Wednesday, August 30, 2006


A brilliant analysis of the phrase I most despise: "It is what it is."

"It is what it is" means what it means. Depending on context, it can be a statement of resignation or of defiance, but in neither case does it connote the optimistic good humor of "It's all good." If anything, it expresses the absence of emotion, the abdication of feeling. Although it seems to imply value-neutrality, that misses the point; it's not so much that something is neither good nor bad, but rather that its quality simply isn't relevant, that it's not worth the energy to make a value judgment.

To put it another way — it doesn't matter what you think about it because you can't do anything about it anyway. It was in this spirit that Al Gore invoked the phrase after winning the popular vote and possibly the electoral tally as well: "I strongly disagreed with the Supreme Court decision and the way in which they interpreted and applied the law. But I respect the rule of law, so it is what it is."

Meanwhile, the current administration has embraced the phrase as a tautological device to preclude further inquiry. Pressed about the intentions of the US regarding the ABM treaty, a 30-year-old agreement that would seem to preclude the Star Wars-type missile defense system currently under development, a defense official told a NATO ministers' meeting, "The ABM treaty is the current ABM treaty. It is what it is."

"It is what it is" can also be an agent of insinuation, a coy refusal to spell out something that the speaker clearly thinks goes without saying. During the run-up to GW2, the administration made a lot of noise about Iraq's links with international terrorists but refrained from presenting concrete conclusions. Instead, a senior official merely said, "It is what it is. It is a series of facts. People will have to judge for themselves."

Similarly, to sound an ominous note following the discovery in February on board a freighter of North Korean Scud missiles bound for Yemen without committing to a specific response: "Obviously this was suspected by American authorities for some time and I think it is what it is," said US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

For years, "It's all good" served as a rallying cry for the down-but-not-out, a smile as the ultimate umbrella. But there's no smile on the face of "It its what it is." This is no Yogi Berra chestnut, but a blunt recognition of power, either by those who hold it or those under its shadow, with no illusions about the ability of mere words to shape or alter frank reality. When the administration invoked a policy of proactive military action against a regime that might at some point prove threatening, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: "You can call that defense, as I do, or you can call it preemptive, but it is what it is."

What does the replacement of "It's all good" with "It is what it is" mean? What does it say about the tenor of our times, the popular outlook, our existential commonwealth?

It is what it is.

Excerpted from this article.

Like I said... brilliant.

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