George Saunders (aka The Principal Researcher or PR) travelled to Fresno, California and set up a tent in a tent city (aka The Study Area) for the purposes of observing the inhabitants and reporting back for GQ. This story is a pain in the ass to read (28 pages with no “single page” option) but it’s worth wading through for Saunders’ observations.
Sometimes it seemed unimaginable that such poverty could exist in America and that the residents accepted it so passively. Why didn’t the place explode? Other times — when, for example, the PR had been out driving around the pleasant neighborhoods of Fresno — the Study Area seemed like a tiny blip on the radar, the necessary detritus of an insanely affluent country. The presence of 300 losers in a city of winners seemed not like a crisis, but rather a reasonable embodiment of Christ’s admonition that the poor would always be with us.
The Study Area presented a unique and vexing case: With all basic needs (food, shelter, laundry, etc.) met, did all suffering vanish? Based on the observations made during the Study, it did not. The well-fed homeless of Fresno, it was observed, suffered considerably.
They suffered with feeling inadequate and left behind. They spent considerable time and energy telling and retelling the story of their lives, as if looking for the place where things had gone astray. They were lonely and seemed to long for the better things in life: ease, property, companionship. Perhaps not surprisingly, this longing sometimes manifested as anger; also impatience, derision, a tendency to gossip ungenerously. In this the Study Area was similar to any other human community, but with the endemic poverty serving as a kind of process accelerator.
Update: Some kind soul has posted the whole thing on one page for easy reading. Hey, GQ! This is what your web site should look like. (thx, rakesh)
The title essay of George Saunders’ The Braindead Megaphone invites the reader to imagine a person at a party with a megaphone. Megaphone Guy might not have much to say, but he’s got a megaphone and so he is heard, his utterances setting the agenda for the entire party, the party’s collective intelligence (its crowd-like wisdom if you want to put it that way) determined by the intelligence of Megaphone Guy. Before long, it ruins the party because the other guests will stop being guests and become passive “reactors-to-the-Guy”.
Now imagine, metaphorically speaking, that the Megaphone Guy is the media and we, the audience of the media, are the party guests. Not all that hard to imagine because the following segment can be seen every hour on every TV news channel in the nation:
Last night on the local news I watched a young reporter standing in front of our mall, obviously freezing his ass off. The essence of his report was: Malls Tend to Get Busier at Christmas! Then he reported the local implications of his investigation: (1) This Also True At Our Mall! (2) When Our Mall More Busy, More Cars Present (3) The More Cars, the Longer it Takes Shoppers to Park! and (shockingly): (4) Yet People Still Are Shopping, Due to, it is Christmas!
It sounded like information, basically. He signed off crisply, nobody back at NewsCenter8 or wherever laughed at him. And across our fair city, people sat there and took it, and I believe that, generally, they weren’t laughing at him either. They, like us in our house, were used to it, and consented to the idea that Informing had just occurred. Although what we had been told, we already knew, although it had been told in banal language, revved up with that strange TV news emphasis (“cold WEATHer leads SOME motorISTS to drive less, CARrie!”), we took it and, I would say, it did something to us: made us dumber and more accepting of slop.
Furthermore, I suspect, it subtly degraded our ability to make bold, meaningful sentences, or laugh at stupid, ill-considered ones. The next time we feel tempted to say something like, “Wow, at Christmas the malls sure do get busier due to more people shop at Christmas because at Christmas so many people go out to buy things at malls due to Christmas being a holiday on which gifts are given by some to others” — we might actually say it, this sentiment having been elevated by our having seen it all dressed-up on television, in its fancy faux-informational clothing.
Sure, the details of the story change but the Braindead Megaphone drones on. The rest of Saunders’ essay explores this idea further, keenly skewering the media *and* the people who listen to it. A fun and thought-provoking read.
Slightly related: Without exception, everytime I look at the book’s cover photo — an amalgam of three newsreaders (one black, one white, and one Asian) formed into one person — I see Barack Obama.
Robert Birnbaum interviews George Saunders. “What seems dark to me is CSI Baton Rouge or whatever — where there is no mitigating humor, no sense that the absurd is absurd, it’s all just murdering midgets and no one ever calls those shows dark.”