The rise and fall of 2021’s first great meme

John Kennedy
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7 min readJan 26, 2021


Welcome to Minority Report, a weekly newsletter from the LEVEL team that packs an entire week into a single email. From the internet’s recent obsession to the week in racism, from pop-culture picks to a must-read LEVEL story, it’s everything you need and nothing you don’t. If you’re loving what you’re reading, tell a friend to tell a friend.

For anyone with a keen eye for couture, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ presidential inauguration could’ve doubled as a fashion show. Michelle Obama’s monochromatic fit (designed by Sergio Hudson) was chef’s-kiss flawless. A rare and pricey pair of Dior Air Jordan 1s (donned by the husband of Harris’ niece) made sneakerheads turn. Lady Gaga wore a golden bird across her chest, serving The Hunger Games vibes.

And then there was Bernie Sanders.

Wearing a brown parka coat, knitted mittens, and a blue medical mask for a pop of color, the Vermont senator and former presidential hopeful showed up in the most Bernie way possible, looking like he was en route to handling some errands around town and not attending one of this nation’s most storied traditions. It was hella on brand. And once he was captured by photographer Brendan Smialowski in the instantly iconic pose — arms and legs crossed, looking cozy as fuck in a practical fit — the internet did its thing, and the first great meme of 2021 was born.

Six days after the now-ubiquitous image’s emergence, I ask — nay, beg of you: Knock it off.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of this meme that has flashed and flickered so brightly before burning out. The garbs are the first layer; so brash and aggressively passive, so defiantly out of place. The church says “come as you are,” and that’s what Bernie did. Then there’s the symmetrical posture. Is he waiting patiently? Impatiently? Both? Is he annoyed, or just trying to stay warm? It says so much and nothing at all. But whatever your interpretation, in that moment frozen in time, you could certainly feel the Bern.

It was the perfect input for the internet machine’s boundless creativity, and the meme train rolled through on the express track. Phase one was the captions; “This could’ve been an email” was an early winner. Then the Photoshoppery began: Bernie seated at the Last Supper, or in the Fresh Prince throne, or hugging on a topless Janet, or buried in the dogpile of Kendrick Lamar’s homies from the cover of To Pimp a Butterfly. Similar to the 2016 meme trend spawned by Drake’s Views album cover — which depicts the rapper sitting atop Toronto’s CN Tower — each placement of Sanders became more ridiculously ironic and absurd. Microsites were built, allowing visitors to drop him in mappable locations around the world. When an image circulated showing his torso attached to the legs of a jiu jitsu fighter pinning an opponent into submission, the meme had officially reached peak hilarity and stupidity. (Well, almost; first White people had to go get it tattooed on their literal bodies.)

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Alas, as is the case with the vast majority of meme trends, this one quickly went duller than the drip in Bernie’s normcore fit. I saw one meme where Bernie had been shrunken, Wayne Szalinski style, and dropped into a Where’s Waldo? illustration. (Shock G couldn’t even be that on the nose.) But the meme trend has become so ubiquitous that it’s twisted the world wide web into a similar configuration; I’ve since begun scanning undoctored images, waiting for my eyes to land on Bernie idling somewhere within, masked and mittened the fuck up. The limits of the internet’s time-space continuum are being tested. In other words, this meme trend has officially jumped the shark.

We’ve all had our fun (and even got some charitable apparel out of it). But in the words of Sanders himself, I am once again asking you to put this meme to rest.

— John Kennedy, senior editor

This Week in Racism

🗑 In a Stunning Twist, the Place Called “Whitestown” Isn’t the Problem

We’ve heard the story more and more in recent months: residents of this or that smallish town wake up to find that a hate group has left recruitment flyers in their mailboxes. Well, it happened again last week, this time in Indiana. In Whitestown, a little ways outside Indianapolis, townspeople fou — wait, hold up a second. Did we hear that right? Whitestown, Indiana? The state that used to lead the nation in Klan members wasn’t content to just have White County, White River, and Whitesville? We mean, yeah, nowhere should be targeted by people leaving papers that say “no white guilt” and “white lives matter” … but if you were an unimaginative white supremacist, you’ve gotta admit Whitestown is the VERY FIRST PLACE YOU’D GO. Anyway, it’s not Whitestown’s fault. At least not for this. Its standing on the “towns with racist-sounding names” list, though? That’s a different story. (Fox 59)

