Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Meme Watching: Gordon Brown, "If not now, when?"

Gordon Brown's speech yesterday at the United Nations - full text and video link - included very welcome announcements on Darfur future and broken aid promises past. But it has attracted some present Tory Boy Blogger interest over his hat tip to an unnamed US President for lifted rhetoric. Brown suggested he lifted the words from Ronald Reagan's second inauguration speech (1985) :

I have asked the Cabinet and my staff a question, and now I put the same question to all of you: If not us, who? And if not now, when? It must be done by all of us going forward with a program aimed at reaching a balanced budget. We can then begin reducing the national debt.

In fact this rhetoric - employed by Ronnie in such a very prosaic context, though one that might appeal to the inner Chancellor in Brown - may be as old as the hills and is certainly of biblical vintage. The most regularly employed element is not a million miles away from Carpe Diem after all. And possibly coined in or around the same decade. A bit millennial. But let's not go there. There is enough to go at without that!

While Brown nodded to Ronald Reagan, an actor parroting lines from magpies and maggots, was he aware of any other coinage of this meme?

Perhaps even this March 2007 usage:

Dear Democrats: Time to Dust Off Inherent Contempt. If Not You Who? If Not Now When? (10:41 am)
It is long past time to firmly disabuse this President of the arrogant notion that he and members of his administration may operate above the law.

Let's start at the very beginning. It's a very good place to start after all. Most scholars of rhetoric suggest that the first saying like this was from the hot shot Talmudic scholar Hillel the Elder:

If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

This was in his most active 40 years of scholarship (30BCE - 10CE). (The Roman poet Horace who seized the day was 65 BC - 8 BC.) The middle of three 40 year phases of his long and fruitful life which is also said to have included invention of the sandwich, or at least wrap or kebab, on which he has also been usurped by some Johnny come lately.

The "If not now, when?" meme has been used inter alia about forestry, and complaining about high taxes, and founding a memorial trust, and to name a holocaust survivor services e -journal, for a report of MPs re Jubilee Trust, and before all these as Se non ora, quando? as the title of Primo Levi's celebrated book of resistance (1982).

There's more. Gender based violence affecting refugees in Afghanistan, and in the US Christian call to be ready with echoes Hillel's purpose, as a Tracey Chapman song, to drive US patriotism and unity in TWAT,
as the title of Episode 256 of ER, for a blogpost justifying Bombs on Lebanon and most intriguingly for yours truly in an inspiring speech attributed to one Alice Paul.

Suffragist Alice Paul in 1921 drafted the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and it had been introduced into the US Congress in 1923. The proposed law had 3 basic sections:
Section 1- stated "that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United State or any state on account of sex";
Section 2-stated-"the congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article";
Section 3- stated- "this amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification". (Alice Paul Institute)

Roger Catlin's TV Eye blog:

The series finale of “Commander in Chief” Wednesday had something “The West Wing” finale did not – an inspiring speech.
In a Town Hall event opposite Donald Sutherland's Nathan Templeton, Geena Davis' President Mackenzie Allen quoted activist Alice Paul in a stirring speech advocating the Equal Rights Amendment.

She liked to quote an adage she learned from her mother, a farmer: “When you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row.”

And so, like Alice Paul and so many others before her who have fought for equality, tonight we take one step forward.

And know this, we will fight on and we will take one more step and then one more. Because there is too much work left to do, too much unfinished business. We will keep our hands to the plow.

Because I ask you: if not us, who? If not now, when?

That would have been around 1913 I guess.

If not now, when gets 1,670,000,000 google hits, reducing to a mere 297,000 in quotes. The Hillel attribution gets 27,500, a Reagan 23,100, Maimonides 376 (12th century), Pee Wee Herman (I kid you not) 18 ... but Alice Paul, arguably the real modern author?, gets only nine ...

Alice Paul was the architect of some of the most outstanding political achievements on behalf of women in the 20th century. Born on January 11, 1885 to Quaker parents in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, Alice Paul dedicated her life to the single cause of securing equal rights for all women.

Few individuals have had as much impact on American history as has Alice Paul. Her life symbolizes the long struggle for justice in the United States and around the world. Her vision was the ordinary notion that women and men should be equal partners in society.

When you put your hand to the plow, you can't put it down until you get to the end of the row.
-Alice Paul recalling the advice of her mother
(Alice Paul Institute)

Hilary Swank stars as Paul in Iron Jawed Angels (HBO, 2004) celebrating the lives and in some cases deaths of the USA's Pankhursts.


Stephen Newton said...

My guess is that Brown thought it fun to attribute this to Reagan, especially as he used it in the context of freezing government spending, lowering taxes etc. He knew it would wind up Tory boys, but remain too obscure to make a headline.

All the same, it's a fairly harmless piece of rhetoric. You might use it when asking when your dinner will be ready.

Chris Paul said...

That may work harmlessly at your house.

Chris Paul said...

BTW The last Reagan quote he used was on his "stand up" or make that "sit down" comedy tour when R asks an aide:

- Isn't he a communist?
- He's an anti-communist, sir!
- Don't care what sort of communist he is ...

There you go. That is the respect in which RR is held in GB's heart. GWB is however despised.

Anonymous said...

Your a pathetic little man, Chris who will add nothing to the sum of human knowledge. Give it up now and just get a life.

Chris Paul said...

Cheers anonymous 02:13. Creeping round in the dead of night outing "pathetic little men" like me is what you call productive is it?