With a Sanders-stuffed world exploding into life online, I suddenly heard my brain echoing the rhythms of Dr. Seuss:
I’ve seen him in the Muppet box,
I’ve seen him painted by Bob Ross,
I’ve seen him in a Broadway show,
And galaxies ‘long time ago,’
I’ve seen those mittens here and there,
That Bernie’s nearly EVERYWHERE!
If you have no idea what I’m talking about , you probably haven’t been on social media much since the inauguration. In the hours after Joe Biden took the presidential oath and Amanda Gorman seared her verses into our imaginations, Sen. Bernie Sanders abruptly took over. Or at least his photo did.
The image of Sanders bundled tightly against the cold on a folding chair, wearing mask and mittens and an irascible expression, has suddenly become the latest internet meme, photoshopped into a zillion settings. The bridge of the Enterprise. The Iron Throne. The diner of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” A box of Sleepytime tea. On and on it goes, the sillier the better.
Some of my friends are reveling in finding new ones, while others are imitating “The Scream” as Bernie takes over their Facebook feeds. It’s a little like the ever-multiplying brooms in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” only without the theme music.
Wait. Do you think someone’s put Bernie in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” yet? Hmmm …
For a punster like me, it’s been kind of fun to watch the silliness. The very definition of a meme, after all is a contagious thought, one that keeps finding new ways to evolve and spread. There’s a reason it’s called “going viral” – although, in this day and age, that’s probably not the most welcome image to evoke. (Apologies.)
It’ll subside eventually. They always do (even if they never quite die). But why is it catching on so hard right NOW?
Two reasons, I suspect.
The first is the simple one: it’s silly. And after weeks of tension in the national news, a lot of us needed something silly. Have you ever had that moment where life has been hitting so hard for so long … and then all of a sudden a stupid joke breaks through the walls like Kool-Aid Man at a birthday party, and you just can’t stop laughing?
But the real power, the one that gives it legs, is the mismatch of the original image.
Our brains latch on to incongruity – to things that don’t quite fit. And at a formal event, where everyone is focused on trying to be oh-so-elegant, it’s the ordinary sight that leaps out – the well-known face looking like Grandpa who’s just checked in from his daily errands, waiting for the school band concert to finish up already so everyone can go inside and get warm.
That sort of mismatch is a powerful hook for any story.
It’s why the original Star Wars begins, not with a mighty hero, but with a robot butler and his mechanic friend who suddenly acquire the information that could save the galaxy.
It’s why The Lord of the Rings puts the world’s future in the hands of an obscure hobbit.
It’s why comedies, tragedies and horror stories across the ages have reveled in bringing together the two people who must NOT meet. It creates tension and opens up possibilities.
What’s more, that’s true in the real world as well.
When we break up old patterns and jar ourselves out of ruts, we let ourselves see the world again. We take a fresh look at things that have become familiar. It lets us invent, create, experience. It even helps us hold others accountable as we look at a situation and ask “Why doesn’t this fit?”
So yes, it’s a silly meme. But the power that makes it work is something quite real. Even wonderful.
So go on. Enjoy (or endure) it while it lasts.
Bern, baby, Bern.