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Why I hate those Bibi memes

They serve as Netanyahu’s echo chamber, they divert attention from the real issues at hand and they disguise political desperation as internet-activism. Memes shouldn’t be more than inside jokes, but nowadays they seem to lead the conversation. 

Beware: Your Prime Minister is now being ironic (Photo: Avi Ochayon, Government Press Office)

On Thursday night, Ami Kaufman posted on this site a collection of memes dealing with the Looney Toons bomb Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used during his UN speech. Posted before any other local or international news source, it was one of the most successful items our site ever had (over 3,000 likes and counting). But did these memes aid the public debate, or truly criticize Netanyahu? I am not so sure.

Memes are part of a culture of irony, which has become the dominant approach to politics in certain circles – especially certain liberal circles. In the past, we used to lack irony in politics. People treated their leaders with too much respect, or took them too seriously. Now, it seems that we don’t take our leaders seriously enough.

Netanyahu’s UN speech is a good example: its topic was the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and perhaps even a nuclear war. There probably isn’t a more “serious” problem today. You need not agree with Netanyahu’s politics in order to acknowledge the gravity of the issue at hand; if you believe Iran poses an immediate existential threat to millions of Israelis, you must be anxious and tense as you watch this speech. If you feel – like me – that Netanyahu is creating an unnecessary escalation that could draw the entire region into war, and that his true aim is to divert attention from inner problems and the Palestinian issue, than the prime minister’s rhetoric can make you angry or sad.

Israelis watching this speech could feel either that their fate is in the right hands, or that a madman has taken over the throne. Their reaction to the speech could be hopeful or sad, admiring or upset – each of those reactions make sense. Each reaction, except for the sort of self-satisfied giggles that memes produce – the kind which seem to dominate the responses in the Left following Netanyahu’s speech. The aforementioned feelings could lead to political action. Giggling, like one would over pictures of babies and cats, can only generate “likes.”

In the past few months, I have been troubled by the prospect of war (“terrified” would be a more appropriate term) to the point of actually planning the evacuation of my family from Tel Aviv, in the event something does happen. I remember the missiles falling on Tel Aviv in 1991, and the thought of going through this with a child can literally keep us awake at night. Memes offer relief. They generate a feeling that “things are not that bad.” After all, we are only dealing with Road Runner bombs here.

I guess that this is a reason for the success of the ironic approach. Throughout history, irony has been a tool that has helped people deal with tragedies. But there is an important difference here: the Bibi memes do not deal with a past catastrophe but with a future one. Tragedy is a literary genre in which disaster is inevitable, while politics are about changing the future.

For me, memes represent desperation – a feeling that a catastrophe is around the corner and we cannot do anything about it. This is probably the worst approach to politics; the opposite of the existentialist notion that even when there is truly no hope, we should act as if there is one. And to be sure, I don’t think we are at a hopeless moment in history, not even in Israeli or Palestinian history.

My favorite Bibi-UNGA meme: The picture itself is funny, but also flatters my taste in cinema (Shira Glezerman)

On top of everything, those memes obviously help Netanyahu (not unlike the way Jon Stewart is helping Michele Bachmann). They serve as an echo chamber for the prime minister’s talking points. Take another look at those memes and you will find that some of them actually compliment Netanyahu.

Let’s think about it this way: if Netanyahu had a group of cartoonists sit in a room after his speech and asked them to produce highly viral content, I guess they could have come up with some of the same results as the leftists on my Facebook feed did. We feel those memes are critical because we place them in a critical context to begin with. Yet more often than not, they make everything seem playful and harmless; at other times, they increase the celebrity status of Netanyahu while avoiding a meaningful challenge to his politics.

Watch for example the “28 standing ovations” remix we posted here following Netanyahu’s speech in front of a joint session of Congress. At the time, it looked satirical. Now try to imagine this was a clip produced by the Prime Minister’s Office. Could it still make sense? I certainly think so.

It seems that sophisticated leaders like Netanyahu are by now well aware of the ironic approach to politics and are using it to their benefit.

On Thursday, as Netanyahu was preparing for “the speech of his life” (“his eighth,” noted a commentator on Israeli television), proxies to the prime minister hinted that the speech would contain a certain “surprise.” In the past, this kind of leak was meant to signal a political news item, perhaps a declaration of a new policy. But this surprise turned out to be a cartoon bomb. (Actually, the prime minister office couldn’t have been more literary, given the fact that most cartoon surprise “packages” contain bombs.)

