The War of the Memes

John Barnes put memes at the center of the next world war in his apocalyptic, nihilistic novel Century. In his vision, memes were essentially supersophisticated computer viruses, which over the course of the 21st century, evolved to the point where they jumped from machines to humans. Pretty soon, the memes spread, and practically everyone on the planet was ‘running a meme’. This wasn’t the bad news; the bad news was that, unsurprisingly, each meme was bent on destroying all the other memes. Fast-forward a decade or so, and Europe’s in flames (again), every nation on the planet has joined the failed state club. Real wrath of God type stuff.
So: memes bad, at least in science fiction novels. (Or at least in one, but imho it’s a particularly good, if disturbing one.)
Here in the (allegedly) real world though, it’s a bit more complex. We don’t have viruslike memes that jump from computers to people — or at least, I don’t think we do. (Norton AntiVirus Wetware Edition? Shudder.) But that doesn’t mean we don’t have memes — it just means the little buggers are a bit more subtle, and take a little more work to identify.
Many Palestinians, for example, have been running a meme for decades — and yes, that means some of them have been running it their entire lives. I call it OpposeIsrael. This meme is pretty simple: it says that Israel is evil, and anything they do must be bad and must be combated; violently, if necessary.
The problem is that OpposeIsrael crowded out other memes that Palestinians really should be running; memes that might have led — and could still lead — to a better life for Palestinians. OpposeIsrael is inherently negative — it dictates that its hosts put the goal of destroying Israeli hopes above that of fulfilling Palestinian ones. It’s the meme that far too many Palestinians were running in the wake of the Six Day War, back in ’67, when, according to Michael Oren’s new book, Israel attempted to hand over limited self-governance to pretty much any Palestinian leader who would take it. The problem? None of them would accept it; they were all convinced that anything seen as collaboration with Israel would get them killed by the masses. If the masses had been running PalestinianState, the deal would have been made, and history would be very different. But they weren’t – or at least, their leaders thought they weren’t; potentially a tragic miscalculation. OpposeIsrael was running the show.
Camp David in 2000? Same problem. Arafat didn’t bother to try to combat OpposeIsrael before the summit, and showed no willingness to battle it afterwards. This therefore became a classic example of how, theoretically, two leaders could have signed a peace agreement — but it wouldn’t have necessarily done any good. As long as Arafat let OpposeIsrael run rampant, it didn’t matter whether the deal was signed or not; it would fail, because there would still be far too many Palestinians more interested in killing Israelis than in building a better life for their own families. As it turns out, Arafat wasn’t even willing to fake it and take the deal himself, so the question became irrelevant.
Finally, though, after decades, OpposeIsrael is showing some signs of running out of steam. ‘Intifada Fatigue’ is a phrase we’re starting to hear, and hopefully will hear more of. And as OpposeIsrael declines, hopefully, more constructive memes — PalestinianState, PalestinianFreedom, PalestinianDemocracy — will rise to take its place, paving the way towards a real settlement that can actually lead to lasting peace. But make no mistake: peace won’t happen; can’t happen, while a significant part of the Palestinian population remain dedicated simply to OpposeIsrael. To change the reality, you’ve got to change the meme.
Now take a step back, and think about the current war facing the United States. It’s commonly called the War on Terrorism. And if you look closely, you’ll realize that for perhaps the first time ever, a nation-state has declared war on: a meme.
This is new. Traditionally, you declare war on another specific group of people; whether its an opposing tribe, a neighboring city-state, or another nation. Historically, wars are generally declared and prosecuted against a static enemy: you declare war on Germany, and when you’ve defeated or obtained surrender from all the German people, well, then, you’re done. Our current war, however, is against “terrorism”, which certainly isn’t a nation, and doesn’t inherently define any static group of people to point at as the enemy. It simply identifies that we are fighting a meme; and therefore, we will fight any individual people who happen to be running that meme. This is a confusing concept to many folks; nobody’s used to declaring war on memes; a situation not helped by the rather poor job our leadership has done of explaining it to people.
Unfortunately, this is made even worse by the fact that it’s the wrong meme. While an argument can be made that we should be making war on the Terrorism meme — which I’ll define quickly here as using violence and the threat of violence against civilians to impose change upon societies or governments — we’re not. Instead, we’re really at war with IslamicFacism, which tends to run side-by-side with Terrorism in many people, but is clearly a distinct meme of its own. The particular variant of IslamicFascism we’re facing today has its roots in Wahabism, hit its stride in the past few decades, and even managed to take over an entire state via the Taliban — for a while. It’s a nasty, nasty meme — nasty for those that oppose it, as it basically leaves zero room for compromise, preferring war without end, and nasty for those who fall under its control, as it drives inexorably towards a kind of stone-age tyranny.
Fighting a war against a meme leads to some interesting concepts in defining combatants. Take for instance the LAX shooter. It’s too early to say definitively whether he was formally connected with al Qaeda or not. But let’s assume for the moment that he was not. Let’s assume additionally that although he has never spoken to a Taliban or al Qaeda operative in his life, he agreed with their cause, and his motive in committing his murders was to show support for their cause.
Once you realize you are at war with a meme, it becomes clear that the LAX shooter, given these assumptions, is exactly as much a combatant in this war as an al Qaeda operative or a Taliban foot soldier. It doesn’t matter that he’s not associated with a declared terrorist group. He’s running the meme.
In addition, by realizing that we are fighting a meme — and equally importantly, correctly identifying which one — we can better consider our options for attacking it. We don’t have to kill or imprison every single person running IslamicFascism — although that is a valid option, and the one that, at the moment, is being pursued most vigorously. But to maximize our success, at the same time we attack on the physical front the individual people running the meme, we should also attack the meme itself directly.
How do you kill a meme? With other memes, of course. ArabProsperity is starting to show promise as a positive meme that we should encourage; after centuries of falling behind the West, there are signs that the Arab world is beginning to get more concerned with its own actual health and welfare, as opposed to simply blaming its troubles on the West. And ArabProsperity is in direct opposition to IslamicFacism; the two can’t coexist. GenderEquality — a meme that has gotten trampled on for a long time in Arab states — also has the potential, over time, to be an IslamicFascism-killer. And the appeal of PersonalFreedom should not be underestimated, nor should its virulent opposition to IslamicFascism.
This is not to say that the war will be won simply by fighting IslamicFascism with other memes; it won’t. But by focusing on the true enemy — that vicious meme — we can best identify a complete strategy to not only ensure that those currently opposing us are defeated, but that IslamicFascism itself is defeated for the long term.
Along the way, however, we should be cautious ourselves, for we are not immune to memes of our own. We must ensure that we each stay focused on the positive memes of our society — PreserveFreedom, DefendInnocents, CreateProsperity. These memes are all in direct opposition to IslamicFascism, and by driving them forward across the globe, we drive it backward.
But we must be careful to avoid the negative memes that might seem most tempting right now — OpposeTerrorism, DefeatAlQaeda, or simply DestroyIslamicFascism. On the face of them, these memes represent exactly what we are trying to achieve.
But in their inherent negativity; their focus on the destruction of others as opposed to the raising up of our own, they pose a corrosive danger that can be just as damaging to our society over the long term as IslamicFacism itself. When we kill an al Qaeda soldier, it is vital that we do so to defend the positive aspects of our own society — not to destroy the negative ones of his.
The distinction is a subtle one, but vital. For it is the distinction that saves us from the twisted fate to which the Palestinians have resigned themselves. In their endless focus on the defeat of their enemy, they have forgotten what true victory for their own people means. Let us not make the same mistake.