July 03, 2004

Not the * I know: let * be *

This morning I stumbled on a weblog that noted two snowclones in recent political discourse: first John Kerry's slogan "Let America be America again"; and then George Bush's remark "This is not the America I know."

The Kerry slogan comes from the title of a 1938 poem by Langston Hughes. But it reminded me first of Nancy Reagan's presidential debate instruction "let Reagan be Reagan", widely taken up by the American right.

If we leave out again (to get the "core snowclone" :-)), we can find instances of "let X be X" for X = Augusta, Bartlet, Bush, bygones, children, China, Chirac, Clinton, country, Cypriots, dad, Europe, Garfield, God, Iraq, librarians, mom, Rumsfeld, Russia, 'Sheed, Singh, Taiwan, upstate, and very many others.

The usual idea seems to be that some (bad) circumstances or forces are preventing X from expressing its (good) fundamental nature. There's a variant that argues against inappropriate homogenization: "let country be country and pop be pop", or "let China be China and let Taiwan be Taiwan". No doubt someone has sorted out whether all this is just the normal semantics of predicate nominals in generic or habitual settings ("Clinton was just being Clinton", "he's just being himself"), or whether there is something more going on.

Phrases such as "this (or that or these) is (or are) not the X I know" are also in common use: here are examples for X = Afghanistan, Bob, Christianity, England, FDA, God, Hollywood, Hasan, India, Islam, Italy, Jesus, Kuwait, Maine, Mexico, Najaf, New York, NFL, Paris, Pennsylvania, Radiohead, Shakespeare, species, Superman, Tom, Tony.

Here the usual rhetorical force seems to be "this is not typical for X, as I am in a position to know". Again, there's some more general semantics ("the X that S" where X might not normally take a definite article), and maybe something extra.

George W. Bush's use of the phrase "This is not the America I know" (or sometimes "That is not the America I know") in his remarks on the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib has been widely quoted. Curiously, I haven't been able to confirm that he said these exact words. The closest thing that I've been able to find is what he said to Al Hurra Television on May 5, 2004, which according to the whitehouse.gov transcript was

First, people in Iraq must understand that I view those practices as abhorrent. They must also understand that what took place in that prison does not represent America that I know. [sic] The America I know is a compassionate country that believes in freedom. The America I know cares about every individual. The America I know has sent troops into Iraq to promote freedom -- good, honorable citizens that are helping the Iraqis every day.

(I suspect that the missing "the" is a transcription error).

Whether or not he used it in reference to Abu Ghraib, "X is not the America I know" is a phrase that President Bush has used more than once in his career. It occurs on the whitehouse.gov website in six places, starting with the transcript of "Remarks by the President at Islamic Center of Washington, D.C." on September 17, 2001:

Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America. That's not the America I know. That's not the America I value.

and in the transcript of "Remarks by the President on Iraq" at the Cincinnati Museum Center on October 7, 2002:

Failure to act would embolden other tyrants, allow terrorists access to new weapons and new resources, and make blackmail a permanent feature of world events. The United Nations would betray the purpose of its founding, and prove irrelevant to the problems of our time. And through its inaction, the United States would resign itself to a future of fear.

That is not the America I know. That is not the America I serve. We refuse to live in fear. (Applause.)

and in the transcript of presidential remarks at a "White House Conference on Character and Community" on June 19, 2002:

I think it's particularly important in a day and age where some question the value system of America that we teach people to serve a neighbor -- people to love a neighbor like they'd like to be loved themselves. There's a question in our society as to whether or not we're so self-absorbed and materialistic that we won't fulfill our obligations as a nation.

That's not the America I know, and the America I believe exists.

and in transcript of remarks on October 14, 2002, in reference to the sniper attacks in the Washington DC area:

The sniper attacks, first of all, I'm just sickened, sick to my stomach to think that there is a cold-blooded killer at home taking innocent life. I weep for those who lost their loved ones. I am -- the idea of moms taking their kids to school and sheltering them from a potential sniper attack is not the America I know. And therefore, we're lending all the resources of the federal government, all that have been required to do everything we can to assist the local law authorities to find this -- whoever it is.

and in the transcript of "Remarks by the President at Argonne National Laboratory - Illinois" on July 22, 2002, about anti-terrorism technology:

I don't know what was going through the minds of the enemy when they were plotting and planning. I don't know who they thought they were attacking. They must have thought this country was so materialistic, so self-absorbed that we would sit back and, you know, after the attacks, maybe file a lawsuit or two. (Laughter.) That's not the America I know. And that's not the America you're a part of.

and in the transcript of "Remarks by the President on Education Accountability", in Lacrosse, Wisconsin on May 8, 2002:

I can't imagine what went through the minds of our enemy when they attacked us on September the 11th. You know, they must have thought America was so self-absorbed, so materialistic, so selfish that we would cower in the face of a challenge -- well, we might file a few lawsuits or two, but that would be all we would do. But that's not the America I know and that's not the America you're a part of. This is a country that when it comes to defending that which we believe in, when it comes to defending our freedoms, we are patient, we're deliberate, and we are plenty tough. (Applause.)

Note that Bush always uses that, not this, at least in these transcripts. By comparison, Google finds 768 examples of "this is not the * I know" and 756 examples of "that is not the * I know".


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 3, 2004 09:29 AM