Friday, October 5, 2007
Chapter 8: Don't Bother Me with the Facts
The Town Engineer
The Prince had allowed the Interval for Public Expression to go far beyond its scheduled 20 minutes. For more than an hour, no less than two dozen Vilkans had complained, pleaded, and threatened the Prince and the Council of Several, based on the anxious report of fellow Vilkan Mrs. U. R. Vurmon that the town to the east was about to redirect their water supply.
"Ordinarily," the Prince began, "we don't feel obligated to respond in detail to public comments. But I will ask our Town Engineer to bring his maps to the front and respond."
The Town Engineer came forward with one large map. "Prince, members of the Council, ladies and gentleman," he began, "first I should say that it is indeed a fact: Lozhka has an East Creek redirection project starting next week. That is, the construction starts next week. I believe the plans are already complete and fully approved."
"I knew it!" yelled a wizened old man in a wavering voice. "You people knew all about this, and you hid it from us! You should be impeached!"
The Prince rapped a gavel which some of the Council had never before seen or heard. "Order!" he called loudly. "Order! The Town Engineer has the floor."
"Here is what you need to understand," the Town Engineer continued. "The project involves their East Creek, which runs through some rocky, unpopulated areas that make poor farmland. They need the water a little further west, where they have good farmland, or at least it will be good with enough water. What we call our East Creek, they call their West Creek. There are no plans on paper or in discussion to divert our East Creek. Vilka is unaffected by this project."
"Liar!" someone shouted. "We saw men with shovels today!"
"Order!" The Prince rapped with his gavel several times in quick succession. "Constable, next time there is an outburst, please remove the perpetrator from the meeting." The Constable nodded.
"Town Engineer," the Prince continued, "when farmers are taking care of their ordinary, regular irrigation turns, do they not usually carry shovels?"
"Yes, Prince," answered the Town Engineer. "Nearly always, I should think, because sometimes ditches need to be cleared."
"Is there anything else?" the Prince asked the Town Engineer.
"Yes, Prince, perhaps one additional point of interest. Even if Lozhka's project did involve our East Creek, it would not be a problem for these Vilkans."
"Really?" asked the Prince. "Why is that?"
Town Engineer explained, "The section of the creek where these protestors live is not our boundary with Lozhka; it is our boundary with unincorporated Crown land belonging to no town. It is well upstream from our common border with Lozhka, so nothing they did there would affect these people, anyway -- even if they were planning to do something, which, as I have said, they are not. Moreover, there is very little use of the creek from Vilka's side where it borders Lozhka, and what there is could easily be replaced from other nearby sources.
"But the essential point is still that their East Creek is not the same as our East Creek, and that there are no plans whatsoever to meddle with our East Creek."
"Thank you, Town Engineer. Would your office please post an explanation, complete with maps or diagrams, on the public bulletin board before the week is out?"
"Absolutely, Prince, and we'll be happy to explain in greater detail to any Vilkan who wishes to visit the office."
"Thank you. We will proceed with our agenda."
Hearing this, most of the Vilkans in the room began to leave. Some made their way to the front to say something to one or more officials on their way. More than one quiet apology was offered, but one young, red-faced man shook his fist at the Prince, saying loudly enough for others to hear, "This isn't over. This isn't over. You won this one, but you can't keep secrets from us."
The commotion of the mass departure was such that a Council member moved for a five-minute recess, which motion was duly seconded and passed unanimously, without ever being heard by most of the crowd.
The Vicar of Vilka aimed to be the last one to leave before the meeting continued. He worked his way to the Prince. "I'm sorry, Vicar," said the Prince. "You came to comment, did you not? I really shouldn't reopen the IPE after almost everyone who came for it leaves, but I will if you need me to."
"No matter, Prince. I had already decided that next week would be a better time for my comment, anyway."
"Very well. Vicar, is it too much to ask of people to learn the actual facts of a matter before they alarm all their neighbors with falsehoods?"
