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“Ask Not What Your Country Blah Blah Blah,” and Other Ridiculous Memes

Gary Corseri: Once you start thinking about memes, it’s like having cataracts removed—colors emerge more vividly; you start seeing patterns in carpets, in wallpaper. It’s like suddenly seeing Snooky’s face for the first time on HDTV!

John F Kennedy and Ted Sorenson

John F Kennedy and Ted Sorenson

"Truly men hate the truth; they'd liefer
Meet a tiger on the road."
--Robinson Jeffers

What it’s not

First, let’s clarify: a “meme” (rhymes with “scream”) is not what Sarah Palin says when she goes on a family outing with her daughter; as in, “Meme Bristol’s gonna shoot up some mooses.”

Even in herspeak, that don’t get it.

What it is

According to Wikipedia, “A meme, a relatively newly-coined term, identifies ideas or beliefs that are transmitted from one person or group of people to another.”

Except that it’s more than that: more like a transplanting than a transmission; more like an entire constellation of ideas and sentiments flowing from person(s) to person(s); a packet of info from mind/heart to mind/heart or group mind to mind(s). And these ideas and sentiments are but feebly scrutinized, and, generally, not even realized to have been absorbed between organisms. Like a simple computer virus that can crash a system.

A little more from Wikipedia: “A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices [and , of course, values!—GC], which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. … Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.”

Americans love memes—whether they know it or not. Memes shortcut and short-circuit real thinking and analysis, and give the opinionated something to opine about. Herewith follows some especially noxious specimens.

1. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

I was 14, watching JFK’s inauguration on the 13” black and white TV my parents kept in the kitchen when I first heard those ringing words. And… they resonated. There was this movie-star-handsome president (!), with great hair, eloquently delivering a message to unite the country in a noble mission: to bring justice, freedom and democracy to the nation… and the world. “To meet any challenge.”

But… fifty years later, hearing the words repeated incessantly by every 2-bit MSM newscaster, hearing the dissections and bifurcations and vivisections, all I can say is “Bullsh*t!”

Kennedy himself, I’ll give a pass. It was the height of the Cold War, and he was a young, untested leader. And, a Democrat, taking on the mantle of respected—if not loved—Dwight Eisenhower. We were locked in what Kennedy described as a “twilight struggle” between “freedom” and “tyranny,” between “democracy” and “Communism.”

Kennedy was spewing one meme after another—or Ted Sorenson was… or both of them—and its doubtful that he—or they—ever realized the extent of their misdirection.

For the goal of a meme is to inspire… not to educate or enlighten. The goal is to cloud and mystify, not to clarify.

So, half a century later, it is clear: We not only must ask what our country can do for us, we should, in fact, demand to know! That is the essence of what Rousseau called the social contract. I shall give up a portion of my earnings, I shall pay my taxes, I may even go, or send my children or grandchildren, to war to defend my country. But… I can never surrender my right to interrogate my “leaders.” As an adult, I recognize my obligation to be informed and to hold my “leaders”—political, economic, social and cultural—accountable for their expressed ideals.

In recent years, we have witnessed the debacle of our economic system when too many “asked not” what their country, or Wall Street bandits, or mortgage lenders, or Savings and Loans, or commercial banks, or hedge funds—were really up to. “We the people” complacently sat on our asses and let our “betters” run the show. It was a “really good shew,” in Ed Sullivan’s words, but it ended the way it had to end when intellect takes a hike on a prolonged sugar spike. “Asking not” sowed the wind… and now we reap the whirlwind. … And that’s no fatuous meme!

2. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Jefferson gets credit for the phraseology, but the ideas had been kicking around for a while, notably among John Locke and the Scottish philosophers. Since the European Enlightenment, the ethicists, the moral philosophers, had struggled to define “natural rights,” what we generally call “human rights” now. For most of those philosophers, including T.J., the real struggle was to define “property rights.” The rebels of 1776 postponed those splitting-hairs discussions for the Constitutional Convention—and the much more pragmatic and legalistic document that came out of it. No need to rupture the nascent union over questions about how to consider slave property; would that represent 60% of a human or 59 and a half? Better to go with the catch-all phrase and let the rabble read into it.

Problem is, we’ve been reading into the “pursuit of happiness” ever since, and generally making a botch of it. Whose happiness? How is happiness defined and achieved? For too much of America’s history, happiness has been synonymous with prosperity. As long as enough people were sufficiently prosperous, the general welfare was secure.

The equation of happiness and prosperity tips the scales of a just and admirable life with fools’ gold. It redounds in the sort of confused delirium that ends with a mania for tulip bulbs or sub-prime mortgages.

