It could be any college classroom, really, because it is not a classroom at any college that exists. The class being taught in that classroom is never named. Its professor, also never named, is an atheist; it’s also noted that the professor is a member of the ACLU, although in what I’ll call the canonic version of this story — there are several, all very similar in terms of setting, incident, and dramatis personae — the professor’s ACLU membership never quite becomes germane. Call it a character detail.
And right, the story: The unnamed professor is teaching his unnamed course at that unnamed college. Among the students, it so happens, is a United States marine, who is taking classes between deployments to Afghanistan. The professor — and here we can begin to infer that the course is either Introduction to Parodic Atheism or Advanced Studies in Imaginary Heresy — endeavors to disprove the existence of God, right there in class.
He does this by climbing onto a box and serving an ultimatum: God has 15 minutes to knock our atheistic civil-liberty-minded professor off his box, or else it will be established beyond doubt that God does not exist. When those 15 minutes elapse, we can only presume, the professor will climb down and go over the syllabus or something. Anyway, he never makes it that far.
After several minutes of grinding, anxious silence, the marine, alone among the students, can take no more. In silence, he strides up to the professor, punches him in the face, and knocks him out cold.
The marine is already back in his seat when the professor comes to. His indignation cuts immediately through the fog of having been knocked unconscious, and he is pissed. Why, the quite-probably-concussed professor sputters, would the marine do such a thing?
The legend goes that the marine responds: “God was busy protecting America’s military who are out protecting your right to say stupid shit like that, so he sent me to fill in.” That is its final line. The story is called Just Filling In. Retweet or share if you believe in heroes.
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This story, or some version of it, has been affixed to Facebook walls and tweeted and retweeted for years now; it has been attached to mass emails — emails with subject lines like “FW: FW: FW: Re: Dont Mess With A Marine ☺” — that seem to have no actual original sender. Every passage through the internet’s uncle-lined rage loop leaves it both shinier and more opaque.
There’s an inherent mystery to this sort of web flotsam. It is unsigned, and offers no sense of why and when it was changed, let alone by whom or how much. It is one of those things that arrive in our inboxes or timeline or at any rate in our consciousness by way of a person with a name, but is finally and fundamentally authorless, atavistic.
It is also, for all its persistence, mostly undirected, in the sense that there’s no obvious reason why it bobs to the surface or sinks from view as it swirls endlessly through the internet’s vast oceanic garbage gyre. It just circulates, stubborn and buoyant as Styrofoam.
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A segment of Twitter that was not Just Filling In’s intended audience latched on to the story over a period of days during its most recent big reemergence. It’s unclear whether this was in response to a flare-up of Just Filling In on social media or whether the collaborative goofing on the meme in fact was the reemergence.
Whichever, whatever: Forget it, it’s InternetTown. So a small group of Twitter types sent it around to each other and then remixed and rehashed it into the story of Marine Todd. This gave the hero a name, and an identity as a God-fearing patriot who is not afraid — who is, in point of fact, maybe a little overeager — to do to libs with fists and weaponry what Breitbart.com readers do to them in the comment sections. It’s worth pointing out, maybe, that Marine Todd was fucking terrifying and totally awash in harrowing active-shooter vibes even before Twitter people went about amping things up. He is vicious, temperamental, extremely ready to escalate, and apparently confused about where classroom debate ends and felony assault begins. What was weird about Just Filling In in the first place — the hyperspeed multivariate conflations at the end, the flubbily brutal didactic violence — was made that much weirder.
And so, at first bit by bit and then all at once, a story that originated as a meme for Facebook’s seethingest citizens to “like” was nudged progressively further out into ultraviolent absurdity by a series of satirical remixes and amplifications from left-leaning young people on Twitter. They played up Marine Todd’s hair-trigger tendency toward violence, or added rococo flourishes to the characters — one makes the professor a “liberal muslim homosexual ACLU lawyer professor and abortion doctor” and ends with God entering the classroom and triumphantly imposing a flat tax. Another remix, which I’d unconsciously situated in the last and most defiantly meta wave of Marine Todd Recuperations, reimagines the story as a grim Soviet fable in which Marine Todd is revealed as Lavrentiy Beria. That version, though, appears to date back to 2013. The cycle hums and keeps humming.
