Almost All Memes Are Dangerous

If you want to understand politics in 2021, you’ve got to understand memes. These are images but it’s best to think of them as viruses. They spread from person to person and cause mental infections. And while the ideas usually have perhaps a grain of truth almost always the meme is designed to get you to believe something uncritically.

Memes are so dangerous, it’s not often wise to release them into the wild without a safe container. So here’s one I’ve seen floating around, and I’ve carefully removed the hazardous edges to explain how it works.

This class of meme, if it had a Latin name, might be Announceious Single-Reasonum. That is, the person sharing the image is telling everyone what they believe and giving one major rationale they think is good enough all on its own.

It gets worse. This particular meme uses something beloved by English teachers everywhere: parallel construction.

I can’t show you the actual verb employed in the meme because it gives away the topic. That’s how utterly toxic these viruses are. But there is power in using the same word. It ties together the first and second half of the meme, giving the argument weight.

More context; read carefully.

Now the meme is starting to feel bulletproof. The two things are clearly connected. Or at least, the things are the same. One was already done, the other should be done. Right?


Okay. It’s time to descend into the biohazard lab. Put on your gloves and goggles. To make sure no one gets hurt, I’ve hidden the next image behind a link. Take a deep breath. And when you’re ready, take a look.


This is an enormous area of policy discussion, and really there are almost no serious proposals for a complete cancellation of all federal student loans [1] and the experts don’t anticipate that happening anyway [2]. Plus if you think about it what happens to all of the students who are currently in college and incurring debt? And what prevents colleges from increasing the cost of education further, since they know the government will pay it?

Obviously these details can be discussed and maybe even worked out, but the meme makes a blanket statement proposing “cancellation.” And this is the first way that memes cause injury. They make assertions as if they were true and complete. But they often aren’t. A total cancellation of all student loan debt is not a feasible idea. That’s not what you want to hear if you’re one of those 45 million people, but its the truth.


At this point, the right thing to do is to stop reading the meme. Any image that mentions a policy idea which is unworkable is not worth your time. But that’s not how our brains work. We can’t stop. We have to keep going.

Try not to get infected.


Responding now is like trying to get spilled milk back into the jug. The word cancelled is obviously wrong. Nobody took a look at a bunch of specific tax returns and then decided to throw them out. But in any case, if someone got away with not paying taxes, shouldn’t we go after them and make them pay their taxes? What does other people’s student loan bills have to do with any of that?

If you carefully take it apart, the meme doesn’t make any sense. Yes: we do have problems with the cost of education and student loan debt. Yes: our tax code has problems too, especially with regard to the ultra wealthy.

But these facts are not connected. They are two very real issues, but they don’t have anything to do with each other [3]. And yet, this meme insists that they do.

And like all viruses, the host is infected. And chances are that this virus will be shared with others.

There is no other choice. All we can do is to implore one another: think carefully before you click.


[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/22/student-loan-forgiveness-where-members-of-congress-stand.html

[2] https://time.com/nextadvisor/loans/student-loans/student-loan-forgiveness-predictions/

[3] Okay, sure, they are both vaguely related to government corruption, but what’s not related to that?

Gerrymandering is Not Announcing Your Intentions

For several years, I taught college courses at IUPUI. The most important day of the semester is the first one, when the professor distributes the syllabus and explains the parameters for the course.

I always tried to make it clear what we would be doing week after week, and importantly, the criteria by which students would be graded. Although the contents of assignments and discussions would be a surprise, the intentions were well defined.

But that’s not at all what happens when legislators draw maps. Because yesterday, a committee at the Indiana statehouse released their proposed maps for state and federal offices, and they are…frustratingly vague.

Yeah, sure, you can click through to get a bit more detail [1], but these outlines on voting districts don’t tell you the important bits, such as income, age, and race distribution. Nor do we have the original computer files that were used to create these maps, since those haven’t been released either.

