We’ve killed our fair share of memes over the past couple of years. By killed, I mean “objected to for their inherent dishonesty and nefarious purposes to mislead.” That seems like a suitable, defensible description of the feature we unleash when we keep seeing a bogus message bandied about by friends and relatives through social media.
Memes, of course, have no definitional responsibility to obey the truth. Evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins coined the term in 1976’s The Selfish Gene as a way to explain, in units, how we replicate and spread ideas. That definition has since evolved into an online game of telephone.
With Meme-Killer, we like to draw attention to how the truth is distorted through our human proclivity to propagandize images to use our own biases to influence others. And, specifically, we try to figure out what that injected message means; what it is trying to tell its audiences to believe and what the motivation behind it might be.
Which brings us to this:
The fundamental question at the heart of my objection to this meme — at least from a tactical standpoint from a party seeking to break from the minority status they currently endure — is why?
But before why, let’s spend a moment on what. In this case, the term “traitor.”
“Traitor” in the American Political Tradition.
I have three general rules when it comes to partisan political messaging. Number one: don’t call someone a Nazi. Unless you’re really sure that person is a Nazi. Number two: Don’t call someone a whore. Even if they’re a whore. You can think it. Just don’t say it. And number three: don’t call someone a traitor. Not in politics. In politics, traitor means someone who has committed treason. The two terms are directly linked by a clear and very real Constitutional meaning laid out in Article III, Section 3:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.
In the Federalist Papers — the DVD commentary to the Constitution — Madison was even more blunt, pointing in Federalist #46 to Article III and linking the act of treason to those who perpetrate it (traitors) as those who would “uniformly and systematically pursue some fixed plan” leading to the dissolution of the nation, especially through use of the military against the people.
Calling someone a traitor, in politics, categorically calls into question someone’s patriotism. Just as goes with Nazis and whores — best have a really good supportive argument before calling someone a traitor.
Upon Friday’s release of the Holmes “Traitor” meme, many jumped to defend the term by its more common definition: someone who betrays someone else. But that’s not the full definition. Merriam-Webster, for instance, defines a traitor as “a person who is not loyal to his or her own country, friends, etc. : a person who betrays a country or group of people by helping or supporting an enemy.”
Others noted the use of the term in other areas; sports, for instance, in cases where an athlete joins a rival team. But Holmes isn’t an athlete. She’s a politician. Why would I look to apply the context of sports in the political arena? Furthermore, the line accompanying the “traitor” label in the meme is innately political: “Thus always to traitors” — also uniquely non-sports related. The term, “Sic Semper Proditoris” in Latin, dates back at least to Machiavelli’s The Prince, in an account of grisly executions at the hands of Cesare Borgia. “The double garrote; back to back… The Borgia style. Two men on a single strap; memorable and cheap.”
The term also bears a unique resemblance to words uttered by Brutus, after the assassination of Julius Caesar. “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” or, “thus always to tyrants.” That phrase was repeated by John Wilkes Booth, who wrote in his diary that he exclaimed it after assassinating Abraham Lincoln.
And now it returns in a meme about Alaska State Representative Lindsey Holmes, and no one is supposed to bat an eyelash, according to many party faithful.
But, again… Why?
The Emotional Appeal of “Traitor!”
The Democrats did not defeat Holmes, as the meme implies. A bitter recall attempt from voters left alienated after working to get her reelected as a Democrat failed in court back in December. She voluntarily decided not to run for reelection this year. She wasn’t ousted — though, that would be the assumed outcome, given the match up against Democratic candidate Matt Claman, a former West Anchorage assemblyman who also served as interim mayor when Mark Begich was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008. Since she won reelection in 2012, only to promptly change party affiliations after votes were cast, Holmes has faced sharp and unrelenting criticism (which often broke rule number two as well, forcing her to suspend comments on her own page). Remember, this is also a district still reeling from the perceived betrayal of current Assemblyman Ernie Hall, who introduced the anti-labor Ordinance 37 a day after the candidate filing deadline.
