Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - April 21, 2018
Please note: These show notes may be in various stages of completion -- ranging from brainstormed notes through to well-polished monologues. Please excuse anything that may seem rough around the edges, as it may only be a first draft of a thought and not be fully representative of what was said on the air.
Segment 1: (11 min)
BUT FIRST: The opening essay
21st Century conservatism
It was not a great moment in our nation's history when the President called a former FBI director an "untruthful slime ball", nor when he tweeted late yesterday to complain about the press, saying they (that is, we) are "phony" and "dishonest".
Need more concern with what kind of character people have than what they do for an occupation
People like to lay a lot of blame on schools for "not teaching" character or civics or personal responsibility
"School is an invaluable adjunct to the home, but it is a wretched substitute for it." - Theodore Roosevelt
World is more complex than ever, and that complexity is accelerating
People need to be able to hold ideas in tension with one another
Two economists walking down the street see a $20 bill -- "If it were real, someone would have picked it up already"
There's no such thing as an easy answer to any of the questions worth debating
The best we can do is give young people toolkits for dealing with complex circumstances and practice in using the tools
Would submit that organizing one troop campout, one service project, or one merit-badge workshop is a better growth opportunity than almost any group project in school
The world we want to live in isn't constructed in an either/or manner -- we can't lump all of our expectations on schools, and we can't withdraw from the realities of dealing with people who will have different values or preferences from one another
The right answer is a full-spectrum, all-of-the-above approach: Yes, let's care about what kinds of families kids grow up inside. Yes, let's care about the public things we do under mandates -- the compulsory and statutory realities of our world. But let's also care about the other "invaluable adjuncts".
Young people with something better to do tend not to get into idle trouble.
Crucially, if we give them the right "better things to do", we also set them up to be the kinds of workers, citizens, voters, leaders, and parents of the future
That future is never as far away as we think -- my Dad still has an heirloom Boy Scout pocketknife. He was a second- or third-generation Scout, but a first-generation Eagle. He produced three sons who became Eagles. I'm beside myself with joy that my daughters will have a choice at that path, too.
Imagine a world where everyone feels an obligation to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly...
We don't know what challenges will emerge ten or twenty years ahead. We don't know where technology will take us. We don't know whether the economy will be in the midst of boom or bust.
But we can invest strategically, today, in making sure that rising adults are formed not just by peer pressure but by a real coming-of-age process, with rituals and choices, successes and failures -- all of which help them to harness the inevitable tensions of their years to come with a sense of rootedness and permanence, even when the answers to new questions aren't immediately obvious.
Scouting programs aren't a cure-all, but they have a powerful and under-appreciated capacity to guide the young person away from gut instincts (which are no better than what drive animals) and towards practiced, refined intuition -- and an appreciation for caring about asking the right questions and thinking about the consequences. For appreciating the "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns" of life to come. For tolerating ambiguities and gray spaces not because you want to escape responsibility, but because you appreciate that much of life is lived in tension between competing goods and bads.
A tent or a knot or a sail on a boat at summer camp are usually only of much use when they're kept under tension. The same holds true for the character of a person, so we had best start applying the kind of tension we want in our adult peers to the young, just as soon as we can.
Segment 2: (8 min)
Stop the deliberate ignorance: Let us bury the "hot take" forever
You're probably familiar by now with the professor at Fresno State University in California, who is being scrutinized for her classless and incendiary tweets about the death of former First Lady Barbara Bush. The professor seems intent on swinging at everyone and doing everything she can to provoke as much backlash as she can before the controversy blows over. As of last night, her Twitter account had been made private, but not before she fired off plenty of salvos destined only to make angry people angrier.
Last week, a listener responded to one of my social-media posts by saying, "I don't mean to disrespect you but the more important question is 'why do I care'. Your title is to vague to make me want to read the article but it does get me 1/2 way there."
In essence, the problem is that I wasn't being click-baity enough.
