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How Pepe the frog and Dilbert explain the culture wars of the 2016 election, in one comic

The alt-right’s controversial memes reflect the unsavory side of remix culture.

Pepe the frog faith
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

While millions of Americans geared up to watch the final presidential debate on October 19, an unlikely discourse played out on Twitter. The conversation involved the popular comic strip Dilbert, copyright law, an internet meme about a frog, and politics — and ultimately encapsulated the recurring themes that have come to define 2016.

The catalyst: this new comic by popular remix artist Leon Chang, a.k.a. @leyawn, in which he reimagines a 2009 Dilbert strip (click to enlarge):


In a nutshell, Chang’s comic covers a number of different topics while outlining what he believes is a hypocritical stance, on the part of Dilbert creator Scott Adams, regarding online remix culture.

But there’s a lot more going on here — most notably, a convergence of today’s ever-present tensions between generations, ideologies, and pre-internet and post-internet culture. And to unpack it all, we need to rewind a bit.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams is an unlikely alt-right hero

Dilbert has long been known for its satirical takes on the doldrums of office life. But the real-life views of its creator have proven increasingly controversial.

In recent years, Adams has been the subject of backlash for a number of different reasons, which include creating a fake forum account to defend an op-ed he wrote chastising B-level students; writing and then deleting a blog post in which he compared women to children and the mentally handicapped; and coming out as a staunch Donald Trump supporter. As a result, he’s become something of a cult hero within the alt-right movement, a role he has fully embraced.

On October 18, a man named Benjamin Greenzweig tweeted this altered version of a 1995 Dilbert comic strip:


You don’t need to know what a blockchain is, that the altered comic is a popular Bitcoin-related meme, or that in Scott’s original version of the comic, "blockchain" was an "SQL database" to understand what’s funny about it. The joke works because the punchline — our bosses are bad at technology and good at making mumbo-jumbo decisions on a whim — is eternal.

But to Scott, who apparently stumbled across Greenzweig’s share of the image, all that mattered was that two of the words in his original strip had changed. He accused the unknown meme maker of violating his copyright:

Greenzweig promptly deleted the tweet, but because Adams has more than 80,000 Twitter followers and because he frequently heckles his detractors from the other side of the political spectrum, some observers were quick to flag the exchange.

Like so many people on the internet, Adams frequently blends earnestness and satire with sarcasm, and it can be hard to tell when he’s joking. In this case, he could have been snarking, particularly given the fact that he once hosted a meme-making party centered on his own works on Cracked. But many people took him seriously, and lined up to remind him that parodies and memes are fully protected under the fair use clause of US copyright law.

Consequently, lots of people were quick to criticize Adams’s general misunderstanding of copyright freedom. And that’s where Chang and his own version of a remixed Dilbert comic come in.

Chang had a very specific reason to take issue with Adams’s comment: Pepe the Frog, a right-wing meme that has come to represent the worst of this election cycle — a meme Adams fully supports.

Internet remix culture has recast Pepe the Frog as a symbol of the alt-right and the Trump campaign

Matt Furie / The Anti-Defamation League

Comic artist Matt Furie invented Pepe the Frog in 2005, and later stuck the character into his successful single-panel comic series Boy’s Club, which featured Pepe as one member of a band of anthropomorphic bros. Pepe first became a meme in 2008, and originally spread via people, largely on internet meme hub 4chan, reacting to various things they saw online by sharing images of Pepe.

But beginning last year, through a series of odd coincidences that some have dubbed "meme magic," members of 4chan’s politics subforum (which has its own, often absurdist internal logic) have come to associate Pepe with both support for Donald Trump and a very heavily distorted version of Egyptian mythology. (It’s complicated.)

Pepe the frog faith

Since then, alt-right extremists have plastered the frog across Nazi and white supremacist imagery, and Pepe has taken on an entirely new "meaning" as a representative of hate speech and bigotry.

Fair use in copyright means Pepe’s creator has no say in the frog’s new negative associations

In September, Pepe unexpectedly hit the national stage after Donald Trump Jr. Instagrammed a version of the meme. Ever since, Furie has been proactively attempting to reclaim the cartoon character, in part by joining with the Anti-Defamation League, which has declared Pepe an official symbol of hate, for a "Save Pepe" campaign. On October 17, Furie posted his own despair-filled reaction to the politically progressive comics website the Nib, and published a vehement op-ed in Time declaring his frustration at seeing his character co-opted in such an ugly fashion.

"It’s completely insane that Pepe has been labeled a symbol of hate, and that racists and anti-Semites are using a once peaceful frog-dude from my comic book as an icon of hate," he wrote. "It’s a nightmare, and the only thing I can do is see this as an opportunity to speak out against hate."

