Short Story: “Terms of Debate”

What role ought you to be playing in the world? This sequence started with “Street Theater“.

“Terms of Debate”
(Part 5 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack

“I said, sit down!”

Erica Oerstblander glanced over her shoulder. One look at Hennesy, the right-wing radio windbag who’d lately taken up the hobby of dogging her, was enough to harden her resolve. “Excuse me, Ms. Ghorbian,” she repeated, a bit louder this time, and with her hand aloft for punctuation.

Neda Ghorbian scanned the rented theater’s sparse crowd from center-stage, and then stepped closer to speak with the reporter in the front row. “I’m a bit confused,” she said. “I was under the impression that the press were here to report on my bid for the open County Council seat, not to disrupt it.”

Hennesy grunted. “Then toss her out. I’d even pay you to do it.”

“And I do apologize, Ms. Ghorbian,” Erica said, ignoring Hennesy’s outburst. “I know it’s not traditional for the press to do this sort of thing, but my paper, the Digital Telegraph, is more interested in informing the people than in proper etiquette. Well, what I wanted to say is that you’ve referred to your constituency as ‘consumers’ several times now. I know that’s pretty common, and that everyone’s gotten used to it, but there’s a serious problem with it, and it bears directly on the kind of candidacy that you’re offering to the people here tonight.”

“A problem,” Ghorbian said doubtfully. “With calling people… ‘consumers’?”

Erica nodded. “That’s right. And it has to do with the role that word casts us in. It’s an economic role for one thing, not a civic one, and it’s passive, the recipient of some good or service, rather than a participant, an active member of a democracy.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Hennesy lamented. “That’s what we all need, a language lesson.”

She glanced at him in annoyance. “As a matter of fact, we do, especially those of us in the press, because what we say, the words we use, are important. Our proper role in a democracy, as candidates and as voters, is not to be silent receptacles for whatever edicts and policies are imposed on us. To do that is to be a consumer. And there are powerful forces in this country that would prefer it if that’s all you were.”

“Was that directed at me?” Hennesy again.

“Don’t get a swelled head. I was referring to both your party and to the moneyed interests that control it.”

Ghorbian gave them both a stern look.

Erica apologized before continuing. “In any case, what we, all of us, need to be are citizens, members of the community being governed. And that’s an active role, one in which it’s okay to question what’s being done in your name, and to take action if you disagree with it.” She paused briefly. “That is why you’re doing this, isn’t it?”

“Okay. I get it. So I’ll say citizen instead of consumer. It’s a valid criticism. But why was it important enough to interrupt me? It is just words, after all.”

“But it’s not. Not really. The way an idea is presented, the words used to represent it, are very powerful. I mean, look. The entertainment lobbies that you’re taking on with your candidacy have spent a lot of time and money framing their loss of control over media as a matter of piracy. They’re attacking their own potential customers, for heaven’s sake!”

“That’s right. And I’m offering the people in this county the chance to have someone on the Council who understands what’s wrong with their claims. After all, some content creators want it to be shared.”

“Then why,” Erica pressed, “do you insist on using their words? Why do you keep referring to it as piracy? Don’t you see that by doing that, you’re forcing people to imagine themselves as thieves?”

Hennesy turned to face the sparse crowd behind him. “You see? You’re all being used by this woman.”

A few people stood and started towards the exit.

“That’s right,” he said encouragingly, “there’s nothing here for you but insults. It’s a waste of your time, so you might as well go home and watch some TV.”

Ghorbian grimaced, watching her audience dwindle. “Wait,” she called to them. “Hear me out.”

Erica, looking downcast, turned to see what they’d do, and spotted a familiar figure making his way down towards the press rows. Mick Radditzen, whose streaming videos had become something of a fixture on the citizen journalist site he volunteered for, also had a paying gig with the DT as her reporting partner. He gave her a quizzical look as he approached, and pointed at the woman on stage. She nodded, turned around, and returned to her seat.

“Getting back to my point,” the candidate said with a sigh, making fleeting eye contact with a swath of the crowd, “I’m offering you the chance to have a different kind of representation on the council.”

