Vladimir Zelensky is not a meme

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President of Ukraine Volodymyr A family photo of Zelensky constantly appears in my social media feeds. You may have seen it too. In the picture, the politician, along with his wife and daughter, holds their son on their knees. Father and son are smiling, dressed in superhero coloring book. This is a happy moment. This photo is captioned with an excerpt from Zelenskiy’s 2019 inaugural speech: “I don’t want my photo in your offices. The President is not an icon, not an idol or a portrait. Instead, hang pictures of your kids and look at them every time you make a decision.”

As Ukraine continues to grapple with the Russian invasion, its 44-year-old president has turned into a beloved wartime leader. Thus, this is not the only image of Zelensky that is now going viral. There is also a frontal video he took of members of his cabinet as they squatted in Kyiv, as well as photos of him dressed for combat. His joke about turning down an offer to evacuate the US (“I need ammo, not a trip”) is already featured on shirts, mugs and flags available on Etsy. Fans photoshop his head onto Captain America, claiming to be fiercely in love with him, and create “fan cam” video collages as a digital tribute. Zelensky is the number one target in the country with the most nuclear weapons in the world, and he’s not backing down – if there was ever a time to idolize a political figure, this could be this moment.

But politicians are not meant to be idolized, even at their best. This, in fact, was an excerpt from Zelensky’s speech. And there’s a difference between admiring a leader’s actions and worshiping him like a K-pop star. Believing that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an atrocity and that Zelensky is acting courageous does not mean that it is reasonable to apply the logic of goggle-eyed fandoms to his actions. In fact, this is clearly unreasonable. Treating Zelensky like a superhero—let’s call it marvelization—turns a geopolitical conflict in which real people actually die into entertainment, into content. When Russia bombed Kyiv New York Post published an article about who can play Zelensky in the inevitable film adaptation of the conflict. (Consensus? Avengers actor Jeremy Renner

Who exactly does it help? The same people who benefited from the canonization of former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the “infamous RBG”, I guess: no one. Despite her rise, when Ginzburg died, her place was taken by a woman who is her ideological opponent in everything. When certain segments of the liberal crowd in the United States were Robert Mueller investigation as a spectacle of heroes, buying T-shirts bearing the face of a former special counsel and calling former FBI Director James Comey “daddy” has not had a negative impact on the Trump administration. If anything, this behavior has helped Trump, who has always been keen to portray his opponents as the government elite. (It’s not that Trump doesn’t encourage his own stands — he gave them the iconic MAGA hat merch.) indicated already swallowed up American democracy back in 2019. It’s worse for us. Politicians are treated more like a different kind of celebrity than like civil servants. They have fan bases that give themselves names — Kamala Harris has #KHive, for example, and former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, unfortunately for everyone, had “cuomosexuals” — and who consider being close to their chosen politician as an extension of their personality. As for Zelensky, the fandom sprouting around him in the United States is particularly depressing because the circumstances he finds himself in are relentlessly grim. It is cruel to put the idea of ​​Zelensky on a pedestal when a man of flesh and blood is begging for help on earth.

Zelensky, who played the Ukrainian president on television before he was elected, is an inherently likable figure. He won the Ukrainian version Dancing with the Stars. He voiced Paddington Bear in the Ukrainian version Paddington Bear. He played “Hava Nagila” with his penis on the piano in front of a live audience. As I type all this, I like him more than I do now, even as I sit here writing about why it is wrong to mythologize politicians in this way. At this moment of true emergency, Ukraine has, after all, benefited from Zelenskiy’s talent for winning over the public. He has rallied international allies to help Ukraine, effectively communicating his country’s plight with rousing speeches.

Yet viewers who are willing to treat Zelensky as the new action star are not doing him any favors. “In studying memes and politics, we see that while memification helps a political message or cause spread to many people, it often comes at the cost of flattening the story,” says Sulafa Zidani, an MIT professor who specializes in digital culture studies. What is the harm, you ask, in viewing Ukraine as the Rebel Alliance and Russian President Vladimir Putin as Emperor Palpatine? Well, first of all, Zelensky is a man, not a Jedi. He has no magical abilities. Casting a real person as the Cinematic Savior is grossly unfair. Moreover, Putin rules a country filled with real people, many of whom are risking their lives to protest this invasion. It also reduces the plight of Ukraine to the fact that people in NATO countries can stop looking at their phones, sighing sadly, perhaps wiping a few tears, as they did at the end. Avengers: Endgame. Maybe, as Zelensky warned them, they will admire his portrait. And then they will keep scrolling.

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