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: Octavio Paz’ “Although it is night”

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Our words this week come from the second and third sections of Octavio Paz’ poem “Although it is night” from his 1988 collection, A Tree Within.

The words are:

II

While I’m reading in Mexico City,
what time is it now in Moscow?
It’s late, it’s always late,
in history it is always night,
always the wrong time.
Solzhenitsyn writes,
the paper is burning, his writing goes on,
cruel dawn on a plain of bones.

I was a coward, I did not face evil,
and now the century confirms the philosopher:
Evil? A pair of eyes with no face,
an abundant void.
Evil:
a nobody somebody, a nothing something.

Did Stalin have a face?
Suspicion
ate his face and soul and will.
Fear populated his soulless night,
his insomnia decimated Russia.

III

The party is always right
Leon Trotsky

Stalin had no soul:
he had history.
Uninhabited Marshal without a face,
servant of nothing. Evil unmasked:
the maggot becomes Caesar. A ghost’s
triumph: his memorial marks a pit.
Nothingness is the great harder of nobodies.
And as for the others: evil takes away their faces
in the same unreal game that shuffles us all.
Circular suffering, circular guilt: the spool,
unwound, history relieves their pain
by killing them off. Discourse in a frozen knife:

Dialectic, the bloody solipsism
that invented the enemy from itself.

In a political era in which facts seem every day to be consciously ignored or subverted by superstition, it’s important to remember the lesson of history that blind faith in an authority, even of your flavor, is dangerous for the average person. Paranoia, suspicion, threats. Isolation and insolation. All common attributes for a brutal, detached dictator such as Stalin, the maggot become marshal, but not normal in a nation that prides itself on the ideals of freedom of speech, information, and thought. As partisanship further dominates political discourse, be careful to pledge allegiance to the president or the party rather than the people. Truth is more synthesis than genesis. We must resist the urge to invent reality from within ourselves rather than around ourselves. History and poetry may have some answers on how to do that.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Lupe Fiasco’s “Intruder Alert”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is a verse from Lupe Fiasco‘s “Intruder Alert” off his 2007 album, “The Cool,” and reads:

“Famine striking his homeland/
and no social standing/
in the economic pecking order/
emergency relief distribution systems is in disorder/
he’s checking water/
making sure it’s safe enough for his daughter/
to float across in the boat he built/
hopefully strong enough to support her/
praying border patrols don’t catch her/
and process and deport her/
before she reach the shore of the land of the free/
where they feed you/
treat you like equals/
deceive you/
stamp you and call you illegal”

In one verse, Wasalu Jaco (aka Lupe Fiasco) concentrates a complex sociopolitical issue down to its human core. Some of the children I teach now are refugees from Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa, but I have this song to thank for helping me empathize with those in this situation years before I’d met anyone who’d lived through it. As the debate about immigration policy remains a staple of U.S. presidential platforms, I continue to come back to these words for a personal perspective rather than political posturing.

– NR

Lupe Fiasco