Printed from WriteWords -

Prophet and Loss

by  Y-not

Posted: Sunday, May 07, 2006
Word Count: 2313
Summary: Sorry. First upload was incomplete! This one is has all the necessary bits ticked below. This was the first story I had a go at, a couple of months ago. The setting is an American TV chat show a few years from now - although it could possibly be today. It's meant to reflect the struggle for freedom of speech we all face, not just in America but wherever we are.

Prophet and Loss

‘Well, Jon, when it comes to religion, emotion is stronger than logic. Perhaps all emotion is stronger than logic. I’m the same. If someone attacks me - verbally I mean - I start to think I shouldn’t have said what I said. Because even if I’m not intimidated, I’m still hurt, and that clouds my thinking. Threatening people works. It makes them modify their behaviour, if not their thoughts. And so it neutralises those thoughts even if it doesn’t stop them. I don’t threaten religious people, verbally or physically. If they think I do, then that’s their emotions getting the better of them.’

Sam Parsons, the latest guest on the popular Saturday night talk show, Tudor Fat, scanned the audience again. He seemed more anxious to gauge their reactions than those of popular host, Jon Tudor. It seemed to be going just about okay so far.

‘Okay Sam,’ Jon cut in, his unsheathed grin heralding the dissection of the unsuspecting specimen in the adjacent chair. ‘You allegedly said, and I quote from one of our top news publications over here, the New York Times, dated May 5th 2020, and they don’t make stuff up, you know - but maybe you disagree? - they quote you in an interview with their well-respected literary writer Sal Greenberg, and I quote… What’s funny, Sam?’

‘I like that phrase, ‘literary writer’’

‘Oh you do? Yeah? I’m pleased, because that’s just what he is, Sam. He writes, about literature, so in my book that makes him a literary writer. Please bear with me, Sam, cos I just gotta, you know, get this across before we run outta time. You said, and I quote, allegedly…’

Sam smiled again as Jon’s arms spun like propellers, impatiently attempting to get this stalled question off the ground, striving to reassert the unshakeable conviction that he was the sole pilot of this conversation, as well as of all other conversations he engaged in, anytime, anywhere.

‘Now, Sam, let me get this right. Correct me if I’m wrong, and I’m sure you will. You allegedly stated that “all religious people are playground bullies”. Now listen, my friend. You can get people really upset by saying those kinda things, you know. It’s a little bit inflammatory, don’t you think? You have to be careful. Not everybody has your intelligence, your cool, logical detachment. You just can’t go around saying whatever you like, you know!’

Jon’s concern for Sam’s well-being would have been touching, if it had existed.

Sam was generally comfortable within the confines of a fair and well-controlled discussion or debate, even when being filmed, but he always dreaded the inescapable physical presence of a large audience, that many-headed beast which always seemed to be hungering for visceral entertainment. They always demanded action rather than ideas; they desired drama, not a morality lesson. They didn’t have ears, he believed; only eyes and mouths.

Sam could never work out what he’d have done if he’d been forced into gladiatorial combat in the days of the Roman Empire. Would fear have eaten away at his pride and commanded him to fight, even though consenting to fight would have amounted to a public recognition of his personal powerlessness? Or would he have opted to just stand there, noble and motionless, offering no defence, demonstrating an unmistakeable contempt for the barbarism of the spectators by allowing himself to be skewered right at the outset? At least the second option would have given this man, who lacked speed and strength, and probably also the will to fight, a measure of control. If you’re going to lose, why give them the satisfaction of resistance? Hey, friend, why prolong my agony and your suspense? Stick your blade there, right there, where I’m pointing. And have one on me tonight at the orgy, okay? But then again, the rules of the Empire permitted, no doubt, a mouth-watering variety of extra-barbaric, super-grisly, prolonged, agonising deaths specifically designed for such selfish, boring spoilsports.

