"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Ministry of New Truth -- A Short Story

"I saw him again today."

Mehta, an exchange college student in New York, sat down across from his professor. Mehta has come to discuss his paper on early 21st century United States. The year is 2216.

"I am sure it was him. Last time I was not sure. I did not expect to find a chancellor where I am. Not a good part of town. I only saw him leaving last time so I wasn't sure. This time I waited. And when he came out, it was the chancellor."

Mehta was agitated. "How could a man of such honorable position come to such a low condition?"

The professor did not look up from his work. "He was convicted of fraud. And terminated, of course."

"But that is unusual, no?"

"Not at all," answered the professor, still turned away from Mehta. "The decision rates are very high."

"Not the decision," said Mehta breathlessly. He slowed down. He knew the story, of course, as did everyone at the university whose prior chancellor was found to have committed fraud. "There was not even any evidence. How could they decide without proof?"

The professor now stopped his work and looked up at Mehta, puzzled at first, and then realizing where he was from. He looked at the ceiling. It had been many years since students like Mehta bothered the professor with such questions. Mere liberals, they were called, from the developing world. Foreign students slowed to a trickle decades ago, and most were as content with the study of trivialities as the rest. The professor paused to call to mind the evolution to the modern way of settling truth.

"By 'evidence' and 'proof', I take it you mean facts. The old preoccupation with facts was swamped by their overwhelming accumulation. The preoccupation was useful for a time as they could justify any result one liked, and the sheer volume facts -- even though amounting to overwhelming proof of terrible wrongdoing -- could not be understood except by a distracted public. It was one of the great ironies of that age that distrust increased as more facts were published, creating a cycle of ever-accumulating facts sweeping over an ever-distrustful public.

"What the people wanted," the professor continued, "was not facts. Facts alone were empty. It was long thought the answer had to do with giving the people context or a narrative to help them understand the facts. But this proved naive. The flood of facts drowned everyone, narrative or no.

"In the end, facts were professionalized. It was no use bothering the public with an endless disbursement of facts. Someone had to prosecute them, and so reporters would gather the information and present them to a panel to render a decision. These began at newspaper companies, and decisions were issued by the editorial boards. In important cases, several newspapers' boards would make a joint decision. But relatively early on it became clear this would have to be a state function with its powers to subpoena and produce documents and testimony, which is why it is now carried on by the Reporting Bureau.

"Subjects of investigations realized early on they could avoid decisions against them by simply destroying evidence. For reasons we can scarcely now imagine, this greatly vexed the reporters. Probably residue of a culture obsessed with facts -- it simply did not occur to them how a decision could be drawn. But at last the reporters adopted the spoliation rule of long standing in the civil courts. Thereafter, the rule is as it is today: where a subject has cause to know a fact, destroying potential sources of the fact is punished by deeming the fact established. The subject confesses a fact by suppressing it.

"Your former chancellor was found duly guilty of falsifying records and attempting to upset the university's ideology quotas. It was an infraction only -- he would have resumed his duties within a matter of months. But he destroyed evidence, proving his guilt not only, but the aggravating anti-knowledge count. For that -- for denying mankind the truth of what really happened -- he was sent to rehabilitation and banished from the academic class."

"But what if it was an innocent misunderstanding?" asked Mehta. "It wouldn't be fair to condemn the subject then!"

"Why enable such a choice?" the professor calmly responded. "It is a moral fiction.  Instead, we make the spoliation equal to the crime. But let us put aside jailable offenses as they arouse the emotions that leave less room for clear thought.  And we provide more elaborate exceptions besides.  It was in everyday civil life that the 'presumption of innocence' was misapplied and caused mischief.

"An early version of the Universal Evidence Code stated, 'A person subject to a civil charge who destroys, conceals, or otherwise refuses to provide related information confesses the charge.' But the word 'refuse' was later amended to 'fails to provide.' Do you know why?"

Mehta started to respond.

