Call For Comments: Erasing Cultural Activism in 50 Easy Years

From Mav: I ran across an interesting meme on conservative (MAGA) social media the other day. It was a picture of Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the original Woodstock that was being used to complain about athletes kneeling in protest during the national anthem. The text of the meme is what really got my attention: “In 1969, when the Civil Rights Movement and a racist cop problem actually existed… Jimi Hendrix played the national anthem in front of more than 500,000 anti-establishment, “progressive”, liberal hippies. Not a single one of them protested or took a knee.” This was amazing; there’s so much to unpack. For starters, there’s the assertion that racism is over and civil rights is solved. Then there’s the problem of backhandedly making that post-racial suggestion by appropriating the image of one of the most famous black musicians of the last century. Both of those are kind of obvious issues that we’ve gotten into before and that aren’t all that surprising… and really, are basically on brand for the types of people who make these memes. But what’s really interesting to me is the way in which the mememaker, the meme reposter, and a bunch of commenters, COMPLETELY fail to understand that not only was Hendrix’s rendition a protest in and of itself… ALL OF WOODSTOCK was basically a protest.

I clicked through the meme to the original and read the comments (never read the comments, I do it so you don’t have to), and a lot of people are in this same boat. In 2020, apparently a lot of redneck MAGA types love that version of the song. There were TONS of idiots talking about how patriotic Hendrix was and how great things were in the good old days. Every once in a while someone would pop up and mention that Hendrix’s version was derided by conservatives of the day as he was very much making a mockery of the song only to be countered with a dozen “how do you know? Were you there?” Which was kinda great, because beyond just… you know, the fact that it’s easy to google interviews and newspaper responses from 1969 when it happened… despite the fact that you can literally just watch the performance on YouTube and see that people weren’t exactly standing at attention and saluting… despite the fact that you can see some people sitting, smoking weed, and literally fucking in the mud while stoned out of their minds during the performance… despite all of that… it was only 51 years ago… and yeah, a lot of people who were there are alive and on the Internet today. One anti-protest, anti-kneeling, MAGA type tried to get all post-structuralist and argue that meaning was determined by the individual and just because it might feel like a protest song to a liberal, that doesn’t mean it isn’t really patriotic and therefore means supporting the flag. I guess, partial credit for trying… but marked down for not understanding how irony works.

Obviously, this isn’t the first time someone has misunderstood a musical protest. Ronald Reagan tried to use Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In the USA” as a campaign song way back in 1984, until the Boss pointed out that clearly Reagan wasn’t actually paying attention to the lyrics because the song isn’t exactly as pro-America as maybe the Gipper thought it was. And then it happened again WITH THE SAME SONG with Bob Dole in 1996 and with Pat Buchanan in 2000. Clearly, none of them ever bothered to listen to the song and understand what it’s about. It’s almost like politicians are not very smart. In an even funnier version of this, in 1988, George H. W. Bush tried to use “Don’t Worry Be Happy” as his theme song, until the singer, Bobby McFerrin, publicly endorsed his opponent. So, Bush Sr. changed his theme song to “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie, who he presumedly just assumed wouldn’t complain because he’d been dead for over twenty years. Again, Bush clearly didn’t actually read or listen to the lyrics, or just didn’t care because the song is super critical of America. He also apparently either completely forgot or just straight up decided to ignore that Guthrie was not only liberal… he was pretty much a communist. I think politicians just love the idea a song that has “America” in the title. Seriously… at this point, I’m pretty much waiting for Mitch McConnell to Lindsay Graham to start campaigning to “Banned in the USA” by 2 Live Crew.

So, if politicians can’t even pay attention to the media they’re promoting, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that their fans can’t. But I think the reluctance is also indicative of something else: a misunderstanding of how cultural memes (that is to say the elements, artifacts, and ideas that spread throughout a culture… the actual sociological/anthropological definition of meme, not the way we use it on the internet) work in relationship to cultural movements and change. We’ve said before on the show that culture changes slowly… glacially slowly (at least usually). For some people, mostly those with money and power, it’s pretty easy to get an idea into the public consciousness. If you have enough money or political capital, you can basically just buy people’s attention. The government does this all of the time. If the president wants to be on TV (not just Trump, any president) he just decides he wants to be and people pay attention. The rest of us get attention by either generating a mob to amplify our voice (this is why protests, petitions and even riots work), or we encapsulate our idea in a meme — a piece of art — something provocative that makes people want to share it and think about what we have to say. This could be a painting, a song, or a book… or today, it can even be just a silly GIF that makes some sort of statement. If you want to criticize America, and make people talk about working class struggles, writing a catchy song is a good way to get them to do it. At least for a little while.