🗑 How to Succeed in Ohio Politics Without Moving Past Jim Crow

Last June, as the country was dealing with the double whammy of Covid-19 and a national conversation around systemic racism, Ohio held a hearing to determine whether it should declare racism a public health crisis. During that hearing, State Senator Jim Huffman — who is also an ER doctor — asked about the racial dimensions in Covid’s impact by saying, “Could it just be that African Americans or the colored population do not wash their hands as well as other groups?” Yes, that’s the phrase he used. (Later, he told the Washington Post that he thought the terms “people of color” and “colored population” were “interchangeable.”) Huffman was immediately fired from his ER-doc gig…but not from politics. Far from it, in fact: He was recently named to head up Ohio’s senate health panel! Wait, though, it gets better. The person who appointed him to the role? Well, that would be his COUSIN. In summation: nice work, Ohio! (CNN)

🗑 We’re Gonna Need a Whole Other Word For This Kind of Racism

Even if you’re not familiar with the term “ouroboros,” you’ve seen one: it’s the image of a serpent forming a circle by eating its own tail. But while the symbol has been around since the days of ancient Egypt, it might be time to swap out that snake for another slithering creature: Rand Paul, Mitch McConnell’s Kentuckian counterpart in the U.S. Senate. Paul went on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News on Friday night (strike one!), and proceeded to argue against President Biden’s fight for a $15 minimum wage (strike two!) by saying that…well, look, we can’t make the insanity any clearer than he could, so let’s just use his own words. “The people who lose their jobs first when you hike up the minimum wage are Black teenagers,” Paul said. “So, you know, ‘why does Joe Biden hate Black teenagers’ should be the question.” (And you’re out!) Let us get this straight: the problem with the minimum wage isn’t that it keeps families mired in poverty but that raising it would force business wonders to fire Black employees? For the record: this is untrue. But at least it proves once again that the most beautiful form of racism comes from accusing someone else of it. No wonder his 60-year-old neighbor whooped his ass! (Louisville Courier-Journal)

The LEVEL Up: Culture Picks From the Editors

🎶 Fat Joe Featuring DJ Khaled and Amorphous, “Sunshine (The Light)”

If there was any question about Fat Joe’s placement on LEVEL’s 40 Over 40 list, allow us to direct you to his newest single: a summery collaboration with DJ Khaled propelled by a blend of Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better” and Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much,’’ courtesy of the young music alchemist you should know, Amorphous. A two-step friendly mash-up that spans generations? Looks like Joey has cracked the code! (YouTube)

📖 Catherine E. McKinley, The African Lookbook: A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women

Black is beautiful — no matter what era or geographical region. This historical photography collection depicts that truth stunningly, telling the visual and textual story of African women living on the motherland between 1870 and 1970. Curator Catherine E. McKinley sheds light on their style, relationship dynamics, and the ways they’ve defeated colonial oppression to flourish on their own, presenting a hardcover that portrays Black women with dignity. (Barnes & Noble)

🤸‍♀️ Nia Dennis’ Viral Floor Exercise

Speaking of the eternal nature of Black girl magic, you’re gonna flip when you see UCLA gymnast Nia Dennis doing a routine to a hip-hop medley that ranges from Eazy-E to Missy Elliott to Soulja Boy Tell’Em. She earned herself a 9.95 score, a viral clip, and a YouTube comment that sums things up best: “She ate it up and left no crumbs.” Bon appetit. (YouTube)

LEVEL Read of the Week

The Free Hotline That’s Saving Women’s Lives by Disarming Dangerous Men

The Bogotá government is actively trying to resolve a crisis in the Columbian capital: domestic violence. After years of abysmal statistics regarding reported cases (many fatal), officials have launched a free public hotline to help quell machismo and assist men who require emotional support. Early indications suggest the psychologist-supported phoneline is providing an effective outlet — at least one suicide attempt has been averted and more than 700 calls fielded within its first month. Could America learn from this model? Read the story.

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