Short Story: “Unheard Voices”

Who are you speaking for? Or to? (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.”)

“Unheard Voices”
Part 8 of a series
by P. Orin Zack

Derek Boa sat nervously in the front row, contemplating the incongruity of it all. The prospect of speaking publicly wasn’t the problem, of course. After all, he’d been doing it for as long as he could remember. Nor was sitting beside the vice president of one of the largest employers in this part of Virginia, or in front of the mayor’s right hand man. Rather, it was being introduced to this meeting of the chamber of commerce by Melissa Fox, a relative newcomer to Constitutional Evolution, the grass-roots group he had founded. Using her congressman father’s clout to arrange a chance to address this crowd struck him as elitist, and that didn’t sit well with the egalitarian activist in him.

He rose to obviously polite applause when she finished sucking up to them, and stepped to the podium. “Thank you, Melissa, for warming up the audience. They may need some other form of lubrication by the time I’m done.”

An awkward silence cowed him briefly, but he shook it off and launched directly into it. “To say, as Ms. Fox has, that our group seeks to induce changes in the processes of governance would be an understatement. Some have called our work revolutionary. After all, we have started from the presumption that the founders, as insightful as they may have been, could not have foreseen the ways in which the careful balance of power and responsibilities they crafted into a constitution for their fledgling government would one day be undermined. To use a metaphor that I’m not as well versed in as are many of you, we have engaged in debugging that document, and in recommending changes that may fix the flaws which have caused the operating system of our government to crash.”

Derek paused to scan the faces looking up at him for interest, engagement or confusion. The power in a metaphor depends heavily on triggering the deep frames that dictate how each person understands the world. “We have explored, for example, the possibility of asking congress to consider the position of the National Governors Conference on any bill which assumes state-level funding. Ideally, this additional check would be added to the constitution, but short of that, the house and senate rules committees could institute an informal practice.”

He exchanged glances with Melissa, who had returned to her seat in the back row. “I would now like to ask each of you to step back from your roles in business or government, and to think about something that has been largely ignored, yet is essential to the success of your organization: the commons. I’m not speaking about the many fine parks and other public spaces which are funded by all of our taxes, though they are the physical embodiment of the shared land which medieval Europeans collectively farmed. Today, the commons refers to far more than that. It refers to the airwaves that the FCC once leased to broadcasters in exchange for serving the public interest as well as their own financial ones. It refers to the environment, the careful husbandry of which we ignore at our, and the world’s, peril. But far more importantly, it refers to the joint self-interest which brings people together to help each other in time of need, and to collectively create things which benefit everyone. Creations such as the many open-source software programs and the living storehouse of knowledge called Wikipedia.”

A squeaking of seats prodded Derek to get right to the point. “At present, when Congressman Fox is asked to consider a piece of legislation, or when he is questioning business people or scientists at a hearing, he is at a disadvantage, for the witness knows more than he does about the issues being explored. He may have his staff collect information for him, but a good deal of what they can offer comes from organizations with a stake in the outcome. The views of the citizenry is typically not heard in these forums. When it is, their voices are overwhelmed by those with more resources, voices of businesses such as yours, some of which may have contributed to his election fund.”

Several throats suddenly needed clearing, and a handful of eyes looked away. “It sounds like I may have touched a nerve. Would anyone like to comment before I go on?”

The VP beside the front-row seat he had vacated raised a finger. “Manny Rosen. Chesapeake TechSource. Are you suggesting that we expect special treatment as a result of such donations?”

Derek looked over at Melissa, and thought for a moment. “I wouldn’t presume to know your expectations, Mr. Rosen. However, it is human nature to feel obligated to those whose help we accept, and businesses make larger donations than individuals. I would find it hard to believe, under those circumstances, that a public official would not voluntarily consider the needs of those supporters over those whose support is not so obvious.”

The man shook his head. “That’s an evasion.”

“Perhaps. But I don’t have the resources to defend myself from any actionable statements I might make. Self-censorship is a powerful force for avoiding conflict, but it can also be used against us. Which brings me back to the point I was working towards. There is already interest in requiring the text of all bills to be made available to the public via the Internet for 72 hours prior to a vote. This is a good start, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. We believe that the bill should be posted to what it essentially a legislative wiki. During the three days that follow, interested citizens would develop an information resource which encapsulates not only the positions of the corporate interests, but those of the citizens as well.”

“And here,” he continued, “is where your willingness to support the commons comes in. Imagine, for the moment, that a bill has been submitted, and you, as a vibrant part of this democracy, choose to participate in the creation of that information resource for our esteemed Congressman Fox.”

“Lets say I do this. Am I being paid?” It was a woman near the side door.

“No. And that brings up another problem, because you also have a job to consider. Say you’re on an IT contract through Mr. Rosen’s company. You want to do your civic duty, but you can’t wait until it’s convenient for the company you’re contracted to, because that three-day clock is ticking. You have a deadline to consider. Puts you in kind of a bind, doesn’t it?”

Rosen didn’t look happy. “Since you’ve cast me as the heavy, here, I’ll play along. As a profit-making corporation, we’re obligated to make that our highest priority. And as far as I can tell, your hypothetical employee is working on a high-priority project that can’t afford to miss its own deadline. So, I’m sorry, but he doesn’t get any time off for this.”

Melissa rose to her feet. “May I speak for the employee, Mr. Rosen?”

“Sure. But don’t expect any time off.”