"It may indeed be too much," said the Vicar. "But it is not too much to ask that they accept the facts when given them. Some of your antagonists seem quite unwilling to do even that. But I am intruding on the rest of your meeting. I hope it goes smoothly. Good evening."
Outside the building, most of the protestors lingered. The Vicar thought he overheard some discussions of impeaching the Prince and the Council; two or three conversations in which someone labored to explain that the whole affair had been a false alarm; and one man attempting to persuade another to run against the Prince in the next election.
The large man who had sat on the third row in the Council Hall stood silent and motionless as a small mountain, slightly away from the crowd. The Vicar approached him.
"Mr. Barry Biggs, I presume. It is a pleasure to meet you, sir." The ensuing handshake involved hands of such disproportion that the Vicar briefly felt almost childish.
"My neighbor doesn't grasp this, Vicar, but it's actually Harry Biggs."
"My apologies, sir, but the pleasure is the same. May I ask you something?"
"Of course," said Harry Biggs.
"Did any of the rocks actually hit the men with shovels?"
Harry Biggs chuckled softly. "No, Vicar. The widow herself cannot throw that far, and the children deliberately threw their rocks well short of any potential damage or injury."
"So it is possible that we are not now at war with the neighboring town?"
"Quite possible, Vicar."
"I am pleased to hear it," said the Vicar. "How long has your neighbor been widowed?"
"Ten years or so. It seems longer every day."
"You did well in the meeting, to keep her from being removed."
"One does what one can. Sometimes it is enough. May I ask you a question, Vicar?"
Harry Biggs' voice had been soft already, against the background chatter from the protestors, but he asked his question in a voice so quiet that the Vicar was surprised he could hear it clearly. "Why do we let these people vote?"
The Vicar smiled. "That is a very good question. I'm afraid a satisfactory answer requires a wisdom much higher than mine. The demos did not acquit itself well this evening, I fear. The people, I mean."
"Don't worry, Vicar, I once studied Greek." In the semidarkness the Vicar fancied there was a smile behind the beard.
"Indeed? I find that people who have studied Greek tend to have studied a great many other things, as well. I would be honored to continue our conversation sometime, but I am nearly late for a meeting and must hurry away. It has been a pleasure."
"The honor would be mine, Vicar. Good evening."
"Oh, Mr. Biggs?" The Vicar turned back to the large man. "You don't strike me as having no will or personality of your own, as your neighbor described you."
"She confuses me with someone she used to know."
"I see. Well, I will be in touch. Good evening, sir."
When the Vicar had finished his meetings for the evening, he went home, where he found his wife in bed but still awake. He recounted the evening's adventures, emphasizing the crowd's stubborn resistance to actual information and expressing some frustration over it.
"All these years a vicar," she chuckled, "and you still don't understand that the human mind will lay hold on anything, no matter how ridiculous, in the temporary absence of real information? And that many people actually prefer to believe in a malevolent conspiracy, rather than troubling themselves to understand how complex institutions and processes really work?"
The Vicar of Vilka knew this game, because they had played it before. So he tried a new gambit. "I have sometimes prayed for my people to have a better vicar, but the good Lord has never given them one."
Suddenly, to his surprise, the game was over. Her eyes seemed to glisten in the candlelight, and she took his hand and spoke softly. "Yes, He has, husband. He simply improved the current one, rather than replacing him. Can this have escaped your notice?"
"Perhaps not entirely. You are a very good wife," said the Vicar of Vilka. "Does your wisdom extend to political theory?"
"Very well. Thinking of those stubborn, fact-resistant Vilkans at tonight's meeting, I wonder why we let these people vote."
"You find them lazy and foolish and most likely to vote stupidly, if they vote at all?"
"Look at it this way: How much more trouble would they be if they were not allowed to vote?"
"I hadn't thought of that," confessed the Vicar.
"No, I suppose not," said his wife. "Good night."
Copyright 2007 by David Rodeback.