Even if you didn't watch the most recent U.S. presidential debate, you may have seen one image from it repeated on social media – the image of a portly guy with a moustache and a blazing-red sweater who asked an earnest question. The entire nation of commenting tweeters couldn't decide if they adored the guy or thought he was embarrassing. It was obviously both. The fascination with this one not terribly interesting guy – and in particular with his appearance – is evidence of a larger fascination with sophistication and the proud lack of it in American culture.
The guy, as you now know, is named Kenneth Bone, and he became an instant celebrity after appearing so very briefly on television to ask the rather dry question, "What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs, while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil-power-plant workers?" The audience was awed by the seriousness of his question in the very unserious, circus-like atmosphere of that non-debate, and by the questioner's unattractiveness. He was bald, bespectacled, tubby, with a moustache from 1985 and that comfy sweater. He was the opposite of cool, he was the opposite of slick; he was a nerd.
Bone was subsequently interviewed on CNN (where he wore the red sweater again, and was asked about it); GQ magazine proposed a "Ken Bone Halloween costume." He has his own "Know Your Meme" page. His celebrity was almost literally instantaneous: At no point in human history has a joke been so widely – globally – shared in a matter of seconds.
The idea that a large proportion of the U.S. population is sharing the same Internet reference at exactly the same time has implications for how we now see culture: There is such a thing, now, as one popular culture, without much room for niches.
The idea we once had of the Internet as a market for a million subcultures – the "long tail" marketers used to talk of – has proved not exactly accurate. Social media have made our popular culture, if anything, more monolithic. There is one joke at a time. The fact this joke usually originates in the United States, the undisputed dominant voice of Twitter, is not insignificant for the rest of the world. This ubiquity is flattening and homogenizing. It cannot be helpful for our own culture (which some of us still insist on seeing as distinct).
There is more that is fascinating about the Bone meme, though: The man's fame only increased when it became known he was an undecided voter – a rare creature the media have been hunting assiduously. Here was a real live and apparently quite normal and even articulate person – not wearing a white hood, not tattooed with swastikas or spouting misogynistic insults – who admitted quite happily to considering a vote for Donald Trump. Reporters in Washington, New York and Toronto do not know anyone who knows anyone who know such people. Bone appeared to a be a bridge over the horrifying polarity of U.S. politics.
And the reason the wags of Twitter – a place where caustic humour and sarcasm have the greatest entertainment value and are sought after, above all, profundity – found Bone so endearing was that he wasn't ironic or knowing. Once it was discovered he was from Belleville, in southern Illinois, possibly the least cool address that could have been invented, he became a symbol of a lost America, an innocent, normal one, a kind of Charlie Brown place where one's knowledge of celebrity sex tapes was not an asset, a time when the United States did not yet resemble the land of the Hunger Games. He is from a flyover state: We do not ask those people for their opinions on Twitter, usually, because we think they all wear dorky sweaters. But the idea of Midwestern small-town people as the bedrock of American civilization – the Frank Capra vision of Bedford Falls as the hard-working, family-oriented moral centre of the country – is attractive to even the wryest of Facebook wits.
In American literature, the conflict between the knowing – the sophisticated of each coast, with their connections to Europe – and the unworldly of the plains is a constant theme. In Henry James, well-intentioned Americans run into seductive Europeans who often turn out to be corrupt in some way; know-it-all Europeans go to the United States and are seduced by American forthrightness. The superiority of the knowing culture is by no means proven.
Same as in John Updike, where – in his early, late-1950s stories in particular – young men trying to escape the provincial earnestness of the U.S. Midwest go to Europe and find it lacking in muscularity and rawness. The story, A Trillion Feet of Gas (1956), for example, is about some liberal people's encounter with a crass Texan oilman. They find him riveting; a visiting Englishman is condescending. The young American reproaches the snobbish Englishman: "You're afraid," Luke said loudly, "of our hideous vigour."
There will always be a charm, for the United States, in a provincial earnestness, and that continues to be celebrated even in the age of ironic memes.