An essay by Colson Whitehead (Zone One, John Henry Days, etc.) published in the NY Times.
You will recall the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog. The Scorpion needs a ride across the river. The waters are rising on account of climate change, or perhaps he has been priced out of his burrow, who knows? The exact reason is lost in the fog of pre-modernity. The Frog is afraid that the Scorpion will sting him, but his would-be passenger reassures him that they would both die if that happened. That would be crazy. Sure enough, halfway across, the Scorpion stings the Frog. Just before they drown, the Scorpion says, “Aren’t you going ask why I did that?” And the Frog croaks, “You do you.”
We don’t all partake of the same slang menu — you say “pop,” I say “soda,” and we’ll all get properly sorted on Judgment Day. Wherever you hail from, you’ll recognize “You do you” and “Do you” as contemporary versions of that life-affirming chestnut “Just be yourself.” It’s the gift of encouragement from one person to another, what we tell children on the first day of kindergarten, how we reassure buddies as they primp for a blind date or rehearse asking for a raise. You do you, as if we could be anyone else. Depending on your essential qualities, this song of oneself is cause for joy or tragedy.
You’ve also come across that expression’s siblings, like the defensive, arms-crossed “Haters gonna hate” or the perpetually shrugging “It is what it is.” Like black holes, they are inviolable. All criticism is destroyed when it hits the horizon of their circular logic, and not even light can escape their immense gravity. In a world where the selfie has become our dominant art form, tautological phrases like “You do you” and its tribe provide a philosophical scaffolding for our ever-evolving, ever more complicated narcissism.
William Safire, writing in these pages in 2006, coined a word for these self-justifying constructions: “tautophrases.” This was in the midst of his investigation into the ubiquity of “It is what it is,” as evidenced in its use by cultural specimens as disparate as Britney Spears and Scott McClellan, a press secretary for President George W. Bush. (Pause to reminisce.) Whether the subject is an imperfect situation to be endured (“The new coffee in the break room is the pits”) or an existential conundrum (“My body is a bunch of atoms working in brief harmony before death returns them to the universe”), “It is what it is” effectively ends the discussion so that we can stop, nod in solemn agreement and move on.
According to Safire, “It is what it is” has many tautophrasal relatives and ancestors. “What’s done is done,” “What will be will be.” The striking thing about his examples is how many of them preserve and burnish the established order. When God informs Moses, “I am that I am,” he is telling the prophet, “Look, get off my back, I’m God.” I’ve never argued with a bush, burning or otherwise, but I imagine they’re quite persuasive. “Boys will be boys” and “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” excuse mischief and usually worse, reinforcing the dominant masculine code. It’s doubtful that “I just discovered penicillin!” or “Publishing Willa Cather’s ‘My Antonia’ was the most satisfying moment of my career” elicited a gruff “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” but perhaps I am cynical. Popeye’s “I yam what I yam,” however, remains what it has always been — the pathetic ravings of a man who claims superstrength, when it is obvious to everyone else in the room that spinach merely ameliorates the symptoms of an undiagnosed vitamin deficiency. A scurvy dog, indeed.
While the word “tautophrase” didn’t take off, the phenomenon it described blossomed, abetted by hip-hop. Sure, philosophical resignation has been a part of the music as far back as 1984, when Run-D.M.C. reeled off a litany of misfortune — “Unemployment at a record high/People coming, people going, people born to die” — and underscored it with a weary, “It’s like that/and that’s the way it is.” But grandiosity, narcissism and artful braggadocio have also been integral to hip-hop from the start, whether they were the fruit of a supercharged sense of self or a coping mechanism for a deleterious urban environment. As with everything interesting in black culture, hip-hop’s swaggering tautophrases have been digested and regurgitated by the mainstream. Last year, Taylor Swift somewhat boringly testified that not only are “Haters gonna hate,” they’re gonna “hate hate hate” exponentially, presumably in direct proportion to her lack of culpability. Instead of serving the establishment (monotheism, patriarchal energies), the modern tautophrase empowers the individual. Regardless of how shallow that individual is.
