#81 In the Tall Grass
November 3, 2016
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One man tries to unite America. One Frog threatens to tear it apart.
#SavePepe on Instagram
PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt. So last week I was on my iPhone, I was trying to find some app in the app store, I don’t even remember what it is. Doesn’t matter. The important thing is that when you go to the app store, like, the first thing you see is the top paid charts, like, what are the hottest apps in America right now. And it’s kind of always the same thing. Like, last week it was, like, Minecraft, Heads Up! — which is this video game that Ellen DeGeneres is always promoting. But! At the very top of the chart, at number one was something that I had never seen before. Something that did not make any sense to me. It was this app called ClickTogether.
I wanted to know what was going on with ClickTogether, and so I bought ClickTogether. And so I can tell you what happens when you use it. Which is you open it up, it shows you this image of a little copper box, it sort of looks like a finger splint, or maybe a tiny diving board.
And if you press the image of this little copper box, it makes this sound.
That’s it. That’s everything it does.
It costs a dollar. And this was the most popular app in all of America last week. I had questions, and so...
I called the guy who made it.
JON ROSS: Yes, can I help you?
PJ: Hi, this is PJ calling, I was hoping to interview you about ClickTogether?
JON: Yes sir.
PJ: Ok cool. Um, what do you prefer to be called?
JON: Uh, Jon Ross.
Jon Ross lives in New Braunfels, Texas. And like everybody with an app, he sees a problem with the world and he has a plan to fix it. The problem, as far as Jon sees it, is that our country has gotten way too divided. Even as a Republican guy living in a Republican city in Texas, Jon feels like he sees it everywhere. Like for instance, people keep screwing with his lawn signs.
JON: I have a sign that I put out in front of my house that was “Pence,” “Trump/Pence.” And I’ll be damned if somebody last night didn’t take it away.
It wasn’t the first time either.
JON: I built a sign out on Interstate 35 that was 10 feet tall and about 20 feet long. And I’ll be damned if somebody didn’t drive a car through it.
PJ: They drove a car through your sign?!
JON: Yup, there’s some bad people out there.
Jon thinks that his app can fix all this. And yeah, there’s a lot of people with stories about how their apps are going to change the world. But the way Jon tells that story is unlike any I’ve ever heard.
PJ: Can you just tell me what was the moment where you had the idea for this clicker?
JON: Well, I’m an old paratrooper. I went to jump school in 1958. I’ve done a lot a lotta jumpin’. In excess of 65 jumps.
JON: And I’ve done this all over the world.
Jon says that being a paratrooper was a really strange experience. Picture it. 64 men huddled together in the belly of a plane, everybody has the same feeling of excitement and fear about what’s about to happen next, the engine is screaming so loud that nobody can think, and then the light changes and you’ve all gotta jump.
JON: And then when you step out of that plane, all a sudden there’s a … a moment of silence. Because the airplane’s going to be moving away from you at 140 knots. And then you get what you call “the opening shock.” And you look around and there are other parachutes around ya. And with the wind and everything else you end up getting dispersed.
Jon’s 77 now, but he’s never forgotten that feeling. Of being all together, and then a moment later, all alone. A year ago, he went to a military museum and he saw this device that paratroopers in World War II used to use. A clicker. This was the beginning of Jon’s big idea. Jon got obsessed with clickers. He kept trying to get everybody to see this old movie he loves called The Longest Day, which kind of stars a clicker, although in the movie they call it a cricket.
[scene from The Longest Day]
MAN: Crickets have been distributed, sir.
MAN 2: So I heard.
So there’s this scene where John Wayne is standing on a podium in front of all the paratroopers he commands, and he’s telling them that the important thing is this cricket — the thing that he’s got in his hand. This five cent toy, he tells them, is gonna save their lives.
[scene from The Longest Day]
JOHN WAYNE: You’re going to landing in the dark. And on the other side of that hedge row, the fella may not be wearing the same uniform you are. So, one click —
JOHN WAYNE: — is to be answered by two clicks.
JOHN WAYNE: And if you don’t get that answering click, hit the dirt. Open fire.
