September 13, 2005

Two, three... many prefabricated phrases

From Paul Krugman's 9/12/2005 NYT column:

The point is that Katrina should serve as a wakeup call, not just about FEMA, but about the executive branch as a whole. Everything I know suggests that it's in a sorry state - that an administration which doesn't treat governing seriously has created two, three, many FEMA's.

Anyone with a nose for prose will recognize "(create) two, three, many ___" as one of those fragments of prefabricated rhetoric that we've taken to calling snowclones. A search for {"two three many"} will turn up 17,600 hits, most of which are genuine instances of the type, with substitutions for the head noun including "Fallujas", "Arafats", "North Koreas", "Bake Sales", "Kosovos", "Marine Corps", and so on.

Krugman himself has used this rhetorical pattern in at least three previous columns:

Alas, it's all too likely. I can't tell you which corporate icons will turn out to be made of papier-mâché, but I'd be very surprised if we don't have two, three, even many Enrons in our future. {2/1/2002 NYT column}
And looking forward, I don't believe that even the pro-war candidates would pursue the neocon vision of two, three, many Iraq-style wars. {1/2/2004 NYT column}
Rather than concede that he made mistakes, he's sticking with people who will, if they get the chance, lead us into two, three, many quagmires. {8/31/2004 NYT column }

In case you don't know where this phrase comes from, here's the story. In 1967, Che Guevara, trying to start an anti-U.S. guerrilla movement in Bolivia, published in the Cuban magazine Tricontinental an essay whose English version was entitled "Create two, three ... many Vietnams". The Spanish original seems to have been titled "Crear dos, tres... muchos Viet-nam". The spread of the phrase in the U.S. seems to have been aided by a 1968 Ramparts magazine article by Tom Hayden, "Two, Three, Many Columbias".

Guevara failed miserably -- he was killed and his movement obliterated before his essay was published -- but like many spectacular failures, he lives on in unexpected ways. Alvaro Vargas Llosa, writing in the New Republic a couple of months ago, observes that

Che Guevara, who did so much (or was it so little?) to destroy capitalism, is now a quintessential capitalist brand. His likeness adorns mugs, hoodies, lighters, key chains, wallets, baseball caps, toques, bandannas, tank tops, club shirts, couture bags, denim jeans, herbal tea, and of course those omnipresent T-shirts with the photograph, taken by Alberto Korda, of the socialist heartthrob in his beret during the early years of the revolution, as Che happened to walk into the photographer’s viewfinder—and into the image that, thirty-eight years after his death, is still the logo of revolutionary (or is it capitalist?) chic. Sean O’Hagan claimed in The Observer that there is even a soap powder with the slogan “Che washes whiter.”

Something similar has happened with his major linguistic contribution, the "create one, two, many ___" snowclone. For him, it was a call to multiply the resistance movements that he admired, and you can find some similar uses these days, but all of the examples that I cited above are from right-of-center sources. Some of them warn about the proliferation of things viewed as bad ("Arafats", "North Koreas", "Kosovos") while others call for the proliferation of things viewed as good ("Fallujas", "Bake Sales"). In other cases, the authors' emotional stance is complex, though still hardly in tune with Che's point of view:

Where does this fragmentation leave the national military, including the United States Marine Corps? As we have seen in Lebanon, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere, when the nation fragments so do its military forces. We could end up with two, three, many Marine Corps: white Marine Corps, black Marine Corps, Christian Marine Corps, possibly even a gay Marine Corps. These fragments would compete with other organizations to provide the security that counts: security for the individual person, family, home, and neighborhood. In effect, the future Marine could be a rent-a-cop. [William S. Lind, Maj John F. Schmitt, and Col Gary I. Wilson, "Fourth Generation Warfare: Another Look", Marine Corps Gazette, Dec. 1994]

Obviously this phrase has not become the exclusive property of the political right -- Krugman is left of center. But his four uses in three years of NYT columns are all to warn against the proliferation of things he regards as bad: ill-advised wars, corporate accounting frauds, mismanaged federal agencies.

I'm far from the first to connect Che Guevara with another snowclone: "<something significant happened> and all I got was this lousy t-shirt". But I suspect that as he reminisces with Capaneus in the afterlife, Che is unhappier about what has happened to his catchphrase.

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 13, 2005 08:24 AM