“Do you” certainly sallies forth from black vernacular, even if the nature of its mundane parts makes its origin Google-proof. The phrase is affection conferred by another person: a “+1,” wrapped inside a fav, tucked inside a like. “Game recognizes game” reflects love of oneself, a kiss upon a mirror. It fixes the observed in his or her place while flattering the speaker: “I’m calling you out for possessing a particular set of skills” (in lovemaking, basketball or macramé), for I, too, am blessed with those very same skills. It takes one to know one.
Haters hate; that’s them doing them. No matter how saintly you are, the kittens rescued and orphanages saved from demolition, people yearn to bring you down. Classify your antagonists as haters, however, and your flaws are absolved by their greater sin of envy. Obviously, the haters have other qualities apart from their hatred, but such thinking goes against the very nature of the hermetic tautophrase, which refuses intrusion into the bubble of its logic. The hated-upon must resist lines of inquiry, like “Haters are inclined to hate, but perhaps I have contributed to this situation somehow by frustrating that natural impulse in all human beings, that of empathy, however submerged that impulse is in this deadened, modern world.” To do otherwise would be to acknowledge your own monstrosity.
Which brings us to the problem of what happens when the person in question is not just an ordinary plodder, a high-school-age Todd or Alissa preening in the mall’s food court, but a true villain. What if, like the Scorpion, your you is not so good? “There’s been so much blood lately — should I cut back maybe on the pillaging today?” The lieutenant gestures with his longbow: “You do you, Genghis.” “Should I take this pistol with me on the 1 train?” The voice in his head that sounds weirdly like his mother’s says, “Do you, Bernie Goetz.”
And if the person happens to be the leader of the free world?
It just so happened that the president appeared in a BuzzFeed-produced “Obamacare” video in February called “Things Everyone Does but Doesn’t Talk About.” The video was aimed at uninsured young people, urging them to enroll at Healthcare.gov before the deadline, and featured Obama practicing “Top Gun” faces in front of the mirror, using a selfie stick and shooting an imaginary jump shot. In short, running through a series of contemporary solipsistic gestures. The video ended with a junior White House staff member walking in on the president midcavort. “Can I live?” Obama asked. Be a normal person for just a moment? “You do you,” the staff member said, with the insouciance that is a hallmark of the millennial tribe.
These colloquial shenanigans irritated the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal. “ ‘You do you’ is the ultimate self-referential slogan for the ultimate self-referential presidency,” the writer fumed. “It’s the ‘Be yourself’ piety of our age turned into a political license by Mr. Obama to do as he pleases.” According to The Journal, Obama’s millennial affectations and his age-inappropriate preening provide context for the rise of ISIS, our crummy foreign policy, immigration amnesty’s wrong turn. “You do you,” taken to its extreme, provides justification for every global bad actor. The invasion of Ukraine is Putin being Putin, Iran’s nuclear ambitions Khamenei being Khamenei.
Haters gonna hate.
While it’s true that running for president requires a healthy amount of self-regard — “What the heck, I can rule 300 million people, been thinking about it, and I’m up to the task” — the tautophrase I most associate with the White House is “It is what it is.” No matter what you do, no matter the sincerity of your intentions, the stinger is coming out, and now look what you’ve done: drone-borne collateral damage to bystanders thousands of miles away and children with empty bellies within walking distance. The job is murder, quick by gun sight or slow like despair, in brutal magnitudes. It’s a job that makes the tautology decouple from a circle, like a serpent spitting out its tail, to become a straight, blunt declarative: It is what happens. It is the world. It simply is.
We have enough vision and resources to be the Frog, generous and steadfast, and more than enough poison to play the Scorpion, true to our natures. Either way, the waters will take us. Given the rising, merciless It that you and I face day in and day out, surely haters are the least of our worries. Might as well do you. Perform the impersonation of your best self.
Maybe you’ll get it right this time.