Now hang on to this gimmick, it’s as important as your weapon. Do you read me?
MAN: Loud and clear, sir!
So last year, Jon realized that this is what America needs. A clicker in everybody’s hand.
JON: We were unified in World War II. At D-Day. But I - I think people are ... you know, we’re so split right now. Everything’s kind of fragmented. You know, there’s these people doing this and this and that and everybody’s pointing fingers and what-have-you. And I felt like, let’s communicate. Let’s click together!
In Jon’s America, whenever you feel alone, whenever you feel divided, you just click your clicker, and then a stranger clicks their clicker, and you realize, we’re on the same team. Of course, there’s over 300 million people in America. It’s not like Jon can make clickers for everybody. But he decides what he can do is make a clicker app.
PJ: Are you a technologically inclined person?
JON: Am I what?
PJ: Are you a computer guy?
JON: No, no I’m not. That’s my problem. I wish to hell I were.
He goes to a computer store in town and asks them if they can build an app for him. They say they can’t, but they tell him about this app development company in California.
JON: And the lady said, “Look, call this number. These guys are good.” I said I want to do it on an Apple, and she said, “That’s who they deal with.” So I flew out to California, sat down with them and they thought this was a great idea. Paid them a pretty good hunk of money and it got put together.
So the app gets built, and Jon is ready to preach the gospel of ClickTogether. He decides the best way to get this in front of everybody, is to put it in the hands of his hero, Eric Bolling.
ERIC BOLLING: I was born and raised poor on the northwest side of Chicago to working-class parents who did everything they could to make a better life for my sister and me. I was taught hard work would put me on the path to prosperity. It did.
Eric is this really famous Fox News host, which means that he’s a hard guy to get ahold of. But Jon comes up with a plan. In October, he flies to Las Vegas for the presidential debate, because he figures Eric is going to be there covering it. He figures out which hotel all the Fox people are staying in, and he stakes it out.
JON: And they were doing the broadcasting from a balcony on the 27th floor.
JON: So I went up to the 27th floor and sat next to the elevator. I knew that they would be using elevators. And a young man came out and I said, “I’m Jon Ross,” and what have you, and he said, “I’m out with the Fox people here,” and I said yes, and I said, “I would like very much to talk to Eric Bolling.”
The people at Fox liked Jon and they liked his app. And Jon of course, was ready and willing to go on Fox News.
[Fox News theme music]
A week later, he was in Manhattan on air.
AINSLEY EARHARDT: You’re in your 70s and you’re developing an app. I think that’s so cool. Tell us about your app.
JON: Well, we gotta do something for this country.
AINSLEY: That’s right.
JON: We’ve gotta get it to click together.
On TV, John comes across as who is — a guy who’s been watching Fox News for a long time, who finally gets to go on TV and tell everybody what he thinks. He’s got his Make America Great Again camo hat on, a big silver mustache, and an American flag handkerchief wrapped around his neck.
But as he’s talking, there is this moment where it becomes very clear, that the host does not actually understand how little this app actually does.
AINSLEY: So on your phone, if you walk into a party and there are Trump supporters there, you’ll get a notification that other people are on your app?
JON: No, don’t have that, but if you go in there and you click and somebody else has got one, then they’ll click too.
Like in misunderstanding him, she’s accidentally suggested an app that would, in my opinion, be more useful. But she’s wrong and I’m wrong. Because the next day Jon’s app is number one in America.
PJ: Has that happened for you yet, have you clicked and then a stranger with the app who wanted to click together —
JON: Yea I did! In fact it was in an elevator.
PJ: Tell me about that!
JON: Well, I’d gotten on the elevator. And I would periodically just [click click] click like that. [click click]
JON: And next thing you know the guy next to me [click click] and it was a little bit less of a sound and I said, “Where’d you get it?” and he said, “Off my phone.”
JON: He had it on his phone.
Sometimes technology becomes really popular because it works really well, but other times it just becomes really popular because it makes a great promise. Hoverboards were the big hit last year. They promised that you could fly — what they actually delivered were scooters that set themselves on fire. But it kinda didn’t matter, because the promise of them was so good you just had to try it.
