Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - March 18, 2019 - Filling in for Jeff Angelo

Brian Gongol

Podcast: Updated weekly in the wee hours of Sunday night/Monday morning. Subscribe on Stitcher, Spreaker, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or iHeartRadio

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

Have a little empathy

Gently-edited transcript, as delivered on air

The US Postal Service is issuing some commemorative stamps to celebrate the 50th anniversary of "Sesame Street". "Sesame Street" is one of those things in America that -- like baseball and apple pie -- is the kind of thing that I think virtually everyone can agree upon. We don't agree about a whole lot else as Americans. We have a lot more about the fundamentals in common with one another than anything else, but when it comes to individual issues, it's hard to find cultural things that really do bind us together. But in the case of Sesame Street, you have a show that is educational programming but also serves an important role in giving us a certain set of common values -- useful in a country where we don't have a common religion and don't come from the same ethnic group.

We've just had St. Patrick's Day come and go and as a half-Irish-American, I celebrated enthusiastically: I made 71 pounds of corned beef for a party at our house. We had heads of cabbage everywhere and lots of people over -- and my house still smells like crazy. There's been all kinds of Irish-related festivities, but ultimately, that's a little cultural thing that we do: It's not really my identity. It's just a fun thing to do. It's a lot of fun, and I love to celebrate the different ethnic holidays throughout the year. I love that people can bring things together in our national melting pot and enjoy them. But the reality is that they don't give us then a common ethnic heritage. We learn certain things in common from these cultural exchanges that we have -- stuff like "Sesame Street" -- and it has an important role in this. "Sesame Street" ends up teaching people values like fair play and kindness and empathy and tolerance: Things that are "America" in a lot of ways.

The show's not perfect, but they are incredibly good at what it is that they do. You study doing something for 50 years -- and they have been putting a lot of very serious research into it this whole time -- it's been like a big ongoing, rolling scientific study. You're going to get pretty good at what you do if you spend that much time studying and looking at feedback and researching ways that you can do better. So even if it's not perfect, it's really very good, and it certainly has powerful effects. I can tell you from my own kids' experience, for certain. My four-year-old loves the show. My two-year-old loves it even more. I have watched her watch other programs and there is nothing I have ever seen her engage with with the enthusiasm that she has for "Sesame Street". It draws her in and it gets her going. It really does work. It's an incredibly powerful tool.

And now that we're at 50 years of this show, it's a multi-generational thing. I grew up with it, and now, my kids are. I'm not the only one: The show is 50 years old, and the oldest Gen-Xers are turning 54 this year. So as a result, it's the kind of thing many, if not most, of the post-Baby-Boomer generations might actually have in common.

Now, the thing is, "Sesame Street" tells us that television and shared media in general can be really powerful tools for good. But the terrorist attack that we've just seen in New Zealand proves the opposite case as well. They can be very powerful tools for horror.

Facebook has been telling us in the last couple of days that in the first 24 hours after it happened, they removed 1.5 million videos of the attack that took place in New Zealand. They removed 1.5 million of these videos globally. They say over 1.2 million were blocked at the time of upload, which means that 300,000 times, somebody uploaded the video successfully. They then had to take it down. One of the attackers literally took a video camera with him and streamed the attack live. That's a really shocking thing for people to have done.

But like we were just talking about with Van and Bonnie a few minutes ago, terrorism is all about using fear and terror in order to frighten people to do something. It takes a pretty incredible and pretty inconceivable level of depravity to do something like this -- to record a video like this, or to share a video like this. And not only to be the perpetrator doing it (which still is just so far beyond belief, I can't fully understand it), but what about these people who have then gone on to upload it for themselves who weren't even involved in the attack? There's actually been somebody arrested for uploading the video. There's a law against sharing offensive content like that in New Zealand, and they've used that law to place someone under arrest.

What goes wrong between the time most of us are these gentle toddlers singing along with Big Bird or cheering for Bert and Ernie, and the time people become willing to upload videos of a terrorist attack as though they're sharing screenshot of a video game -- to say nothing of what it takes to become one of the depraved killers.

There are people who make the choice to share this kind of video, and something has gone wrong with them. To borrow the words of Ronald Reagan, which you have heard from time to time here on WHO Radio, we are in many ways the sum of our choices, of the things we choose to do in life, and we pick whether to do good things or to do bad things or to do nothing at all.

