The Buffoon Meme

Quico says: Here’s a sobering thought: it’s a good bet that this month worldwide many more people have heard about Hugo Chávez giving a state-produced cel phone a vaguely cock-associated name than about his moves to silence dissenting broadcast media, strip most elected opposition politicos of any real power, steal dozens of private businesses (“nationalize” is such a spineless euphemism) and declare people who criticize him “un-human.”

Not that it’s surprising. The Buffoon Meme is highly contagious. Stories about Chávez doing totally ridiculous stuff are much more “email-this-story”-friendly than reporting about dictatorial moves. When Chávez calls a gringo president an illiterate donkeys, breaks out into song in the middle of addresses to the National Assignments or demands an urgent coroner’s investigation into a 180 year old death, he makes natural water-cooler fodder: the kind of stuff an editor for a regional newspaper looking to plug a hole in an inside page will be irresistably drawn to.

No matter how much or how well we write about it, the looming-dictatorship stuff just can’t compete. Sober-minded accounts about the rise of an ideologically extreme authoritarian regime in the heart of the Western Hemisphere are just no fun.

But the buffoonery beat? Everybody wants in on that game.

The Buffoon Meme has warped international perceptions of the Chávez era. I’m often surprised, when writing in international fora, at how large the Meme looms in readers’ minds. First world lefties who are not taken in by the temptations of PSFery too often come to see chavismo as one big joke, a light hearted rump at the hands of a zany Apatowcrat too bumbling to really harm anyone.

None of which is to imply that Chávez isn’t a buffoon. Of course he is.

What I mean, instead, is that the Buffoon Meme conceals much more than it reveals. It impedes the rise of a clear-eyed understanding of chavista autocracy in international public opinion. It makes the whole macabre experiment seem fun and harmless and wacky, rather than scary and mindlessly destructive and atavistically oppressive. It doesn’t help.