Readers on 'American Orientalism'

Good thing I didn't mention snowmobiles.

Yesterday I mentioned a little flap about whether it was condescending and "Orientalist," or on the contrary merely observant, to note habits in one part of the country that differ from the norm elsewhere. For instance, whether it was appropriate to laugh at lawn machines that are essentially the same size as the plot of grass on which they are being used, as above.

Time for a reader-mail roundup! First, from a magazine editor who lives in an East Coast suburb, arguing that maybe the big-machine practice is saner than it seems:

I wonder if some (a lot?) are these are being ridden by people hired by the property owners. The people across the street and next to me have someone come by weekly to mow, blow, and go. Both outfits use riding mowers on these tiny lawns; the whole operation lasts less than 10 minutes. They probably go from tiny yard to tiny yard throughout the day doing so.

For what it's worth, the three photos I originally showed were all being run by hired lawn teams rather than householders. Now, let's hear from someone in Southern California, saying that ridiculous machines are fair game for comment:

Thank God you aren't visiting in the winter and made a comment on snowmobiles.  Then you'd really be in trouble.  

Since I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and have had family in the Minneapolis area for decades, I think I can speak with a modicum of authority.  We love machines.  Not long ago, I saw someone in my neighborhood riding a lawn mower to cut a lawn not much bigger than a postage stamp.  It wasn't a big mower but still.  Then I wondered if that person had an ambulatory problem as we don't see many personal riding mowers along the coast...

Personally, I think you should point out local quirks and habits.  Of course, in a respectful and positive way.  If we locals can't take pride in our uniqueness then why are we doing it?  Also, it rounds out our knowledge and appreciation of this country.  At least to me.  If someone from coastal California is debating someone from Minnesota about pollution controls on gas powered engines, it would be good for the Californian to know that the Minnesotan, besides owning automobiles, also may own one or more snowmobiles, riding mower, snowblower (separate or attachment), motor boat, etc.

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From a friend in the DC area, on the sound cannon angle:

Re giant lawn machinery, it's a phenomenon similar to what thetruthaboutcars.com calls "unnecessarily large pickup trucks," and probably has the same psychological roots. But the big tell is that these gargantuan mowers, both private and commercial, have invaded suburbia all over the country, along with their weed-whacking and leaf-blowing cousins. 

I live in what most people would at first glance consider a somnolently quiet suburb, but there is hardly a 15 minute stretch during daylight hours in growing season when one of these machines is not roaring within earshot, which can be a couple of blocks away. The perceived noise of these machines is at least double that of a consumer push power mower.
 
A two dollar per mower/weed whacker/leaf blower investment in R & D to muffle engines, dynamically tune impeller blades, etc., would make them a lot more bearable. In the 1970s, the EPA considered noise a pollutant, but in 1981, Ronald Reagan, on his way to tripling the national debt, did manage to abolish EPA's Office of Noise Abatement. And with this Congress, we're unlikely to see that reversed.

Along with the exponential growth in the suburbs of commercial delivery truck activity (with their diesels carefully designed to simulate hand grenades going off under the valve covers, and brakes tuned to give a banshee-like shriek), the power equipment infestation has made the typical suburb a noisy place. These sounds punctuate the more or less constant, subliminal din of more distant traffic noises and commercial airliners overhead (It is hard to live anywhere in the East that is not within a few miles of the descent path to an airport).

The long-term physical and psychological effects of all this noise are uncertain, but bear in mind that DOD has done a fair amount of research into "sound cannons" as weapons. 

And, finally on my other allusion to American Gothic as proxy for American Orientalism:

Greetings from a native Midwesterner, student of American art history, and long-time reader. My Scrooge-like note of dissent is on calling Grant Wood's American Gothic "heartland Orientalism."

Wood lived and maintained a studio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. An inveterate collector of 19th Century Americana, he searched out the history of his home state, looking for "bits of American folklore that are too good to lose." Too smart a painter to create simple satire (with one exception, his "Daughters of Revolution"), he made something that people project themselves into, a palimpsest with enduring relevance.

While we can't always trust the artist, Wood said of American Gothic: "These people had bad points, and I did not paint them under, but to me they were basically good and solid people. I had no intention of holding them up to ridicule." The models were his sister and dentist (who looks like one). Wood respected Iowa and generally rejected parodying or orientalizing it, but left the door open for viewers to do so -- they're half the conversation, after all.

As for serendipity: I spent most of yesterday afternoon in front of American Gothic, at the Art Institute of Chicago, eavesdropping on the crowds around it. Normally, I live in Williamstown, MA, home of the Clark Art Institute and your other,  more faithfully orientalist icon - Gérôme's Snake Charmer.

Ahead in the queue: even more from Holland! Plus Rapid City, energy-boom Wyoming, a preview of Sioux Falls, and the latest case studies in super-cautious flying. Stay tuned.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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