Short Story: “Political Quilt”

Some people, ideas and groups can be brought together. Other’s can’t or won’t. It’s important to know the difference. This sequence started with “Street Theater“.

“Political Quilt”
Part 4 of a series
by P. Orin Zack

“If you ask me,” the right-wing radio talk show host interrupted, eyeing the group of minor-party flacks flanking the podium, “your new coalition is a bit one-sided. What do you have against conservative values, anyway? I mean, if you’re all so fired up about creating a political party that appeals to as many people as possible, why didn’t you include someone from my side of the fence? I’m sure having the Family Values Party in your camp would guarantee you the eighth congressional district. That’s what you’ve been lusting after, what set this charade in motion, after all.” He nudged the man beside him. “Isn’t that right, Bob?”

Ferdy Miller, the coalition’s spokesman, took the mike from the flustered Ecology Party chairman. “I’m glad you brought that up, Mr. Hennesy. When we started this project, we didn’t even realize that elephant was in the room. But in order to make the idea work, we had to wash off the camouflage paint so we could get a good look at the beast.”

The man frantically pointing his smartphone this way and that, trying to catch the dizzying exchange, is Mick Radditzen. He’s a Citizen Journalist on assignment from an up-and-coming website that made a splash streaming video of the mass arrests at some major protests during the last election. When he noticed that the political cartoonist to his right had started adding a painted elephant to his sketch of the verbal free-for-all, he came in for a close-up.

“Camouflaged elephant?” Hennesy snapped. “Next, I suppose you’ll be claiming that it’s really just an overgrown rabbit or something. Look, if you want me to treat your party like a joke, that’s fine with me. Now are you going to answer my question, or should I just make something up for my listeners?”

Miller laughed when the cartoonist held the sketch up for him to see. “I appreciate the humor, but I’m serious about that elephant. Well, figuratively, anyway. Because we’ve all come to think of the two major parties as the flag-bearers of the left and right, everyone else’s political positions get characterized as being somewhere along that axis, as if your moral stance on something is as value-free as the advertised price of souls in the marketplace of ideas.”

“But they are, you self-important jackass,” Hennesy shot back, grinning. “And I mean that in the most ‘Democratic’ way possible.”

“I’m sure you do. But the point is that the idea of there being a ‘marketplace of ideas’ is worse than misleading. Using that metaphor forces an inappropriate commercial frame around the situation. The real difference between the positions of two parties arguing over some bit of public policy – say, something the Family Values Party holds dear – is based on the way they each see the world, not on some kind of currency. If one side bases their positions on the idea that it’s important to obey authority, while the other thinks it’s their duty to question that authority, then there isn’t any middle ground.”

“Is that to say,” said a languid voice from across the room, “that for two parties like that to agree on anything would be an act of conspiracy?”

Miller straightened and peered over the arc of the press. “Henry… Koll?” he said unsteadily.

When Mick Radditzen noticed that one of the half-dozen party reps flanking the podium quickstepped towards the wall for a better look, he lofted his smartphone over the crowd of reporters, and turned it to catch the dark-suited man near the door. “From the sound of his voice,” Mick quietly told his viewers, “I think Ferdy Miller has a history with Koll.”

“That’s right, Mr. Miller,” Koll said easily, stepping closer. “Just what the hell were you thinking when you accused both the Democratic and Republican parties of collusion over the upcoming redistricting? Or was that just a bit of stagecraft to draw attention to this ludicrous coalition party you’ve concocted?”

Several strobes flashed, and two reporters broke from the crowd to approach Koll.

While Miller waited for the hubbub to settle, Mick quietly said, “Koll threatened the reporter interviewing Paula Marks about her street theater event a few days ago. It went viral and triggered all the interest in the upcoming redistricting.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mr. Koll, But if you’d like to bring up the subject of how those two organizations have worked together to marginalize all of the minor parties, including the ones participating in this coalition, I’d be happy to discuss it. After all, getting a seat in congress was one of the primary reasons that this coalition was formed.”

Koll flashed an oily grin. “Thank you for lying in front of the press, Mr. Miller. That ought to establish your dubious credibility as the spokesman for this group. That shrewd move is sure to alienate both the media and the Johnny one-note political parties you corralled into this sideshow. And from the look of this crowd, I’d say you did a bang-up job of it, too. Congratulations. I don’t think there’s much left to say.”

Hennesy pushed through to the rear of the crowd of press. “Bravo,” he said loudly. “Are you busy tonight? It could be a helluva show!”

Before Miller had a chance to respond, the Ecology Party chairman reclaimed the mike. “Excuse me. We’ll take a brief break right now, and then try this again. Please bear with us for a few minutes.”

Mick had no sooner turned off his camera to give the website’s servers a chance to catch up with the stream delay than someone tapped him on the shoulder. He smiled in recognition. “Erica! Good to see you again.”

“Same here,” she said happily, keeping an eye on Koll, who was now chatting with Hennesy, through the milling crowd. “I can’t say the same for either of them, though.”

“Change jobs?” he asked, glancing at the telegraph key logo on her badge. “I though you worked for cee-cubed.”

She nodded. “I did. But then I caught one of the managers mistreating a stringer in public and decided that enough was enough. So now I work for the DT.”

“The D–?”

A resounding crash came from the back of the room. “Come on,” she said, heading towards the noise. “And start your camera. I think Miller just decked Koll.”

