Short Story: “Focus Group”

“Focus Group”
by P. Orin Zack

Lonnie strode through the encampment of pro-union protesters outside the capitol building in Olympia with a timid smile on his face. A dozen organizations had come together to fight the new governor’s plan to strip the state’s public service unions of their collective bargaining rights, each one proudly identifying itself both in dress and on signs. Gail Kerr, the leader of the teachers’ union, had just concluded a rousing speech, and Lonnie joined in the cheer that followed.

“No class warfare!” he yelled, nodding conspiratorially to the people around him. “No class warfare!” With this good-natured camaraderie returned in kind, he joined in the public grousing against the governor, his party, and the business interests supporting them, yet held his tongue when the mass of protesters took up a chant to oust the man from office.

After the weeks-long occupation of the capitol building in Wisconsin at the beginning of 2011, the Republican Governors Association had shifted the focus of its strategy of destroying the American middle class by driving a stake through the labor movement at its heart to the next state, and then the next. Now it was Washington’s turn, and the former attorney general who’d just won the governorship wasted no time acting on his signature campaign promise. As had happened in other states, non-conforming legislators balked, vowing to deprive those supporting the governor of a quorum, and a swarm of organizations swept in to lay siege to the capital building.

As much as he disliked what the governor was doing, this mission was Lonnie’s big chance to make a name for himself and open the door to the influence and standing that were rightfully his. He may have been a geek, but he was a very special kind of geek, the kind that has been known to wield the power publicly held by the ruling elite. His interest in psychology, neurochemistry and electronics had blended into a frothy concoction that held a special appeal for men with a thirst for power. The governor’s strategist rewarded him with the chance to put his theory into action. The money, he promised, would come later, after he’d proven himself right.

Both sides in the standoff had refined their methods in response to the citizens’ uprisings in Sudan, Egypt and Libya, and the labor protests that had spread like a range fire across the US. The public relations armory traditionally wielded by those in power had been augmented with tactics right out of the CIA’s psy-ops playbook. Meanwhile, the armies of protesters had learned that the Internet they so depended on would either be tainted or unavailable, and fashioned their own edge networks to route around this intentional damage so they could coordinate their actions and reach the rest of the world.

Still, there were limitations to what Lonnie could know about the situation. He mused, while doing his best to blend into the crowd, about what it would be like to directly sense the energy fields that he’d spoken to the governor’s strategist about. In his mind’s eye, Lonnie imagined that he could feel the subtle energy generated by the minds of those around him. The recent discovery that the electrical signals transmitted along neurons also generated an enveloping magnetic field confirmed something he’d suspected for years, a hunch that explained recent political events, but also suggested a plan of action.

What it didn’t do was alert him to a movement in the crowd, just out of his field of vision. Just as he’d finished satisfying himself that everything was going according to plan, he found himself ringed by a contingent of the ad hoc security force that roamed the protest to keep things peaceful. Fearful for his safety, he tried to duck between them and melt into the crowd, but the crowd resolutely refused to cooperate. He felt like a virus beset by white blood cells.

“Is there a problem?” he asked warily.

“That depends,” one of the citizen security squad replied. “We understand that you’ve been seen speaking with the governor’s men. Do you have some sort of ‘in’ with him that we should know about? If you do, the combined leadership would like a word with you.”

Lonnie thought fast. That morning, the governor had ordered mass layoffs, and charged scores of so-called ‘instigators’ with a laundry list of crimes in an effort to blackmail the missing legislators into returning to the state. That could offer him a way out of this. “Yeah,” he said, “you’ve got me there. I did speak with him, but it wasn’t my idea.”


“Yeah. The governor’s man was looking for dirt to use in their blackmail scheme, and threatened my family if I didn’t talk.”

“What did you tell him?”

He looked away briefly to buy time, and then returned the man’s level gaze. “Well, I didn’t throw anyone under the bus, if that’s what you’re thinking. About the only thing I knew for sure was that each of the groups out here has their own agenda, so I told him it would be prudent to try to deflect them from their goals.”

“That’s not exactly an original thought, you know. Besides, it’s been tried, and it doesn’t work.”

“That’s pretty much what the governor’s man said, too. After that, they tossed me back. I guess I wasn’t a juicy enough catch for them. So, will that be all, then?”

The one on the left leaned in a bit. “Not exactly. You did have me there for a bit, but I know for a fact that you—.”

Lonnie bolted. He ducked into the crowd and started making his erratic way towards the capitol building steps, with the citizen security force in pursuit. He lost his footing a few times trying to weave past knots of protesters, yelling, “Make way! Make way!” as he went. Panting, and afraid for his safety, he hurtled through the middle of a gaggle of teenage girls passing around someone’s iPad, accidentally launching it in an arc directly in his line of travel. Frantic calls to catch it roused a contingent of potential rescuers to converge in front of him, blocking his way and sending him to the ground in a noisy pile-up. And yet, in the midst of all this, whoever had managed to catch the errant iPad raised his arm skyward and waved the treasure triumphantly.

When Lonnie finally extricated himself from the tangle and got to his feet, the security team ringed him in a lot closer than they had before, and escorted him to a small group of very anxious looking people, every one of whom he recognized, from the briefing he’d gotten in the Governor’s office, as a leader of one of the assembled groups. The information they’d assembled about these people was pretty extensive, so he guessed there was some sort of on-going surveillance of the organizations targeted by the governor’s new policies. Although she didn’t identify herself, he knew that the woman who stepped forward and crossed her arms was Gail Kerr, the diminutive firebrand leader of the teachers’ union whose speech he’d cheered earlier.