Also last week, a website called "The Federalist" published an essay arguing that we should break up the United States. The headline: "It's Time For The United States To Divorce Before Things Get Dangerous". The subhead: "This idea of breaking up the country may seem a bit outlandish now, but you won't think so once real domestic unrest comes to your town."
There are not enough words to adequately describe what a stupid idea this is. Further division -- geographic or otherwise -- is the last thing that will do any good for the future of the American Way.
And then there was Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary, tweeting that "Comey describes Trump as a 'congenital liar and unethical leader, devoid of human emotion and driven by personal ego.' Then why did he work for Trump? If thatís what Comey thought, the honorable action would be to resign."
Fleischer knows better than that. It's insultingly, willfully ignorant hot takes (like his) from people who absolutely know better (as Fleischer must) that most undermine the ability of gullible Americans to distinguish fiction from fact. Shame.
Let us gather now to bury the "hot take" forever
Not everything needs to tickle your amygdala
If the only thing that matters is "triggering" the other side or saying something so outrageous it acts as clickbait, then we're headed for a ditch
There's a middle ground somewhere between Ellen DeGeneres and Alex Jones where we should be spending most of our time -- and it's a lot closer to Ellen than to the quack
Segment 3: (14 min)
Tin Foil Hat Award
In case you thought China had softened on its enforcement of rigid Communist Party doctrine, think again. The watchers at home send minders to police students abroad.
That's the chilling revelation of an article in Foreign Policy, which says that students at multiple universities are being watched by Communist Party cells under the control of the power centers in Beijing.
Some of the schools mentioned: "UC San Diego, UC Davis, Northern Illinois University, University of North Dakota, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, University of Bridgeport, University of West Florida"
The tactic shows just how obscene a totalitarian government really is
Stop the deliberate ignorance
We have our own obnoxious wannabe-oppressors here at home
One is Pat Buchanan. He's written a column praising the rise of authoritarianism
He writes, "The democracy worshippers of the West cannot compete with the authoritarians in meeting the crisis of our time because they do not see what is happening to the West as a crisis."
And he goes on to say, "if what 'our democracy' has delivered here has caused tens of millions of Americans to be repulsed and to secede into social isolation, why would other nations embrace a system that produced so poisoned a politics and so polluted a culture?"
He roots all of this in a claim that values are only passed along by people who share the same DNA
Anyone who thinks American values are transmitted by pure heredity doesn't actually believe in American values. In making pseudoscientific claims about DNA, Pat Buchanan makes it clear that he does not believe in American values.
It's a claim so indefensible that it takes those cherished values less seriously than a secret family recipe.
My family has a secret recipe for cookies. I wasn't born knowing how to make them. I was taught. I wrote the recipe down. And if I don't pass it on to my kids, the recipe won't rematerialize in their genes. Pat Buchanan thinks civilization is cheaper than a cookie recipe.
Values like democratic self-government, the rule of law, the dignity of the individual, freedom of speech and association and commerce, and personal liberty aren't things that get passed along just because you have the "right" DNA.
They're superior values, but they have to be taught. Each generation shows up as a bunch of barbarians, and it's up to the older generations to civilize them.
Quote of the Week
"In the face of authoritarianism, the response is not authoritarian democracy but the authority of democracy." - Emmanuel Macron
Segment 4: (5 min)
An interesting turn of phrase to describe how Vancouver has grown -- with residential skyscrapers clustered around stops on the city's light-rail system. An intriguing approach to land use that doesn't seem to be deliberately duplicated anywhere else in North America.
We're nowhere near that kind of population, but it's interesting to imagine what if we were
Segment 5: (11 min)
Saw an ad for "Barry" on HBO, and it included a shot of Henry Winkler. For a fleeting moment, I thought I was seeing a promo for an Arrested Development spinoff centered on Barry Zuckerkorn. And I wanted to watch it so badly.