The creation of Marine Todd is a thing the internet does, and its silliness and speed inspire a very specific sort of awe. But Just Filling In is also a thing the internet makes — the same internet, if also in some ways a different internet. This story doesn’t just exist within the context of shareable-by-design conservative kitsch — the bile-saturated churn that sells you a gun oil called Liberal Tears and pumps out firearm memes that are alternately mawkish, bacon-powered, and Gene Wilder-related. It belongs there, of course, but there is also a sort of debauched tradition to which Just Filling In belongs, and from which it came.
A near-relative of Marine Todd is what the writer Dan O’Sullivan calls “Earnest Christian Student.” He is the hero of another classroom-set Believer Versus Atheist Professor meme that, O’Sullivan notes, reads “close to BDSM erotica.” In this story’s several permutations, the professor attempts to disprove God’s existence through various tricks of sub-undergrad reasoning, growing progressively more enraged as the student reiterates his unshaken faith. In that story’s most baroque iteration, the Clever Christian Student’s identity is revealed in the last lines as a sort of ham-fisted QED: “The young man’s name — Albert Einstein.”
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If nothing else, this meme deserves special note for having been adapted, albeit without formal credit, into the feature film God’s Not Dead, which stars Kevin Sorbo, once a syndicated Hercules and now someone who propagates the blood libel on Christian radio programs, in the role of Godless Professor. The supporting cast includes Dean Cain — himself once Superman on network TV — as well as the Christian rock act the Newsboys and an heir of A&E’s Duck Dynasty. (The meme ends with the sputtering professor defeated by pure Christian logic; Sorbo gets hit by a car.)
* * *
It’s notable, too, that the student is a marine, a character that is itself a recognizable and versatile brand in the right-wing meme market. In these memes, marines are icons of pure ass-kicking goodness, with a palpable political valence. For a form that demands concision, “marine” is a shorter and handily pre-politicized way of saying “our hero, who embodies various attributes to which you also aspire, and is allowed to be violent.”
The marines among us are, as the ads say, few and proud, but in right-wing memes they’re notably more accessible — not just as a rhetorical shortcut for Conservative Christian Bad-Ass of Uncommon Valor and Unassailable Virtue, but as an identity that the reader/liker/sharer can assume. To read Just Filling In as it was intended to be read is to indulge in a very specific sort of fantasy. It is to step into the body of a muscular, untouchable, reliably righteous violence machine, to knock a liberal out from within that body, and to still be the good guy.
This is how marines are generally deployed in right-wing memes — as designated Red, White, and Blue Ass-Kickers, throwing the punches that those clicking “like” are unwilling or unable to throw at thumbnail caricatures of those the likers most fervidly want to punch.
In another marine-powered right-wing meme, for instance, a man attempts to rob a Best Buy, is confronted by security, and flees brandishing a knife; unluckily for him, he finds several marines manning a Toys for Tots collection table outside. They attempt to intervene, and one marine is stabbed. Finally, the volunteers and store security wrestle the man to the ground and hold him until the police arrive.
This meme has the unique distinction of being based on something that actually happened, although the event has been simultaneously simplified and made uglier as the meme developed. The original story, which appeared in the Augusta Chronicle in 2010, has gone through numerous edits and iterations as part of its meme-ing, and now generally carries a new last paragraph, which delivers a happier — or tidier, or at any rate more violent — ending than the original story was able to. The new last paragraph lists the voluminous injuries our knife-wielding perp suffered while “falling off the curb” — the nudge and wink being that marines, even those collecting Furbies for charity outside a mall, would not let a mutt like this slide without an appropriate stomping-out.
