Lately I have been giving a lot of thought to memes. Given the state of my Facebook news feed, I can hardly help it. Almost every day I am confronted with about a jillion of these nifty little pic-and-caption combos. Most memes make a false equivalence of some sort–pairing, say, a quote from Hitler with a particularly hideous image of a politician the memer doesn’t like, or the different management and personnel levels in a business with various breeds of dogs. The dog one is awesome. No one actually believes that their general manager is a surly-looking Siberian Husky, but we recognize the resemblance. It’s a joke, get it?
Memes, like false equivalences in general, are best suited for humor. For making a political point, not so much. To me, an acceptable political meme is a verifiable quote attributed to the person who actually said or wrote it. If the meme has a picture of a person, it is the person who said the thing. But most political memes are reductive and sly, designed to prey on emotion rather than appealing to reason, and slipping in false assumptions or cultural biases.
The notion of the heartless innkeeper turning away Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem is a construct of the Western world. It looks good in kids’ Christmas pageants, and it reinforces the idea, valid enough in itself, that Christ was not welcomed into the world he created in anything like a proper way. But it is not biblical. The gospel of Luke devotes less than a full sentence to the matter, saying merely that “there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). There was no room for them in the inn. The entire Roman world was being taxed, and the cities were full. That doesn’t mean the inns were run by bad people who disliked Mary and Joseph or were callous to their plight. Maybe the innkeepers were sympathetic but truly powerless to help. Maybe one of them said the first-century equivalent of, “Guys, I’m really sorry. This sucks. But I honestly have no room left. This place is packed to capacity and beyond. You might actually be more comfortable in my barn. You’d definitely have more privacy. So set up in there if you like, free of charge, and if you need anything, let me know, and I’ll do what I can.” Or maybe not. Who knows? Not me, I wasn’t there.
The whole concept of “Middle-Easterners” is also a Western construct. I think Mary and Joseph would be surprised to see themselves being lumped together with the modern descendants of Persians, Egyptians, Hittites, Babylonians, Syrians, Chaldeans, Edomites, and others in one giant ethnic group. As a geographic and political term, “Middle East” is useful and valid. As a label for people, “Middle-Easterner” is iffy, though I suppose there is no getting rid of it at this point.
The issue of whether or not to accept Syrian refugees into the United States is a complex and heartbreaking one. It does not lend itself well to memes. The comparison of Mary and Joseph with displaced Syrians is, at best, tenuous. To equate those who believe we ought not to relocate those Syrians in the U.S. with a supposed heartless innkeeper is, at best, irresponsible.
Yes, some people really are heartless or bigoted or willfully ignorant. Rabble is always among us on all sides of every issue and it is generally a waste of time to try to engage them in discourse. And it is wrong to speak as though everyone on the “other side” of an issue is of this lowest sort–as though all who support Syrian resettlement in the U.S. are stupid, or all who oppose it are heartless. I know many intelligent, God-fearing people on both sides of the Syrian refugee issue. They are individuals with a myriad of different assumptions and backgrounds and personal histories. They are not memes.
Friends, let’s not mistake memes for valid social (or political, or religious) arguments. If we believe a thing, let’s say so and give real reasons based on real principles and data. And let’s leave Hitler out of it, and out of all memes for the rest of time. Meme culture has reached Hitler saturation, I think.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. I know there are other things you could be doing that would be more fun. Here is a meme for you.