George Saunders on America (2003)

A man sits in a room. Someone begins shouting through his window, informing him of conditions in the house next door. Our man’s mind inflects: That is, he begins imagining that house. What are the factors that might affect that quality of his imagining? That is, what factors affect his ability to imagine the next door house as it actually is?

  1. The clarity of the language being used by the Informant (the less muddled, inarticulate, or jargon-filled, the better);
  2. The agenda of the Informant (no agenda preferable to agenda-rich);
  3. The time and care the Informant has spent constructing his narrative (i.e., the extent to which his account was revised and improved before being transmitted, with more time and care preferable to less);
  4. The time allowed for the communication (with more time preferable to less, on the assumption that more time grants the Informant a better opportunity to explore, explain, clarify, etc.).

So the best case scenario for acquiring a truthful picture of that house next door might go something like this: Information arrives in the form of prose written and revised over a long period of time, in the interest of finding the truth, by a disinterested person with real-world experience in the subject area. The report can be as long, dense, nuanced, and complex as is necessary to portray the complexity of the situation.

The worst-case scenario might be: Information arrives in the form of prose written by a person with little or no firsthand experience in the subject matter, who hasn’t had much time to revise what he’s written, working within narrow time constraints, in the service of an agenda that may be subtly or overtly distorting his ability to tell the truth. 

Could we make this worst-case scenario even worse? Sure. Let it be known that the Informant’s main job is to entertain and that, if he fails in this, he’s gone. Also, the man being informed? Make him too busy, ill-prepared and distracted to properly assess what the Informant’s shouting at him.

Then propose invading the house next door.

Welcome to America, circa 2003.