Tuesday, July 25, 2006

"It Is What It Is"

A couple of years ago, when my moms embarked upon a major renovation/addition project on our house, they made one terrible mistake. Instead of hiring a general contractor to oversee the job, they hired a "construction management" company. (With the wisdom of hindsight, Moose says of that decision, "It was like hiring a hairdresser to perform brain surgery. A hairdresser works with heads, too, but that's not who you want in the o. r. when you're having an aneurism fixed.") Anyway, among the many things my moms came to despise about our construction manager was his maddening tendency to say, apropos of any complication or delay in the project (and there were many of both), "It is what it is." Whatever the situation--the masons had covered the front porch with brick rather than flagstone, the framing company had disappeared with the job half-done, the county inspector failed us for a second time on the close-in inspection--his response was invariably a blase yet contemptuous, "It is what it is."

Moose grew to hate that phrase, just as she grew to hate the ethically-impaired, misogynist creep who continually invoked it. She hated it because it was a device used to evade responsibility, to pretend that whatever was happening was not his fault, that it somehow fell beyond the scope of "construction management." (My moms eventually realized that pretty much everything of significance on the project fell outside the scope of "construction management," which is why they don't recommend it as a business model for homeowners contemplating renovation.) At the same time, it was part of a broader strategy of verbal intimidation designed to keep clients from challenging his judgments or asking pesky questions like, "Do you think it's a good idea to have the house opened up when a hurricane is expected in the neighborhood?" "It is what it is" was a not so subtle way of saying, "Shut the hell up, you idiot woman, and get out of my way."

In fact, Moose came to hate that phrase so much that on the glorious day when my moms' relationship with the construction manager officially fell apart, she ordered him off our property and followed him to his car shouting, "'It is what it is!' 'It is what it is!' I know your company motto is, 'It is what it is!' And it IS, so good-bye!" Goose was terrified in that moment because the construction manager, who is also a D. C. cop, happened to be wearing a gun. (My moms have always regretted that they didn't report that a police officer was using the power of his uniform and weapon to intimidate citizens outside his jurisdiction while performing non-police work, but they were focused at the time on getting the project far enough long that they could move back in the house and be done with him and his lame excuse for a company.) Moose, however, was not afraid, perhaps because she had totally lost control and was oblivious to the gun and the uniform and the bulging purple veins in the construction manager/police officer's neck. Perhaps, but she prefers to think that in that moment she seized her power and decided to fight back against the verbal/political tyranny of "It is what it is." She and Goose never spoke to the construction manager again, though they refused to fire his company. They joked after that incident that "Thelma and Louise have taken control of the building." They started hiring a lot of their own people to finish the work, and we moved back into the house about a month later. The first night we were home, we watched Thelma and Louise on the big new plasma TV that hangs above the fireplace. It is what we make it, Moose said to Goose with a smile.

I ponder the meanings and socio-political implications of this little phrase because summertime still brings back post-traumatic flashbacks of home renovation for everyone in my family. (I hasten to say that we have a beautiful house now, and we don't regret having made the decision to turn our modest red-brick cape cod into a retro-pomo palace of pleasure, with help from our gifted and heroic architect, Brian McCarthy of Bennett Frank McCarthy Architects right here in Takoma Park.) Also, Moose and I just happened to read a couple of pieces New York Times columnist William Safire did on "It is what it is" this spring. (Here is the link to the original column, but you'll only be able to access it if you're a subscriber to New York Times Select. And here's a link to a follow-up he published.) Safire describes "It is what it is" as a "tautophrase," because it relies on tautology's habit of being "designed to define itself by repetition of itself." He rightly sees it as a strategy designed to evade responsibility, to deflect inquiry, or to obscure agency by suggesting irretrievable actions perpetrated by actors we needn't bother to name. "What's done is done" is another powerful example of "tautophrase," after all.

Safire, conservative that he is, isn't as sensitive as Moose and I are to the political perils of the tautophrase. Perhaps our experience with the construction manager made us particularly alert to the insidiousness and the violence of "It is what it is" and other similar locutions. In civic life as in home renovation, the tautophrase is designed to squelch criticism, to intimidate those who might be tempted to dissent from a supposed consensus, and, most dangerously, to alienate the little people from any sense of agency they might dare to claim or assert. "It is what it is" is an argument for keeping troops in Iraq forever and an effort to forestall any consideration of how they came to be there. "It is what it is" rationalizes anything the government might wish to do in the name of a "war on terror" being fought everywhere and nowhere. "It is what it is" tells citizens they needn't worry, needn't think, and better not challenge authorities who know so much more about what "it is" than they do. The tautology is a god-trope ("I am that I am," God says to Moses in Exodus 3:14), the rhetorical equivalent of the Bush administration's theory of the "unitary executive," a theory they have trotted out to justify the most extraordinary expansion of presidential power in American history.

"It is what it is" is a veil, a cudgel, a lie being foisted off on a scared populace in Bush-league America. With what's left of our democracy, we'd better remember that "It is what we make it"--and start trying to make it right.


  1. ML & Roxie,
    I really appreciated this post. I'd like to direct your attention to the following entry in a more recent Daily Kos that suggests that there may be a slight sign of erosion around the base of this horrible "unitary executive."
    Keep on blogging...

  2. Careful there, brother--You'll bring on another post-traumatic flashback for poor Moose. "Oka-lee-doka-lee" was another of the construction manager's favorite expressions. Even "hey you" has been known to make Moose scream a little. Then there's that ring from his cellphone. . . .


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