Really, all we know is that these outlines look a slightly bit different than the current outlines. And the current outlines have been widely described as partisan and unfair. Also there are only going to be three public hearings on the new maps. One was the day after they were released. One is the day after that. The final vote is a few weeks away.

If you’re getting the sense that very little about this process is democratic, you’re absolutely right. The lawmakers are, as the expression goes, picking their constituents. The nine congressional districts are likely to have the same balance of Republicans and Democrats that they have had for nearly a decade.

That’s why I am running for Congress. Because it shouldn’t be more of the same. We should all know what the parameters in advance.

Voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.


[1] Because they are the party in power and drawing lines is partisan, the maps are on https://www.indianahouserepublicans.com

The Reality Party is #7

I’m not running with a political party, and a New York Times piece out today helps illustrate why. It’s an op-ed centered around a twenty question quiz, and it claims to sort Americans into six political subdivisions based on their responses. It’s like being placed into a house in Harry Potter: your answers make you a Gryffindor, a Hufflepuff, a Ravenclaw, or a Slytherin.

But these questions are painful, because they don’t dig at the real issues. Question 3 asks, yes or no, “Should same-sex marriage be legal?” This is obviously designed to force respondents to announce their moral views on the lives of others.

Yet, there’s something more fundamental to consider: should the government be involved in registering, licensing, and tracking personal relationships at all? Why have we done it historically, and should we keep doing it? What are the benefits and drawbacks to the government’s role in marriage?

Another prompt asks how strongly you agree or disagree with the statement: “Local governments should decrease the size of police forces and the scope of their work.”

Which is bad question design. Because what if you want police forces to have more officers, but a narrower focus? And it’s not as if these departments aren’t already struggling to retain staff [1], nor are they similar across the country [2].

The worst one may be this: “I would rather be a citizen of the US than any other country.” (Possible responses range from strongly disagree to strongly agree.)

But this is a bullshit question: of course none of us actually know what daily life is like in every other country in the world. None of us are qualified to objectively pick the place that would be best for us. Perhaps once in a while the grass looks greener elsewhere. Is that how we’re supposed to answer this?

All of the questions in this list are broken. If we did create a political party in response to this quiz , it would be a seventh option: The Reality Party. Because in truth, the answer to pretty much all of the questions is either “we have no way of knowing” or “it doesn’t matter, because a change in policy wouldn’t have a practical effect anyway.”


The Democratic and Republican teams aren’t working any longer. And new parties based on the dumb questions from the existing parties—those wouldn’t work either.

Today, the main role of the political parties seems to be to get people to focus on fantasies. That they can change the behavior of millions of people with a new law or address systemic problems by adding or eliminating some government program.

This is why I am not running with a political party. We need to have more fundamental discussions. We need to talk about genuine principles, not unworkable policies. We need to accept the reality that most people have thrown their hands up in frustration. That most people don’t really subscribe to even most of the views of one party or the other.

That if we bother to vote, we are often doing so as a defensive action. To slow down the side which is definitely the worst option of the two.

So let’s stop trying to sort ourselves into political parties–the current ones or some imaginary list. What matters is that we’re Americans.

And our country needs our help.


[1] https://www.axios.com/police-morale-suffers-recruiting-down-fb25f81e-b423-41fe-9d5f-242d43ebf337.html

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/05/08/most-police-departments-america-are-small-thats-partly-why-changing-policing-is-difficult-experts-say/

Everybody is in the wrong (at least a little)

Here’s one way to summarize American politics these days:

We have the truth. It’s those other people that are completely full of it.”

There aren’t many slight differences of opinion, where people can see each other’s points and calmly discuss the nuances. Nope. For many, it’s all extremism, all of the time.

This is in part because of a psychological phenomena known as confirmation bias. In short, when we get new evidence, we tend to use that information to confirm what we already believe, rather than evaluating it independently.

