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Obama An Internet Meme?

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Joined: 20 Mar 2006
Posts: 1273
Location: Kent (East Hill), WA

PostPosted: Fri Sep 04, 2009 4:28 pm    Post subject: Obama An Internet Meme? Reply with quote

I recently read the most fascinating blog post from Graham Jones in which among other things he says...

In the end, the internet is creating a war between the people and their rulers. And that means, that eventually, the political elite will have to talk to us.

I then outlined a history of some world leaders who I thought were "made" by the then current dominant media:

Hitler would not be possible with the Internet, but was supremely possible and perhaps created by radio. Kennedy and Reagan would only be possible with TV.

Which then me along a McLuhanesque timeline to ask: Is Obama an Internet Meme?

That is, there is no conventional answer to his rise to power. Yet, he clearly took over and dominated the political electorate from his rise in the Senate to his current Presidency along with veto proof majority.

Why? How? At one point even he himself marveled at the phenomena when he responded to critics saying he was privileged, asked how a person named Barack Hussein Obama be considered to have an "advantage" in running for President!! But there is the scant record, relatively little experience and rather bland background that is more pertinent.

There really isn't much to Barack Obama...and that may have been his success as an Internet meme. First of all, I think most people's real exposure to the President was Text...the Text of the Internet. He was written about in blogs and news stories and that is what let him catch on. His name stands out. It's mellifluous, with enough vowels to make him Italian-American.

But there's more. Some have decried that Barack represented the Baggar Vance, the Magical Negro who would wash away all folks troubles through magic and wisdom. The thing is...some of that is close to the truth. With the economy in tatters, and unemployment rising, and a war still in progress...people were screaming...Get Us Out of Here! Enter Barack Obama.

What was his meme? I don't think it was Baggar Vance exactly. I think it was more that perfect mix of strength with caring that people wanted. A guy who would go to war if attacked, but only if attacked, coupled with a desire to right wrongs. Now is Barack Obama really that guy? I don't especially think so...but somehow, his name, plus the Baggar Vance image, plus the desire to have that "slot" filled in the American psyche, let the meme in.

Now a meme -- as advertisers know -- is not truth. A meme is like a block in a slot...a mental slot. Part of the meme is being the right shape, but a lot more having the hole in the first place. What I mean is, you can put a round peg in a square hole...if the peg has a small enough diameter. But you can't put a star shaped peg in a star shaped hole...if the hole isn't big enough.

So, I claim...I propound, that the rapid acceptance of Barack Obama, was due to the "carrier" of the text Internet coupled with a person of few negatives or positives in his history, but with a few characteristics that were enough to fill a very real...and needy...slot.

Last edited by jabailo on Wed Sep 09, 2009 11:52 am; edited 3 times in total
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PostPosted: Tue Sep 08, 2009 9:08 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I think your approach here could be very fruitful, though
perhaps not in the way you might anticipate.

The term that comes to mind is "suggestive". The field of
study it reminds me most of is Literary Criticism. If
Barack Obama is the key, then what must our lock be like?
Apply lock/key metaphor to all available reporting,
shake well, write 200 pages, and one's thesis might end
up being published.

I hope you won't misunderstand me. A fruitful suggestion can
be a very good thing.

I think it was the *strength* of your assertion that made me
question the nature of assertions of this kind. Is it "a meme",
"the meme", or "one of the key memes" explaining a phenomenon?
If I'm misquoting you, I hope you have some forbearance:
I'm trying to take your argument as fairly as I can, abstracting
a bit from it. I'm not trying to twist your words or trick you
into a blind alley.

When I realized that I couldn't think of any way to prove, or,
more importantly, disprove, your idea, I recognized that, for me,
it is probably not a scientific claim. When some scientists want
to criticize "string theory", they sometimes describe it as "worse
than wrong". By that, they mean that no practical ideas have
emerged by which to test the hypothesis. A hypothesis that
cannot be tested is not "scientific", by this standard.

I don't really believe you made any error in presenting your
case, just that when I was reading it, I realized that I wanted
more clarity in how I could evaluate arguments of this kind.
What standards do I need to use when deciding if I am persuaded?


I had a *somewhat* easier time making sense of your comments
regarding Obama himself, separated from the questions of his
status of being a "meme", internet or otherwise.

