My Word: Beyond Bernie's mittens and memes

This is an era for kid gloves when it comes to sensitivities.

Sen. Bernie SANDERS with his now famous mittens at the inauguration of US President Joe Biden on January 20. (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST/POOL/REUTERS)
Sen. Bernie SANDERS with his now famous mittens at the inauguration of US President Joe Biden on January 20.

One image stands out from last week’s inauguration of US President Joe Biden and US Vice President Kamala Harris – and it was not of either of them. It was Sen. Bernie Sanders’ bulky knitted mittens as he sat with his arms folded, legs crossed and a completely detached expression on his face. He seemed to be overly socially isolated even by COVID-19 standards.
You must have seen it by now. More than once. It’s everywhere. Bernie and his mittens became a viral meme that kept social media busy for a week – an incredibly long lifespan in social network terms. The image fit Twitter like the proverbial glove and #BerniesMittens became a top trending hashtag.
“Where’s Bernie?” became something of an obsession among “Netizens.” After apps were created especially to drop Sanders into different locations, the Vermont Democratic senator – who had himself wanted to be president – traveled the world, virtually. He also earned himself an indelible place in cyberspace. At least, I think it’s un-erasable, but given that Twitter deleted the account of Donald Trump with his 88 million followers while he was still president, who knows.
Sanders made a guest appearance in Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” the Broadway show Hamilton, and the Star Wars franchise. TV series including Game of Thrones and Friends unwittingly hosted him and the grumpy-looking 79-year-old was a natural in Muppet mode as one of the two cantankerous men.
Friends shared pictures of bar mitzvahs, weddings, synagogue meetings, picnics, car excursions and pre-coronavirus-era family holidays with Bernie plonked in his chair. When a friend posted a photo of a newborn grandson, I vaguely expected Bernie to appear just behind the baby’s shoulder in the crib. He wasn’t there, but I’ll look for him at photos from the brit milah.
What was it about this picture that set social media off? Well, obviously, he stood out: Or “sat” out. Most of the celebrants dressed with a sense of occasion. Fashion commentators who have had a professionally bad year were suddenly able to weigh in on the colorful coats worn by First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Harris and former FLOTUS Michelle Obama.
Sanders, meanwhile, dressed down and, as one pundit put it, looked like he’d just popped out to mail a letter at the local post office. Even with a surgical mask firmly in place, it was clear Sanders was not smiling. He looked as if one of his aides had insisted he go to the inauguration but nobody could force him to have a good time.
Credit for the original picture goes to Agence France-Presse photojournalist Brendan Smialowski, who was quoted as saying it’s not an image he’s particularly proud of as a photographer. (The late David Rubinger once told me that he didn’t think his iconic photo of the three paratroopers at the newly liberated Western Wall in 1967 was the best of the pictures he’d taken at the time.)
It didn’t take long to discover that the mittens were a gift to Sanders from Jen Ellis, a second grade teacher and supporter from Vermont. She’d handed them to the senator when he failed to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. Ellis was swamped with requests for the gloves, but did not pick up the gauntlet.
In a Jewish Insider interview, she called the mittens “swittens,” explaining they are made from wool from old sweaters and lined with a fleece made from recycled plastic. Recycling became the name of the game for those smitten with swittens. Sanders the socialist found a way to make money from the various memes and slogans and to put the money to good use: sweaters and T-shirts with the Sanders image were sold for some $45 per item and the senator promised the income would be donated to Meals on Wheals and other charities in Vermont.
Apart from a worthy charity benefiting, there were other pluses of Bernie losing to Biden in the last race as candidate: Sanders surrounds himself with an ultra-progressive crowd that I prefer not to be sitting in the White House – and what would we have done last week without Bernie’s mittens to distract us? It was a handy diversion.
WHILE MILLIONS of people were busy looking for Sanders like a global game of “Where’s Wally?” or “Where’s Waldo?” – and, yes, he did appear in a Twitter version of the children’s puzzle – there were some burning issues going on in the real world.
The US, the world’s only nominal superpower, is not the only society that is divided. The pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in people in the global village.
Sadly, we’ve become used to scenes of rioting in the US – both far-Left and far-Right. However, footage of the violent rampages in Rotterdam don’t fit in with the image of the laid-back Dutch. It would be wise to watch what is going on in Europe as it struggles to cope with coronavirus. The Netherlands, incidentally, goes to the polls a few days before Israel holds (yet another) general election in March.
In Israel, the rioting in extremist ultra-Orthodox communities became the focus of attention. The violence is inexcusable. It was noteworthy, however, that Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman – he who called for people to use their commonsense and carry on meeting rather than abide by the regulations in the first coronavirus lockdown – and Ron Huldai, Tel Aviv mayor and head of the newly formed The Israelis Party – who declared that cultural institutions in his city would open despite Health Ministry rulings – were among the first to accuse “the haredim” as a whole of spreading the disease. (And not a word about the demonstrators still meeting en masse outside the Prime Minister’s Residence.)
Even Bernie’s mittens wouldn’t be able to hide their pointing fingers.
Not for the first time, I found myself singing Tom Lehrer’s “National Brotherhood Week”:
“Oh, the white folks
Hate the black folks.
And the black folks,
Hate the white folks
To hate all but the right folks
Is an old established rule....
“Oh, the poor folks, hate the rich folks
And the rich folks hate the poor folks.
All of my folks hate all of your folks.
It’s American as apple pie...
“Oh the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants;
The Hindus hate the Muslims
And everyone hates the Jews.”
I wonder if a social satirist like Lehrer could get away with poking the “woke” in today’s politically-correct world. And whatever happens next in the US, you can be sure that PC is bouncing back with a vengeance in the post-Trump administration. Bernie Sanders’ mittens notwithstanding, this is an era for kid gloves when it comes to sensitivities.
“Stand up and shake the hand of/ Someone you can’t stand/ You can tolerate him if you try,” sang Lehrer. Today, he would probably be lambasted for using terminology that is not gender neutral and not bowing to preferred self-pronouns.
At the beginning of the month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi passed new official language guidelines for the US House of Representatives, which go hand in glove with her Democratic outlook and attempts to keep progressives happy. Words like “himself” and “herself” will be replaced by “themself” and family ties will be less verbally binding as “father,” “mother,” “son,” “daughter,” “brother” and “sister” are swapped for “parent,” “child” and “sibling.”
The guidelines are intended as a move toward inclusiveness, but there are other words for the phenomenon – “Thought control,” among them.
It’s cold outside. And when the gloves come off, or the mittens unravel, it will not be a pretty picture or a memorable meme.
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