She waited for the laughter to subside. “Thank you. I consider myself to be a good citizen. I’m motivated to get involved. Voting is one way I express that. I even volunteered to help Arthur Fox get elected. But the business of government takes place between elections, and I would like a say in how the people’s business is conducted. This legislative wiki makes that possible. With it, I can participate in the running of my country, even if I never leave my home. But I also need the opportunity, time that I can devote to this, when and how it is needed. So I need to balance my responsibility to my employer with my responsibility to my country. I can discharge both of these responsibilities if business and government agree to let me do it.”

“I see,” the mayor’s right-hand man said. “And how, exactly, do you expect the government to help you do this?”

Melissa grinned at the man’s willingness to join the scenario. “It’s like jury duty, in a way. People are permitted to be away from their jobs for an unknown length of time if they’re selected. The law makes that possible. It could also enable registered participants to be excused for three days to work on the legislative wiki. Chesapeake TechSource and the company I’m contracted to would both be aware of this.”

Derek continued the thought. “Here’s where businesses can benefit. For Mr. Rosen’s company to accommodate this, it would subscribe to legislative alerts generated by the committees where the bills are introduced. They’d know in advance if an employee would be called on for wiki duty. But they’d also be advised when bills that affect the business were introduced.”

“Hold on,” Rosen said. “I smell a conflict of interest brewing. There are some bills that I would be on one side of, and my employee would be on the other. Do you expect me to enable her to undermine my own financial interests?”

“Excuse me, sir?” Melissa said. “I don’t think you understand wikis, Mr. Rosen. Were you of the opinion that the information I prepare would be biased?”

Derek cleared his throat loudly. “I’d like to avert an argument here. May I have the floor again?”

All three returned to their seats.

“We’ve reached a critical juncture: the subject of bias. It’s gotten a bad reputation of late, and a lot of people have added to the damage by doing what they thought was right — offering both sides to every dispute, even when one of those sides was either specious or calculated to benefit one of the parties. The news media have been the most guilty of it. And yet, the perspective that has been consistently omitted from discussion is that of the commons. In this case, how does the bill being considered affect the commons? Does it strengthen the commons, or weaken it? This perspective will never be presented by anyone with a financial stake in the outcome. That is why it must be supplied by the citizens, for in a way, they are the commons. They are the common wealth which must be protected by our government, the pool from which emerges an unending stream of innovation and ideas. The people.”

“So, Mr. Rosen, the answer to your question is yes. That information will be biased. It must be, in order to balance out the strength of influence exerted by all of those campaign contributions. If that means shining a strong light on the subterfuge of exchanging favors for pork, then we will all be the better for it. For this nation was not intended to be about protecting businesses from competition and failure. It was supposed to have been about protecting the rights inherent in being a human being from being trampled by anyone, either by business or by the government itself.”

Derek felt embarrassed about having gotten carried away with himself again, and nervously looked around the room.

The woman near the side door rose again. “I’m an editor by profession. I’m curious about how this content would have to be written. Any time you characterize a fact or figure by comparing it so something else, you engage the reader emotionally. It’s a powerful way to influence someone. For example, if I was writing about the wages that Mr. Rosen pays the programmers he contracts out, I could compare it to what a direct employee earns, or say how expensive a house she could afford to buy. Both are truthful, but they lead the reader in very different directions. With legislation riding on Congressman Fox’s understanding of the issues, this distinction could determine his vote. How do you intend to deal with that?”

“Engage editors to help with the wiki, for one thing. Would it be possible to create a style guide that would eliminate this problem? Perhaps by separating the facts provided from their characterizations?”

She looked over his head for a moment. “Maybe. That approach would also give the wiki writers a way to supply competing interpretations for a given fact. I’d have to sit down and try it out on a few subjects to be sure, though.”

Derek extended an arm towards her. “In that case, I’d like to invite you to come to one of our sessions, so we can talk about it further.” He turned towards Rosen. “Would something like that satisfy your objections?”

“I’d have to see some examples. You’re serious about this, aren’t you?”

“Very. So I’d like to make you a proposition. If we can convince you that it would be worth accommodating employees’ time on wiki duty to get the other benefits we’ve spoken about, would you help me talk to other businesses about it?”

Rosen took a deep breath. “That’s a pretty big if. But I’ll give you the opportunity to try.”

“Thank you, sir.” He smiled at the crowd. “I think I’ve taken enough of your time. We appreciate the chance to speak with you tonight.”

While the chamber of commerce turned to other matters, Derek and Melissa gathered their things and headed outside. The editor who had spoken caught up to them just as they reached his car.

“Excuse me. Could I have a word with you two in private?”

Melissa shrugged. “Sure. What’s on your mind?”

“I don’t know how to say this, exactly. When I identified myself as an editor, that was actually a characterization. I do edit for a living, but… not for a business.”

Derek thought for a moment. “You work for the government?”

She nodded. “And I came tonight because Ron… someone I work with thought it would be worth my while.”

“And was it?”

“I think so. Characterizing information is a big part of what we do. There’s often a great deal of pressure on us to make it come out in a particular way. You know, from upper management.”

Melissa echoed “Upper management,” and glanced knowingly at Derek. They had both met Ron at Constitutional Evolution events. Turned out he was a spook in training, and was taking a risk by offering to help them out. “Was there something else?”

She made sure nobody was nearby before answering. “Yeah. We’ll be covering your back. If you know what I mean.”

That was all she said.

The two of them watched in silence as she left the lot and rounded the building. Derek unlocked his car and they got in. As he was turning onto the street, he looked over at Melissa. “Something important just happened. Seems we’ve got friends in devious places.”

“Yeah. Too bad we can’t tell anyone.”


[Afterward: The story continues in “Limited Hangup“]

Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack


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