Mind your business
Younkers stores will be gone by August: The parent company of the Midwestern retailer has sold to a liquidator, so by August 31st, the stores will be no more.
So here we have it: Another retailer dismantled by the new realities of consumer expectations.
I drove by the Younkers at Valley West Mall the other night, and liquidation sale signs are already in the windows. It's become a familiar sight as one retail chain after another has gone belly-up. But this one is a little different, given that Younkers was the "home team" for Des Moines department-store retail for more than a century.
Like many long-timers in Des Moines, I remember when the downtown Younkers closed in 2005. It seemed like a warning sign at the time. People seemed to think it marked a sort of death of downtown -- but as the last decade or so has shown, downtown is better than ever now. It took a lot of investment and effort, but the city has thrived even without a downtown retail anchor.
The pain in retail right now is very real. I worry a lot about communities that are mainly retail centers here in Iowa. There is a real concentration of retail sales taking place -- and it's been ongoing since the 1980s. It's nothing new, of course. You can't change people's macro-scale choices: We're urbanizing and many of us are making more of our purchases online.
It's not just about prices, either -- people are often willingly paying more for convenience online. They're also paying for customized experiences and products: Services like StitchFix, offering customized subscription fashion, or on sites like Etsy, offering customized hand-made goods.
Retail has to know why it exists, and whether there's a real reason for the doors to stay open. Clearly, for Younkers and for many others, the reason has disappeared. That's certainly going to elicit some nostalgia from folks who have fond memories of stores that are closing their doors.
But what we need to think about as Iowans is how the continued retail trends could mean big changes ahead for towns and cities, too. Retail sales are often part of a snowball -- strength attracts even more strength, which is why we've seen tremendous growth around the Jordan Creek Town Center in West Des Moines, and why so much investment is going into the new Outlets of Des Moines in Altoona. But there's only so much spending to go around, and if even the mighty Younkers can fall, we shouldn't dismiss the prospect that towns depending heavily on the retail trade might need to look at some backup plans if they want to survive without being hollowed out.
Segment 6: (8 min)
Curiosity, competence, and humility
A dignified person has passed from this world. Her public mission to promote literacy speaks to an aspiration for a better world through the empowerment of individuals.
"Night Court" was one of my favorite childhood shows -- part of the inimitable Thursday night sitcom block on NBC. I'm sure I underappreciated most of the jokes at the time (there was no way to really grasp the lecherous Dan Fielding character when I was eight), but it was funny in an offbeat but kindhearted way.
It's possible now to re-experience "Night Court" as it lives on DVD. I've indulged in the first two seasons, and found myself very pleasantly surprised by just how well the show holds up. There are anachronisms, of course -- the inescapable presence of smoking and ashtrays is especially jarring to the viewer in 2018 -- but even story arcs with a distinctly chilly Cold War overtone still end up speaking to a surprisingly contemporary set of concerns today.
While the writers are always the underappreciated heroes of a good television show, "Night Court" was executed by a terrific core cast, even if some of the key characters took some time to lock in place. None of them were stronger than Harry Anderson.
Anderson, who has just passed away, managed to breathe a certain likability -- a believable earnestness -- into the character of Judge Harry Stone. Anderson's portrayal put sincerity into a role that could have easily strayed into a one-dimensional saint better suited to a Hallmark special than to a sharply written sitcom.
The way Anderson played him, the judge wanted to see redemption. He wasn't above the risque joke or the naughty prank; they were just part of the flow of humanity through a municipal courtroom late at night. But when it was time to tell a morality tale or to invite someone to actually hold fast to a real change of heart, Anderson was able to keep his character's words from sounding naive or overbearing.
It's hard to say what would hold up on network television today, since the landscape of the Netflix era is entirely different from that of the early Reagan years. But "Night Court" centered on a character who seemed genuinely interested in being good -- not in showing off how good he was. It was skillfully written work, but Harry Anderson deserves ample credit for anchoring the role of a merciful and fun-loving judge in a way the viewer could actually believe.