‘Well, Jon, in my defence, I think I said ‘most religious people’ rather than ‘all religious people’. I’ll have to listen to my copy of the full interview when I get back home. If I can find it among all the others. I’ve accumulated so many of them, my apartment’s a mess! But when I criticise anyone, or, in this case, any group, I usually acknowledge my own frailties too. Most people, whether religious or not, including myself, can sometimes be tempted to use bullying as a way to get what they want. You may be religious yourself, Jon, but you may not be a bully yourself. What I meant to say was that when you’re part of a large group, that gives you physical power over people in smaller groups or individuals. Are you religious, Jon?’

‘Well this show isn’t about me, Sam! But since you ask me, I believe God created the beautiful universe around us, yes. But as we all know you’re an atheist and proud of it, since you repeatedly tell us so in your many books and speeches. Which, I suppose, means that you must be a part of a presumably very large and powerful atheist group…’

‘No, not at all, not an organised group…’

‘…but, ha ha, but hey, that’s okay, you’re free to say anything you want in this great land of free speech the Good Lord gave us. We welcome them all! But what about me, Sam? Am I bullying you? Do you imagine that people are always out to get you? Aren’t you being just a little bit paranoid here?’

Jon’s voice was acid-coated candy.

Sam felt as though all the conversations - or should that be confrontations? - of his entire life were being replayed in this one interview. He hated such predictability, and was profoundly bored and disappointed at this turn in the interview, or conversation, as it was called on this show. And he suddenly realised, with a kind of mental thud, that he was on the wrong show; this was a show that didn’t hold proper interviews, which were things he usually enjoyed. No; sadly, this show - the word ’show’ itself was the giveaway, surely! - was simply a forum for that kind of bar-room or schoolroom conversation where anyone could take part, and usually did, in which sheer volume and words per minute were the most prized assets, and sense and fairness went out of the window, along with all polite language.

But here he was, and although he really hated the thought of it, perhaps he should fight back, now that he’d found himself trapped in this unwanted duel, because words, rather than sharp objects, were his weapons of choice too, and so he still had at least a reasonable hope of restoring his honour in public.

But then it dawned on Sam that Jon was the king of conversation while he was the pauper, the village idiot. Jon had expertly pinpointed Sam’s principal weakness with laser-like accuracy, and had then pulled it out and held it up to the lights like a lightning-fast surgeon whipping out some infected organ. Had this humiliation all been researched and planned, or was it off the cuff, intuitive, instinctive? Whichever it was, Sam was being lifted onto a cross on a hill; he was being brought as an offering through the entrance to a temple; his heart was palpitating with good reason, for it was about to be ripped out of his chest and held up, still beating, to the sun god atop this hellish Aztec pyramid of a TV studio floor. He blinked and sweated under the lights.

Why, oh why had Sam been so foolish as to step into this trap? But … he’d been made to, by other people, other forces. He’d lost control of his career and his life. A fatal mistake. He’d fire his bloody agent for this. Who cared about the ‘huge American market’? It wasn’t worth … this. Sam had had misgivings all along. But his agent had calmed his worries. Perhaps his agent would like to do the rest of the American publicity tour for the new book on religion, then, because the advance media interest was obviously extremely hostile.

Of course, Sam could speak just fine, even in public - he’d made quite a lot of money by doing it - as long as he was listened to and not interrupted, and as long as logic ruled. But conversations, those organic, emotionally-driven beasts that reared their many ugly heads at gatherings, events, parties; at Christmas, in nightclubs, in politics, in the army, in so-called comedy; anything informal, uncontrolled, chaotic, unreasonable, illogical, interrupted, pointless, silly, vulgar, boring; where the individual is powerless, where thought is sacrificed to sheer strength …

Best to get it over with, then, and get out of there. Something had to be said, and since Jon was effectively controlling him like a puppet, Sam would have to say whatever Jon wanted or expected him to say. It would be Sam’s mouth saying it, but Jon’s brain would be choosing the words. Jon’s still-smiling face resembled a monkey or a cat about to hiss or spit. The beast murmured and stirred in its seats, its many heads craning forwards on pink extended necks.

