Brian Gongol Show | Cheerfully Intense | February 9, 2020
BUT FIRST: The opening essay
On three seemingly-unrelated topics, I have exactly the same opinion: When it comes to country music, Hollywood awards season, and the latest workout fads, the less I hear about them, the easier it is for me to keep my friends.
Seriously, the next person to tell me about their new P-6840-hot-yoga-ultra-keto-marathon-body-sculpting class is lucky if the only thing I do is unfriend them on Facebook.
But it was hard to miss the news that the Best Picture Oscar went to a foreign film. I paid no attention to the nominees; the only one I even saw was "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood", and my opinion on the film was summed up by the woman sitting in the row behind us at the theater, who as the final credits rolled stood up and shouted "Quentin Tarantino, you owe me nine dollars!"
So I've neither seen "Parasite", nor have any immediate inclination to do so. But of course the idiots of the world are spilling their stupid all over social media -- like the guy who shared with his 58,000 Twitter followers the argument that the Hollywood types who picked the film are "the destruction of America". Even an anonymous Academy voter said "I don't think foreign films should be nominated with the regular films."
Putting aside any specific review of the film itself -- since I didn't watch it -- let's just put this into perspective. After all, it is the first time a foreign-language film has won the award.
One of America's greatest exports is soft power -- influence in the form of things other than bombs and guns and sanctions on the officials in rogue nations. We are a big country, to be sure, but with 330 million of the world's 7.6 billion people, we are a little over 4% of the global population. For every one of us Americans, there are 22 people in other countries here on Planet Earth.
When you're outnumbered like that, it's a lot like being the one kid who sticks out in a classroom at school. And Americans stick out: We all ought to know that. The planet hears about the Oscars. We do not follow the world's other movie-awards ceremonies like that. That's soft power. We project our movies, our TV, our music, and a whole lot of other cultural materials onto the world, and people willingly consume them.
So it shouldn't be a threat to us -- not even in the slightest -- if that encourages some of those other 22 people-for-every-one-of-us to go out and try to make things that are just as good. This isn't industrial espionage we're talking about. It's not China using cyberwarfare tools to steal IP from American companies. It's just good, old-fashioned competition.
Hollywood doesn't need to hide from robust, honest competition -- and doesn't need protection from it -- any more than any other American industry needs to hide. There have always been great "foreign films" (please tell me that you've seen at least one Kurosawa film), and if they're great, they deserve to compete with the best America can offer. There are great cultural products to be found all over the world, and anyone who's ever dipped a toe in the waters of the "foreign" sections of Netflix ought to know that.
Every time someone retreats into protectionist mode, it's worth asking why they're so frightened. A weird feature of our politics now is how there's so little fundamental difference between the red-hat-wearer who chants about "building a wall" and the Bernie Bro who uses the phrase "multinational corporation" as an epithet.
You know what really works? The maximum practicable free movement of goods, money, ideas, and people. None of those things will ever travel across all borders without any friction, but by and large that's the ideal we ought to approach. There's really no defense for the free movement of any one of them that doesn't largely hold up for the others -- nor is there an argument against the free movement of one that can be logically separated from trying to stop the rest. That doesn't mean they move about without any rules, but it does mean we see what they have in common.
If you believe in free trade because you, as a consumer, see how good Swiss watches or French wine or Japanese electronics can be, then why shouldn't you also be able to invest in the companies that export those things? And if you see why it's so good for the quality of baseball that the Major Leagues are free to dip into the Dominican Republic's vast talent pool, then you might also see that it's a good idea for doctors and engineers and software programmers to travel across borders to share their research at conferences or join startups, too.
For a foreign-language film to win Best Picture isn't evidence that Hollywood is slipping or that the left-wingers of Tinseltown are trying too hard to be "woke". It's merely a byproduct of success: American soft power has reached so far for so long that people elsewhere have joined in the game -- and they're good at it. In other words, it's worked!
Would there be anything at all wrong with it if, for every one of us, there were 22 other people on this planet who valued the same things Americans do? Not just in the products we make, but in the things we believe? And if others became so good at promoting the classical-liberal values -- like the rule of law, the dignity of the individual, freedom of thought, and freedom of markets -- and those others were even more successful at promoting them than we have been, wouldn't that be the ultimate victory for America?
If that's where we could be heading, then there's nothing wrong with some subtitled films winning golden trophies and beating out Quentin Tarantino.
This surprised me
So says the Gallup Poll, and it's grand news. It's a record high. The business titan David Sokol used the phrase "Pleased but not satisfied" (it's even the title of his book. Maybe the average American is "Satisfied but not (always) pleased".
There's always more to do. And two things can be simultaneously true:
- Things are usually not quite as bad as they seem in the moment.
- Things can get much worse much faster than anybody realizes.
Looking ahead to the coming week
It would be nice to believe that great revolutions for freedom are begun because people recognize their inherent dignity and their inalienable rights. But if it's ordinary bureaucratic incompetence that topples authoritarians, as it might well be in China, then we would probably take that, too.
It's clearly a global phenomenon now -- the cows are out of the barn, for sure. But China's government has been pushing back with restrictions not only on travel, but on the very reporting of information about the condition. A CNN reporter on the ground in Hong Kong responded to a new phase in the Chinese government's propaganda campaign by saying "I want freedom of anger".
"To petition the Government for a redress of grievances" is a right so fundamental, it's in our First Amendment. This is a crushing example of just why it matters. Will this undermine or even topple the Communist Party of China? Probably not. But unlike GDP figures or other abstract measurements, it's really hard for the government to tell its people that their friends or loved ones haven't died. A body count is extremely hard to deny. And if it's seen in the coming days and weeks that government lies, propaganda, restrictions, or other shortcomings are leading to a higher death toll, this tragic outbreak may become a political turning point of truly epic significance.
Quote of the Week
"[E]very one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest." - John Stuart Mill