Mick pulled out his video camera and started to shoot even before he had stopped walking.

“A lot of people have asked what party I’m in, since this isn’t a non-partisan election. From my stand on intellectual property issues, there have been reports that I’m running as a Democrat. But that’s not the case. You see, I’m not running as a member of any party at all.”

There was sharp noise from the audience. Mick swung towards the source. He caught a few more people standing up to leave, and a well-dressed man standing beside the exit. “Koll,” he said absently, and then added, “Sorry. Henry Koll just walked in. If you’ve been following my reports, he’s the man who disrupted the press conference for the new coalition party.”

Erica craned to see Koll, then noticed Hennesy’s satisfied leer. “Oh, great,” she muttered, “now they’re both here.”

“Instead of being the face of a political party,” Ghorbian went on, eyeing Koll curiously, “I have chosen to be responsible to the carefully chosen set of issues which were listed on the fliers we circulated, and on my campaign website. These core issues, which have been represented ably by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are critical, not only to protecting your First Amendment right to free speech, but to preserving the public domain in the face of corporations that would like nothing better than to lock up every single piece of creative energy with digital rights management restrictions, and to use punitive lawsuits based on unfounded accusations to beat us into passive submission to their control.”

“Strong words,” Koll said into the momentary silence.

Erica glanced back and forth between them. Mick kept his camera on Koll.

“It’s a serious issue.”

Koll stepped into the aisle, and stopped at the last row of seats. “Indeed it is, young lady,” he said, with a note of condescension, “which is why I have to wonder how you expect a County Council member will be able to do anything about it. These are matters of federal law, after all. Even if you were to be elected, which I sincerely doubt, you’d be powerless. This pitch of yours is a sham.”

Neda Ghorbian’s jaw sagged briefly. She blinked rapidly and wet her lips. “You really believe that, don’t you? That there’s nothing we can do at the local level that will affect you.”

“Of course. That’s just the way it is.”

A wave of agitation swept the crowd. Two people who had started to leave changed their minds and stood flanking the aisle a few rows in front of Koll.

“No. It’s just the way you want us to think it is.” She glanced down at Erica. “Because if we accept that, if we submit to the role that puts us in. If we believe that we’re powerless to change things, then we are. But we’re not, and I’m running without any party affiliation to prove it.”

Several members of the crowd voiced their support. Mick caught a few reactions, and then focused his camera on Koll again.

“And that’s your biggest weakness,” he said. “In fact, it’s the problem with most of the minor parties as well. Their agendas are just too narrow to garner support from enough people to make a difference. Heck, even that coalition that just formed has enough holes in its positions to keep it from attracting enough voters to win the eighth district. And that’s before the lines get redrawn. So the miracle they’re hoping for could only be for one term at best. After that, they’re toast, no matter what they do.”

Hennesy clapped loudly a few times. “Well said, brother!”

“And your biggest weakness, sir,” Ghorbian retorted, “is your utter predictability. Both of the calcified political parties in this country have frozen into caricatures of their respective sponsors’ interests. Neither one is responsible to their constituents any longer, but at least the Democratic Party tries to make it look like they are. Your party is the party of greed, a fact that is made painfully obvious by looking at the all-encompassing position statements you’re so proud of. Of course, you ought to know that, Mr. Koll, considering how closely you work with the vested interests that craft those positions.”

“Zing!” Mick whispered. “I didn’t think she knew who he was.”

Hennesy stood up and beckoned Koll to come down to the front of the theater, so everyone could see him better. Koll refused at first, but relented when she suggested how much more effective it would be in demolishing Ghorbian’s candidacy. But when he started down the aisle, a number of people joined the two already flanking it in blocking the way.

Erica grimaced, and muttered, “This doesn’t look good.” Then she stood and asked for everyone’s attention. “I’d like to suggest a way out of a shouting match,” she offered.

Neda Ghorbian held up a hand for quiet, and pointed at the reporter.

