcycle and rode from New York out to California. It was only on arriving there and finding that all the Americans he met were vaguely amazed he had done that and thought it was outrageously “cool” that he realized that it wasn’t as typically American as he thought. Lots of things happen here. Some of them get dubbed “American” by Americans, some get dubbed “American” by outsiders, and some never get dubbed American by anyone at all.
A few weeks ago I wrote about Scott Alexander’s essay, “I Can Tolerate Anything but the Outgroup.” In it, he mentions the strange bit of “alchemy” that allows some people to appear to hate the social group to which they belong. In his essay, he explains that when people use certain words, one of which is “American,” they don’t always mean “American” in the most literally sense of the word, but a specific American subculture. Although the subculture Alexander has in mind is “guns, religion, barbecues, American football, NASCAR, cowboys, SUVs, unrestrained capitalism,” that is not the way the term was used when I was growing up. Back then, “American” signified the materialistic, suburban life the characters in Joel’s songs are rebelling against.
I don’t think Joel had any intention whatsoever of being anti-American, but when I heard that lyric more recently and it jumped out at me the way it did, I thought of it as one more drip in a constant drip, drip, drip of anti-American platitudes that was the background noise of my childhood. It is like one of Flaubert’s received ideas, only one that has remained generally unexamined. We are essentially brainwashed to hate ourselves.
When I try to find the origin of these assumptions, it can be very difficult because it’s rarely presented as a complete thought. It comes, instead, in off-hand remarks and associations that are secondary, or at least appear to be secondary, to the main subject under discussion.