Clash of the Memes: the Future Battlefield of Ideas

Dov Michaeli

Posted 10/23/11 on The Doctor Weighs In

In his book “The Selfish Gene” Richard Dawkins, the population geneticist, proposed the idea of a meme as a target of natural selection. What in the world is a meme?

Essentially everything stored in your brain is a meme. Remember the joke about the guy in the bar? You didn’t invent it –you heard it somewhere, stored it, and probably told it to a friend, helping to spread it. How many people ever heard of the German composer Richard Wagner? With the exception of readers of this blog –not very many. How many listened to his operas? Even fewer. How many listened to his opera Lohengrin? Fewer yet.

But everybody knows the music to “here comes the bride” which was taken from the Wedding March in Lohengrin.

Now, the rest of the music didn’t survive in the collective brain of most of us. But this little tune did. It is a perfect example of a meme surviving the competition for storage space. Other memes, phrases or arias in the opera did not survive-but this one did. Why?  Because for whatever reason, it spread widely and won the battle for brain space, whereas the rest of the memes in the opera, which collectively make up the meme-plex, did not.

You probably noticed already that the spread of memes, or ideas, follows the principles of biological evolution. And the “fittest” survive, and thrive. The ideas don’t have to be philosophical, or new inventions. A simple “idea,” such as wearing a dress that is in fashion, helps to propagate it. The fashion will die out when it ceases to compete with the new-new fashion.

So where is this conversation leading us?

Liberalism vs. Conservatism

In an op-ed in today’s NYTAlexander Stille, a professor of international journalism at Columbia, posited a thought- provoking idea. He makes the observation that two overarching trends have taken place in our society in the last 50 years. We became more democratic and inclusive –accepting Jews, blacks, Hispanics,  women, and gays as deserving of equal rights- and we became the least egalitarian since the 1920’s.

Stille finds a relationship between the two trends. He cites Professor Gary Becker, a conservative economist from the University of Chicago and a Nobel Prize winner, who suggested that the etiology of this phenomenon is not malevolent at all –we became a more meritocratic society, and the more educated are the new “1%”.

This idea of meritocracy -we all had an equal opportunity, but you worked hard for your economic gains and you deserve them – is an All-American idea. The “establishment” used to be white, Anglo-saxon, protestant, male, and educated at Ivy League universities. Now it is much more inclusive-it has Jews, and blacks, and Hispanics, and women, and gays and lesbians. But they are mostly Ivy-League educated, which is fine as long as they are also intellectually and morally deserving their positions in society. It is hard to argue with the merits of meritocracy. Witnessing the recent crop of know-nothings vying to lead us I have become an avid proponent of some kind of an “entrance exam” for leadership positions in business and politics.

But with all the talk about equal opportunity, equality under the law, the deserving “job creators”, I am reminded of the French writer Anatole France’s biting aphorism: “How noble the law, in its majestic equality, that both the rich and poor are equally prohibited from peeing in the streets, sleeping under bridges, and stealing bread!” How can we claim that a kid growing up in the ghetto has an equal opportunity as the kid who has two parents in the households, who lives in a “normal” neighborhood, and goes to the best schools?

But I am digressing. I didn’t mean to argue the merits or weaknesses of our ostensibly meritocratic society. I meant to challenge the basic premise of Stille’s and Becker’s thesis that there is a causal connection between meritocracy and our social inequity.

An Alternative Explanation

What we are witnessing today is the product of the battle of ideas, The egalitarian revolution wrought by FDR did not come out of nowhere. The ideas of equality and equity were percolating in 19th century America. The battles of workers for the right to unionize have acquired a legendary halo in our history. The meme of fairness slowly triumphed over the years, and when the Great Depression hit –our collective minds were ready to accept radically progressive solutions. The rhetoric on the right was just as virulent, their hatred of FDR dwarfed even the hatred of Kennedy, Clinton and Obama. But their memes of laissez- faire economics, of “deserving” rich, of financial rectitude at the cost of 20% unemployment (they worried about inflation and the deficits even then)-none have planted themselves in the collective mind. The progressive meme-plex reached its zenith with the election of Lyndon Johnson, who designed the Great Society, with its Medicare, Medicaid, Civil Rights legislation, the “War on Poverty,” and even Public broadcasting (did you know that one?).

But as they say, nothing grows to the sky. Every social and political movement, and the ideas that inform them, suffer from stasis and exhaustion. David Mamet, the fire-breathing left-wing Democrat wrote an essay in 2009, in the Village Voice no less, “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal.”  And this sums up the slow demise of the Liberal meme: brain-dead.