That is the version that’s shared on the message board at AR15.com, for instance, under the heading “I love stuff like this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” One editor/re-author went to the trouble of formatting this new version so that it looks as it might have had it appeared in a newspaper, so that it can more readily be shared as if it did. Another re-author had the enterprise to change the criminal’s name from Tracey Attaway — the actual perpetrator’s actual name — to the slightly more on-the-nose “Tyrone Jackson.”
At any rate, the perpetrator is not important. “Tyrone,” like the atheist professor, exists solely to get his ass kicked by a marine — someone as “sick of this shit” as the intended audience, and every bit as eager for conflict, but with a little bit more semiotic and physical throw-weight on the uppercut.
* * *
Here, finally, is the problem with treating this sort of thing as literature. It is constructed and functions like literature, broadly shares the same goals, and is part of a distinct storytelling tradition — but also and more to the point and at the most fundamental level it’s almost impossibly stilted, cheesy, and dumb.
If there were a way to view the various iterations of the Marine Todd story as a progression — the brave Christian student with his humble faith gradually evolving into the buff marine, coldcocking the atheist professor and calling him an asshole — it would be one thing. But all these stories appear to have existed for roughly the same amount of time, and roughly in parallel. It’s maybe more accurate to say that they exist along a continuum, serving different niches in the meme market.
All that accreted authorship has altered them mostly in the way that guano alters cliff faces. All the additional detail serves only to make them more overstuffed — some try-hard appends an extraneous ACLU membership or a tour in one or the other theaters of our endless military entanglements, but the story itself never quite changes or transcends, never alters either its thuddingly obvious objective or its ham-headed execution.
And yet, in its bleak and extravagantly artless way, this is perhaps the truest folk literature of the internet as we currently experience it; given the malleability of the central fable and the way in which its revisers and disseminators both honor and revise it, it’s hard to know what else to call it. It is constructed and distributed in a very contemporary way — authorless and communal; glibly samizdat — but more strikingly it reflects the social web’s rhetorical and discursive failings.
Of all the things that the Internet could be and all the ways that it could be populated, we’ve wound up with what we have—sort of like a movie set after an apocalypse, maybe, with ragtag survivors hoarding canned Vienna sausages and rifles, banding together against the marauding Others. As befits that state of play, the conversation that results is not so much a discourse as a series of peevish monologues playing nonstop at varying volumes, aimed not at convincing but at shoring up various assumptions, tendencies, and micro-ignorances, and shouting their specifics into the void.Just Filling In is, in the most basic sense, someone wandering in a dark and unfamiliar place yelling out, with strategic menace, “I have a gun.”
Marine Todd and his cousins are not part of a conversation, or even an argument. As much fun as Twitter had remixing and goofing on it, there is really no responding to it. These memes are ways of broadcasting a very particular type of brand loyalty, of announcing — through a bit of graffiti on a Facebook wall or a supportive retweet — belief in a certain view of things.
Facebook would be the place for this, defined as it is by the idea that our preferences — political preferences and consumer preferences, to the extent the two can be said to be distinct — define us. And for Facebook’s purposes, they do define us, or at least are the thing about us that is most valuable. For all the ceaseless wheedling dishonesty of the web’s ambient commerce — One Weird Trick, Doctors Hate Him, Free iPads — there is a system to it. Every action is cataloged by business concerns for sale to other business concerns, so that their ads might more effectively follow us around. In a sense, these memes serve that same end — if you “like” Just Filling In, you are broadcasting that perhaps you’d also be interested in Liberal Tears Gun Oil.
This is, of course, not the best literature that the internet has given us; the number of things to read on the web that are superior in terms of craft and content to Just Filling In is quite nearly infinite, and massive enough to include fantasy football game notes and captions under candid bikini photos at TMZ.com. But Just Filling In, in its various iterations, is a sort of literary success all the same. It’s strident and bilious and unconvincing, it’s 10 pounds of piping-hot grievance in a five-pound bag. But then it’s not so much there to be read as it is to be noticed, to signal a series of allegiances. It’s more advertisement than literature, in the end, and so it fits in perfectly.