Jon’s app — it’s promising something that this year, sounds like better and more unlikely than flight. It’s promising that we could all like and understand each other again. We could click together. But as far as delivering on that promise, I don’t even know if Jon can imagine what that would look like. I asked him, you know, what if I’m not voting for Donald Trump, can you and I still click together? And he said yeah, but then we spent so much time disagreeing about the election. And not just disagreeing, but like talking in a way where it was clear we were fundamentally just talking past each other.
JON: There’s no check and balance anymore.
JON: It all rolls one way. And as bad as Trump might be, I think that he’s going to make changes. And I think Congress is very upset about this because it’s gonna ruin their little game.
PJ: I don’t know man, Trump really worries me. Like, I just … he seems so ... erratic.
JON: He’s erratic if you compare the way people have been in the past.
PJ: Yeah. But you feel excited about that?
JON: But maybe that’s what we need. Maybe we need this change.
Jon has this quirk in how he sees the world, and his app has this quirk too. Which is that he and his app both describe this world where it’s “us versus them,” and we’ve gotta recognize that, we’ve got to figure out who’s “us,” and protect ourselves from “them.” But unlike most us versus them people, Jon doesn’t want to think about the them, he almost can’t.
PJ: So if the idea of the app is that, you know, we’re soldiers in the tall grass and we’re clicking to find our allies and there’s enemies around — you don’t sound like you think of people voting for Hillary as enemies, like do you? Like who is the enemy in this situation?
JON: Well, the reason I’m doing this is because I see this country falling apart and we’ve got to pull it back together again.
PJ: But so then it’s a little surprising to me —
PJ: Um, did you just click the clicker?
JON: Believe it or not it started as a musical instrument.
PJ: I can see why though, it’s a really satisfying sound.
JON: And if you’re really good you can kind of keep a tune.
This went on for a while.
After we hung up, I watched the movie that Jon had recommended, The Longest Day. I saw the scene where they pass out the clicker, and I got to see the world that he misses, when like we were all on the same side, fighting actual bad guys.
JOHN WAYNE: Your assignment tonight is strategic. You can’t give the enemy a break. Send ‘em to Hell.
But there’s this scene that Jon never mentioned that feels kind of important. It comes near the end of the movie.
So the speeches have been given, the paratroopers have actually gone into combat, it’s nighttime and they’ve dropped into German territory. One of them finds himself there alone, looking for friends, scared, and he hears it. The click.
Relief floods his face, he emerges from cover, and he learns that the click he heard — it’s not a clicker. It’s the sound of a German reloading their rifle. He’s shot and killed, betrayed by this promise of one sound that would perfectly separate the world into enemies and friends.
Coming up after the break, one man’s quest to rehabilitate his wayward frog son.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Welcome back to the show. So a couple weeks ago, we did a Yes Yes No about this meme, this obscure cartoon frog named Pepe who started out as this sort of peace-loving stoner character, but over the course of this election cycle he’s been co-opted by white nationalists and racists and also become affiliated with some of the uglier parts of Donald Trump’s fanbase. At one point Hillary Clinton’s campaign even posted an article on her website about how this cartoon frog is a mascot for racists and white nationalists. So after that episode came out, we sort of felt like we’d told the entire story. We thought that Pepe had crested and soon he would be forgotten about, relegated to the dustbin of meme history.
And Pepe’s creator, this guy named Matt Furie, he was pretty unconcerned about this whole thing, because he was just sort of like, Pepe’s just going through a phase, this is all going to blow over.
But it didn’t.
In fact, about a week after our episode came out, something happened that pulled Matt reluctantly back into the spotlight. So PJ and I went into the studio and gave him a ring.
MATT FURIE: Hello?
ALEX: Hey Matt?
ALEX: This is Alex and my co-host PJ, how’s it going?
MATT: Doing good, I just got out of a hot tub so I’m totally relaxed.
PJ VOGT: Really?
Early on in interview, PJ asked Matt how he’s felt this year about this proliferation of these ugly, nasty Pepes.