“I can’t say he didn’t deserve it.”

When they reached the ring of reporters around Hennesy and the fallen Koll, Erica zeroed in on Miller. “What was that for?” she asked him.

“Payback. That slime put out a hit on my sister after I broke his precious code of silence on the gerrymander collusion. He’s just lucky she only broke a few bones in the so-called accident.”

“Then…” Erica said, shaking her head in confusion, “then you did just lie about it, like he said?”

Mick swiveled his camera for the answer.

“Of course not. It was never an issue of stagecraft, of manipulating the story to suit my agenda. I spoke out about the collusion because it’s one of the things that’s killing any chance we have of making the system work as advertised.”

By this time, Hennesy had helped Koll to his feet. But the crowd of reporters was more interested in what Miller had to say, so they slipped out without attracting any additional attention.

A minute or so later, the sound of someone tapping the mike brought the room back into a modicum of order. “Okay, um…” an amplified voice said, “can we get back to our announcement, now? Ferdy?”

When Miller turned to head back to the podium, Erica spoke quickly to Mick. “The Digital Telegraph is a hybrid newspaper… only the Sunday edition is in print, the rest is online. Thing is, the folks who put it together decided to stake out a niche, so it could garner readers from all over.”

“A niche?”

“Yeah. Since it’s based in the state capitol, the DT focuses on the deep aspects of political coverage. Things like how the framing Miller mentioned is used to control the debate, the use of linguistic shift to conflate things that really ought to be separate… that sort of stuff. Anyway, I got sign-off on trying to arrange collaboration with your group, so we could have video of some of the events we’ll be covering. Do you think they’d go for it?”

Mick nodded. “You bet. It’d probably also help us get credentials for –.”

“Okay,” Miller said from the podium, “we’re ready to continue with this.”

The two rejoined the arc of press. Erica pushed to the front, with Mick in tow.

“Rather than moving on,” one of the others said into the silence, “could we get back to what you were saying about there being no middle ground? The thing my readers will want to know is how you got all these squabbling parties to agree to anything?”

“Certainly. And believe me, it was a struggle. We got the idea from the umbrella organization that coordinated those huge anti-war rallies during the Bush II years. Every political party has a set of issues that are central to it. Well, it was clear pretty quickly that we wouldn’t be able to unite groups that had mutually exclusive positions on issues.”

One of the party reps chuckled. “Ain’t that the truth.”

“But it would be possible if they either were close enough to the same, or if there wasn’t any overlap. I suppose you could describe what we ended up with as a sparsely filled array, a grid of issues with a lot of holes in it. And even though we couldn’t include all of the minor parties, enough of them turned out to be compatible that we were able to fashion a kind of political quilt out of them. And it’s that quilt that is going to go up against the Democratic and Republican parties in the eighth district, and in a lot of other races, too.”

Erica raised her hand.

Miller pointed at her.

“Oerstblander and Radditzen, Digital Telegraph. I don’t see how this can work. I mean, if the parties that came together for this each had a relatively short list of important issues, wouldn’t combining those with the issue clusters of other small parties filter out potential supporters that don’t agree with all of the parts of your quilt? It seems to me that would work against you.”

“You’re right, up to a point,” Miller said. “But it turns out that we do end up with a larger base this way, and that is the purpose of forming the coalition.”

From there, the question and answer session transformed into a kind of round-robin, with questions and answers flying in all directions. The party reps that had flanked Miller mixed with the press until it became a general brainstorming about the various kinds of elections and vote counting methods. The cartoonist was pressed into service diagramming some of the conceptual issues, such as proportional voting, and the stacking and cracking of districts that the majors use to gerrymander winner-take-all elections. And it might have gone on that way late into the night, except that Henry Koll returned, in the company of his new friend Hennesy and two uniformed officers.

“Which of you is Ferdy Miller?” one of the officers asked the room.

The crowd parted and Miller stepped forward. “Can I help you, officer?”

“We have a warrant for your arrest. Would you come with us please?”

“On what charge?”

The officer nodded towards Koll. “This man has reported an assault on his person.”

“Yeah,” Hennesy agreed. “I was there. I saw the whole thing.”

Miller looked at his accusers each in turn. “Hmmm,” he said. “Sounds like a conspiracy to me, something they cooked up to disrupt our news conference.”

“Now just one minute,” Koll said angrily. “I was knocked down, and I have the bruises to prove it!”

“Which your combative radio buddy here probably gave you. Can you corroborate that story? Are there any… other… witnesses? Or have you set these honest police officers up to conduct a very well publicized case of false arrest?”

The officer glanced at the crowd. “Are you suggesting that nobody here saw what happened?”

“I wouldn’t know, officer. Perhaps you should ask them yourself.”

They did, but nobody was willing to corroborate Koll’s story. Hennesy lost his temper and had to be restrained.

After they left, a curious nervousness pervaded the room. Press and partisan eyed one another suspiciously. The silence crackled. Conversation had faded, but nobody seemed too anxious to be the first to leave. Which was all to the good, since every one of them left with a far better story than any of them had anticipated going in. And Mick Radditzen had the video exclusive for both his site, and for the Digital Telegraph, which made Erica Oerstblander’s day almost as much as Mick’s invitation to dinner.


[Afterword: Erica finds her voice at a rematch with Koll in “Terms of Debate“.]

Copyright 2009 by P. Orin Zack


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