I have just finished reading Joan Didion’s short book on the right-wing death squad violence in El Salvador forty years ago. Back in 1964, she had voted for Barry Goldwater for President. A rancher’s daughter from Sacramento, she did not really personally encounter the disconnect between what Ronald Reagan was saying in Washington and what Roberto D’Aubuisson and his adherents were doing to the people of El Salvador.

Here Joan talks about something that shocked her about the availability of “actual information”:

Actual information was hard to come by in El Salvador, perhaps because this was not a culture in which a high value was placed on the definite…. All numbers in El Salvador tended to materialize and vanish and rematerialize in a different form, as if the numbers denoted only the “use” of numbers, an intention, a wish, a recognition that someone, somewhere, for whatever reason, needed to hear the ineffable expressed as a number. At any given time in El Salvador a great deal of what goes on is considered ineffable, and the use of numbers in this context tends to frustrate people who try to understand them literally, rather than as a proposition to be floated, “heard,” “mentioned.” There was the case of the March 28, 1982 election, about which there continued into that summer the rather scholastic argument first posed by Central American Studies, the publication of the Jesuit university in San Salvador: Had it taken an average of 2.5 minutes to cast a vote or less? Could each ballot box hold 500 ballots, or more? The numbers were eerily Salvadoran. There were said to be 1.3 million people eligible to vote on March 28, but 1.5 million people were said to have voted. These 1.5 million people were said, in turn, to represent not 115 percent of the 1.3 million eligible voters but 80 percent (or, on another float, “62-68 percent”) of the eligible voters….