MATT: You know I was just … I just thought it was the internet, man. I mean, the internet has all kinds of crazy stuff. I mean, tons of porno, all kinds of — you can watch people getting decapitated, you know. The internet is insane, so it didn't really surprise me.
ALEX: But generally when the internet is insane, it’s not insane with one of your creations. Like what did it feel like to see one of your creations in that crazy world?
MATT: That’s a good question. I don’t know … I … there’s not much I could do about really, because it’s all just posted anonymously and it would be really hard for me to track down all of these hateful or weird or violent Pepe memes and be like, “Hey man, could you stop doing that?” because it would probably just add fuel to the fire and make people make more of them.
So Matt didn’t do anything, not because he didn’t care but because he didn’t think it would make any difference. But it did hurt to watch, because Matt said that actually Pepe is really special to him.
MATT: There was something kind of personal about that creature, just for me, like I almost saw him as a kind of self-portrait, you know?
MATT: Even though he’s like this ugly frog dude. Well, I think his — my wife says that his eyes look like my eyes. It's kind of like a frog version of me, you know, at least with how I drew him and with my original intentions of him.
PJ: How else is original Pepe like you?
MATT: Well I just think his attitude, you know, he just likes to hang out with his friends, and, you know, take naps. He's a dreamer, um, he occasionally indulges smoking different plants and things like that, and, you know, he’s just a chill dude.
OK, so here’s the thing that made Matt get out of his hot tub and go try to get his frog back.
On September 27th,The Anti-Defamation League posted an article on their website designating Pepe, this cartoon frog, as a hate symbol, alongside stuff like the swastika, the noose, the iron cross. And Matt was totally caught off-guard.
MATT: I found out when they just announced it. Nobody on their end reached out to me or anything, which was weird because they included my name on the hate definition there. So they totally could have reached out to me, and at least gotten my perspective on it.
ALEX: In that moment, did you feel implicated in sort of the hatefulness of the memes that you were going around that you had nothing to do with?
MATT: Yeah, in a way, I did. Because nobody reads the whole article, you know, they just see, uh, “Pepe the frog, created by Matt Furie, is on the hate database, blah blah blah.” It’s mentioned on there so casually, and uh, yeah, I was like I don’t want to be associated with this at all, I'm like trying to write children’s books, you know? (laughs) So yeah, initially I was mad but, I was like… well.
PJ: What was the mad like? Did you feel just like that “oh no” feeling?
MATT: I did, because, you know, I knew when it had that stamp, not only would the media take it and run with it, but also I think ultimately it would give what was once just a really bad kind of racist joke even — it would be more attractive to actual racists and actual kind of hate groups and things like that, by stamping it with that hate symbol.
And Matt started to really worry… like what if it’s always going to be like this? What if my little frog really becomes permanently evil?
MATT: So I have like at least four friends with Pepe the frog tattoos.
PJ: Oh no.
MATT: And those are just my friends. I’ve had people online send me pictures, so there’s a whole bunch of people out there with Pepe the frog tattoos — and is that like having a swastika?
Matt decided he had to do something about this. And so he got in touch with the Anti-Defamation League, and he said, “Hey guys, it’s me Matt Furie, the guy who made Pepe, and I have a plan! We should take our frog back.”
Which is to say, we need to create more Pepes. Meaning a sea of new Pepe drawings, but like the good, chill, peace-loving Pepe. And if we can make enough of those, we can drown out the bad ones — the Pepes that trolls and white supremacists are making, the ones that landed Pepe on the Anti-Defamation League’s hate symbols database.
MATT: So ultimately I’d like to start a peace-Pepe database of love. I’ve gotten over 300 brand new artist-made Pepes so far that are all rated G and, you know, focus on his kind nature.
PJ: What type of images are going into the peace-Pepe database of love?
MATT: Oh, well, lots of cool ones! Like one of them is Pepe hugging like a young person, an adult, and an elderly, with two doves flying holding leaves in their beaks and little kind of Bambi-like critters and flowers at their feet (laughs) and you know, stuff like that. Or um, you know, one of them is a very veiny Pepe that has huge muscles and a spiked bracelet and he’s all sweaty and his face is full of throbbing veins and he says just like, “Feel the power of my love,” or something like that.
