Bibi's Echo Chamber: Why I Hate the Internet Memes of the Israeli Leader's UN Speech
Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the United Nations' 2012 General Assembly.
Photo Credit: Avi Ochayon/Israeli Government Press Office
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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.
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.