Cartoons instead of policy – Netanyahu didn’t offer one idea or initiative since he agreed to utter the words “Palestinian state” somewhere in 2009. All he gave us were PR surprises, yet for the world media this is more than enough. The Israeli prime minister made the front page picture of all of America’s most serious papers on the day following his UN speech. I believe that the many editors who placed this front page picture found the cartoon bomb to be ridiculous and childish, but nevertheless, played along with the trick. (I remember similar dynamics in the media desks I have worked on.) As it is often the case with “progressives,” the ironic enjoyment of the moment overcame the editors’ political and professional judgment, to a point where playing along with the gimmick becomes the professional thing to do.

Even The New Yorker had its own highbrow version of the Bibi meme industry. Like others, the magazine’s editors preferred the performance to the content of Netanyahu’s speech. If Netanyahu was indeed trying to divert attention from the Palestinian issue, his worst critics were the first to play along. The ironic zeitgeist allowed for this.

At this point, it is clear that the brilliance of Netanyahu’s move was that the bomb was so lame. If he was quoting reports and scientific data on an actual nuclear bomb, or showing a proper diagram, he would not have gotten the same effect. In the end, the joke was on us.

Political powers, it is worth remembering, are never ironic. An amused approach to politics helps drive attention away from the true meaning or consequences of their actions.

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    1. aristeides

      My view is quite different. Bibi’s bomb made him look ridiculous. It made him a target for ridicule. It made his concerns a target for ridicule.

      I think it helped convince much of the world that this person and his warmongering obsession can’t be taken any more seriously than the coyote. That anyone who agrees with him is likewise ridiculous. And that’s a good thing.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Witty

      Insightful article.

      We need substantive discussion by those seeking to avoid violence and other harms.

      If Iranians could participate in that discussion, it would be helpful.

      The most effective communication that I’ve heard on the issue is the “We love Iranians”/”We love Israelis” campaign last year.

      That is non-violent civil disobedience.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ariel

      I think that you’ve got it wrong there. Many of Bibi’s supporters support him because they think that his command of (American) English and his mannerisms impress the “Americans”. I don’t know if any of the memes makes a difference but as a whole they echo the general sentiment that we have a pretentious fool with a Messiah complex for a PM. It’s become a little bit more embarrassing for an Israeli to admit that he supports Bibi after the UN fiasco, and that isn’t a bad thing nowadays.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      I’m sympathetic with this post, but this particular bomb thing was so outrageously funny that there was no way people could ignore it.

      In general, I think you’re missing how these “memes” work. People don’t form political opinions based on an earnest study of “the issues.” They adopt opinions based largely on identity and status: what the cool people say and do, especially the cool people in their own in-group. The effective way to counter Netanyahu’s arguments, at least with the public, is not with better arguments; it’s by saying, “Netanyahu is a fascist,” or “Netanyahu has cooties.” And similarly of course with right-wingers countering the left. Calling someone a fascist or whatever isn’t a “meaningful challenge to his politics”; it’s a whole lot more effective than that.

      This “meme” stuff – our opponent is a fascist, he’s not cool like our side, all the cool people hate him – is visible in the comments at this site, and also in the articles by certain contributors. It’s common partly because saying “we’re better than you” feels really good, and partly because it works.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Wow, I think this is the first time I found myself fundamentally but respectfully) disagreeing with something you wrote, Noam.

      What you call “irony,” I would call political satire. And satire is not a recent post-modern phenomenon – it is something that goes at least as far back as Euripides and Aristophanes.

      The “Bibi memes” are certainly not the first time that we’ve seen political satire use ridicule to address the possibility of “future catastrophe.” Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator certainly comes to mind. Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” was made in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis and simmilarly addressed the possibility of a future nuclear war. (Not surprisingly, “Strangelove” is prominent in many of the Bibi memes).

      In all these cases, I’d say the use of satire to shine a light on the idiocy of our national leaders has an important and time-honored place.

      Reply to Comment
      • Richard Witty

        I don’t think Noam is contesting the validity of people making caricatures, so much as criticizing the self-talking fiddling while Rome burns.

        Reply to Comment
      • Deborah

        I think satire is the appropriate response to Bibi’s being out of touch with political reality. No, the US is not going to help Israel bomb Iran, especially before November. Netanyahu seems to believe he’s entitled to slap the US President during an election year; he seems to have assumed that he could pressure Obama, because he’s running for President. He’s also counting on some kind of phantasm about Jewish American voters suddenly changing their minds and voting for Romney, because of Netanyahu’s banging the drum.

        However, Americans, including Jewish Americans, take no pleasure in watching their President being treated like a door mat during an election year. It makes Netanyahu look like he has incredibly poor judgment, which he does.

        Oh and really bad visual aids.

