Birth of a Meme

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Let the record show: on the single snowiest day in the history of Dallas/Ft Worth, the University of Texas at Arlington was open for business as usual.

UTA usually closes at the hint of a flake in the wind, so faculty and staff were perplexed at finding themselves on campus yesterday. It was tough to drive, tougher to walk in from your car, and once you’d walked in, Thursday provided a ghost-town experience, classes and meetings mostly unattended by people who’d had the sense to stay home.

Among those who soldiered in, the questions bubbled up: why are we here? Why isn’t UTA closed? In the universal human struggle to make meaning, people asked themselves: why is this day not like other days? Since it apparently wasn’t Passover, people started scanning the UTA Events Calendar for something out of the ordinary.

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Come to find that Earvin “Magic” Johnson was fixing to talk Thursday evening at Texas Hall. His topic was “32 Ways to Be a Champion in Business.” (As one wag put it, the first of the 32 is “Be a basketball Hall of Famer.”)

Critical thinking in the English Department quickly centered on a connection between Magic and the fact that we were tramping through a foot of slush to get to our depopulated classes. Or rather, a connection between somebody and the slush. Certain faculty opined that Michael Jordan was to blame. Others suspected Michael Irvin. But whoever they thought was speaking, suspicions ran high: they’re not closing UTA because they don’t want to cancel the sports guy.

F2F in offices and classrooms, on Facebook and Twitter among those who’d stayed toastily at home, we saw the birth of a meme: yeah, they’ll close this place at the first flurry, but if there’s any schmoozing with the stars scheduled for that evening, they’ll make us all drive in from Waxahachie.

Memes are fascinating things: in moments, they morph from snarky remark to common wisdom, with minimal pause for reflection in between. Because really, the “can’t close, Magic’s here” meme makes no logical sense whatsoever. Classes started at 8am; Magic was going to talk at 6pm. If it was important for Magic to speak at all costs, why not cancel daytime classes and announce that the University would open at 6pm? For that matter, why not announce that everything but Magic would be cancelled?

Worst case, the lecture itself would have to be cancelled. But reflect. Magic’s in town already. His speaker’s fee is a sunk cost. Instead of putting everybody through the ordeal of “32 Ways to Be a Champion in Business,” the great man could have proceeded directly to whatever upmarket watering hole the suits had picked out for his face time with the high rollers, sparing all concerned an hour of their lives and actually increasing the benefit to UTA.

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No, I gotta call nonsense on the Magic meme. And I don’t have any very good theory to offer in its place. To invoke Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven, “It seemed to be a good idea at the time.” When I got up at 6am on Thursday, there was snow on the lawn, but the paths and streets were clear. By 630, I remarked to my plus-one, “Could that be new snow on the walk?” By 8am, the new snow was ankle-deep, and we were splashing doggedly through it on our way to deliver quality instructional minutes.

No, I probably wouldn’t have closed UTA either. After all, when Magic Johnson and I (and 55,000 other people) were students at Michigan State in the 1970s, eleven inches of wet snow would have been just another school day. It wouldn’t have been one of my brightest decisions, but I’d have kept UTA open, and (as in the actual event) no real harm would have resulted.

But people crave order instead of randomness, key determining factors instead of “whatever,” and sinister motives instead of inertial forces. And always, everywhere, memes represent a collective distrust of authority that is salutary for a community.

UTA – like nearly every school, government, and corporation in the world – is in the business of producing hot air. Our leaders insist on branding us “Mavericks,” when we seem to be indistinguishable from any other large state university in the country. They loudly proclaim that we are moving toward “Tier One” status, when many faculty in the humanities are staggeringly overworked, and paid at near-poverty levels ($12,500 a semester to teach five classes is common). Neighbors of UTA get cheery mailings suggesting that UTA and Arlington are working together to make our city a real “college town,” although, in a city with a downtown so empty that every day seems like a snow day, a city famous for razing neighborhoods to put up stadiums with vast parking lots, UTA’s biggest new community initiative is . . . putting up a stadium with a vast parking lot.

Every institution in the world, I repeat, engages in such hollow rhetoric continuously. UTA is no worse than others, and is a pretty good place to work in lots of ways. But whenever there’s a high volume of white noise from officialdom, people stop listening pretty quickly. As a coping mechanism, they construct memes that cynically find hypocrisy at the heart of random, or even well-intentioned, behavior.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on February 12th, 2010 |3 Comments »

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3 Comments Leave a comment.

  1. On February 12, 2010 at 12:19 pm Tim Morris Said:

    Evidently UTA did close at 3pm, and Johnson spoke at 6pm as scheduled.

  2. On February 12, 2010 at 5:42 pm Bridgitte Arnold Said:

    Well said! I’ll have to tell you about my meeting with a city official today. :)

  3. On February 14, 2010 at 7:13 pm Toni M Holland Said:

    Thanks for pointing out my first in-the-process birth of a meme. Doing so will allow me to think about earlier bith-of-memes & those I will encounter in the future.

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