Short Story: “Hidden Baggage”

What do you bring with you into a situation? (This is part of a series related to my novel, “Burnout Fever”, which is available for the Nook reader and app. Catch up from the links listed here or here.”)

“Hidden Baggage”
Part 5 of a series
by P. Orin Zack

“Do you have to call it that?” the newcomer said, wincing.

Melissa Fox lowered her outstretched hand, and turned from the mobile that she and a few others from Constitutional Evolution were building in the city library’s crafts room. “Call it what, Ron?”

“C. C. C. P.” He spoke tentatively, as if he was afraid to touch the letters with his voice. He gestured at the cardboard square she’d just hung. “There.”

She shrugged. “Because that’s what it is. Does it bother you?”

“Well, yeah. Don’t you know that that means?”

“Of course. The Corporate Controlled Complicit Press. What about it?”

“No. No. What the abbreviation originally meant. The old Soviet Union. You just added a communist dictatorship to the federal government.”

Derek Boa, leader of the grassroots group, tapped the newly added leaf, sending the unbalanced mobile into a chaotic oscillation. “Well, it did kinda seem fitting, considering how much they behave like Pravda, and all.”

“It just bothers me, that’s all. I think the government’s doing a pretty good job, what with all the trouble we’ve been having overseas.”

Melissa edged a bit closer. “We’re not doing this out of disrespect. My own father’s a congressman, and I know he’s doing the best job he can, under the circumstances. But there are some serious problems with the system itself. That’s what Constitutional Evolution is all about, exploring ways to make it better.”

“Yeah. I get that, but why do you have to stoop to name-calling?”

Derek nodded. “Okay. I think I know what’s going on. How about we break from this for a bit and have a chat. It sounds like we have some issues to deal with.”

This was the second of the group’s meetings that Ron had attended. His first had been a genial chat over pizza and pop, more of a family get-together than anything else. The idea for building a mobile representing the competing interests laid out by the framers of the existing Constitution had been suggested then, and he had been invited to join the fun. The point of the exercise, though, was to see where the problems lay, and what might be done to correct them in a new Constitutional Convention.

“In order to understand where you’re coming from,” Melissa said as she pulled a chair over towards the table, “It’d be helpful to know a bit about you. I’m an artist, for example.”

Ron pulled his seat close and sat very straight. “I majored in journalism, but ended up working for a marketing firm. It’s why that slam on the press hit me so hard.”

Derek had removed the offending leaf from the mobile, and set it down in the middle of the table, facing Ron. “These are just letters. They could stand for a lot of things. Do a web search and you’ll probably turn up a half-dozen, easy. Each of us has a bag of meanings we carry around, to simplify the task of interpreting the world. It’s a great thing, too, but it also has drawbacks. Sometimes those meanings get in the way of seeing what’s really in front of us.”

“I know what’s in front of me,” he objected. “You even confirmed it.”

“But he didn’t write it,” Melissa said, placing her hand beside the leaf. “I did. And I did it for a reason. Artists work with visual symbols the way writers like you do with words. The mobile we’re building is a physical model of the balance of power among the various pieces of government. But balancing our model only tells us whether the strength of influences are matched, not which direction those influences might be pulling. In the case of the press, the risk is that it would toe the official line, and parrot what the White House or its corporate masters say. I alluded to the old ‘Red Menace’ to call attention to that.”

“It doesn’t matter what you meant. ‘C.C.C.P.’ still stands for the Soviet Union. You can’t just go around making unsubstantiated charges like that any more.” He glanced around, then lowered his voice. “They might be listening.”

Derek smiled. “Who, the secret police? The FBI? Homeland Security?”

“Yeah. Do you want to get charged with treason?”

“About as much as the founders did. Look. Any time the people decide to do something about an abuse of power, the government, whatever kind it is, will respond like that. It’s only right. That’s self-protection. But unless the people disregard the threat and do what they know they have to anyway, those abuses will never stop. They’ll just get worse. So, to answer your question – sure. If that’s what it takes to get the attention of the people who work in those agencies. Because you see, I don’t think those folks all really believe in what they’re doing. For most of them, it’s just a job. And if they value the oath they took when they accepted their jobs — to defend the constitution, not the people in power at the moment – then what I’m doing just might get them to refuse to go along, too.”
He pushed back from the table. “You’re advocating civil disobedience by the people in government agencies?”

“Who better?”

Ron shook his head, then looked over at the unfinished mobile. “Where were you going with that, anyway, Melissa?”

She picked up the cardboard leaf. “The framers only wrote about the three branches of the federal government they were creating, but there were unspoken assumptions as well.”

“Like what?”

“Well, that the Fourth Estate, the press, would be a vibrant counterweight to government abuse, working on behalf of the people, for one thing.”

“And,” added Derek, “that the states themselves would retain their individual sovereignty, and prevent over-reaching by the new federal government.”

Ron looked doubtful. “They never said that. There’s nothing at all in the constitution about and checks or balances between the states and the federal government.”

“Which is part of the problem.”

“Okay,” he said, slowly. “Just for the sake of argument, what kind of powers did you have in mind for the states?”

Melissa raised a finger. “May I?”


She picked up her leaf and returned to the mobile. “We all know about the three branches, executive, legislative and judicial. That’s pretty straightforward. And the threads we connected between them, which represent things like congress’s power of the purse, the president’s veto, and the supreme court’s ability to strike down laws passed by congress. But we don’t have anything here to represent the people or the states.”

Ron shrugged. “Of course you do. The people elected congress and the president. There’s two senators for each state.”

“Well,” Derek said, “the electoral college really elects the president, but let’s not quibble. Her point is that there are no formal checks and balances for the people or the states to use.”

“Then what are elections?”

“Hardly what you’d call a useful check against the misuse of power. Between elections, they can do pretty much what they want. And there’s a lot of money spent by corporate lobbies to influence what they want.”

“And your solution?” Ron challenged.

“For one thing, the governors, as a group, should have a way to challenge laws passed by congress, edicts handed down by the president, and rulings made by the supreme court, if they have more than some threshold number of votes among them.”

“What votes? There’s no ‘House of Governors’.”

“Maybe there should be. We’re not trying to fashion a new constitution here, any more than we’re plotting to overthrow the current government. All we’re doing is identifying problems with the current system, and suggesting changes to fix them. That’s the real job of a patriot, not parroting some line of bull intended to sell the citizens on the idea of relinquishing their constitutional rights, and the founders’ sentiments about eliminating a government if it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was created. The constitution may describe the nature of the federal government, but what its really about is a way to protect the citizens from a recurrence of the abuses that caused them to stand and fight.”

The room was silent for a long moment. Then Melissa laughed. “You’ll have to excuse Derek. He gets that way sometimes.”

Ron look at the mobile, then at Derek. “Maybe he ought to do it some more. Look, I think I ought to be going, now. But I’d like to help out.”

“Thanks,” Derek said happily. “But could you do us a favor?”


“Next time, when you walk in, maybe you could leave that badge you’re not wearing at the door.”


“You don’t really work for a marketing firm, do you.” It was a statement.

He smiled, and left.


[Afterward: the story continues in Double Agent .]

Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack


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