All the great teachers have warned us against the seductions of “happiness.” “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” Christ taught. And, “Lay not up worldly riches.” Buddha’s final words were: “Be a lamp unto yourself.” Not, as the modern gurus would have it, “Be happy!” Kung-fu-tzu advised a responsible life, meeting one’s obligations to family, to the State, to friends, peers, subordinates. Laotze cherished balance. A few hundred years before the Nazarene, Rabbi Hillel expressed the Golden Rule in the more easily followed non-affirmative: “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.” And the gadfly of Athens said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

I recall an essay—it was either by Emerson or Tolstoy, I was reading them both at about the same time: the author took a spontaneous walk through the woods on a moonlit night. He came to a clearing, looked up, and was suddenly overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of it all—the gentle breeze, the shimmering stars blinking through passing clouds, moonlight and rustling leaves, and a fragrance of wildflowers. And he was transported with a sense of peace, contentment, joy—happiness. The next night, the moon was about as full and the weather the same, and he went out along the path, came to the same clearing, looked up—and felt nothing.

The lesson is clear. Happiness is a by-product of a life well-lived. A life filled with meaning, good deeds, truth. It can’t be forced. It’s fortuitous. Pursue it--and lose it. “What mad pursuit, “ Keats wrote. “What struggle to escape!”

Keats died of consumption at 25. The disease—tuberculosis—had claimed his beloved younger brother a couple of years before, Keats nursing him to the end. It was a terrible, wasting disease of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, exacerbated, no doubt by the smokestack industries popping up like pimples all over the land. Consumption then; consumerism now. The same wasting disease.

Jefferson himself could never square the circle. Certainly “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” had nothing to do with Native Americans—the Turtle Islanders. He signed the Indian Removal Act which Jackson was to enforce some 30 years later, after the discovery of gold in Dahlonegha, Georgia. Some 17,000 Cherokees and 2,000 of their black slaves (!) were forced to trudge at gunpoint through snow to Oklahoma. Thousands died on the way.

The magnificent redhead, the studious Francophile, enjoyed his bourbon and ice cream, his slave-mistress Sally Hemings, and his cultivated life at Monticello, accumulating huge debts, on the backs of 150 slaves. Upon his death, he bequeathed his slaves to his daughter. Washington, at least, had freed his slaves in his will—provisioned upon the death of his beloved Martha. This no doubt led to some wakeful nights at Mount Vernon, as Martha lay abed, listening to branches crackling underfoot, trying to discern meanings in the day’s glances or meanings in mumbling behind closed doors. No doubt, some unhappy times!

3. The Second Amendment.

This is the motherlode of American memes. It’s better known than the 2nd Commandment, and those who worship it will defend their right to do more truculently than those who subscribe to the Mosaic Code. It holds its place with those few memes identified by numbers: The First Amendment; 911; 1776.

With the random murder of six innocents in Tucson, the near-killing of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and a dozen others by one Glock-toting maniac, the gun debate is boiling again. The apparently inoperable-tumorous meme in the midst of our Bill of Rights reads in its entirety:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Over 30 years ago, I watched “Meathead” on “All in the Family” try to explain to Archie Bunker, America’s favorite bone-headed bigot, the subsuming importance of that conditional clause. Michael Stivic’s efforts were, of course, futile. “Happiness is a warm gun,” the Beatles sang about that time. Lenon’s ironies were lost on his assassin.

The matter should have been put to rest, the argument concluded, back in 1794 during the Whisky Rebellion. Opposing the excise tax on whiskey, a small army of 6,000, mostly Scotch-Irish frontiersmen, assembled in western Pennsylvania, threatened to attack government garrisons to obtain weapons, destroyed the stills of those who had paid the tax, modeled themselves after Robespierre and the Jacobins, cried havoc and let slip the dogs of war.

Fortunately for the nascent Republic, the best dog-catcher of the age, the one who had proposed and implemented that tax and others to raise the capital essential for the Republic’s survival, Alexander Hamilton, was there to stop the would-be guillotine-erectors. “There is no road to despotism more sure or more to be dreaded than that which begins at anarchy,” Hamilton wrote at the time. To oppose the poorly-led rebels, A. H. assembled militias from New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia: a mostly disciplined—they, too, loved their whisky!—force of 12,000 well-armed and provisioned men. There were some skirmishes, some deaths, rebel leaders were captured, imprisoned, and, chastened, and ultimately pardoned by Washington, whose paramount objective during two terms was to keep the fractious nation whole and out of the unending wars between Britain and France.

Apparently the lessons of the Whiskey Rebellion have dimmed in the minds of those fervent advocates of “the right to bear arms.” They yammer about their need for Glocks and Uzis against an oppressive government whose most perfidious act will be the seizure of their arms! (They seem to yearn for such a seizure!) That seizure will signal the advent of a new age of tyranny, and light the torch of freedom anew in the hearts of millions of Glock and Uzi armed patriots.

Trying to argue against these memes is like trying to argue with Archie Bunker. So much detritus to work through! So many cobwebs to clear! So much history to back-fill! The lack of so much common sense to decry and lament!