‘People are out to get me sometimes, yes, Jon. Aren’t they ever out to get you? Does everyone love you, or are they just scared of you? Do you beat your wife? Does she put up with it for the money? Do people like hearing the truth? Do people like to die? Is religion so powerful because it tells people they can live forever? Do religious leaders and politicians harness that power to give themselves more power over others? If people oppose them, do they turn the other cheek, or do they use that power against those opponents? Oh, and remember, Jon. Those were all questions, not answers. I may speak, when people let me. But I don’t tell other people what to do or what to think. Do you?’

Silence gripped the audience. Jon swivelled playfully in his chair, his head tilted to one side, supported by a hand, that hand’s purpose being partly to allow Jon to appear tremendously relaxed and in control, and partly to hide a somewhat inappropriate but nevertheless unstoppable smile that just wouldn’t go away.

‘Whew! Ha ha! Did you all hear what I just heard, people?’

Jon’s imperial black chair swivelled to face the audience for confirmation of the verdict, the downward-pointing thumb, toward which he’d obviously been steering them ever since the beginning of this unusually combative conversation. The heads of the beast seemed to act independently of each other, it was true. But the sympathetic or thoughtful ones, the ear-possessing minority, remained quiet, allowing the other heads - those with no ears but with big mouths - to speak for the whole creature. As a result, the overwhelming impression was one of antipathy and bloodthirstiness toward the guest. The sounds emitted resembled those of a zoo in which the animals hadn’t been fed at their usual time.

The imperial black chair swivelled back towards Sam. Finally, Jon assumed a more formal posture as he prepared to give the verdict, sitting up straight, and even smoothing out a crease in his trousers. He inhaled, but delayed the pronouncement for the optimum number of seconds to maximise tantalisation of guest and audience. When it came, his voice was sugar-coated candy itself.

‘Sam, I gotta remind you that you’re in America now …’ He paused to allow some yells of delight from the audience. ‘And when you’re in America, like when you’re in Rome, you gotta act accordingly. Otherwise, you risk giving offence. Ain’t that true, people? Yeah! You like the truth? Well that’s the truth, praise be to God!’

Amid the orchestrated cacophony, Jon quickly wound up the show, and the closing music flared briefly, before the ads reminded the viewers why they were expected to tune in. A member of Jon’s team led Sam courteously to the dressing room.

Jon smiled, knowing, after this heart-warming populist triumph, that the twenty-five per cent salary increase he and his agent would be arguing for on Monday morning was in the bag. Jake Sadorff, the producer, had expressed concerns last week that Sam Parsons was not the right kind of guest for Tudor Fat; too boring, too highbrow. So what if he had made some controversial statements in Europe? The public didn’t know who the hell he was. They might pick up their remotes and switch over as soon as this unknown British face hit their screens, or rather, as soon as he gingerly brushed against it. But now, well, Jon was vindicated. More than vindicated. Hell, he was approaching sainthood! He’d positioned himself as primetime defender of the faith. He’d outsmarted Jake; he’d shown himself to be indispensable. Soon he might be made executive producer himself. Phew! This would make the papers, alright. And quoting the NYT like that was a masterstroke of product placement. You could bet on a sycophantic review of the show on Monday morning to coincide with the salary raise. Yeah!

Jon Tudor leaned in through Sam Parsons’ dressing room door. ‘Hey man, you were great. Absolutely great. Don’t worry about the audience reaction, they loved you, they really did. You watch. The attendances on your lecture tour are gonna double, triple, overnight! The cheers will lift the roof off! I guarantee it. We’ve been good for each other, trust me. What a team! Make sure you give me a call next time you’re over here. So long, Sam!’

As he walked down the corridor, heading for his own, larger room, Jon muttered to himself, smiling.

‘There won’t be a next time. They won’t let the guy outta the airport. Jerk.’