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How Memes Get Twisted

I recently removed my read copy of TJ Stiles The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt from the shelf and paged through the introduction. I enjoyed the book both in the way it was written and in learning of the life and times of this esteemed capitalist and thought it might be nearing time for a re-read as I am certain that I would appreciate certain details differently now than when I first read the book almost 7 years ago.

One passage stood out to me right away as evidence in favor of this supposition because I do not remember it at all:

His strength of will was famous indeed. Vanderbilt had first amassed wealth as a competitor in the steamboat business, cutting fares against established lines until he forced his rivals to pay him to go away. The practice led the New York Times, a quarter of a century before his death, to introduce a new metaphor into the American vernacular by comparing him to the medieval robber barons who took a toll from all passing traffic on the Rhine.

I was floored re-reading this (well, as floored as I could be in the dim moments before bedtime). If you’ve heard the “robber barons” meme in contemporary discourse, its typically trotted out as a catch-all word to disparage a person who is extremely wealthy, implying perhaps to a criminal degree not in the sense that the wealth was acquired illegally, but that no one should be allowed to be so wealthy. This is the latest evolution in the use of the meme. Maybe even five years ago, the meme was used to mean a large corporation or wealthy person who was exerting undue influence in society, against the social mores of the Left, synonymous with “capitalist pig.” The tie to “robber barons” was the implication that there was something overtly political, and unfair, about the activities of a person or for-profit institution with so much wealth.

Going back still further, the meme seemed to be a muckraking term favored by the Progressives on their march, associating any type of large industrial scale as seedy, sinister and exploitative– not captains of industry, but robber barons who achieve their size and wealth not by solving the world’s problems, but by creating arbitrary opportunities to siphon off resources by gumming up the works.

But according to this quote from Stiles, the meme originated in Vanderbilt’s heyday (early to mid-1800s) to describe his actions, and the actions which inspired the response were not the actions of a monopolist or large-scale corporate monolith as has become fashionable, but the opposite! At this time, Vanderbilt was the scrappy upstart pestering the “established” businesses and giving them their first taste of competition, and he was being pilloried for this by the establishment press. Today, businesses and businessmen are attacked for raising prices, whereas Vanderbilt was being attacked for cutting them– finding cheaper ways to provide the same service just wasn’t the “gentlemanly” thing to do. We see here the origin of the meme is a lot closer to the “corporate raider” personality of the 1980s than the “corporate titan CEO” of the 1990s or 2000s.


Modern Feminists Can’t Think Straight About Pregnancy

From “Get the Epidural” at

No one ever asks a man if he’s having a “natural root canal.” No one ever asks if a man is having a “natural vasectomy.”

First, women get root canals done, too, so this is terrible gender-baiting. Second, a root canal is a medical procedure designed to treat a diseased tooth, while a vasectomy is an elective surgery designed to prevent a man from transmitting his sperm during intercourse.

Pregnancy isn’t a disease and neither is the process of giving birth. The attempt to analogize between disease treatment, elective surgery and the very natural process of experiencing a pregnancy and a birth after sexual intercourse fails miserably, in this case.

Now, two completely separate questions are: 1.) Is it “desirable” to experience the pain of child birth if you can avoid it by injecting drugs? and 2.) Does anything in the drugs administered during an epidural a.) represent some kind of toxic risk to mother or child b.) potentially inhibit hormone-release and other natural processes within the process of birth that might further complicate either the birth itself or the natural bonding of the mother with her newborn?

But to inquire about such issues thoughtfully, one wouldn’t be able to write an angry NYT op-ed. And one certainly couldn’t eat a sugary cookie with the resultant unnaturally stimulated mental state it might entail!

As such, our motto here will continue to be, “If you find it in the NYT, treat it to an extra dose of skepticism!”