From Bye, Felicia to The Dress, memes have provided the ideal discursive forum for our ever dwindling attention spans. On this side of the century, most memes have been byte-sized digital novelties that fizzle away without manifesting in the meatspace. But as the gap between URL and IRL draws closer, memes are spilling into real life with a force that actually threatens to topple mainstream narratives — and possibly incite action. Case in point, a phrase that has appeared printed on bottles, displayed at music festivals, and, at Art Basel in Miami over the weekend, graffitied with red lipstick on an exhibit wall: “Jeffrey Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself.”
The alleged suicide of convicted sex offending pedophile super villain Jeffrey Epstein in August while under police custody in New York City awaiting trial has achieved the impossible feat of uniting opposite sides of the political spectrum — if only in questioning the actual cause of his suspect expiration. A Rasmussen report found that only 29% of Americans believe that Jeffrey Epstein did, in fact, kill himself, with 42% explicitly believing he was ‘murdered to prevent him from testifying against powerful people with whom he associated.’ By contrast, 53% of Americans believe in God, so we’re not talking about a fringe-dwelling conspiracy theory here. That a counter-narrative is held by a majority of the populous may be why Epstein’s death has provided the launchpad for a meme to vault into the material quite unlike any that preceded it.
It all started on an app called iFunny. The premise of that original image was simple: “Some say X-Box is Better. Some say Playstation is better. But deep down inside, we all know… Jeffrey Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself.” It was a typical bait and switch gag, like a more sinister Rickrolling. Within days, the same pattern was imposed onto an endless cavalcade of increasingly non-sequitur memes. The composition of candy corn. Autumnal dinner recipes. Winnie the Pooh facts. Seahorse mating rituals. The more banal, the better the twist. In this form, it progressed from Reddit to Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, dating apps — a full digital diffusion.
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Then the meme leapfrogged the digital media divide and metastasized to cable when Fox News guest Navy SEAL Mike Ritland closed a segment on dog safety by casually dropping “…And Epstein didn’t kill himself” to a truly bamboozled Jesse Watters. It went viral. MSNBC and ESPN found themselves victims of similar crafty tricksters sneaking the message onto live programming at unexpected moments. New media and old, it’s at this point that JEDKH transcended the zeitgeist.
The meme then made it to the halls of congress when Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona sent 23 consecutive tweets that spelled out the refrain in the middle of impeachment hearings. A craft beer company from Fresno, CA began printing the message on the bottom of cans of their new stout ale. DJ Duo ATLiens flashed it on the megascreen at EDC Orlando during a performance. In New Hampshire, an aspiring candidate named Rod Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself Webber tried to file an application to join his state’s presidential primary ballot (it was rejected). The phrase began appearing scrawled on road signs and overpasses around the country. It was even spray-painted onto a seven-foot boulder in Snohomish County, Washington, an event which made the local news.
Back in the digital, tech maven-turned-charlatan John McAfee minted a cryptocurrency named WHACKD — the ‘Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself Coin’ — airdropping 700 million tokens to 8,000 users. Epstein-themed Christmas merchandise is reported to be outselling “Game of Thrones” gear by some opportunistic online retailers. It is madness, an amoral panic, and it’s hard to know what will come next. The sheer ubiquity of the meme-turned-phenomenon signals not just widespread doubt as to the circumstances of Jeffrey Epstein’s death, but a deep-seated distrust of media, elites, and the rule of law fueling an impulse to snatch back the narrative through whatever means available. And the weirdest part is that it may actually be working. The meme is the medium is the message.
New Bureau of Prisons Director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer testified in front of a Senate Judiciary Committee recently. “Christmas ornaments, drywall, and Jerry [sic] Epstein. Name three things that don’t hang themselves,” flubbed 67-year old Republican Senator Kennedy as if he were reading a meme himself. “That’s what the American people think, and they deserve some answers.” Senators Graham and Cruz, the unlikeliest of heroes, followed with similar prodding. Sawyer staved off the haranguing by ensuring that FBI investigators probing the Epstein’s case are looking into the role of potential “criminal enterprise” in his death. Doing as much might just be the only thing that most Americans can agree on right now, and one dumb meme may have had a lot to do with it.
Usually when a memetic trend is met with a deluge of thinkpieces and co-opted by boomers, it signals a climax to its virility. Maybe that will be the case here. Or maybe the idea has reached an escape velocity that will bring serious attention to a very troubling possibility that the majority of America feels demands more scrutiny. Until there are answers, there will be art.