Character, mercy, and justice are pretty easy concepts to take to a nauseating and heavy-handed extreme. Harry Anderson and the writers of "Night Court" did a lot of good by showing they could be fodder for decent laughs, too.
Segment 7: (14 min)
Elon Musk: "[E]xcessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated."
An interesting mea culpa from the Tesla boss -- and one that he could have avoided by reading Jeffrey Rothfeder's book "Driving Honda". Honda long ago built a car-making strategy that assumed human workers were easier to redeploy than robots.
Have a little empathy
Rules change lets Sen. Tammy Duckworth bring her baby on the Senate floor
I feel like the Gen X caucus ought to be behind this Senate rules change 100%, on a totally bipartisan basis. And I would bet they probably are.
Contemporaneous notes taken by James Comey during his interactions with the President paint a picture that ought to be exceptionally consistent with what any competent observer ought to have picked up by now: President Trump tends not to have coherent, well-thought-out concepts in mind and generally wings it, succumbing more often than not to his instincts and impulses.
He makes a well-advised point: Processes should be protected when one's own party is in the majority specifically because that party will someday be in the minority
21st Century conservatism
The dire warnings of the end of American greatness -- warnings you hear from both the left and the right -- are overstated. We still have a lot of greatness left to build upon. But it's too often and easily forgotten that greatness is built on a foundation of imagination.
We have no shortage of problems in today's complex, crowded, and sometimes confusing world. But those problems are no match for initiative, if we're willing to show it. I submit to you that the most useful thing we could do right now is reinvigorate our national debate with some fresh enthusiasm for tackling big problems.
The fact we don't have a Manhattan Project to put massive resources into eliminating pediatric cancers represents a massive failure of imagination. We, as a country, should have an open wallet (and high expectations) for pursuing every available means to put an end to the thought that any child should die of cancer. The Kinnick Wave shows what a galvanizing force our common concern for sick kids can be.
We should have an appetite to tackle other great problems with unbridled enthusiasm:
- We ought to have a real commitment to getting college costs under control. Inflation is inevitable in many areas, but the inflation in the cost of higher education is totally out of line with other big areas of spending. Whatever is driving the cost disease, the harm is real: Anything that keeps ordinary Americans from having affordable access to education creates an obstacle to economic growth and mobility. It's hard to believe that in the era of the Khan Academy and MIT Open CourseWare that we couldn't break loose some radical new ideas to make the system work better.
- Why we don't do smarter things about rehabilitating ex-cons or making sure young people don't end up without something useful to do? One in every 38 American adults is somewhere in the correctional system. That's a huge waste of human potential.
- There's no excuse why we don't have a plan to protect and resettle refugees from places like Syria. Remember, the United States held more than 400,000 Axis POWs on American soil during WWII. We are not only completely capable of handling surges of newcomers, we have a moral imperative to never, ever repeat the mistakes of the WWII era, when our predecessors closed doors to refugees persecuted and pursued by their own government. A great nation can't put cowardice ahead of compassion for those who are oppressed.
Too many of our problems are solvable, but face a severe deficit of interest in solving them. We ought to turn that around, and with a sense of urgency. America is a great nation -- but greatness isn't something to be recovered from the past. It's earned, refreshed, and expanded upon in the present and into the future. We can't do that without an investment of imagination.
Segment 8: (5 min)
Clean up after yourself
WWII bomb discovered in Berlin required a huge evacuation to defuse
Dwight Eisenhower wrote: "For the delivery, in a single blow, of a vast tonnage of explosives upon a given area, the power of the air force is unique." Seems we're still witnessing the effects of that power 75 years later.
The lady's not for turning
Really liked Nikki Haley's quote "With all due respect, I don't get confused."
In the same class with Thatcher's deservedly famous "The lady's not for turning."