LBJ’s opponent in the election of ’64 was Barry Goldwater, who heralded a new strain in American conservatism. His “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” cry was a challenge not so much to the liberals  of the Democratic Party as to the establishment of the Republican party of the time –all East Coast, Ivy-League educated, captains of industry, wealthy, and willing to forge alliances and compromise with the “enemy” in order to get things done. Ideological purity was not in the lexicon of the party in those days.

Goldwater took over the party and the nomination by storm –and led it to an historical defeat. The Goldwater conservatives licked their wounds and went to work. They established a dizzying array of think tanks, bankrolled by wealthy donors, spanning the gamut from security to economic and social issues. The publications of the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation became a must-read for any conservative and Republican politicians who wanted to keep his (they were mostly men) seat.

Many liberal thinkers became disenchanted with the milquetoast policies of the Liberal Left and defected to the Republican Party. They became known as the Neo-conservatives, and regardless of what one thinks about their ideas- they at least were fresh and bold –they became influential in the battle for brain space. They also gave us the war in Iraq.

When the financial crisis hit, the ideas of “government is not the solution, it is the problem,” cut the budget to “starve the beast”, dismantle the social programs of the Great Society –all those memes were ready to take over. The result: a major conservative tsunami that drowned the moribund Left, and left us with an angry populist Right –the Tea Party.

What’s Next?

As we said, nothing grows to the sky, which is another way of saying that nothing lasts forever. All historical trends come to an end, and all ideas become exhausted and replaced by new ones. This is the penalty everything, from bacteria to wooly mammoths, and yes, to memes, have to pay for failing to adapt. This is the foundation of evolutionary theory.

The Tea Party has very quickly exhausted its store of ideas. The meme of ‘slash and burn’ has not taking root in the collective mind. The Republican Party could not come up with any new idea since they thought of “no new taxes”. The Democratic Party is equally devoid of fresh ideas, and is paralyzed with fear of their own shadow.

But there are already new glimmers of hope, new memes circulating in conferences, in books, in the social networks of cyberspace. Young people “don’t relate” to the old shibboleths of Liberalism and Conservatism. They take to fresh ideas, new ways of looking at issues, innovative approaches to solving problems. Some are unconventional, even unreasonable.

Never mind, the new Unreasonable Institute in Boulder Colorado is teaching young entrepreneurs commercial methods for tackling global issues. Muhammad Yunus, a professor of Economics at the University of Chittagong in Bangladesh, established in 1976 Bank Grameen, whose mission was to lend poor people small amount of money to help them establish their own businesses. Established banks wouldn’t touch these kind of people with a ten-foot pole because they have no collateral, no credit history, no credit rating, no checking account. Lo and behold, these “untouchables” had a default rate close to zero, the business success rate close to 100%.

It was almost 30 years later, in 2003, that professor Yunus gave a lecture at Stanford Business School and a young couple, Matt Flannery and Jessica Jackley attended. Two years later they founded Kiva, collecting loans as low as $25 from individuals through the internet, to finance microloans to the entrepreneurial poor in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In their mission statement they state: “We envision a world where all people – even in the most remote areas of the globe – hold the power to create opportunity for themselves and others. We believe providing safe, affordable access to capital to those in need helps people create better lives for themselves and their families.” This is the new meme taking hold of our brains.

Will we have to wait 50 years for the new meme trend to take hold? Note the time line. Professor Yunus conceived of Grameen bank in 1976. It took 27 years for him to be invited to Stanford to deliver his message. It took 2 years of Kiva to be founded in 2005. It took less than 6 six years for Kiva to lend well over 300 million dollars provided by some 700,000 donors. Last week (Oct.14-22) 3126 lenders joined, 27,351 lenders made loans that week, 5,179 entrepreneurs were funded that week, with an average of 8 seconds between fundings. And the repayment rate to date? 98.8%! Compare that to Bank of America, which is fighting for its survival because of massive a default rate.

Kiva is only one of hundreds of such stories. The reason why this new trend is gathering steam at an astounding rate is that unlike the 20th century (mind you, it ended only 11 years ago), we are not just connected –we are hyper-connected through social networks and the “cloud”. And memes that used to take years to establish themselves now take seconds to take root.

This is the new world we are entering. Can real “change that we can believe in” be far behind?

Dov Michaeli MD, PhD is a basic researcher writing at The Doctor Weighs In.

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