I had two brushes with communism today on Pinterest.
The first was happening across this peculiar little meme:
I want you to think about this little image, and I emphasize that there were no words attached other than the four (five if you count the Russian) in the image.
Typically, a meme is a semi-visual argument. It might be fully visual, of course, but this one has words as well as images. The point is, it’s not just a pretty picture (well, this one sure isn’t): it’s supposed to persuade, to convince the viewer-reader of an idea. So what does this one try to convince me of?
A few things are clear:
- The Old Left is associated with the Soviet Union and with war; the New Left is still communist, but is also for women’s rights, diversity, and, especially, gay rights.
- The two are alike in some way; they’re being compared.
- The world both halves exist in is grey, urban, uniform and dismal.
- The people are indicated by identical blobs; presumably their stifling conformity is being condemned.
No one likes being a blob, obviously. Clearly the Old Left and the New Left are claimed to be outwardly different but secretly alike. But what exactly is the argument? Trying to parse this out, we see more:
- The Old Left is humorless and violent; the New Left is happy and inclusive.
- The Old Left is all Russian; the New Left seems Western, making a cursory judgement based on the skyline.
- The Old Left has no particular set of ideas aside from Communism; the New Left is centered on diversity and respect for the rights of gays, women and other powerless classes of people.
- The artist can’t draw actual figures.
I spend a lot of time on Facebook, where this past presidential campaign caused me to narrow my circle of “friends” (Facebook friends often need air quotes) to the point where I don’t encounter a lot of opposing points of view. My point of view is generally socially libertarian and economically left wing, but I don’t have any doctrine really. Why did I lose all my socially conservative or authoritarian “friends”? I’d have to say it was 5% me unfriending people, 5% them unfriending me, and 90% Facebook’s algorithms, showing me stuff I tended to like anyway. I don’t Twitter; Instagram and email are largely apolitical; if you’re me, that leaves Pinterest, which is a mild addiction of mine.
And that means that if I’m going to encounter alt-right bullshit, I’m liable to encounter it on Pinterest. I have a board called Feminist Guy and several boards on topics like Barack Obama (I’m a fan), secularism (I’m definitely secular), and political stupidity (I have a board called Jeeeezus H Christ, People; the name came from sheer frustration). But I also collect fantasy and sci fi images that I at some point thought would help me write, and the guy who posted the meme above was someone I got fantasy pins from. And I knew already that this particular pinner has some ideas I don’t cotton to; it’s a big world and people can believe what they like, I suppose.
Until what they believe makes no sense. That riles me up. And guess what? A lot of arguments out there make no sense. Or, as Josh Billings (apparently) said, “It’s not what folks don’t know. It’s what they know that just ain’t so.”
I posted a comment on the pin, basically wondering what the message was supposed to be. I’ll let you know if there’s ever a reply. For now, I’m going with:
“I hate communists because of World War Two, and I don’t like gay rights or women’s rights, although I admit they’re a lot more fun at rallies.”
I teach math and writing. And one of the most annoying things I see in both subjects is the opacity of arguments. And this argument is so opaque that neutrinos bounce off it.
And what’s wrong with opaque arguments? It’s that you can’t effectively debate them. It’s like arguing with someone who goes around yelling “I hate grapefruit!” Why do you hate grapefruit? “Because I hate them!” You can, as we’ve already noted, believe what you want. But if your argument, your meme or whatever, be it left, right, or complete wacko, is opaque, then it’s not going to convince non-believers, it’s just dog whistling for your own particular breed of dog. You don’t need to convince them. They’re already barking your way. You need to come over and talk our language, and maybe you’ll convince us, and maybe we’ll convince you, and maybe we will all remain unconvinced. But we will understand one another better.
Moral: If you have something pithy to say, say it. If you can’t get it across clearly in words or images, maybe it’s not so pithy after all.
Meanwhile, I also play the ukulele. I’m not very good, because I started when I was about sixty years old, and I am now sixty years old. Here I am, and don’t I look like your typical leftist social libertarian, complete with diversity flag, hidden hammer and sickle, and general blobbiness:
So after I got up to at least mediocre on “Hallelujah” (that’s a song by Leonard Cohen, not Rufus Wainwright) and Dylan’s “I Want You” and Elvis’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” and, for the holiday, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (what a subversive song that is), I decided to try John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I found it on Pinterest! Yes! It’s really easy to play!
And think about.
A few months ago, I read a blog post (which I can’t find now) that revealed the shocking truth that “Imagine” is actually about communism, and that Lennon purposely “sugar-coated” it so that it would be acceptable. I picture people in church singing “Imagine there’s no Heaven,” or rich folks smiling through “no possessions.” Did anyone who actually heard the easily-heard lyrics miss the fact that it starts by imagining no God and goes from there: no possessions, no nations, no Hell, no afterlife? The thing that would be shocking would be the lack of critical thinking that would lead people to mouth words that they didn’t at all mean—rather like 1%-ers going to church and hearing that it is “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Now THERE is a communist… here is the verse, Matthew 19:24, from the excellent Bible Hub website.)
I don’t want to outlaw wealth or possessions. I don’t think any of us does, and I don’t think people did even back when they pretended they did. I do think that if a hard-working adult can’t make enough to decently feed, clothe and house her family, then capitalism has a problem.
I also don’t want to outlaw nations. But if ignorant anger, fear and hatred threaten masses of innocent people with murder—be it by ISIS, by crazed fascists, by a dominating dictatorship, by racist police, or an unfettered intelligence community, or just by a particularly heavily armed public—then nations, however we imagine them, have gone too far.
I don’t know what to do about it. I just know that what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked, and the new ideas we’re trying these past couple of years, from ISIS to opioids to the alt-right, look set to make 2017 a record year for heinousness.
And comparing these two messages from Pinterest, I have to say there’s value in making your subversive insinuations crystal clear.