The reason Furie can’t do more to control how Pepe is used is that Pepe memes are a legally protected form of parody under the fair use law. It’s the same situation Adams has found himself in with people altering his Dilbert comics. But that hasn’t stopped him from fully embracing the alt-right mythos of Pepe.

Adams’s embrace of Pepe is what inspired Chang’s repudiation of him

On September 14 — four days after Trump’s controversial Instagram — Adams mentioned Pepe the Frog in one of the hour-long "coffee breaks" (fast-forward to 2:35) he frequently broadcasts on Periscope. While admitting he initially didn’t understand the meme, he went on to declare that its origins provided a fascinating look into the nature of belief and ideological systems.

He ultimately dismissed the Nazi factor as just "a little wing of people trying to appropriate [the meme]," though Hitler references from Periscope followers during the discussion itself were frequent. "HAIL PEPE, HAIL HITLER, HAIL SCOTT" ran one typical response.

Watching "a little wing" of Nazis appropriate your art is a pretty sad experience for any artist, and Furie has obviously struggled with it, which is probably why Chang felt compelled to speak out against what he clearly views as Adams’s hypocrisy in trying to censor one meme while embracing another.

That’s why Chang’s remix of Adams’s Dilbert strip touches on the appropriation of Pepe by the alt-right movement. He points out the freewheeling nature of remix culture — the thriving interplay of creativity and collectivity online — while also expressing anger at the toxicity this free playground can engender.

It’s important to remember that Chang is himself a remix artist, known for using ’90s Nintendo music and images in his work. Although his new Dilbert remix describes remix culture as engendering a "risk of parody or theft" among creators, he is all too aware that it nonetheless yields plenty of new and unique art — and none of that art is necessarily a risk or a threat to the original creator. In fact, at times his own remixes have been a source of both controversy and inspiration.

In expressing anger over Furie losing control of Pepe, Chang is ironically borrowing the language and tone that anti-remixers are prone to using when labeling remixed artworks as copyright infringement, in spite of the fact that such works are almost always protected under fair use. This kind of language serves to stifle free expression of parody and other transformative works, "transformative" being a specific legal term to describe works that meet fair use criteria. Crucially, Chang explains that no one is immune to having their works remixed, and that remixes can often make important points — in this case, a political one.

The concern over Pepe reflects our larger unease with the ongoing culture war

The "if you can’t stop them, beat them at their own game" tone of Chang’s Dilbert parody may not be the best way to discuss fair use and the impact of remix culture. But it does reflect an unfortunate online trend that has emerged as during the 2016 election: alt-right memes like Pepe the Frog being used to align traditionally patriarchal values with internet culture.

From the beginning, this election cycle has been characterized by a bitter culture war between the progressive left and the alt-right, one that’s tromped through all corners of the cultural sphere and covered everything from Ghostbusters to gorillas. It has infiltrated all of the internet’s major social spaces, with skirmishes and harassment occurring constantly on Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit and everywhere in between.

Both sides of this culture war have been wrestling with boundaries and loss of control. Each of the alt-right’s flashpoint moments has been caused by the perceived loss of control that straight white men have felt at the "invasion" of "their" spaces by new voices and progressive ideology. In reaction to this loss of domination, the alt-right has fostered racist, sexist, and homophobic rhetoric — and sometimes far more horrifying actions, as in the case of the misogynistic, men’s rights adherent Santa Barbara mass shooter.

Reactions to the growth of the alt-right have mirrored the same horror and loss of control that Furie felt over the appropriation of Pepe the Frog. "Since the Internet has no centralized governing force," Furie wrote at Time, "it’s a complex web of interconnectedness that is always changing — and impossible to control."

The lack of a centralized governing force tends to infuriate anti-remixers about remix culture itself: The idea that the creator is "dead" is as controversial today as when Roland Barthes first wrote it in 1967, and it lives on in infinite memetic forms. When meme makers are engaged in anarchistic sociopolitical upheaval, the memes themselves — as well as the freewheeling space of remix culture itself — become tools for this anarchy. And among the people who seem to best understand the potentially incendiary nature of these memes is ... Scott Adams.

"If you look at the mythology that’s grown up around Pepe, and the belief that memes ... are actually changing the world," Adams said in his discussion of the frog, "the fascinating thing is that, as crazy as that sounds, it may fit the data, at least with the Trump stuff." Adams was referring to an (again, complicated) idea that many of Pepe’s supporters claim to espouse: that Pepe is the key to a mystical new world order of Trump-ish ideology, and possibly even a new religion.

And while that may horrify the rest of us, it may also, as Chang points out in his Dilbert comic, be the price we pay for meme-ing in a free, democratic remix republic.

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