That’s what happened last week when a local TV station in Oklahoma City released a segment about the current state of the pandemic. Here’s the headline and the lead sentence:

Patients overdosing on ivermectin backing up rural Oklahoma hospitals, ambulances

A rural Oklahoma doctor said patients who are taking the horse de-wormer medication, ivermectin, to fight COVID-19 are causing emergency room and ambulance back ups.

KFOR-TV

Almost everything in that statement is not factually true:

  • There is no backup in hospitals or ambulances caused by people taking ivermectin.
  • A doctor didn’t make this claim, at least not based on the quotes that appear in the video.
  • Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic medication that is used both in humans and in a variety of veterinary settings, including in horses, dogs, and reptiles.

Again, it’s not true. But it sure feels true. That’s because there have been all kinds of other stories in the news related to these topics. People have been taking this drug recently. There is some indication that it might be helpful against COVID-19. And ivermectin can be purchased over-the-counter without a prescription, including from farm supply stores as well as online retailers.

From there, the story only gets worse. Rolling Stone magazine ran a piece using the KFOR article as their source. MSNBC picked it up too. So did lots of other commentators, especially those on the Left for whom the idea of “hospitals backed up due to people taking horse medication instead of following expert advice” feels like a true story.

It’s confirmation bias. People tend to take new information and assume it supports what they already believe.

But this story is false. And guess how those on the Right responded? By claiming this is “another example” of media dishonesty. And they note that there isn’t much of a response to their critique: Rolling Stone made an update, but not a retraction. KFOR has been silent on the matter. Few of the high-profile commentators have apologized for spreading false information.

Thus, we are probably at the end of this news cycle. By the time you read this, the world has moved on to being angry about other things.

And maybe it will be the Right who makes the error the next time. Maybe they will fail to double check their sources. Or even act with intentional malice, as some claimed happened this time.

Either way, it’s the confirmation bias that is eating us up, bit by bit. We have to stop believing things because they sound like they are true.

Because “sounds like true” is not the same as actually true. Even if that seems easier to believe.

The True Story Truly Matters

I find it easy to remember bumper stickers. That’s no surprise; they are intended to be memorable. Here’s one I saw as a kid that always fascinated me:

This is an oversimplification of what happened, but it’s generally true that groups of workers organized and rallied for the five day week starting in the 1860s [1].

Likewise, the reason most of the country has the day off today is because of trade unions and labor groups. Labor Day was created as a holiday to celebrate the labor movement.

Today, our relationship with organized labor is far muddier. In the mid-1950s, just over a third of American workers were members of a union. Today it’s around 10% and is mostly declining. Plus, more and more people are skeptical of the value of unions.

In fact, I even saw a post today that read something like:

Without business owners there would be no “Labor” Day! Thank you to all of the business owners that get up and each and every day to make our country great!

Um, no. Labor Day exists despite the efforts of business owners in the past, not because of business owners in the present. But it’s easy to see why people are confused. After all, Labor Day is more about barbecue, the end of summer, and the start of school for many people. Images like this one, of a parade in downtown Buffalo, aren’t what we think of for this day:

There’s an open discussion to be had about the role of organized labor in modern society. Our economy is different today. More jobs require skilled work, and more people enter the workforce after receiving extensive training. Safety regulations are far more stringent, and there are mechanisms such as workers’ compensation programs and unemployment insurance.

But we shouldn’t forget why we have a Labor Day in the first place. It’s because laborers joined forces and used the power of solidarity to demand change.

Is it time to change the way we think about work, about management, and about government regulation of labor practices? Maybe. But it’s never going to be time to rewrite history.

Labor Day was created to celebrate the progress made by the labor movement. The truth matters, always.


[1] https://www.businessinsider.com/history-of-the-40-hour-workweek-2015-10

Playing by the Rules

Here in Indiana, we play a card game called euchre. Like all such contests, there are rules that must be followed in order for the game to work. You have to follow suit, for example, and also coordinating with your partner via “table talk” is strictly forbidden.