The “traitor” meme launched on Friday was an emotional response wielded by someone who felt betrayed, and both promulgated and defended by others who felt betrayed. But betrayal — though similar in definition as someone feeling that a trust was violated — does not necessarily include the political component of treason. I don’t think that connection was made by a lot of those defending the term, and its use.
The meme was shared and liked by people who felt betrayed by their hard work to get her reelected, only to see her change party affiliations and join a majority that voted through a lot of really bad legislation this past session. Compounded further by Hall’s recent activities in municipal politics. It was personal. Friday’s attack, in turn, was personal. Personal politics is rarely a pretty sight, but it should almost never be used as the voice representing the entire party. Scream it to yourself. Type it 20 times before thinking better and hitting delete.
And remember: words matter. Know the word being used fully before jumping to defend it.
And don’t lend that misunderstanding or willful neglect of a word the full weight and backing of an entire political organization seeking to make electoral headway in the midterms. Why did the notion of causing inner conflict seem like a good idea, and why is the meme still up — still being liked and shared?
“Traitor” as a Contagion.
Holmes is a non-issue, electorally speaking. She’s not running. She’s removed herself from the conversation. This is not true for dozens of other candidates running on the Democratic ticket, who now are susceptible to questions about the party’s chosen tactic of labeling party defectors as traitors. The Democratic Party, for some reason, decided to put her back in play by weaponizing her for their opponents’ use.
Forget Holmes. What if you’re Matt Claman, running to fill the now-vacant seat? What if Claman finds himself in a candidate forum, and someone bothers to ask if he thinks his predecessor is a traitor?
What should he say?
I’d imagine if he agrees with the use of the term, it will go a long way in rendering moot the populist rhetoric used effectively by Democrats recently claiming that the GOP uses malicious hyperbole to win cheap political fights. One might logically follow up: “Um, isn’t that what your party did by alleging that Holmes switching parties was tantamount to treason?”
If he says “No,” then the scores of Democrats who liked and shared the meme will be quite nonplussed, as they were when people like me objected.
If he fumbles around with a middling approach — “It isn’t a word I’d personally use, but I understand the frustration being expressed by her constituents.” — then West Anchorage mailboxes will be stuffed with literature branding him a “flip-flopper;” comparing him to well lubricated weather vane. And, pardon the slippery slope, but what stops people from asking any other Democratic candidate the same question, bearing the same results?
The consequence of poking a retiring party defector with an emotional stick could force candidates to risk losing support from large swaths of their own base, as well as further polarizing already historic ideological divides. One need only look at the comments left to figure that out. If the ultimate strategic goal is to win more seats to enact the right policies that Democratic politicians claim to support, how does this help? Give me one single example. Please.
The Limitations of Meme Killing.
No one that I know, short of internet service providers and solar flares, actually holds the power to kill a meme. Even though Democrats will likely wish they could. All we can do is try and shine a light at the reasons why a particular meme is presenting factually incorrect information, what the motivation behind it might be, and hopefully prevent a couple people from clicking “share” and living to regret it (or, even worse, never recognizing the error they’ve help proliferate).
As I discovered over the weekend, people sharing this meme are angry with Lindsey Holmes. That anger translates to a desire to share public statements of objection, such as the “Traitor” meme. And when challenged for its appropriateness, the hackles rise. But what they are defending isn’t the actual meme, or the irresponsible use of the word “traitor” as it relates to Lindsey Holmes. The defense is founded around their anger over her party defection. The venom is the result of a perceived betrayal of trust. And that is absolutely legitimate. I’m not here to defend the political choices Holmes made.
But the chosen vehicle was reckless, visceral, and irresponsible.
Leave Machiavelli, Brutus, and Booth out of it. Omit challenges to patriotism and allegations of treason. Balance the justifiable anger with a respect for history, and disdain for violent, dehumanizing rhetoric, especially when speaking on behalf of an entire political organization with a presumed “big tent.”