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Gadfly for President 2020

by Isabelle Pappas 

Everyone has said that this year’s presidential election is the most important one of our lives. And yet, it seems that we’re all regarding it as one big joke, with many memes resulting from various campaign rallies and presidential debates. We make fun of things when we get too uncomfortable. When the severity of a situation becomes too great, we turn it into a digestible joke. It’s like that nervous laugh that comes out during an interview. Except for it’s our entire culture laughing … laughing at the absurdity of politics in 2020.

 An important vice presidential debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence took place on Wednesday Oct. 7, but all that came out of it were memes. Those of us who watched the debate most likely retained some of the candidate’s focal points for only a limited time after the event. Even four weeks later, we still remember the fly that made a guest appearance when it landed on Pence’s head for a whole two minutes during the livestream. Even those who didn’t tune into the entire debate still know about that moment.

 The day after the election, memes of this fly on Pence’s grey strands swarmed the internet. According to the BBC, “the phrase ‘the fly’ ha[d] been tweeted and retweeted more than 700,000 times since it appeared during the debate.” Unbeknownst to him, the fly was famous. Even Joe Biden leveraged the fly incident for his campaign. He created the domain http://flywillvote.com which helps voters register to vote and locate voting sites for the 2020 election. Immediately after the debate, Biden and his campaign started selling fly swatters that “swats away flies and lies.” Biden, it seems, joined the public in making a mockery of the debate. It was no longer us laughing at him. It was all of us laughing at the fly.

 In a way, the fly was a deflection by both the politicians and the public — a deflection from the serious issues that matter most. All the memes that follow these presidential debates are simply deflections from the harsh reality of it all. Meme culture has increased exponentially these last few years, and it took off especially during this election season with their heavy political content. Social media portrays life as one big meme and calls it reality. There’s a danger to this, and the power of the meme should not be underestimated or abused. 

 Though I thoroughly enjoy the content, I don’t think we need more memes. Over time, they may desensitize our culture to the volatility of our current political state. They tend to normalize the abnormal, which can have lasting effects on our morale as a society and as a political culture.

 This presidential election, we need another fly. Perhaps a gadfly, like the one Plato writes about … a gadfly that will sting American politics and awaken it to peace, truth and justice. Plato in The Apology writes of the gadfly: “I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long … arousing and persuading and reproaching … You will not easily find another like me.” We need a president who will consider himself the gadfly for America just as Socrates considered himself the gadfly of Athens.

Isabelle Pappas can be reached at icp6@cornell.edu.

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