        Reply to Comment
    6. sh

      A meme isn’t a caricature it’s satire+photoshop, although I don’t think any I saw were worthy of being included in the same sentence as Kubrick or Chaplin. I thought the most apt remark on the whole charade compared Bibi’s antics with the late Zenga Zenga’s. Bibi’s not quite in his league, no. But perhaps Berlusconi’s? Or Putin’s?

      When he started (radio not TV) I fought my inner groan for maybe a minute while he was tuning up on 3,000 years ago and then pushed the button. I recommend it – not to Bibi, I hasten to add.

      Reply to Comment
    7. I do not see Bibi as brilliant but arrogantly disdainful. He talked down to the General Assembly, believes what he said, and how he said it. He is not trying to obscure the Palestinian issue, for there is not one; the correct path is clear, take it or continue to suffer through your own cause.

      What I suspect you are lamenting is the failure of a sustained social organization (think Tea Party on the American right; unions on the left) opposition in Israel. It is almost as though you lack the low key, persistent organization that enables a later electoral shift. I think the summer social portests were slapped down quickly (assuming they could sustain themselves otherwise) to remove one platform for such emergent organization, a preemptive measue. Organization is not about publishing memes or even 972 pieces; it entails micro socio-economic aid among people trying to find a way out, forming groups with active ideologies. At present, Israel seems to be organizationally top down, vying for alienated voters.

      I think the Tea Party here hooted at the insult Bibi gave. But I think what I call the moneyed Republicans are worried–not at the content, but the almost slap to American power. Romeny is all for it now, but would not be if elected.

      Reply to Comment
      • There was a little more, of no consequence:

        I think the Tea Party here hooted at the insult Bibi gave. But I think what I call the moneyed Republicans are worried–not at the content, but the almost slap to American power. Romeny is all for it now, but would not be if elected.

        Reply to Comment
    8. Noam,

      I agree there are reasons to be angry at Bibi’s speech. Here’s my version of this:

      But I disagree that the comical aspect works in Bibi’s favor. If he thought he was speaking to the American public over the heads of the pundits – well, this part has backfired Wile E. Coyote style. As others commented, his Iran messages will now always be viewed with a huge grain of salt. And more specifically, if he continues to inject himself into the anti-Obama election campaign, he will do Romney damage not good.

      I don’t see how making yourself a political liability in America is a success for an Israeli PM.

      But that aside, he has definitely succeeded in making people forget Palestine even more. In essence his cartoon speech says that Bibi thinks he can present the Iran issue in the most ridiculous way possible – and still the world will not dare to dismiss him, will not dare to remind him of Palestine or of Israel’s own nukes.

      And on this, sadly, he is right.

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        I simply don’t think Palestine is an issue here. Unfortunate but true.

        I don’t think Yahoo is pounding the war drums against Iran to deflect interest from Palestine as much as he simply wants to defeat Iran.

        And if this is his goal, it’s clearly been a huge failure. Not one person who wasn’t already on his crew was convinced by his clown act. He gained not one minim of support.

        And if you look at, say, the Financial Times this weekend, you can see that the ridicule is taking effect.

        Reply to Comment
    9. Richard Witty

      You are entirely mistaken of that Aristeides.

      The critical audience were Israelis and political leadership in Europe, US, and developing world.

      The United States declared encouragement for the point that Netanyahu articulated as his recommended red line, and likely will adopt that definition and communicate it.

      The danger with setting a red line is that you have to act on it if crossed. And, the Iranian regime has conspicuously reiterated, “we will not consider American and European demands in our nuclear policy”.

      So, those two are a path to war. The TWO, not Israel unilaterally.

      Reply to Comment
    10. sh

      I think you’re missing the fact that some of us here are actually more scared of our own power (Israeli) in the hands of the current holders of it than of the Iranians. And by that I don’t mean that we’re scared of police or government reprisals against our person for dissent, but of the effect this scarifying about Iran and, increasingly, about everything non-Jewish that moves without permission, is having on the population in general. When you allow vigilantes in part of your territory, you’re tacitly inviting them into the rest of it. When you call asylum-seekers infiltrators, citizens who try to stand up for other citizens self-haters and those who try to defend their own property from harm terrorists, there is such conceptual distortion that only the most solid of innate compasses can stand up to it. And even then, only for so long.

      Maybe you people in America have reason to begin thinking about that too.

      Reply to Comment
      • SH: “When you allow vigilantes in part of your territory, you’re tacitly inviting them into the rest of it.”–This is the ultimate weak link in the vanguard settler strategy; opposition will develop, after real costs.

        America is not immune; things just take different forms over here.

        Reply to Comment

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