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Pepe the Frog: The Roots of a Symbol

Image via NBC

Opinion: This frog is the banner of the forgotten young male, with no place in the world.

Much shallow commentary has centered around the political image of Pepe the Frog. Invented by ostensibly liberal comedian Matt Furie, Pepe has spread as an uncontrollable meme, a unit of cultural information, in the most organic of ways. Leaping away from the intentions of its creator, it has now become an amphibian symbol, a trickster who spreads ink and squirms when firmly grasped. Pepe has no stable character, ranging from an outright white nationalist to a troll who relishes in ambiguity and unsafe humor.

The politics of the frog emerged from the primordial ooze of Internet forums, places like 4chan and now Twitter, inhabited by alienated young men with dark, surreal senses of humor, and an almost nihilistic resentment of the modern world. Often, they are formerly apolitical people who have turned hard to the right since the mid-2010s, becoming embroiled in online culture wars against feminism, diversity and political correctness. They never supported George W. Bush, nor care for conservative causes. Rather, the decay of the identity-obsessed left has made them seek an online culture that relishes in the most absurd versions of left identity-centric arguments.

The comedian Sam Hyde embodies the spirit of Pepe in all its dark and comical allure. A liberal arts graduate who has turned his ire hard against the ironic comedic culture that young leftists typically enjoy, Hyde saddles the line between nihilism and reactionary politics, and has successfully obliterated the pretense of the TED Talk, the Adult Swim ten-minute skit show, the daily Vlog, and liberal arts hipster culture. Hyde points out the decadence of those who critique decadence – he watches the usual purveyors of his craft, those self-assured twenty-something white New England democratic socialists, and veers hard to the right.

Hyde embodies the new right in all of its idiosyncrasies. Rejecting a gutless, feminized politically correct male population, such as the archetypal Buzzfeed writer with a testosterone count dwarfed many times over by his SAT score, he takes umbrage at the educated in the name of the howling void they’ve created. A world mired in unauthenticity, brand management and social media marketing infuriates Hyde just as much as they infuriate the anti-capitalist left. But adhering to his central gripe against ‘progressive’ culture, Hyde blames the technocrats rather than the arch-capitalists. His humor satirizes the progressive busybody, first and foremost.

Hyde is as difficult to pin down as the Pepe symbol. Both are opposed, at their truest essence, to progressivism. The modern ethos of diversity, feminism and multiculturalism is largely interpreted by these reactionary forces to be a complete and utter sham. The feminism of the 2010s has not helped women, so it goes, but made them into perpetual victims with chips on their shoulders, and made men into cowards unable to stand up for themselves or against other men. Diversity has failed to improve the world, and instead only packs shareholder’s offices full of Indian tech bros instead of their white counterparts. Multiculturalism, and international politics, has only destroyed wages, job markets, and ruined any sense of local belonging. These modern reactionaries share many of the concerns of the far left – they just reject the premises of the progressive left after witnessing them fail time and time again. The left holds onto its worldview even after all its elements are co-opted by corporate dogma. The reactionary, instead, embraces the chaos and revels in the failure of progress.

With the total rejection of progressivism and liberalism comes the flirtation with fascism. The world-crusher as the ideal, the magnificent Napoleon overseeing his wars with the grim grin of Krishna, watching heroic warriors slaughter one another in his name. The reactionary worships this dark God of nationalist romanticism, and reaps all that comes. The darkness, the mirth and the mud, is more the friend of the frog than the shined marble floors of a cathedral. The God of the depths is the God of the reactionary – it is not Christ but Abraxas, a darker and more holistic form, that inspires reactionary forces.

In the foreword to Carl Jung’s strangest book, the Answer to Job, professor Sonu Shamdasani wrote:

“In Jung’s fantasies during World War I, a new God had been born in his soul, the God who is the son of the frogs, the son of the Earth: Abraxas.”

Shamdasani then quotes directly from Jung’s journals:

“Abraxas is the God who is difficult to grasp. His power is greatest, because man does not see it. From the sun he draws the summum bonum [the eternal good]; from the devil the infinum malum [bottomless evil]; but from Abraxas LIFE, altogether indefinite, the mother of good and evil.”

Jung knew that the world, in all its manifest wholeness, would be composed of both good and evil. He understood that God, as portrayed in the Old Testament, acted almost as if he were a child, with the purity of all his unchecked emotions, his wrath and jealousy unmolested by analyzing thought. The divine Godhead is surely beyond reason, and so it ultimately occupies the entirety of malice and good will, representing an unconscious force that does not discern between light and darkness.

In this chaotic God is the image of the frog, the subterranean amphibian, the discrete and mysterious creature who does not reveal his full intentions, but only leaves a trail of slicked slime, a thing that is up to interpretation. It makes sense, then, that the master of the frog has been Donald Trump, a man who everyone claims to understand, and yet no one seems to be able to overcome. He is a fact, an event of the mind, the same possessive spirit that the symbol of the frog occasionally seizes us with, when we become cruel, comical and ambiguous in our behavior. The frog knows no rules – it swims in liquid, rests in mud, and leaps across land. Its webbed feet, and arched, bounded legs, give it a dexterity all its own.

In reckoning with the Pepe, and with the Hyde of the world, the temptation is to declare these forces to be merely a disease, a pocket of infection that must be granted sunlight. But such an understanding is naïve. Jung described the “Western God-image”:

“I understood that the new God would be in the relative. If the God is absolute beauty and goodness, how should he encompass the fullness of life, which is beautiful and hateful, good and evil, laughable and serious, human and inhuman? How can man live in the womb of the God if the Godhead himself attends to only one-half of him?”

Always, the politically correct progressive sensibility has forsaken the half of reality that answers to the frog. It denies the amphibian, and seeks to know: are you with us or against us? Progressivism has no room for ambiguity. The frog, then, responds by being unknown, by making its intentions vague. Less sinister than white nationalism, a great portion of the impulse behind the frog is simply to elude a total system, to remain unmarked, uncategorized.

But the Pepes have created a certain brand for themselves nonetheless. It is the banner of the forgotten young male, with no place in the world. It is the banner of Ryan Gosling, in Blade Runner 2049 and in Drive, the silent and emotionally muted man who belongs nowhere, lingering in the backs of bars in silent retreat, populating the corners of the workforce, the fringes of the world, the nihilistic kids who know there’s no future after college, and so they embrace the visage of the amphibian, to retain the pretense of something all their own, something that captures sadness while appearing shocking and new.

Those frightened by the frog must attend to the progressive failures that have led to a world now run by a frog. Those who reject the frog wholesale and say he is completely delusional have underestimated the degree to which modern young men are lost. The frog represents something we didn’t know: that we, the arrogant progressives, neglected to understand that in creating a totalizing social system of cultural policing and purges, we created our own amphibious backlash.

The frog always lingers in culture, but in the age of the Internet, it has yearned to break free. It has emerged to show itself, in all its hideousness, looming on hind feet and begging for reprieve. Or rather, presenting the mask of a curious grin, a sign of its own total despair, designed to ward off its predators, and make others fear the same forces that inspired men to become frogs.

Alexander Blum is a fiction writer and essayist with an interest in synthesizing Jungian and symbolic thinking with today’s modern political climate.

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