One of the most unlikely icons of the inauguration of Joe Biden on Jan. 20 is an image of Sen. Bernie Sanders, sitting cross-legged and masked on a folding chair, waiting for the ceremony to begin.
It was cold that day in Washington, D.C. and blustery winds whipped around the platform where Bernie sat bundled up, arms crossed and wearing a pair of mittens, knitted for him by a second grade teacher from Vermont.
The photo went viral almost immediately, and, just an instant later it seems, morphed into its own meme genre as countless amateur composers inserted Bernie’s image into other pics.
Inauguration-Bernie was everywhere.
Soon, he was also showing up in local venues, like this shot of Bernie at Goshen College.
The images flooded social media at an unprecedented rate and, after a few days, reached such a saturation point that memes began to appear in which the absence of Bernie itself suggested the presence of Bernie.
And because this is America, a thriving cottage industry has already developed selling Bernie paraphernalia – from t-shirts to mugs to mittens to masks – it’s Bernie, Bobbleheads and Beyond.
Social scientists and political pundits will have to help us unpack this phenomenon, itself a cipher of our age.
Of the millions of clicks recording this historic event, why did this particular image, about which the photographer who shot it remarked, “It’s not a great photo, but it is a nice moment,” capture our imagination in such a way?
No doubt, if media history is our guide, we’ll all soon be berned out and return to our regularly scheduled distractions.