Brian Gongol Show | Cheerfully Intense | February 16, 2020

Brian Gongol

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

Segment 1: The opening essay

Xi knew

One of the things about going to Catholic church is that weekly Mass really isn't supposed to be about whatever is happening in the world that week. Other denominations are very good about advertising the message of the week with church signs teasing what the minister is going to say during the sermon, but that's just not the Catholic way. The readings for every given Sunday come from a predetermined cycle set years in advance. That deprives churchgoers of an especially temporal experience, but that's part of the mystique of Roman Catholicism: In a lot of ways, it's supposed to be out of place and time.

But every once in a while, there's a coincidence. Even the priests usually seem surprised when it happens. It happened this weekend, even if nobody noticed. The Gospel reading came from Matthew, Chapter 5, and included this admonition:

Let your 'Yes' mean 'Yes,' and your 'No' mean 'No.' Anything more is from the evil one.

A person could probably make the case that someone violates this rule in a significant and news-making way every single week. But it's especially remarkable right now, as the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus outbreak. The official count now measures 51,857 cases, with the overwhelming preponderance of them in China -- including 1,666 deaths.

What does lying have to do with it?

It has also come to light that the Politburo (that's still a thing in China, by the way) discussed the outbreak at a meeting on January 7th. They didn't make it public. The first time the World Health Organization issued a situation report on the issue was on January 21st, two full weeks later. Two weeks of dithering and covering up, when the issue should have been discussed openly and transparently with the world -- not to mention the people of China.

But the government there can't "let its yes mean yes and its no mean no". They can't because lying is an inherent feature of a system that doesn't account for the free flow of ideas. Lying is built into the basic operating system of authoritarian government. It's unavoidable.

Telling the truth requires facing up to mistakes and being accountable for bad judgment. That can include being voted out of office, when it's a free country. The free flow of the truth means that ordinary people can criticize their leaders, health officials can report on suspicious outbreaks without fear of being arrested, and government leaders can credibly ask their people to avoid doing things that might aggravate the spread of a mysterious virus until more information can be gathered.

It's said that a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on, and what's happened with coronavirus is merely an example. But it's not just the authoritarians of the Communist Party of China who are indulging in untruth, and we all know it.

It's easy to make the cynical choice and dismiss every politician as a lying crook. Theodore Roosevelt warned against this when he said, "Nothing so pleases the dishonest man in public life as to have an honest man falsely accused, for the result of innumerable accusations finally is to produce a habit of mind in the public which accepts each accusation as having something true in it and none as being all true; so that, finally, they believe that the honest man is a little crooked and that the crooked man is not much more dishonest than the rest."

There are, of course, many flavors of untruth. A strategic misdirection can even serve the truth if it defeats a watching enemy -- like the various forms of sleight-of-hand used by Allied forces to misdirect the attention of the Germans in the buildup to D-Day. That was lying for good.

But, even here in a free and prosperous nation with a First Amendment there to protect the right of every citizen to speak and every journalist to fact-check, we are insulted and assaulted all too often with malicious untruth. The "little white lies" of campaign promises to give you something for nothing -- whether it's programs with no price tags or pain-free tax cuts in a time of ballooning deficits. The fabrications of powers in places like court filings and Presidential tweets. The acceptance of narratives that distort the facts and the law.

You never know when credibility will really be needed: Epidemics and natural disasters and sneak attacks don't announce themselves on convenient timetables. Credibility is earned one honest statement at a time, and eventually those statements build up to something worth trusting.

"Let your 'Yes' mean 'Yes,' and your 'No' mean 'No.'" China's powerful don't believe in that rule because they can't -- adopting the rule would take away one of the only things that can keep them in power. But Americans -- all of us, whether in positions of power or not -- have more than just the luxury of following that rule, but the duty to do it, too. It was a mistake to let phrases like "seriously, not literally" into our way of thinking. Maybe no real harm will come to us from the coronavirus outbreak, and maybe we're a long time from really, really needing to dip into the reservoir of credibility.

But when we do -- and that day will come -- we will need to know that a leader's "yes means yes" and "no means no". We're in trouble if we haven't corrected course by then.

Segment 2: This surprised me

Science and Technology 3% of American adults think science has a "mostly negative" effect on society

And yet those 3% who say it's "mostly negative" still get to fly on airplanes, view weather forecasts, get prescription drugs, and type on the Internet, just like the rest of us. Freeloading jerks.

Segment 3: Looking ahead to the coming week

The Nevada Caucuses are coming up on Saturday the 22nd

The United States of America Don't get mad that primary voting is different from state to state

It's due to Federalism -- and don't scoff at it. Do you really want a Presidential appointee ordering all 50 states how to conduct their own elections?

The moral of the story:


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