The essence of your question is "what has this guy got?"
It's not unfair to go from that question to asking "what is
it we want, such that what he has (whatever it is) is enough
for us?"

I'll skip past the usual suspects, sort of like what someone who
has been burned once too many times replying to personal
ads might write in their own ads: gainfully employed, good
looking, likes kids, HWP, etc.

And I'll gloss over some other factors, a distinct "brand name"
(as you note), relative youth, a smooth and confident speaking
style, a mixed-race background which makes him somewhat of
a novelty, and possibly some kind of milepost on the road to a
post-racial society (which you also seem to allude to), etc.

For myself, the quality that most struck me was clarity of mind and
expression. I've noticed that when I've heard him speaking for
several minutes at a time, that there is an analytic quality to
his words. It becomes clear to me that not only has this person
thought deeply about the issue, but that he has organized it
so thoroughly in his mind that he can express his thoughts in
an unusually clear and sensitive manner, almost like a system
analyst crossed with an empathic counselor. He wants us to
understand, in the clearest way possible. My sense is that this
is a central drive for him, possibly more important to him than
his drive to persuade us, or to give us handy sound bites.

At times he goes off track, lecturing us, or even pastoring, but
for the most part, and at his best, I find him defining his terms,
laying out his argument, without hiding its assumptions, educating
me and the public about topics that are murky or even painful.
This is, frankly, a remarkable skill.

That he can make so many speeches and answer so many
questions without giving out a lot of sound bite "gotcha" material
reveals calculation on his part, but only in "sound bite world"
could the fact that the leader of this country is "calculating"
be considered a negative. Especially since he isn't a woman!

I haven't always understood or agreed with his decisions,
but I don't always expect that, given that I am unwilling to
devote my life to study each and every area of policy, and
the forces that are in play in those different areas.
The fact that I recognize values and principles that I respect
in the course of his arguments gives me confidence.

In any case, perhaps this is the "hole" that President Obama
is filling, a clear thinker, who has thought deeply about
issues, and who can communicate complex ideas with clarity.
Despite the expected calculation, he seems at least as
interested in our understanding his ideas and understanding
of issues as he is at persuading us of the rightness of his position.

The other "meme" you suggest ("get me out of here") is also
very powerful and explanatory, I believe. You've defended
"W" on these pages before, and I don't necessarily wish to
trigger a repeat, but perhaps Obama is the "anti-Bush", meme-wise.
The American electorate is known to be driven by *reaction*.
It might be useful to consider in which ways, Obama's qualities
are the opposite or a reaction to "W"'s.


A disclaimer: I have not gone out of my way to read his speeches.
I hope very much that this dialogue will not become one of
you presenting counterexamples about Obama's clarity, etc.
If you insist on this, please put it under another topic.
If you want to go on about memes, and holes, and such,
this would be the right place.
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Location: Kent (East Hill), WA

PostPosted: Sat Sep 19, 2009 10:29 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

After ruminating on this for a while, I guess I would expand here. I recently commented that Obama works good in the small, and bad in the big. That when he approaches a very general, very large topic -- Health Care -- he suffers. But when he focuses on a very specific, and perhaps complex topic, such as the removal of ten missiles near Poland...he succeeds.

This convinces me further, that Obama is an Internet Text based President. His success is not driven by stadia level crowds, or John Kennedy type speeches...these are affectations that some of his supporters thought he should have, or do. Obama succeeds in communicating at the intellectual level...when he doesn't pander, but talks to people as if we're all at the same seminar at Princeton.

You contrast Bush, who has a wandering discursive style. Bush's approach was different, and he never gained the support of intellectuals that Obama has. However, when Bush entered office in 2000, we did not have the extensive "social networks" that were present at 2008. Bloggers were not superstars and people still bought newspapers. Television had not fully given way to Internet gaming as the primary use of people's entertainment hours.

Would Bush's style fit the Internet the way Obama's can? I think many Bush supporters, the "conservative bloggers" acted as that interface. Bush himself as a communicator, probably left too much to be defined by his detractors. In fact, to this day, his history has been written more by Michael Moore than by supporters, or even, a neutral academics. But it is yet too early for the latter.

On Obama, I would try and limit his "superstar" exposure as much as speeches don't play. However, delivering very detailed policy and fact-based communiques seem to work really well. The bloggers, pundits and opinionators get satisfied, and The People get the message about how smart the President is.
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