Viruses of the Mind Spread by Flawed Communications Systems

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The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson

SWEET HOME ALABAMALAND – The big wheels in my head keep on turning, trying to figure out a way to communicate an accurate message that can be understood by a diverse audience with widely variable education levels.


Nobody said it was going to be easy. Ask Lynyrd Skynyrd.

I sometimes wish there was a song I could sing that would help people understand what’s really going on. But you know song lyrics. They are sort of like poetry, art or even fair and balanced journalism. People take from them what they want to see based on their own biases, prejudices and preconceived notions, inherited from their parents and learned during their lives about how the world works, or at least how it’s supposed to work.

Take Sweet Home Alabama, for example, a hit song recorded in the early 1970s by Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd.

It first appeared in 1974 on the band’s album Second Helping, reaching No. 8 on the charts in 1974. It was the band’s second hit single and was written by Ronnie Van Zant, Gary Rossington and Ed King, none of whom were from my native state. Van Zant and Rossington were both born in Jacksonville, Florida and King was from Glendale, California.

But they did spend a fair amount of time recording in Muscle Shoals, although “Sweet Home Alabama” was first recorded at Studio One in Doraville, Georgia.

Some documentation available on the Web about the song says it was written as an answer to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” which dealt with themes of racism and politics in the American South.

All three songs have been misunderstood over the years, however, as might be expected since the world is made up of memes, sometimes bad ideas, beliefs or patterns of behavior that spread throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media, even songs.)

“We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two,” Ronnie Van Zant told Rolling Stone magazine in 1974, apparently trying to make the point that Young slammed the entire state’s population rather than just the racist bad apples, so to speak.

In 1975, Van Zant told an oral history researcher the lyrics about the governor of Alabama were misunderstood.

“The general public didn’t notice the words ‘Boo! Boo! Boo!’ after that particular line, and the media picked up only on the reference to the people loving the governor,” he said.

But it might be understandable why it was misunderstood, since the band toured with a giant Confederate battle flag as a backdrop. You have to figure that Van Zant and the boys were stoned out of their minds and didn’t know what they were talking about anyway. They were just having fun trying to write a hit song. It worked. Even today, in spite of the muddled meanings, the song is played at many Alabama football games and I even heard it played at a rally for Climate Change by the Washington Monument just last year. (You can hear it at the end of this video).

Besides, the line about the governor must have been meant ironically, since as far as I can recollect, my native county, Jefferson County, where Birmingham is located, never gave George Wallace a majority of its votes in a statewide election — except maybe in 1962, before black people were allowed the right to vote.

I saw the band play twice in the 1970s, once at Boutwell Auditorium and again at Rickwood Field one Fourth of July. I gave Wayne Perkins a ride to that concert. He played on some of the band’s albums as a studio musician but was back home in Birmingham after missing out on a chance to become a full-time guitar player for The Rolling Stones. Perkins sat in with Lynyrd Skynyrd during the encores that summer day and was given an Ovation guitar by Van Zant himself afterwards. He was once offered a chance to tour with the band but turned it down. (We are planning a video interview with Perkins soon to talk about that and other issues as a followup to the new documentary on the Muscle Shoals Sound).

For his part, Neil Young was booed off the stage in Mobile once and vowed never to play a concert in the state again, but in recent years he has apologized and gone back on that vow.

“I don’t like my words when I listen to it,” Young says of the song in Waging Heavy Peace, an autobiography published in 2012. “They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue.”

See what I mean?

Another definition of the word meme is: “a pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; a parasitic code, or a virus of the mind especially contagious to children and the impressionable.”

This speaks volume about how meanings can get twisted and pollute public affairs through politics by the use of misinformation passed on through the news media by beguiled reporters lured to pass on the fantasies of public relations men intent on purposely misleading the public for profits’ sake, perhaps especially in a behind-the-times land like Alabama.

Another way to look at it is that “a meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.”

When the Internet was new, lots of bad ideas were credited with being spread on the Web or by e-mail, which gave rise to the term Internet meme: “an idea, style or action which spreads, often as mimicry, from person to person via the Internet.”

I would like to propose a new term: the Mainstream Media Meme, MMM for short. This comes about when newspaper or television news reporters, trying their best perhaps to justify their paychecks, use questionable sources driven by the motive to raise money on both sides of an issue to gin up a fake controversy to drive traffic to a story on the Web so the news organization itself can make more money.

Now I could go on and try to correct this meme business, this virus of the mind, like a healthy does of antibiotics can kill a virus in the body. But let’s face it. The body politic thrives on misinformation, and you know people. Nobody likes to drink or swallow bad tasting medicine. Some would rather die and go to hell than be cured of their ignorance and live right.

© 2014 – 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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