Attack of the memes

John Leo

2/20/2006 12:05:00 AM - John Leo

Mickey Kaus at Kausfiles.com says that the gay-cowboy movie Brokeback Mountain has the same marketing strategy as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Both, he says, have been hyped as blue-state movies that are reaching and changing minds in the cities of red America.  He calls this the "Heartland Breakout Meme”. ("Meme" refers to a cultural copying unit that hops from brain to brain without much thought or any at all). What Kaus means is that the mainstream media keep reinforcing ideas liberals want to believe, whether they are true or not. But the alleged breakout of Fahrenheit appears to be myth, as Byron York shows by revealing some confidential movie-industry data in his new book, The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy.

Kaus thinks preliminary box office numbers indicate that Brokeback isn't reaching red America either. His point is that liberals delude themselves into overconfidence and harm the Democratic Party by projecting a false view of political reality.  He writes: "If you think the visceral straight male reaction against male homosexual sex has effectively disappeared...you won't spend a lot of time trying to figure out the possible deep-seated, even innate, sources of resistance to liberalization... At worst, you'll pass them off as sheer redneck bigotry-a proven way to lose the red states for good".

A version of the “Heartland Breakout Meme” appeared when Bill Clinton, under pressure from the gay lobby, agreed to accept declared homosexuals into the armed services. The polls were mixed, and if read carefully, showed that much resistance seemed strong. But liberals thought it would be a low-cost initiative for Clinton.  A few howls from the right and it would all be over. Liberals were stunned when the resistance inflicted considerable political damage on the new presidency and resulted in a policy that none had even imagined-don't-ask-don't-tell.

A related meme is that marriage is a civil right that a just society must extend to gays. "Equality in marriage" reinforces the liberal belief that an entitlement is being arbitrarily withheld from an aggrieved group; again stoking the feeling that anyone who disagrees is a redneck. But societies around the world-maybe all of them-- have disagreed with this allegedly obvious idea for thousands of years because they never concluded that an arrangement built on same-sex love qualifies as a real marriage. Polls show that tolerance and respect for gays are climbing much more rapidly than approval of gay marriage, indicating for a considerable number of Americans, the major sticking point is not bigotry, but a liberal-conservative difference on the meaning of marriage.

"Samuel Alito is out of the mainstream" was one the strangest of recent liberal memes, relentlessly spread by the media, all with little effect.  As U.C.L.A. law professor Eugene Volokh wrote, Alito's views "are majority views, by a wide margin". Legal columnist Stuart Taylor Jr., a centrist and no fan of President Bush, called attention to the large role of reporters in spreading the meme. He showed in some detail that "systematic slanting, conscious or unconscious " in many mainstream press reports "helped fuel a disingenuous campaign by liberal groups and senators to caricature Alito as a conservative ideologue”.

Even worse was the "racist response to Katrina" meme. Mostly this was aimed at George Bush, who botched the crisis badly, though not on any racial basis. The idea was to peel away growing Republican support among blacks by playing the race card. It worked. The rapid spread of the meme was the reason why a bland one-liner by entertainer Kanye West-- "George Bush doesn't care about black people"-- unexpectedly became a famous quote. And there was a broader campaign to indict whites in general, who were busy sending in most of the  $1 billion in voluntary contributions to Katrina victims, for failing to care about the suffering of New Orleans blacks.

This meme was wildly promoted by the mainstream media, but ultimately it failed, as Democratic pollster Celinda Lake made clear in a recent speech. She said, "It is certainly true that people very quickly got off any analysis that...the patterns of Katrina were due to race”. One reason was that people were pointing to New Orlean's corruption and the city's incompetent black mayor as explanations for much of the post-Katrina mess. Another factor was that the power structure in this black-run city signed off on an explicit arrangement to abandon 100,000 poor residents in case of disaster. That was the city's plan and it worked. No wonder the racism meme faded. “Far from Katrina promoting very much," Lake said, "if anything Katrina is backfiring a little bit". That happens now and then to memes that the public can figure out aren't true.