Humans have a relentless tendency to treat individuals as microcosms for the world. If we can identify a certain individual who fits into a group, we generalize this individual and make him/her representative of the group or concept as a whole. When we speak about these concepts or groups, we are implicitly thinking of these fetishized individuals. Thus, the ‘philosopher’ becomes Plato; the ‘drug lord’ becomes Pablo Escobar; the ‘autocrat’ becomes Hitler. These people that stand as concrete symbols for entire ideas are what I call ‘fetishized individuals.’
There is a constant political battle for control over these fetishized individuals. If someone humanizes and normalizes Pablo Escobar, they successfully humanize and normalize the drug trade as a whole. They take control of the image of the drug trade – the vivid, personalized, and individual representation. Then, when someone thinks of the drug trade, they think of Pablo Escobar – the friend of the poor, the anti-corruption, anti-communist activist, the family man.
When another representation is introduced, it is considered in the context of the existing fetish. Thus, it is extremely difficult to argue that El Chapo is terrible to convince someone who has internalized a positive version of Pablo Escobar as the representation of drug lords. Any logical argument is subordinate to their personal ideology-based ‘experience’ of Escobar. Perhaps a poor man heard Escobar gave out money in the streets and built schools for the impoverished; this gives them an emotional attachment – a fetish in a non-sexual sense – to the narrative of Pablo Escobar.
Modern political conflicts have begun using fetishized individuals in more obvious ways than ever before. The most clear example of this is Hitler, for he is the most completely fetishized person in the world. For almost everyone with an elementary education, mentions of autocracy, fascism, dictatorship, and genocide generate immediate images of Hitler with arm raised. One cannot win the ideological battle of making autocracy acceptable until one has made Hitler acceptable.
The first ideological step of neo-Nazis, therefore, is making the fetish of Hitler positive. This can be done in a variety of ways. For example, the extreme right-wing and anti-semitic site Rense.com published a series of images of the ‘hidden’ Adolf Hitler. Using these images of him – holding children, walking in gardens, smiling – makes it much harder to imagine him other contexts. We find it conceptually difficult to unite the many disparate aspects of a person into a single unified identity. How could the same Hitler that ordered the Holocaust also kiss babies? Psychological research shows that cognitive dissonance like this causes tangible pain. The drive to eliminate the dissonance, then, leads some to fetishize Hitler in a wholly positive way.
The Netflix original Narcos powerfully represents our difficulty in categorizing individuals. You see Escobar in a variety of contexts – at home with his family, in drug labs, on a farm working, and at war. It becomes difficult to remember his horrific crimes when he is watching clouds with his young children. We can’t really conceptualize a ‘whole’ person – only the person we are seeing at the time. Uniting all the different Escobars into one unified individual is almost impossible. Ideologies take advantage of this inability to unify, and summarize individuals by a single aspect. For some, the need to resolve cognitive dissonance means forgetting Escobar’s crimes to enable a positive fetishization of his figure.
In the most recent presidential elections made fetishization a key aspect of political strategy. In 2008, Samuel Wurzelbacher asked Obama a simple question about small business tax policy – almost instantly making him a key symbol of the presidential election. He mentioned something about wanting to buy a plumbing company, and the McCain campaign leaped at the chance to relate to an ‘ordinary American.’ They coined his new name – Joe the Plumber – and repeatedly used him as an example in campaign rhetoric. McCain used the symbol of Joe the Plumber to show that Obama was ‘out of touch with the average Joe.’ It didn’t matter that Samuel wasn’t really a plumber and his name wasn’t really Joe. Throughout the campaign, writes Amarnath Amarasingam, “A fictional plumber’s false scenario dominated media discourse” (source).
In the modern election, it seems that the myth of the ordinary Joe has taken hold even more firmly. America has a need to believe in the normal citizen, a 9-5er who wants only find his dreams, stick to his moral standards, and support his family. And yes, this citizen is a he – we seem unable or unwilling to use a female figure as a symbol of American life.
Why do we feel a drive for the ordinary? After all, we are obsessing over the nonexistent. There is no ‘ordinary Joe.’ Every citizen has quirks, mistakes, sins, hidden lies, and extravagant dreams that prevent them from being ordinary. Joe can only exist as an idealized symbol, not a concrete individual. And yet the idea of the ordinary citizen is permanently entrenched in our minds. In some way, many people aspire to be average. This aspect of the psyche creates political battles over the ability to protect the ordinary individual, who stands as a metaphor for the whole American citizenry.
Thus, Ken Bone was created. He was a symbol of an ordinary person – appropriately but not excessively involved in politics, working the day job, dreaming small dreams, providing for the family. He was 2016’s version of 2008’s Joe the Plumber. He represented simple authenticity, the everyman – as his Twitter profile proclaims, he is merely an “average midwestern guy.”
He did not decide to become a meme. The media did not make him a meme; they merely capitalized on the attention once Ken Bone had already gone viral. He was not mass-produced by campaign offices and political propagandists. In an act of near-randomness, he was dubbed a meme by the distributed irrational network of sensation-seeking individuals we call the Internet. The random series of viral creations in 2016 revealed that memes are fundamentally uncontrollable. After Harambe, damn Daniel, Ted Cruz the zodiac killer, how could we be surprised that Ken Bone was crowned a meme?
Ken Bone could not even control what he himself symbolized. He attempted to control his own signifier by consistently exhorting people to vote and make their voices heard. But all his efforts, for the most part, failed. Ken Bone does not symbolize democratic participation. After all, memes are inherently dehumanizing. To become a meme, an image must be dissociated from its reality and turned into something else. In linguistics terms, it’s a sign whose signifier is malleable — the image’s meaning, thus, is created by those who share it. The meme itself has no power over its meaning.
This is the danger of living memes – they are tossed around by the whims of the Internet. And when these whims turn sour, the person suffers. Ken’s slightly quirky reddit history was revealed, and he was painted as a monster.
I expect this process to continue endlessly: an individual becomes a sign that stands as a placeholder for a piece of political ideology. The individual is the object of immense attention, and then is tossed out like discarded trash. We should be careful that our memes do not make us think this is what people truly are. And we should not be surprised when the myth of the ‘ordinary citizen’ is shattered by the reality of the individual’s life and being.