Inside the Meme Factory

By Christopher B. Daly

That phrase, Inside the Meme Factory, is the working title of my next book. It refers to an idea that is well illustrated in a piece on page 1 of today’s Times by the estimable James B. Stewart (lawyer, book author, contributor to both the New Yorker and the Times — is there more than one of him?). In his article, Stewart seizes on a comment made by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and tries to walk it back to its origins. The phrase involved a rhetorical question raised from the bench by Scalia during arguments over the national health care law, asking whether the government could make Americans do other things that are good for them, such as eating broccoli. Here’s the nub:

It turns out that broccoli did not spring from the mind of Justice Scalia. The vegetable trail leads backward through conservative media and pundits. Before reaching the Supreme Court, vegetables were cited by a federal judge in Florida with a libertarian streak; in an Internet video financed by libertarian and ultraconservative backers; at a Congressional hearing by a Republican senator; and an op-ed column by David B. Rivkin Jr., a libertarian lawyer whose family emigrated from the former Soviet Union when he was 10.

 Stewart’s painstaking track-back shows that the idea of challenging the limits of the Commerce Clause originated with libertarian thinkers and was sustained in a series of hand-offs by other libertarians and conservatives, all working within the universe of conservative institutions (Cato, Reason, Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, Reagan-appointed judges, a former Clarence Thomas law clerk, et al.) And, as so often happens, several of those institutions get crucial amounts of funding from the Kochs and the Scaifes.

The “broccoli” story exemplifies a much larger truth: most of the themes, slogans, argument-stoppers, images, and jokes that shape our politics and much of our public conversation don’t come from nowhere. Many of them are the fruits of deliberate efforts, especially among conservatives, and many of those efforts take place in a nearly hidden network of institutions. Those institutions include an array of think tanks, publishers, and conservative media outlets that generate and amplify conservative “memes.” In my book, I trace the deliberate campaign to fund and build this network of interlocking conservative institutions in the decades after World War II.

Stay tuned.

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Filed under Journalism, journalism history, media, New York Times, Supreme Court

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