You’re a savvy, patriotic person, so I’m sure you’d heard of “gold star families” before the Democratic National Convention. If not, don’t feel ashamed. The memory of our fallen soldiers may always be in our hearts, but it isn’t always in our search history.
The graph below represents the popularity of the search term “gold star families” between January 1, 2004 and August 7, 2016. You probably know the cause of the second spike. But do you know the cause of the first?
You clicked, so I’ll cut to the chase.
The run-up begins with the incorporation of the Gold Star Families for Peace co-founded by Cindy Sheehan in January of 2005. You might remember Sheehan as the woman who called for the impeachment of George Bush. Her son was killed in the Iraq war. As you can see, interest in her organization really peaked during the week of August 7th through the 13th 2005. That’s because Sheehan lead a protest outside of George Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas that week. She was a cool lady.
That week marks the high point in popularity (as a search term) for “gold star families,” higher even then when Donald Trump managed to insult Ghazala Khan after her husband gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention.
So what happened during the time in-between these two notable political events? Why was it so quiet? And what happened to the term prior to January 2005?
To answer this, we need to look at the phrase not as a reference to the noble suffering of military families, but rather as a “meme.” This is the word used by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene to describe a unit of culture. For Dawkins, a “meme” was analogous to a “gene” in the way it expressed itself in different, evolving environments. Internet memes are just one popular variety of memes, but there are many types.
In fact, this is the foundation a whole field of study, Mimetics, which some people consider a pseudo-science. I won’t take a side on this argument. The point is, to call “gold star families” a meme isn’t to trivialize the sacrifice. Rather, it is merely a structuralist’s attempt to describe the phenomena of language.
This is a meme map. (PDF) This map represents the fie cycle of a meme. Anything above the choke point represents the moment when the meme–the cultural unit–entered into the public sphere. Cultural institutions like the media knock it around bit before it gets sent down again through the choke-point and back into a gestational phase.
So it was always there, quietly building up momentum, born and reborn in our political discourse. In that time, many states began to recognize Gold Star Mother’s Day though at different times and years. On September 28th, 2012, Barack Obama made a presidential proclamation to declare September 30th 2012 Gold Star Mother’s Day.
And before 2005?
During world War I and II, the phrase “gold star families” is rarely used, but it does refer to the banner that families sometimes displayed when a loved one was in military service. A blue star represented current service; a gold star represents the loss of the service member no matter what the cause; a silver star represents those wounded during service.
But that term had little popularity outside of this context. between 1975 and 1995, the phrase made its way into local newspaper articles like the St. Paul Pioneer Press or Massachusetts’ own Telegram & Gazette. State and federal briefs sometimes used the term. At least one police organization in Chicago used the gold star to represent fallen police officers. One could argue that the meme was on the verge of dilution
But it’s back, for now, rounding its way toward the choke point. I suppose George Orwell would not approve of our use of the term. He’d probably see it as the degradation of language, which in turn was proof of the degradation in our thinking.
Yet I find the term–and it’s fluctuation–a convenient reflection our own discomfort with war and combat veterans. Perhaps by looking at the term as a meme, we can use our search history as a means of studying our own thoughts.
“For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he,” says the author of Proverbs. If true, then maybe this meme ought not disappear too quickly.
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