“It looks like we’re edging into a confrontation here,” she said. “But we can turn that to our advantage by reframing it as a debate. I suggest we give Mr. Koll a chance to have his say peacefully. He and Ms. Ghorbian can debate the issues, whatever they turn out to be, and the rest of us can find out more about both sides of this in the process. Would that work?”

“You want to turn my meeting into a venue for Koll to spew his lies?”

“It’s okay with me,” Koll said.

“Think of it,” Erica assured her quietly, “like shining a light on some roaches.”

A few minutes later, the candidate and the businessman were facing one another on stage. The crowd, which had been sparse, was starting to swell, probably as a result of a bit of fast texting, some smart-phones with geolocation apps, and Mick’s video feed. Erica, who had taken on the role of moderator, asked Ghorbian and Koll to wait for a few minutes while the people who had just entered got seated.

Seeing an opening, Hennesy sprang from his seat and started to work the crowd. While Ghorbian shook her head in disbelief, he ran up and down the aisles, introducing himself and passing out business cards. His efforts were quickly rebuffed as people tossed the cards on the floor, tore them up in front of his face, or launched into a mock version of his bombastic radio personality.

Erica begged him to stop his self-promotion, but her polite protestations only spurred him on. Finally, Mick strode up to him and offered to show his viewers what an ass he truly was. The two people he’d been arguing with at the time promptly began a thorough rehash of the lies he’d told on his radio show for the viewers, at which point he turned red, turned tail, and left the theater.

Once the cheers and catcalls faded, Erica asked Koll to explain why he thought a non-partisan candidacy in a politically charged election wouldn’t work.

“It’s very simple, really,” he said. “A political party provides the basis for a candidate’s stand on any number of issues. That’s the whole point of the national parties’ platform committees. When you vote for a Republican, you have a pretty good idea what he stands for. You know that family values are at the heart of everything he -.”

“One moment, Mr. Koll,” Erica said, her hands raised to stop the action.

He shot her an icy glare. “What now? I thought you said I could have my say.”

“And you will,” she said. “But first, I need to clarify something.”


“Family values. You tossed that phrase off like it meant something specific. The problem is, that’s a purposefully ambiguous term, like a lot of words and phrases used in political campaigns. It sounds innocuous enough; so unsuspecting progressives simply take it as meaning values that are suitable for their kind of family: nurturing… supportive… things like that. But right wing family values are really all about the authority of the father figure, and the obedience of the rest of the family to him.”

Koll considered her briefly. “Okay. I kind of get that, but where do you come off interrupting me for a language lesson?”

Erica flashed Ghorbian a grin before responding. “It’s my duty,” she said. “As a member of the press, it’s my responsibility to ensure that the citizens – that’s the people listening to you in this theater, and the ones watching Mick’s video stream – are informed about how the government works, and how the decisions which affect their lives are made. Which in this case, is with the subterfuge of confusing language.”

“Nonsense. Your job is to simply report the news. At the most, and only if you’re a commentator, you can offer your opinion of what happens. But you don’t get to interrupt events so you can put your own spin on them.”

She shook her head. “I think you have me confused with a member of the compliant mass media. Mick Radditzen and I work for the Digital Telegraph, and it is our paper’s objective to ensure that the citizens are informed, not just about the events themselves, but also about how those who wish to represent them manipulate language and use framing tricks to misdirect them, to fool them about what is really going on.”

The crowd interjected a rowdy cheer.

“So, please,” she continued, “by all means, lay out the details of why Neda Ghorbian shouldn’t be running for office, or what the issues are. But know this: we will be watching, and we will expose your larcenous little tricks of the mind for the manipulative scheming of a morally bankrupt regime. We’ve seen what eight years of conservative values can do to a country when the press rolls over and acts as your transcription service. But that’s over. Now, if you want to have a civil debate with a serious candidate for public office, we welcome whatever you have to say. Are you okay with that?”

Koll wet his lips. He looked across the crowd, which had grown to standing-room-only, and then at Neda Ghorbian. “All right,” he said, smiling nervously. “Let’s give this a try.”

Copyright 2009 by P. Orin Zack


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