Will the legacy of a statement be lost in a sea of memes?

Last week, the world breathed a collective sigh of relief when the job of the president of the United States was handed over from Donald Trump to Joe Biden without any major chaos. While Trump deigned to even be present, at least he did not make it worse. Which, given his track record, is a sign of potential growth. Or maybe that is just the unbridled optimism that I am often accused of.

I saw bits of the inauguration ceremony, and I have to say, America knows how to put on a show. From Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez to the new face of poet Amanda Gorman, I have seen movies less engaging and entertaining than the presidential inauguration.

Which is why it is almost funny how the most hyped moment of the day, circulating the internet many times over by now, was a photo of a somewhat disgruntled looking Bernie Sanders sitting there. As one internet meme pointed out, he looked like “attend the ceremony celebrating peaceful transition of power in this nation” was just another item on a long todo list the veteran senator had to get through on Wednesday.

Since then, Bernie Sanders has ended up becoming a meme template. Finding Bernie in a mask in the most unexpected places has been a common occurrence this past week. In fact, Sanders himself made the most of it by selling t-shirts with the meme on them for a fundraiser.

I have to admit, some of the memes are funny. Bernie Sanders sitting with the Justice League, or Bernie Sanders in someone’s backyard, is yet to get old, in my humble opinion. Nevertheless, something is bothering me.

For the last two elections, Bernie Sanders has represented, to many Americans, someone who understands their struggles. Someone who believes that no one should have to choose between keeping their home and getting healthcare. That anyone willing to go to college and work hard should not collapse under a mountain of student loans. For pretty much his entire life, Bernie Sanders has stood for ideals that have made him a very lonely soldier. And yet, Sanders has not compromised. Following last week, in fact, Sanders has made clear that sometimes, his very appearance is a sign that he has not, and will not, compromise.

The first thing you notice in that photo, is that Bernie is substantially distanced from everyone else around him. Even amidst celebration, he is mindful of social distancing. He is wearing a mask. Not a fancy designer one that probably costs more than one of my shirts. In fact, he is wearing the same blue surgical mask that a store would hand out for free when you do not have one of your own. He looks grumpy, possibly because he is cold. Relentless servant of democracy that he is, Sanders is still unhappy about being outdoors in the January cold. Talk about keeping it real!

The newspapers that ran stories about the outfit choices of all the guests at the ceremony hit the mother lode of talking points from the Senator’s familiar mittens. The hand-warmers, a gift from a school teacher drew attention to educators around the country who have been scrambling to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of education without anything resembling the necessary infra-structural support, and that they were repurposed from old sweaters and recycled plastic fleece made the kind of ‘style statement’ that is actually relevant in the era of climate change.

What I am trying to say is that Bernie Sanders, whether he meant to or not, said a lot with his presence. The fact that he showed up means he cares for democracy and the peaceful transition from one president to another, something that many Americans now realize they were taking for granted for too long. The manner in which he showed up, probably shows that for him this is doing his duty, not just celebrating. He has an envelope in his hands, because he still has to get some work done after this. Bernie Sanders is here to cheer on the next president, but he has not forgotten, and is not about to ignore, his own part in the long battle ahead. If only each of us could do as much.

Bernie Sanders has lived a lonely life in the arena of US politics, advocating for rights that very few care for to the extent that he does. He has had two unsuccessful bids at running for the highest office of the country that did not meet with much success, because voters on all sides feel that they stand to lose a lot if Sanders gets to do the things he wants to. Wildly popular among younger Americans, it still seems unlikely that he will get to see the issues he advocates for so fiercely resolved in his lifetime. Yet, Bernie Sanders plods on. With his functional outfit, his frown, and the commitment to stand — or sit — alone when that is what time demands of him.

It is just a tad bit unfortunate that all this seems to get lost, when one of the last senators fighting for the little guy, gets reduced to a meme template.

Hammad Ali is a PhD student and a lover of fountain pens



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