"'Refuse,' the professor went on, not looking at Mehta, "suggests the information need not be provided until a request is made. But that, we know, would encourage more injustice, more concealing information in hopes it will not be requested. Instead, if it is discovered a person failed to volunteer it, that is enough for condemnation.

"But in either event," the professor continued, "your neighbor the former chancellor simply destroyed the evidence. The decision was easy, and the public was not disturbed with burdensome explanations and competing narratives. The rule was followed. The decision was made. Confidence was restored. And the people are free to resume their leisure activities."

Upon returning home, Mehta knocked on the ex-chancellor's door, and meekly accepted his invitation to come in. Mehta asked: "If you knew the consequences, why did you destroy the evidence?" The ex-chancellor explained:

"People are squeamish to believe claims that do not interest them. Tell them their mooching neighbor is a thief and they will believe you. Tell them a stranger across town is a thief and all they know is either he's a thief or you're a liar, and if you're a stranger the case is in equipoise. This is still so, even under the new rules. So although people understand that suppression, deception, or spoliation are dispositive of reasonable charges, reporters simply heightened the standard for bringing charges in the first place. So under the old way, charges were commonplace, but none met the heightened proof standard.  Now, we readily understand how to prove a charge, yet we rarely bring them.

"Human beings desire leadership more than truth, and so naturally they seek out ways to suppress the truth. People are quite willing accomplices, so long as they are excused from active participation. So various commissions and boards and committees were installed to investigate and discover 'truth,' and people acquiesced in the premise that truth can be had by no other means. Seeking truth is not a human endeavor, but an official one.

"In fact," the ex-chancellor explained, "the new epistemology was designed by one such commission to address historic low levels of confidence in officials. It was decided that a periodic sea change in epistemology would restore structural confidence and satisfy the people's desire to periodically assert their will, however impotent."

An impatient Mehta finally broke in. "But what was your sin?"

"Oh, I committed the most subversive act of all. I destroyed evidence of my own innocence. Confidence was manipulated from end to end.

"I was an honest man unconcerned about proving his own honesty. Such a possibility is not allowed under the new way. Guilt or innocence themselves are of little interest. What damage, after all, can one dishonest man do? Of what benefit is confirmation of a solitary act of innocence when the store of facts is already overflowing? A modern epistemology, like a modern economy, has its value not in producing facts themselves -- idle trinkets are they, no use beyond momentary amusement -- but in propping up a satisfaction that truth, and value, are within our means, should we arouse the desire.

"But the new prosecutor -- the reporter of truth -- he is the man who holds us in his hands: and his power is absolute. He alone presents the evidence. Guilt or innocence? An audience does not judge a performance by whether the magician produces a rabbit or a dove, so long as the trick comes off.

"Ah, but if the trick does not come off? If he cannot produce a result, human knowledge is at an end.

"A man, it is said, has an interest in proving his own innocence. But why should this be so? To pursue truth? We have abolished truth! To escape shame? We have abolished shame! To escape the stocks? They are replaced with rehabilitation, which is not at all so noxious as our universities.

"The prosecutor who lacks the fiber to prosecute the man who destroys evidence of guilt is easily humiliated by the man who destroys evidence of his innocence. Such a prosecutor is a coward, and a fool."

Mehta stood, shaking his head, and walked slowly to the door. He thanked the ex-chancellor, and left. He felt homesick. 


Tom Van Dyke said...

Nice. Disturbing.

A modern epistemology, like a modern economy, has its value not in producing facts themselves -- idle trinkets are they, no use beyond momentary amusement -- but in propping up a satisfaction that truth, and value, are within our means, should we arouse the desire.

Thus the modern social sciences. They may change their position 180 degrees tomorrow, but they are the sole arbiters of human truth: Correct today, and they will still be correct tomorrow, and God save the man who is caught on the wrong side of history on either day.

Mrs. Webfoot said...

An impatient Mehta finally broke in. "But what was your sin?"

"Oh, I committed the most subversive act of all. I destroyed evidence of my own innocence. Confidence was manipulated from end to end.>>>

No way he could win.