the crisis of what we know but just ain’t so

It looks like Al Gore has joined those spreading the crisis/opportunity myth, whose popularity seems to have originated with a May 1959 speech by John F. Kennedy.

Gore’s talk is a slideshow of images, designed to help us think about “a planetary emergency, a climate crisis”. He quotes the old saw that the Chinese character for crisis includes signs for “danger” and “opportunity” and suggests that we have the possibility of making the 21st century the “Century of Renewal”

This is especially ironic in that he later cites Mark Twain: “What gets us into trouble is what we know, but just ain’t so.”

And then we get double the irony in that this is probably not an authentic Twain quote. That’s one of those sayings that makes the rounds in various forms. And I’ve noticed that Mark Twain tends to be given as the source of all sorts of folksy witticisms. But is this really by him, and is this the original wording? I strongly doubt it. Perhaps my source, though, is paraphrasing Gore rather than quoting him on this.

source: Al Gore. Quieter than the Children of Uganda

4 thoughts on “the crisis of what we know but just ain’t so

  1. I might as well supply the JFK citation:

    “For the struggle is not over, and the potentialities for gain in India are still great. In the Chinese language, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters, one representing danger, and one representing opportunity. The danger now is clear. But let us also make the most of our opportunities. For if they are lost now, they may never come again.” — Senator John F. Kennedy, May 20, 1959, “The Basis of U.S. Interest in India — Its New Dimensions

    But I think it’s clear Kennedy didn’t know how to read Chinese characters and thus didn’t come up with this on his own.

  2. GREAT article. I’ve read a lot of your other stuff as well, but THIS “Crisis = ” thing is SO OFTEN used. During the last year of my MBA I took Chinese language and culture classes due to personal interest. We used the DeFrancis “Myth” book in one of the classes. I suggested your site to Wen laoshi, the head of our Chinese language program, a little over a year ago.

    I’m living in China now teaching English. I’m sure when I get back into the English-speaking “MBA World” in the US, I’ll not only hear this AGAIN, but probably be expected to SUPPORT it. “Kojo speaks Chinese! He lived in China, HE’LL tell you I’m right!” It’s nice to have a solid piece of work to help explain WHY it’s NOT true.

    Keep up the good work and THANKS for the site.

  3. Many thanks for the kind words, Kojo.

    Glad to hear your program used DeFrancis’s The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. I think it should be required reading for anyone who wants to study the Mandarin language or Chinese culture. I’m currently working on getting it reprinted here in Taiwan.

    The whole crisis/opportunity cliche has grown so large that I’ve even started to see it from Chinese. Then we might have “ideograms” all over again, as Westerners seem to have originated that and passed it along to the Chinese and Japanese, who have echoed it back even louder to the West.

  4. Pingback: Pinyin news » Blog Archive » Cris-atunity revisited

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