It’s the rules that make euchre work. And it’s the rules that make a government and a society work too. When you don’t follow the rules, the game isn’t fun to play. And when a government or members of society don’t follow the rules—well, that’s far worse than cheating at cards.

In our country, the details of the rules are extremely complicated with more nuance than any one person could ever understand. That’s because there are hundreds of millions of citizens and all kinds of situations the laws are trying to cover. But all most of us need to know was covered in your high school civics class:

  1. A brief document called the Constitution is the supreme law of the land.
  2. Congress makes laws according to the powers listed in the Constitution.
  3. The Executive Branch, headed by the President, is responsible for implementing and enforcing those laws.
  4. Any laws Congress is not interested in making or isn’t permitted to under the Constitution are handled by states and local municipalities.
  5. If citizens have a problem with a law or with its enforcement, they can challenge it in the court system; and the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of whether or not an act is or is not legal under the Constitution.

There’s more to know, of course, but that’s the basic framework. And it’s why what’s happening in Texas right now is downright frightening. Because in 1973, the Supreme Court decided that a whole category of state laws were unconstitutional. They Court further refined their ruling in 1992.

But last week, a Texas law went into effect that directly violates what the Supreme Court has already said. That’s not how the system works. A state cannot ignore the Constitution and rulings by the Supreme Court.

In your own family, the person who cheats at euchre is ruining the game for everyone else. And maybe the consequences are only that you do something else to pass the time while dinner is cooking.

But in our nation, when people in the government break the rules, the consequences are far more severe. And it’s not just happening in Texas. Or in Indiana. There are rulebreakers absolutely everywhere.

It’s okay if we want to change the rules. That’s a conversation we can have. But the rule of law—the agreement to follow the rules we have—is essential.

I’m running for Congress because playing by the rules is the only way I play.

An Extra Sixty Seconds

There’s some work involved, to be sure. But these days, getting your facts straight often takes at most a minute to find out.

That’s because we have search engines. Practically the entire sum of human knowledge is at your fingertips, 24×7, from almost anywhere on the planet. But for some reason, people will repeat claims that are verifiably false. They will smash the share button or click the retweet. Or for a classic move, they will another “FWD: ” to the front of the email subject line as they forward on the message.

It’s easy to dismiss this behavior as people being lazy or stupid. But I don’t think that’s it. Rather, I think people are busy and it’s much easier to assume something which sounds like it’s true is probably true.

I’d love for everyone to take the extra sixty seconds to check things out. But perhaps what’s more important is for all of us to agree that we care about the truth. It’s hard to accept when we are wrong, and yet, finding the right answer (if one exists) is how the world moves forward.

Take the extra sixty seconds. Try and get it right.

And if I made a mistake, please let me know.

The Power of Moral Consensus

There’s a scene from an episode of the AMC drama Mad Men where some characters go on a family picnic. They lay out a blanket and enjoy the sunshine. Once they are finished, the iconic Don Draper hurls his empty beer can into the distance. His wife Betty picks up the sheet, dumping their trash onto the ground. Then the couple and their kids load into a car and drive away.

In the 1950s, this behavior was commonplace. Picking up the garbage was someone else’s job. But over the next few decades, the culture shifted. Anti-littering campaigns were launched. City ordinances were passed. TV commercials and public announcements and cleanup projects slowly turned the tide.

And today, people generally do not dump their trash on the ground. The scene from Mad Men is shocking. Littering is not cool.


This isn’t the only example. Smoking cigarettes is no longer cool [1]. Marriages between people who are white and black are now widely accepted [2]. According to one prominent source, the struggle for gay rights is “over” [3]. You can probably come up with more aspects of our society that have also transformed. This is the power of moral consensus.

All of these trends, however, took decades. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the public adapts nearly instantly to decide what is right, and practically everyone starts doing exactly that.

Like the one epidemic, in which:

Parents so dreaded polio that they were quick to seek the vaccine for their children, and coercive policies never became necessary [4].

