George Saunders in Shouts and Murmers

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Just reading this thing by George Saunders and I’m kind of appalled. I’m easily appalled though, and then quickly I’m embarrassed at even using the word appalled, as if I were a Victorian grammar teacher hearing the word “ain’t.” In fact I feel like I need to do something about this sense of being appalled. The fact of being appalled is a common emotion these days. President Bush and Oprah are appalled. I don’t want to be a person who gets appalled. I don’t want to feel moral outrage but rather a stoic and well worded response. There must be a Buddhist retreat or at least a Buddhist-retreat-in-a-can that I can consume on my commute to work since I am too busy to go to an actual Buddhist retreat. Being appalled is an expedient expression of moral outrage. Its kind of like burping.

There is something silly and sinister about Saunders’s piece.


On the one hand, Saunders’s essay is merely silly as it is supposed to be. It is self-evidently silly to hold back the flow of linguistic change. To outlaw linguistic change is an attempt to outlaw the vitality of language and create a sterile substrate. Death seems the ultimate form of conservatism. This point is pretty well made. It in fact was well made before George Saunders even composed his silly piece. The phrase “elastic loaves” for pizza gets the point across. And this is the Associated Press as satirist. But, the Associated Press is known for poetry. His bit seems pretty sinister to me and he did not strike me as the sinister sort beyond his ready ability to mock sinister sorts.

What makes me appalled about Saunders bit is that I identify with the position he takes in the satire. Satire is based on a moral position, and at one point I would without question accept the moral position Saunders takes in this bit. I am expending more text my thought about this then he did in his piece, but it is my own change from this position and the fact that I am at a loss for my current position.

I feel like I’m like a shard of a nut that’s broken free from a tooth.

Saunders position comes from the long tradition identified in Edward Said’s great book, Orientalism. Edward Said’s book is about the invention of “The East” or Orient by the West to establish a pretext for cultural and military domination of by The West. It is also a story about the mechanism of cultural identity, how for instance this definition of an other place, The Orient, has been important in the defining the values of The West. Edward Said expands these themes in his book Culture and Imperialism.

The Myth
The East is a tribal, primitive, and occupied by highly sexual beings. It is the site of a lost civilization and filled with hidden riches inaccessible to those who live there. The West, by contrast, is egalitarian, technologically and socially advanced, and occupied by highly prudent beings who are prudent enough to share their prudence with the savages in Africa and Asia. The West is the site of the most advanced civilization on earth.

What makes me appalled about the Saunders essay is that it occurs to me that for the majority of liberals in the United States, they share the same underlying myth of The Orient as conservatives — that this is an ingrained and difficult to escape narrative. I’ve been trying to identify how this works, but I am failing since I am deeply inside of the story of The West’s exceptionality and our promise to eventually bring about a global utopian order once pesky problems such as poverty, energy, and environmental degradation are resolved by progress.

Underlying all of this is the ideological means in which The West occupied The East. It was our duty to save them by blowing them up. It was our duty to liberate them by conquering them.

Perhaps Saunders blunder here is to use satire, an ironic form, in the context of an ironic ideology? He’s just looking for laughs.

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I was exposed to this ideology first hand. I’ve been working on a novel about my experience in the First Gulf War. This was a destructive war just as the current one is destructive — but the First Gulf War realized some of the promises of postmodern warfare. There was a huge and rapid deployment using contemporary shipping — container ships, container cargo, jet transport. There was a desert as the theater of operations. Rather than cities, tanks, and rockets with a clear satellite view engaged the enemy. By the time ground troops engaged the enemy they had been pretty much killed. And the majority of the Army left before the region realized the havoc wrecked by the war. The ruined water supply in Basra for instance leading to a skyrocking mortality in the Iraqi children in the early 1990s.

I was stationed in Saudi Arabia. We were given cultural training before we went. I am from Seattle — and I was in a reserve unit — and so we all gathered in Fort Lewis just south of Tacoma and in an old cinder block movie theater they told us things about the customs and habits of Arabs. They did tell us that Persians were different from Arabs — but mainly this boiled down to the fact that Persians saw themselves as different from Arabs, but really from our perspective, they were all “Middle Easterners.” They dressed the same and shared the same religion more or less. We were told some silly things about Arabs. Such as the fact, that we couldn’t show an Arab the sole of our foot because that was disrespectful. We were told not to make the “Okay” sign because that was THE EVIL EYE. We were told not to wear skimpy clothing (if we were female) while jogging because we would be rapped by Arab men with an insatiable sexual appetite. Really. They told us these things. They told us that Arabic culture stopped in the twelfth century — that the culture that had produced numbers, algebra, coffee was dead or at least in a deep coma and had been for eight hundred years. Our orientation trainer (orient/orientation, get it?) was a captain armed with a slide show.

At nineteen I took these things as bizarre US Army exaggerations. I heard, for instance that the targets in Basic Training had their name changed from Ivan (Russian) to Mohammed (Mid East). The US Army is prone to crass acts. But even dismissing the majority of the Army’s story as a crass act, this still left me with the idea that there was something to what they saying, that Middle Easterners (Arab, Persian, whatever) were different, and deserved to be liberated in some fashion.

In my liberalism, I thought of McDonalds and Pizza Hut as great democratic forces. Voting boxes followed the franchises. This is what I thought. At the root of it they wanted my life even with the necessary evils of cul-de-sacs and strip malls. For a time I was against cul-de-sacs and strip malls. Now I’m less against these things exactly but I’m not sure what I’m for, except I am not for the logic that results in liberation as conquest.

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