If we travelled back in time to 1989, and showed a (presumably startled) Tim Berners-Lee exactly what form his then foetal endeavours would one day take, I would wager good money that his response would be a full-on Space Oddessy-styled gasp: My God, It’s Full Of Memes.
Without being too disingenuous, one might fancy that the humble image macro has thus far been the millennial generation’s greatest contribution to civilisation, infesting social media. Indeed, politically speaking, memes and meme pages have come to occupy a significant place in popular discourse. The surreal brouhaha surrounding poor Pepe the Frog and his newfound status as an ‘emblem’ of White Supremacy during the last U.S. election exemplified how the Left and the Right have both staked their claims in this crossfire of in-jokes. On Facebook, pages range from ‘Reem Memes With A Right Wing Theme,’ to the semi-academic ‘De-Classcucking Memes for Commie Proles;’ both issuing forth a seemingly inexhaustible supply of satire, mockery, and plain silliness.
However, neither side is unaccustomed to downright tastelessness either, with some material joyfully making light of some of the worst atrocities in modern history. I am not attempting either to indulge in bit of moralistic finger wagging, or to schematise which side of the political spectrum is most guilty of this, as to take meme culture that seriously would be an exercise in abject daftness. There is an alarming trend among pages and posters aligned with the Left however, or more specifically, the Hard Left.
To defend or otherwise venerate the Stalinism of the U.S.S.R. is difficult, the Maoism of the P.R.C. harder still, and the Juche of the D.P.R.K. virtually impossible, and yet I have seen it done multiple times. Memes that spout various iterations of the phrase ‘The Kulaks Deserved It,’ or in which Chairman Mao is revived in a manner eerily reminiscent of his actual personality cult, seem to receive an alarmingly large and receptive audience. While the worst excesses of this trend may well be buried deep in the bowels of threads on /r/LateStageCapitalism, immensely popular (‘normie’ would be the correct term) pages such as ‘Sassy Socialist Memes’ regularly disseminate similar material.
Of course, one can always argue that Mao, Hoxha and the rest of the gang are being lionized ironically, and that is part and parcel of meme culture. All very well I say, but to ironically act like a prick is still very much acting like a prick, ultimately it makes little difference, and in fact counts as a minor historical obscenity when considering the actual legacy of these brutes. I once saw someone post an old portrait of Stalin on my friend’s wall as part of their birthday wishes, I’m not sure even Eric Hobsbawm would want to be caught doing that, if he had Facebook, and wasn’t dead.
Again, it would be wrong to suggest the Right is much better (just check out Pinochet’s Dank Meme Stash), but there seems to be a unnerving rule that celebrating those that directed the mass slaughter of millions is fair game for memeification as long as they opposed capitalism. There is no likewise deification of Hitler and Mussolini, or at least nowhere near as what is proffered in the memes regularly shared by my peers.
A Star Wars meme where Stalin takes the high ground over the Kulaks will be widely shared, maybe even faintly amusing, but there should nonetheless be a firm awareness that the event itself involved state-directed murder. Perhaps this is how the traditional student flirtation with the Hard Left takes its form nowadays, though as ever, it would be nice to see a sense of restraint.