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Might not one argue that the seizure of personal firearms would be the least likely act of a tryrannical government… that anarchy would work just fine for controlling a Mad Max world in which the authorities could bring jets and predator drones, tactical nuclear weapons, etc. against an army of gun-slinging cowboys?

So, let’s talk about “arms.” As in, “couldn’t-hit-the-broad-side-of-a-barn” arms. An expression as old as the Constitution, and apropos of the personal firearms of our beloved forefathers.

Their weapons—for hunting rabbits, deer, raccoons, “Injuns” or redcoats—were muskets. They were unrifled, could shoot ball or shot or both. About four times a minute, a handy rebel could load his musket with black powder, look down the barrel length—no sites!--and fire. That unrifled ball could fly off like a curve ball. One was unlikely to hit a man-sized target at more than 75 yards, “aiming” straight at him—or the side of a barn at more than a hundred. Once in Concord, Mass., near the “old stone bridge” that Emerson monumentalized, I heard a guide explain that more soldiers had died in the Revolutionary War as a result of bayonets than muskets! The principal “armor” against musket shot was good, strong, fibrous clothing—often spun from hemp!

Let’s also recall that in those days we were a fledgling agglomeration of “states” spread over a vast territory, with under 3 million people—mostly farmers and slaves. People knew their neighbors. If the village idiot—a certain young Jared, say—was seen running around with his musket protruding from his britches, people would have had the time to stop him, toss him in the pig pen and disarm him once and for all. It’s dubious he’d ever have had access to that musket in the first place. And his lack of wherewithal would have saved their lives.

4. “The future is ours to win.”

Once you start thinking about memes, it’s like having cataracts removed—colors emerge more vividly; you start seeing patterns in carpets, in wallpaper. It’s like suddenly seeing Snooky’s face for the first time on HDTV!

Okay, forget that!

The point is, they’re everywhere. More than cliches, more than the banalities that used to fill those empty spaces between the synapses, memes come in a multitude of colors, with images, sound track, Facebook personalities!

“911,” for example—the official narrative… or, the better, “fringe” explanations!

The assassinations of JFK, Bobby K, MLK and Malcolm X.

“The falling dominoes” that never were, for which four million lives were sacrificed. (Check out Gareth Porter’s “Perils of Dominance” for insight into the real story of the Vietnam War.)

“American exceptionalism”. … “We’re number one!”

“The wisdom of the voters.”

“Change you can believe in.”

“The War to End all Wars.”

“The War on Terror.”

“The Cold War.” (Check out William Blum’s “Killing Hope” for the best book about the Cold War. Reads like LeCarre—only it’s non-fiction!)

Not just words, but a panoply of figures marching across the TV sets of our minds, the movies, the political rallies, demonstrations, electronic imagery meshed with e-mail conversations, infiltrating every neuron—memes define, refine… and devour.

“Move on,” for example.

Some character gets devastated in a movie, a book… or you hear about it in the news. You see the tornado or the mudslide or rain torrents destroying houses, schools, churches, lives. People are broken by earthquakes and cholera. And then some pundit announces, “they’ll have to move on.”

A beloved child dies, 31 students are massacred, and we are exhorted… to “move on.”

To what, where, how?

Why… to the future, of course. That great meme in the sky.

And so Obama, master of ceremonies, magican of memes, declaims in his State of the Union, “The future is ours to win.”

And—presto!--the future becomes something tangible, something already there—the brass ring just needing deft fingers to grab. We have only to see ourselves “winning” it, and it is ours. (Kind of like Texas and northern Mexico in 1848!) The eternal vision of the vanquishable American frontier.

Except that… eleven years into our new millennium, one hopes for something more!

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child. … But now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things.”

We should know by now that the future is not something to conquer, something to “win,” but something to share, and that we’ll never understand the future—and very possibly not survive into it—without integrating our past and present, knowing truly what we have done, from where we’ve come, and what we are now in this crazy quilt of peoples and species blanketing this planet. We need “integration” in the sense of wholeness and integrity. Attachment to memes divides and tribalizes us. The ability to discern and assay our common lot, can unify our fracked and fractured, our wounded planet.

How to be whole again? Fully aware, conscious and conscientious? To look beyond memes, to probe deeper, to ascend to a higher view?

Memes are signposts, markers on the road to Oz. When we meet the Wizard, we must challenge him wisely, or lose mind, heart, courage—and never get back home. Life is learning… putting away, with cherished memories if we’re lucky, childish things.

Our problem is not so much that we have chosen the wrong memes, as that we have failed to develop the discernment to know what is what—how to value correctly, to espy the very real tribulations we shall reap from disparities of wealth, the plundering of resources, greed and stupidity. We celebrate the quick-buck hucksters, the mealy-mouthed impostors, and disparage the steady, steadfast striving after excellence and truth.

And we wonder about happiness? And how to serve our nation and our world? And how to organize for the struggle?

“See, now they vanish,” the poet wrote.

“The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured in another pattern.”

Gary Corseri

Gary Corseri


“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

Gary Corseri