PJ: I gotta say, I love the idea of reclaiming Pepe. I’m skeptical, though. I feel like as far as symbols go, like they carry ... I think sometimes with words they can be reclaimed, but with symbols it's really hard, like it’d be hard to, like, rehabilitate a swastika.
MATT: That's true, but this is a unique situation. First of all it's a cartoon frog —
MATT: I don’t think there's any other cartoon frogs on the database. Also, Pepe’s been around for about 10 years as a meme, and a lot of those 10 years has been Pepe in a more positive way. And the thing about trolls is it just seems like there are so many people out there using it as a hate symbol, but really it could be just 15 dudes, just day-in and day-out, like using a bedpan to go to the bathroom, drinking Red Bulls, and just putting out negative Pepes because they feel like they’re at war or something. You have no idea.
They are at war. The trolls and the racists have started posting their own new, grotesque Pepes in response to Matt’s plan.
Matt’s a soldier in a battle that he never wanted to have. And the ironic thing is he hasn’t even seriously drawn Pepe in like six years. He’d moved on from this character entirely.
But over the course of the past few months, Matt has been swallowed up by something huge and terrifying. It’s his Pepe, his cartoon frog, in this hellish tug-of-war between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. That’s a crazy feeling, to have something that you created kidnapped by a terrible election.
It’s on TV, in the New York Times, everywhere he goes, in his head. There is just no escape. That is what it’s like to be Matt Furie right now.
He actually erew cartoon of Pepe recently that illustrates this feeling really well. It was this 18 panel comic — it’s on the website called The Nib. And the first panel is just Pepe’s head and he’s got those sad, sweet eyes that look just like Matt Furie. And over the course of the next several panels, Pepe turns into Donald Trump, and then Donald Trump turns into this bleeding fanged monster. And then very suddenly, that monster explodes in this gigantic nuclear mushroom cloud.
And suddenly you see a panel of Pepe jolt awake in bed. He’s sweating, he’s out of breath. He thinks it was all just a dream. And then his bed swallows him up.
MATT: The Pepe thing just keeps coming back to haunt me. And I’d love to let it go, but like I said I just gotta deal with this stuff now, and hopefully once the election is over and, um, I could just go back to working on my next children's book or something. I’m pretty sick of Pepe right now.
ALEX: What do you mean he comes back to haunt you? Why do you — it seems weird to me that you simultaneously want to move on and you’re engaging in this sort of rehabilitation program. Part of me feels like if I were in your situation I’d just be like, “Alright guys you can have him, I'm not going to talk about him anymore, I'm just gonna let this all go.”
MATT: I know, but I don’t know. I’m torn. Yeah, I'm both sick of him, sick of talking about him, and really into getting tons of — hundreds of Pepe drawings. This has been one of the most fun projects I’ve ever done in my life, you know? So I don’t know what that's all about, but I'm like having dreams about it too.
ALEX: What kind of dreams?
MATT: Well because I kind of stay up all night writing stuff and thinking about Pepe, and then when I finally go to sleep, I'm just being chased by Pepes all night.
PJ: Really, like — ?
MATT: It's definitely in my subconscious. You know, I’m definitely trying to work stuff out in my dreams about what the hell I'm doing.
PJ: The dream Pepe that chased you around, was it your Pepe or was it like the internet’s Pepe?
MATT: No, thankfully it was all the peaceful Pepes that I had been gleaning from the internet as of late, but they were still chasing me. Tut it was all these more, um, peaceful Pepes were after me.
PJ: Did you get away, or did the dream end with them getting you?
MATT: I just remember being surrounded. So … and then, yeah, that was it.
If you want to help Matt Furie take back his frog, you can do so by just drawing the chillest, most laid-back Pepe you can and putting it on Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #savepepe.
Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. We were produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Chloe Prasinos and Damiano Marchetti. Our executive producer is Tim Howard. We were edited by Peter Clowney. Production assistance from Thane Fay. We were mixed by Rick Kwan.
Matt Lieber is a new season of a long-cancelled television show that’s actually as good as it was when it was originally on the air.
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