It Is What It Is
On Election Day 2004, when exit polls showed incumbent President George W. Bush losing to Democratic challenger John Kerry, Bush assessed his situation to Time magazine. “It is what it is,” he said.
One month later, with Bush cheerleading the White House for another four years, “It is what it is” was declared America’s #1 Sports cliché by USA Today. While Bush rode a FUBAR invasion and a crashing economy to political victory, “It is what it is” was trending.
But not so fast.
“It is what it is” has been an existential backstop since at least the 13th century, when Persian Mystic Jalalud'din Rumi wrote “Fihi ma fihi,” which, coincidently, in English means “It Is What it Is.” Rumi was focused on the dance of life and a “be here now” relationship with the present. In his quest for the eternal moment “It is what it is” provided a sense of what Psychology Today now calls “mindfulness.”
“What more is there to say?” Rumi asked, “Reality is. It is what it is. Explanations cannot explain it. Words cannot reveal it.”
Bush’s “It is what it is” moment was most likely not inspired by Rumi. There are those who think W may have stolen the phrase (among other things) from Al Gore who said “It is what it is” responding to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bush v Gore. My guess, however, is that Bush took the expression from sports. In that goal-driven world, “It is what it is” becomes a coping mechanism. Laker basketball Zen master coach Phil Jackson of the NBA claimed he used the phrase to convince his players to “get over” their mistakes. If your last second game-winning shot didn’t drop, what’s done is done. Circumspectively, “It is what it is” became “it was what it was.” In this past-tense usage, Philbert (as well as President Bush) used the phrase as a synonym for “Fuck it,” because saying “Fuck it” is not acceptable to the mainstream press, not to mention followers of Rumi.
Incidentally, the usage of “It is what it is” as a coaching tool did no great harm to Phil Jackson who has, up until now, won more championships than any other NBA coach. A win, after all, is a win.
By 2006, usage of “It is what it is” was peaking. While singing it praises in an editorial in The New York Times, columnist and presidential speechwriter William Safire defined it as a tautophrase — a sentence that repeats itself like a word mirror. You do you.
Tauto means “the same.” Tautophrases use repetition for emphasis. Their ideas, though multiplied, are singular and inherent. To say, "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do” or, as God is said to have said, "I am that I am" may or may not be true, but the repetition is there as an infinite affirmation. Facts are facts.
Regarding “It is what it is,” Safire concluded his essay with a concern about overusing the phrase. “Will the vogue use of ‘It is what it is’ become fixed in the farrago of unresponsive responses?” he asked. “The answer is in its own future tense,” Safire answered, “sung in the Spanish Que será será: ‘What will be will be.’”
After the recession of 2008, the usage of “It is what it is” was, if not fixed in the farrago of unresponsive responses, than, at least widely overused. In addition to Rumi’s mindfulness, and Bush’s “fuck it,” “It is what it is” also became an expression of failure — a synonym for “I give up.” According to The Military Leader website, “the problem with ‘It is what it is’ is that it abdicates responsibility, shuts down creative problem solving, and concedes defeat.”
Whether from defeat or repetition, today, the use of “It is what it is” has dropped dramatically. Could it be that we are taking responsibility? Or has “It is what it is”, at last, become not only “fixed in the farrago of unresponsive responses,” but terminal? This much is true. Racism, Climate Change, and Donald Trump should not be explained with a tautophrase.
“It is what it is” is not what it was — which wouldn’t have troubled Rumi, but inspire him to dance.
Has the eternal moment passed? It ain’t over, til it’s over.
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