It worries me that we're skidding off the rails; that, somehow, those basic "Sesame Street" virtues -- fair play, kindness, empathy -- they're not on display. But if you want a front row seat to a terrorist attack, it's sitting right there on Facebook until somebody finally takes it down.

Now, I'm no Luddite. I don't want to get rid of technology. I have a lot of belief in the power of technology to do really good things. Among other things, Facebook tools permitted me to check in with a cousin of mine who lives 10 miles away from where that attack took place. I was able to use the same tool that the terrorists used to terrorize us, but I was able to use that same tool to check in and make sure she was okay.

The tools can be used for really good things or really bad things. And I would be uncomfortable with prior restraint on publication or the sharing of a video, if it were coming from a law like that one in New Zealand that the government there has used to arrest the man for distributing.

But along the way, somebody like the leadership at Facebook has to be willing to pay the price for "connecting the world". Willing to say that "connecting the world" itself isn't worth showing a terrorist attack in real time, and to put measures into place to keep that stuff from happening.

I'm not responsible for coming up with Facebook policies and I'm not responsible for coming up with Facebook's technology. I'm not a hacker. I'm not a programmer. I'm not a computer ethicist either. But, you know, all of us should be willing to say, "Hang on a second: If your tool is being used by terrorists, enthusiastically, in order to terrorize, then you've got a job to figure out what it is that stops that from happening. You've got to find a way that that video doesn't get uploaded 1.5 million times. Oh, yeah, congratulations for stopping at 1.2 million of those times. But what about the 300,000 times you let this slip through? 300,000 times this slipped through Facebook's cracks."

It's on Facebook to fix it. The leadership at Facebook -- Mark Zuckerberg, I'm looking at you -- has to be willing to pay the price to say that connecting the world isn't worth showing that attack in real time. They've got to say that maybe we're going to lose some visitors, we're going to lose some users, we're going to lose some minutes spent on our website if we stop these bad things from happening. But, you know what? That's the price we pay for living in civilization. For keeping up a society that is free. A society that is good enough to create tools like Facebook.

I think have to find a way to ask ourselves whether we actually believe in those "Sesame Street" virtues enough, just enough, to make sure that that's more than just putting some characters on some postage stamps and calling it good enough.

It's got to be more than just lip service. Putting them on a stamp is a welcome tip of the cap. That's great, and kudos to the Postal Service for doing that. But it's not enough. It's only empty nostalgia if we just think that those things are items we put on a postage stamp, say "Congratulations on 50 years, and now we're done with you." That's just empty nostalgia if all we're doing is pointing to a memory of a glorious past of the show.

I think it's worth more than that. I think among the things that make us American, truly valuing those values, those things that matter to us, those issues like fair play and kindness and empathy and tolerance? That's more American than anything else. And we probably should remember that and put it at the top line. Because values get lived only if we really believe them. And if they're real principles, if it's real to somebody like Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, or anyone else, if it's real to you -- then, sometimes, it will cost you more than just lip service.

Segment 2: (8 min)

Mind your business

Segment 3: (14 min)

Iowa news

The moral of the story:

Segment 4: (5 min)

Have fun

Free open practice on Wednesday:

Questions (if guest is available):

Segment 5: (11 min)

Clean up after yourself

Segment 6: (8 min)


Also: Raisin cookies are garbage.

The moral of the story:

Segment 7: (14 min)

21st Century conservatism

"Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed, by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law." - John Stuart Mill

Segment 8: (5 min)

The moral of the story:


Listen to the full episode from March 18, 2019 here

Segment 1: Values have to cost something more than just lip service.

Segment 2: Catch Des Moines president Greg Edwards gives a preview of the NCAA tournament round in Des Moines later this week -- what's the economic impact?

Segment 3: You have a Constitutional right to flip off a police officer, says one court. But smart people, of course, choose a sensible time and place for their protests. Then, a flooding update from John Benson with Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Segment 4: Iowa Barnstormers have a tricky drive to Grand Island ahead this weekend; my ride back to Iowa from the same area last week was hair-raising.

Segment 5: Are rich parents more likely to be unethical than the rest of us?

Segment 6: Callers comment on unethical parenting.

Segment 7: Let's say that 70% of a kid's life is baked into the cake when they're born. You're still responsible for giving them an ethical inheritance. Then, Iowa DOT director Mark Lowe has an update on travel and transportation during the floods.

Segment 8: Parting thoughts.