Think about the best internet memes. They often make some kind of clever point criticizing something about society, politics, or something about the world. Memes get shared as sort of a way for the person sharing it to associate themselves with the idea behind the meme… it’s sort of a “Why yes, I do think black lives matter!” or “hey, I think COVID is a hoax!” If the meme is clever enough, the poster gets a bunch of likes and maybe some people talking about whatever it is about for a day or two. And that type of engagement is important. It’s how we share ideas. One drawback is that eventually the aesthetics, humor, or cleverness of he meme can sort of eclipse the context. It just becomes a thing that people share for whatever reason and the why stops mattering. Really, do you remember the original meaning of the “Change My Mind” meme or the “Distracted Boyfriend” meme? Were they liberal? Conservative? Feminist? Anti-feminist? Does it even matter anymore? Both of those memes HAD very specific political messages at one point. But at this point I’ve seen them both appropriated by people at all points of the political spectrum. Does it matter if the original “Change My Mind” dude is a homophobic misogynist assclown if I’m using the image to say something else? Does it matter if the original “Distracted Boyfriend” was an exploration of fluid sexuality in a patriarchal world? If I toss my own caption on it and use it to talk about Game of Thrones vs The Witcher isn’t that what it’s about now? And if that’s true, isn’t that the same as Reagan using Springsteen? Why can’t the MAGA people just decide that Jimi Hendrix and the hippies at Woodstock were massively patriotic? Can they?

Maybe. Because non-internet memes work like that too. When something gets absorbed enough into the culture, a lot of it’s original context can be lost. This is what happened with people like Martin Luther King Jr. He’s so much a part of the American landscape of hero worship that it’s really easy to forget how much he was just generally HATED he was by the establishment 52 years ago when he was alive. King had a huge influence on American culture. A lot of his ideas have been adopted to some extent or another. But even more of them have NOT been and continue to be rejected. For starters, he was pretty much a democratic socialist. People know that he “had a dream” but they forget what most of the context of that dream was…. if they ever learned. Much of the context of what King was has faded (or been actively erased). And he’s the lucky one… most of his contemporary civil rights leaders are largely unknown to the general American populace… especially the white members. People know MLK, and Malcolm X, and because he just died John Lewis. But I wonder how many people even reading this can say who exactly Stokely Carmichael, Bayard Rustin, Bobby Seale, or Ella Baker even were. Today MLK is a meme without context. The voice of a man who said “capitalism has out lived its usefulness” is literally used in car commercials… despite the fact that the very MLK sermon they cut up for that commercial literally criticizes capitalism and specifically car commercials. In fact, he’s basically arguing that conspicuous consumption is BAD. But… that doesn’t feel good… it’s much easier to just pretend that MLK really really really wanted you to buy a new pickup truck.

So, if Dodge can decide that MLK really loved a good V8 engine, then why can’t they say Woodstock was about patriotism? That’s sort of the danger with popular absorption of the memes. Honestly, as racist as I might think a lot of MAGA types are, very few of them would advocate separate drinking fountains, moving blacks to the back of the bus, or turning firehoses on people that want desegregated schools. Some sure. But most of them aren’t thinking that anymore. That’s why THEY think they’re not racist. They can see the progress from the 1960s. They have internalized the enough anti 1960s racism memetic ideas along with most of our culture and that the the context behind the memetic artifacts is lost. But most of the racist people in the 1960s didn’t think they were being racist either. They were simply responding to the aesthetics of the memes. They didn’t like being challenged on the artifacts that they had come to fetishize. But, in 2020, Jimi Hendrix is no longer a kid butchering the national anthem as a mockery… he’s a classical rock genius. Rock and Roll. America’s music. And therefore he must have been some kind of Captain America style superhero. At least that’s the thought.

We’ve talked on past shows about hashtag activism and the ways in which the performative nature of protest can eclipse the actual meaning behind it. Does #BlackLivesMatter mean anything when breakfast cereal brands are tweeting it? Does Memorial Day have anything to do with veterans or is it a reason to have a mattress sale? That’s what I am worried about here. Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest did a lot to bring attention to #BlackLivesMatter. Kaep was creating a meme. He called attention to the movement by basically creating performance art before the game. The brilliance of it was that the people who hated him doing it were ultimately more responsible for spreading his message than he was. However, as the kneeling meme spread, the message changed. It became just as much a question of how to behave in relation to the flag and national anthem as it was about #BLM… eventually, arguably even more. Every time someone complained about disrespecting the flag, those of us who believed in the message had to defensively argue that that wasn’t what it’s about. I would argue that this is why the study of cultural history is important. To keep that cultural context alive, even while the meme spreads.

But now, as that message is starting to sink in with all but the most resistant of opponents, I worry that the context is getting MORE lost. We now live in a world where sports leagues ACTUALLY SUPPORT the right of the athletes to kneel. Which takes away the need to have the argument… and actually takes away some of the attention on the context. Do you know why we put our hands over our hearts to salute the flag? It’s because we used to do it by raising our hands outstretched towards it with the palms pointing down. We changed it in 1942 because … well, the Nazis did that too. So we came up with something else and eventually everyone just forgot that we used to do something different. Cultural change may be slow… but cultural memory is short. Without constant reminders, context can just fade away. I wonder, in 2066 will we just live in a world where kneeling is the respectable way people salute the flag? And yet police still routinely kill black people for… being black? I wonder… because honestly, in 2020… I think we’re almost there.

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