Wordsmith Wednesday: George Saunders’ “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”

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Our words this Wednesday come from George Saunders’ 2005 novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.

The excerpt is:

“Suddenly Phil didn’t seem like quite so much of a nobody to the other Outer Hornerites. What kind of nobody was so vehement, and used so many confusing phrases with so much certainty, and was so completely accurate about how wonderful and generous and under-appreciated they were?

‘Boy oh boy,’ said Freeda.

‘He just comes right out and says it,’ said Melvin.

‘Thank goodness someone finally has,’ said Larry.

‘As for you Inner Hornerites!’ bellowed Phil. ‘Please take heed: You are hereby testing the limits of our legendary generosity, because of how you are, which is so very opposite of us. Friends, take a look at these losers! If they are as good as us, why do they look so much worse than us? Look how they look! Do they look valorous and noble and huge like us, or do they look sad and weak and puny?”

If some of the rhetoric in this excerpt seems to echo what you’re hearing in the current political discourse, that’s because the language of nationalism and it’s dumber, more violent cousin, jingoism, often rest on the vilification of the “Other.” This is the language you heard on the campaign trail and it’s the mindset behind border walls, travel bans, and threats of nuclear war. Throughout the book, Phil’s populist approach and appeal to Outer Hornerites, similar to that of Trump, is almost entirely built on expressing their superiority over Inner Hornerites, of using single incidents or accidents to generalize about “Them” and using fear to quell any dissidence among the Outer Hornerites themselves. Originally meant to be a children’s story in response to a challenge to write a book where all the characters are conglomerate objects, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil uses satire to simplify, and clarify, factors that lead to conflict, subjugation, injustice, and, in this case, genocide. This story’s cautions against blind faith in authority, national hubris, sensationalist media, and compliance with injustice seem a lesson to navigating our current sociopolitical landscape, a shifting lesson I’m learning every day. I don’t have the answers, but be careful of those who try to win your heart and mind by vehemently spouting confusing phrases with certainty.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Kendrick Lamar’s “LUST.”

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Our words this week come from Kendrick Lamar’s song “LUST.” from his latest record “DAMN.”

The words are:

“We all woke up, tryna tune to the daily news
Lookin’ for confirmation, hopin’ election wasn’t true
All of us worried, all of us buried, and the feeling’s deep
None of us married to his proposal, make us feel cheap
Still and sad, distraught and mad, tell the neighbor ’bout it
Bet they agree, parade the streets with your voice proudly
Time passin’, things change
Revertin’ back to our daily programs
Stuck in our ways, lust”

On a collection of songs built around breathing life and form into broad human themes, Lamar engages lust not just as a sexual concept but also one of desiring the easy, the pleasurable, the lazily indulgent. The self-centered default. He reflects on this concept in men, women, and himself before dropping the above words at the end of the final verse. These lines reflect something essential and troubling about the recent US presidential election and the national response in the months that followed. After clenched stomachs and disbelief came genuine discussion and community building efforts, energetic and directed and productive. But sustained, unsexy resistance is hard. Legs start to hurt and throats go hoarse. Victories are small and meaningful outcomes require a marathon. Time passes. Normalization begins. Constant engagement and outrage get exhausting and complacency starts to return to those privileged enough to afford it and to some that can’t. Back to the default. So, while it may be human nature to seek the comfort of the self-centered action, real growth requires personal sacrifice for collective progress, less lust and more love. I’m definitely guilty of making the selfish choice in the face of greater injustice, but I’ve also made sacrifices to reach out and pull others up. It’s right, but it’s hard. Damn.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Mos Def’s “Wahid”

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We are highlighting the last verse from Mos Def’s song “Wahid” from his 2009 album The Ecstatic for our Wordsmith Wednesday this week.

The words are:

“Schooling the young like Rev. Run
Quote Pac and tell ’em keep their heads up
And when the pressure comes down press back and press up
Fret not ghetto world guess what?
God is on your side, the devil is a lie
The Empire holds all the gold and the guns
But when all is said and done there’s only
La ilaha ill’Allah”

Mos Def is known for his legendary ability to smoothly weave sometimes dissident ideas together through idiosyncratic rhyme schemes, simultaneously painting in broadstroke and penciling in the details in the wet paint. These lines plant the power of knowledge and hope poetically against military and monetary might, reminding the marginalized to always push back against external pressures that threaten to crush them.As a non-believer from a loose Polish/Italian Catholic background, I don’t connect as much with the religious connotations of this verse as much as I value its message of encouragement and emboldenment of young people coming up in world that may discourage or diminish them. However, it bears noting that the Arabic line roughly translates to “there is no other god than God” in English, referring to idea that all temporary/secular  struggle and desires dissipate in the face of eternal Truth, a concept shared between major monotheistic religions.

In light of our current social and political landscape, it’s important to remember the elements that should unite us in pursuit of Truth, regardless of religious beliefs (or lack thereof): protection of the weak/marginalized/impoverished, morally and ethically sound thought and action, sustained resistance in the face of corruption and abuse of power. Strength through love and empathy is far more sustainable than through guns and gold. Keep your head up and keep pressing back, everyone.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: John Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday spotlights lyrics from John Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane” originally released in 1982 on his album “American Fool.” The iconic lyrics read:

“Life goes on
long after the thrill
of living is gone”

Wistful and straightforward, these words have woven their way into my emotional fabric just as they have plenty of other Americans. They fill me with a nostalgia for weekend afternoons on the back patio of my childhood home, a yearning to be young again with my girlfriend, and, most of all, the Midwest. They make me miss things I didn’t appreciate enough when I had them, but suggest that I’ll at least continue to experience life even if it lacks some the magic it once held. They let me know I’m getting older. These words just feel very much like the Truth when I hear them.

– NR

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