That’s not happening today. Maybe it’s because kids aren’t as susceptible to COVID-19. Or maybe it’s because we don’t trust the authorities like we used to.

Without moral consensus, our society cannot advance. We can’t decide what is and is not a problem and what must be done.

That’s why I’m running for office: because there is a moral consensus that traditional politicians are corrupt.

I’m not a member of a party. I’m not taking money. I’m like you.

I’m fed up.


[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/therapy-in-mind/201110/has-smoking-finally-become-uncool
[2] https://news.gallup.com/poll/163697/approve-marriage-blacks-whites.aspx
[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/06/battle-gay-rights-over/592645/
[4] https://www.oah.org/tah/issues/2015/august/vaccination-resistance/

For vs. Against vs. Can’t Afford to Think About It

There are two sides to every issue in American politics. For and against. Pro and con. The people in favor and the people opposed.

(This isn’t remotely true about the details of the issues themselves, of course. There are many options in between the extremes. You can be a fan of some public art projects and not a fan of others, for example. You can want to spend a little more or a little less on national defense. But overall, we’re told to pick a position and stick to it.)

COVID-19 is another example. One side insists that we need national unity on public health measures: masking, social distancing, vaccination, testing, and contact tracing. The other side is skeptical of these proposals: warning against government overreach, concerned about profit motives, and generally distrustful of institutions and officials.

These two positions are diametrically opposed. The result is gridlock. Not much progress is being made, and it doesn’t look like things are going to change. Today, it feels like we’re going to forever be in coronavirus purgatory.

But there is a third side to the issue. It’s not the people who are shouting TRUST THE SCIENCE. It’s not the people who are shouting DON’T TRUST THE GOVERNMENT.

It’s the people who cannot shout, who are barely heard, because they are too poor to matter.

My acquaintance Crystal Grave pointed me at some news stories about the third side. One talks about a woman in rural Alabama who went door to door to convince her neighbors [1]. Another is about a group in Massachusetts that organized a block party [2]. Neither of these populations are likely to be reached when most of the emphasis is on the screaming between the two main sides.

Which to me, is the point: we have to stop being obsessed with positions, and instead focus on listening to people.

Because it is people who need help. Who have questions and fears and beliefs.

It’s people who are going to be affected by how the government decides to act and how industry decides to respond.

People are what matter. Not positions. Not sides. Not being for or against. Individual people, trying to get through the day, hoping for a better tomorrow.

People are the third way, and people matter most.


[1] https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-documentary/an-alabama-womans-neighborly-vaccination-campaign

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/08/05/vaccine-block-party-lowell-massachusetts/

The Internet Makes It Easy to Be Cruel

My friend Laura told a story the other day about two men she knows who are lifelong friends. They serve on a board together, and disagreed on an issue for the organization. According to Laura, the conversation when like this:

“I’m cancelling 20 years of our 40 year friendship!” said one friend to another after a disagreement on an issue today, pointing his finger for added emphasis. “Oh yeah? Which of the 20 years are you going to cancel?”

Afterwards, the two men were seen laughing as they left the room.

But that’s not what it’s like online. Go into a Facebook thread, a message board, or log onto Twitter and you’ll see people practically screaming at each other. They will make disgusting insults and horrific comparisons. There will be threats of violence and calls for others to join in the attack.

But these kinds of things don’t happen offline, or at least, not as easily. We tend to get along in person and sometimes be able to see other people’s point of view. And I’m not the first person to notice the Internet is filled with bad behavior [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8].

This is why I want to get together with people in person. When looking at a screen, it takes an incredible effort to see other people as human beings. It’s too easy to be cruel online.

But not in person. So let’s get together, and talk.


[1] Psychology Today in 2018.
[2] Mark Manson in 2017.
[3] Gothamist in 2012.
[4] CNN in 2011.
[5] TechRadar in 2009.
[6] The New York Times in 2007.
[7] The St. Louis Dispatch in 2005.
[8] Journal of the American Society for Information Science in 1998.