The Obama Meme?

Business Times - 11 Nov 2008

The Obama Meme?


HERE is a prediction on which I'm willing to bet my (401) K retirement plan (or what's left of it): In the next year or two we're going to see the rise of new movements for political change around the world whose common theme will go something like this: 'Why can't an Obama-like political leader be elected in ?'

In short, whether you're in, say, Russia, Argentina, Egypt or Britain, watch out for that 'Obama Meme'.

A 'meme', a term coined by the evolution theorist Richard Dawkins, is an idea, theory or fashion that propagates itself and can spread around the world similar to the contagious behaviour of a virus.

The notion that such memes would evolve through a process of competition became very popular during the 1990s when globalisation and the development of the Internet led many thinkers to suggest that memes that evolve in America's free-market of ideas and fashions would be able to spread worldwide through the new information technologies.

The global free flow of information and ideas would make it more likely that consumers here, there and everywhere would be likely to absorb the ideas that the memes represented. And like a virus, a political or cultural meme that reflected the values of political and economic freedom could end-up proving detrimental to their new hosts and force change in, say, China, Mexico, Saudi Arabia or Italy.

In many ways, the notion of a powerful American political-cultural meme spreading around the globe is as old as the American republic. America's Founding Fathers, who were challenging the philosophical tenets of the Old World of monarchs, absolutism and religious intolerance, hoped that the new political system that they established in North America would serve as a model for other nations, and in particular, the Europe that they had left behind.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin had never contemplated the idea that Americans needed to deploy their nation's military troops and oust the ruling monarchs and implant democracy in Europe. Instead, they believed that America could serve as the Shining City of the Hill for the rest of the world, that by developing and perfecting its relatively free political system, the new nation and its leaders would help provide the power of example to other countries.

And indeed, before the Obama Meme there were memes named after (Benjamin) Franklin, (Woodrow) Wilson, (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) FDR, (John Fitzgerald Kennedy) JFK, and (Ronald) Reagan, to name a few of popular US presidents or political figures who became international celebrities and whose vision for America helped ignite and fuel political and cultural changes elsewhere as did other American memes, including jazz, Rock n' Roll, blue jeans, or feminism.

I referred to America's 'relatively free' political system which, indeed, for many years supported the institution of slavery and racial discrimination and failed to provide equal rights for women. But the election of the bi-racial Obama as US President - the only non-white person to be ever elected as the head of government in any Western country - demonstrated that despite its many shortcomings that were clearly visible during the last eight years of the Bush Administration, the American political system has the necessary mechanism that provides for effective - and sometimes even revolutionary - change and renewal.

In that sense, the Obama Meme has less to do with the traditional ideological split of Left versus Right, and more with the divide between political, cultural and even technological progress versus business-as-usual and stagnation. The vanguard troops of the Obama campaign included young men and women attuned to the cultural and technological changes of early 21st century, who have grown-up blogging online and texting messages on their cell phones, joined by the bit older generation of urban and cosmopolitan and Blackberry-carrying professionals who have benefited from globalisation and technological changes, as well as by the new immigrants from the Third World who are transforming the demographics and culture of America.

This kind of cultural, technological and demographic forces is evident in many other parts of the world and is bound to be empowered by the images from America on cable television, the Internet and their cell-phones in recent days. And it won't take a long time for it to start challenging the stuffy, old and decaying powers-that-be in their respective countries.

Some of these challenges will be successful; others won't. But in any case, the spreading of the Obama Meme would prove to be more effective in 'exporting' American democracy around the world than the Freedom Agenda that the Bush Administration tried to promote in Iraq and elsewhere through the barrel of the American gun.

Texting - not bombing - countries around the world towards liberty fits with idea of America as a role model. And it could actually work.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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