February 19, 2003

French Military Victories

Matthew Yglesias had a post yesterday asking why people, including I guess me, use the word “meme”. For me, it basically does just mean idea, but there’s a deliberate connotation that it is an idea whose spread is more or less viral, rather than something that has spread by what I like to think of as rational methods. To take one prominent example.

Eugene Volokh linked to this apparently amusing graphic of a Google page showing that a search for French military victories revealed no hits, and asking if the author wanted to search for French military defeates instead. There’s been this idea (meme?) running around the right blog-predicament recently that the French are awful at war. Since the French seem to be doing pretty well for themselves in most respects nowadays, you could be forgiven for wondering why this doesn’t lead to a thought that war is a wee bit overrated. Reading the official history of the French military from east blogland (helpfully mirrored by a not-so-right site), and reflecting on how powerful and prosperous France currently is, you’d think the French slogan should be A few more defeats like this and we shall rule the world. But let that pass.

(Well, don’t let it pass quite so quickly. The right-wing discussion of French military history reminded me of nothing so much as the discussion of church teaching in Grace. In both cases the unintentional humour index is reaching Steinbrennerian heights.)

Anyway, the Google screenshot was obviously a joke, and I’m pleased in a Benthamite way that some people were amused by it. What I was more amused by was that people are apparently taking it as fact. So here’s Geoff Metcalf writing in Newsmax.com

A friend recently sent me an amusing item that prompted some follow-up research. If you go to a search engine like www.google.com and type in the query “French Military Victories,” guess what you get?

Type in Geoff Metcalf and you’ll get 9,700. Try George Bush and you get overwhelmed with 2,570,000. But for “French military victories,” zero, zilch, nada …

Now that, folks, is a meme.

Is it possible that Metcalf is being deliberately sarcastic/ironic here? I mean, it’s possible, but it’s a very odd, and oddly specific way to do so, if he is so doing. Is it possible he knows this is wrong and is intentionally lying? Well, that wouldn’t be the case. Would it? Was he just too lazy to do the search? The mind boggles.

So the philosophically interesting questions are these.

First, what is a ‘viral’-like spread of an idea rather than a rational spead? Auntie thinks that when I call a method of idea-transmission viral, I just mean that I disapprove of it. Auntie is very reductionist some days.

Secondly, is it part of the meaning of “meme” that it spreads virally, or just an implicature? I guess the latter, but I have no clear answer. Posted by Brian Weatherson at February 19, 2003 02:53 PM


Oyasumi nasai, boku no inu wa sakana de koroshita. Hontou ni arigatou. Minna wa takusan neko deshita.

Posted by: Omoshiroi at October 25, 2003 03:46 AM

omoshiroi desu nee.

takusan neko wa deshita ka.

doo desu ka.

Posted by: ts brock at October 25, 2003 05:14 PM

You write that this French google page was "obviously a joke." Well, it's a joke in the same way that the "miserable failure" query bringing up George Bush was a joke, i.e., Google for a time did bring up that page as the first one for "French Military Defeats" query and, for some time, Google didn't have any listing for "French Military Victories" instead inquiring as to whether the user would like "French Military Defeats".

Posted by: John at February 24, 2004 10:26 PM

What's funny about this odd little thing is that of all the nationalities, "French" always had the highest # of Google hits for "X military victories". It never had 0 hits, it just had a fake page that said that. (As was immediately obvious to anyone with enough brainpower to read a URL.) Now this says absolutely nothing about the relative ability of the French military - there really are no hits for "Macedonian military victories" except for one about the current Macedonia, and that is no evidence that classical Macedonia was a military weakling. But it's just an odd form of joke to choose.

Posted by: Brian Weatherson at February 24, 2004 11:51 PM