“Judging by the fact that you tried to get away,” she said, “I figure there’s something you’d rather we not know about you. So I’ll be as direct as possible. What’s your name?”

He studied her for a few seconds before answering, and decided to assume she had a keen mind to go with those piercing grey eyes. “Alondo Leighton. And yours?”

“Don’t distract me,” she said coolly. “We’re here to find out what you’re up to, not to socialize. I’m told you’ve had an audience with someone in the governor’s court. Who and why?”

Lonny scanned the faces of the people arrayed before him. Manipulating masses was always simpler when you have the attention of the influencers, and they seemed to have done him the favor of cutting short his plan to nudge random followers towards destruction by giving him a way to apply that leverage more effectively. “Like I told your goons, the big man’s lackey threatened my family for any dirt I could supply about the leadership out here. I told him—.”

She cut him off. “And why would they think you’d know?”

“How the hell should I know? They—.”

“You’re lying,” she said flatly.

“All right, all right,” he said. “So I did some research.”

Kerr shook her head and winced. “Not about that. You’re lying about why you were in the governor’s offices. Nobody threatened you or your family. Nice try, though. I think it’s far more likely that you had something to sell them. They already know everything worth knowing about me, and a good deal about my associates as well. The cut-rate security company running their surveillance net is amateur at best, so we know exactly whom they’re watching. We also know that the governor has no compunctions about threatening people. So whatever it was that you had to offer was a whole other ball of wax.”

Lonnie looked at her blankly. “Was that supposed to be a question?”

“No, but you certainly acted like it was. You’re just dying to spill that secret of yours, aren’t you? What did they offer in exchange? Money? Power?”

His expression hardened. “Recognition.”

Kerr laughed. “For giving them leverage over us? That’s the last thing they’d want to do. If anything, they’d want to make sure you never ratted them out. No, Mr. Leighton, you weren’t going to be recognized for your efforts, not in any way that’s important to you. The most you could ever expect to get would be hush money with some pretty severe restrictions attached to it.”

“Oh, and I suppose the teachers union could make me a better offer?”

“Well,” she said, loosening her stance, “it seems you’ve decided to negotiate. Which means this isn’t about principle for you. What kind of recognition were you after?”

Lonnie’s eyes glazed briefly, as he imagined himself giving a talk about his insight. Shaking himself out of reverie, he said, “I want people to respect me for my ideas. Speaking engagements might be nice, and maybe a book deal.”

The man to her left chuckled weakly. “Dream on,” he said. “Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get published commercially these days?”

“Tell me something, Mr. Leighton,” Kerr said, ignoring the interruption. “If your secret, whatever it is, could strengthen the governor’s power over us, don’t you think it would be worth more to us, since it would be empowering to thousands of union members?”

He shook his head. “You don’t understand. This isn’t only about union members. It would empower all kinds of people.”

“Then help me to understand. What is it that you told the governor’s office?”

Lonnie straightened and took a deep breath. “All right. Do any of you know much about neurochemistry?”

One of the others coughed involuntarily. “Teachers, remember?”

“Good. It turns out that the electrical current coursing through our nerves generates magnetic fields around them, just like it does around electrical wires. Researchers have recently found that other nerves respond to this field at a distance, even though there’s no direct connection.”

The biology teacher shrugged. “Yeah, so?”

“Well, just like a galaxy full of stars has an overall gravitational field, a person has a bio-electrical field.”

“Look,” Kerr said sharply, “if you’re about to start spouting nonsense about auras, you can just forget about it. That claptrap may convince the MBAs and lawyers in the governor’s office, but they’re not—.”

“Did you want to hear me out or not?”

She frowned. “Go on.”

“Here’s the important thing,” Lonnie said. “Based on some new tests, it turns out that this field is stronger, more coherent, in people whose view of the world arises from some strongly-held set of core beliefs or principles. That means it’s stronger for a devout Christian, for instance, than it would be for someone who has no particular views on religion.”

“Oh, hang it up,” a member of the security team muttered.

“Look, this isn’t just about religion. A legislator operating from a moral compass would have a stronger field than one who bases his decisions on whatever facts were presented. My point is that the same thing that holds for galaxies also holds for groups of people. The whole thing about there being strength in numbers isn’t really about numbers. It’s about the people in that group all having the same objective.”

Kerr nodded. “You mean like the crowd here? That we’re stronger when we’re united in common purpose?”

“Exactly. But that common purpose has to be the core of why the people have united. Remember all the anti-war protests after the US invaded Iraq? They weren’t effective because they weren’t all of one mind. Those rallies were coalitions of groups that each had their own agenda, and only came together over one issue that was really only peripheral to their purpose.”

Something must have struck home, because the people he was facing suddenly started looking around.

“That’s right,” he said, “the same thing is true here. What happened in Egypt succeeded because the people gathered in Tahrir Square came together without an agenda. At first, they didn’t know what they were there for, but because they came without agendas, the citizens of Cairo naturally began to align with one another’s fields, and that multiplied their effectiveness.”

“So what you’re saying,” Kerr hazarded, “is that the secret you told the governor’s office was that to defeat us, they only needed to keep us separated.”

“Yes. It’s as simple as ‘divide and conquer’. Anything they could do to reinforce the fact that the people here worked for different unions, came from different backgrounds and had different long-term objectives, would defeat you in the end.”

“I’ll tell you what,” she said after looking around again, “if what you say is true, and I have to tell you it strikes me in my gut as core truth, then you’ll get all the recognition you ever wanted if you take a few minutes to figure out how to explain that to the people here without too much technical detail. Are you game?”

Lonnie took a deep breath. His inner conflict had abated. “I think so, now that I’m of one mind about it.”

Copyright 2011 by P. Orin Zack


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