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September 08, 2023
Positively Dreadful
Packing Our Mailbags

In This Episode

Don’t smile because it’s over. Cry because it happened! In this final episode of Positively Dreadful, host Brian “Maverick” Beutler answers listener’s questions with the help of his trusty producer copilot, Emma “Rooster” Illick-Frank. It’s less of a goodbye than a see you later—so don’t unsubscribe from the feed! Brian shares what he wants listeners to take away from the show, explains his theory of politics, and reminisces about that one time he skewered John Boehner with a well-worded question.







Brian Beutler: Hello and welcome to Positively Dreadful, the last episode of Positively Dreadful. With me, your host, Brian Beutler. So first things first. This is less of a goodbye than a see you later. What I mean is, if you like this show and or me, don’t unsubscribe from this feed. It’ll almost certainly be revived at some point, and I wouldn’t want to have to come and chase you all down to sign up again. Second, we’re going to go out by answering some of your questions about the show, the issues we’ve covered, politics and a bunch of other stuff. So here to prompt me with your questions and help me answer them is my producer and copilot, Emma Illick-Frank. Hi Emma, how are you? 


Emma Illick-Frank: Hey, Brian. How’s it going? 


Brian Beutler: You ready to do this? 


Emma Illick-Frank: I was born ready. 


Brian Beutler: [laughs] Great. So why don’t you just hit me up with some questions? 


Emma Illick-Frank: All right, so Jenny wants to know there are persuadable conservatives and independents who don’t really understand what happened in the 2020 election. How can we better message to them? 


Brian Beutler: That’s a hard one. I think in large part because Fox News and the whole right wing propaganda apparatus just makes it hard. Even just over the course of my career, people are much more siloed in their information ecosystems than they were ten years ago, 15 years ago. But I think the only way around that are the best we and Democrats and journalists can do is just think of things like the January 6th committee as more central to politics than I think at least the Democratic Party tends to. It should be something that they’re excited to do, think is urgent. Understand will redound to their benefit politically rather than like some unpleasant business that they’re kind of obligated to attend to. What would that look like in practice? Is a little hard to say. My instinct is to think back to how Republicans reoriented their politics after September 11th, the terrorist attack in 2001. And obviously like January 6th was not 9/11. They were just very different kinds of events. But it was traumatic. And for a time at least, there was similar consensus after January 6th that the perpetrators should be punished, that it was unacceptable, that it shouldn’t happen again. And I honestly think Democrats are a little derelict for not waving the bloody shirt about it a bit more than they have. Not that they’ve been quiet about it exactly, but it often ends up taking a back seat like they did the January 6th committee. That doesn’t necessarily close the book on things right there. There is the constitutional question of whether Donald Trump is eligible to be a federal office holder having aided and abetted an insurrection or giving aid and comfort to insurrectionists. And that’s something that Democrats in Congress could try to put their stamp on. They can force votes on things like that. They could use what happened on January 6th to to sort of better target Latin voters, the ones that they’ve lost to the GOP in recent years because many of those voters come from or are descended from places where coups happen more frequently and wreck their countries and end their free societies. But it has to be concerted. It has to be part of a plan, something better planned than, you know, a special committee. They tried to avoid setting up. To do one investigation and then kind of shut down conversation about it to the greatest extent possible. 


Emma Illick-Frank: One question that I was going to touch on later, but what I think kind of fits into this discussion well now is why is the Republican Party getting away with so much shit? Are people morally worse than we think? And it sounds like what you’re saying is, no, this is really a failure of messaging, though. I feel like I come down more on the cynical view of like, no, people actually don’t. They don’t care. Or maybe they don’t know to care. 


Brian Beutler: Yeah, well, so that’s the thing. Is it that they don’t care or that they don’t know to care? And I think that there’s many people who don’t realize that, like this is what happened is sort of an existential threat to the. Things that they learned at such a young age, they kind of take for granted. And so they continue to take them for granted about America. Land of freedom, promised democracy, etc.. I am troubled by how many Americans seem to clearly grasp what happened on January 6th and are okay with it anyway. That’s a big problem and that’s not a problem that I think Democrats can solve on their own, like beating Republicans and using January 6th and similar anti-democracy things to beat Republicans might train those people and their dubious morals that, like what they’re doing, is hurting their pursuit of power. And and so maybe they’ll just stop for self-interested reasons. But largely I think that the country isn’t full of. You know, people who are are vicious or power mad or anti democracy in any way, and that the means of reaching people who don’t have. A solid, intuitive, lasting understanding of why. Refusing to accept that you lost an election is intolerable in a democracy. Can be taught that or reminded of it through accountability processes that many Democrats are pretty shy about using. You know, there there was like. A very strange reluctance in the immediate aftermath of the election to begin impeachment proceedings. Obviously, the leadership’s hand got forced and it’s good that it did. But that initial instinct to say, okay, January 6th is over. Order is restored. He’s got 14 days left in office. Let’s just like white knuckle it through that. Like that instinct, I think, is directly tied to why it seems like so many people just don’t care. But they take their cues from leadership, right? Like they take their cues from elites and how elites respond to big traumatic events. And if. If the elites were more alarmed about this stuff and organized their politics more coherently around it instead of trying to get past it, then I think the Republicans would pay a price for what they did or a greater price then they have paid, and there’d be a greater public consensus that things in that party just had to change. So that. Trump or whoever comes after him wouldn’t ever think to try that again. So, yeah, I like my criticism of the Democratic Party on the score comes from. I think, a reasonable faith in the public that, like even the people who aren’t super attuned to public affairs the way the listeners of this show are. Like they’re decent and they they get it. And this is really not a very hard thing to keep them focused on and animated about, but like it needed to begin right away and it needed to be sustained and trying to like re galvanize them or recapture their attention about this matter just gets harder the longer we get away from it, because there’s been this palpable desire to move on. And so politics has started to become about other things. Right? And those things are like Hunter Biden. And, you know, if if if Democrats had the tenacity about January 6th and the coup that Republicans are showing about Hunter Biden. Like, I think we’d be in a better place. 


Emma Illick-Frank: Mm. Working at Crooked for a really long time. I feel like we talk a lot about messaging, and we talk a lot about, like, what the Democrats are doing and like, how they need to be more pugilistic towards Republicans and and all this stuff. And I’m kind of of two minds because I feel like, why are we trying to convince people to vote for Democrats without actually talking about, like what Democrats are doing on the ground, like what Democrats are doing for you. And maybe the conversation should be less about beating Republicans than it should be about like Republicans are going to fuck you and they get into positions of leadership. They don’t care about you. But then on the other hand, as you’re saying, it’s like, is politics even about that anymore? Like, no, people don’t connect their lived reality to the ideals of their elected politicians. And they there’s a tremendous disconnect there. Is that possible to restore? Is that even worth restoring? Because it seems like a kind of short term view being like just beat the bad party and then people will come around and like, see this for what it is? 


Brian Beutler: Yeah, I mean, I, I think policy is really interesting. Like it’s challenging. Implementation is hard. Design is like a puzzle. And I would really love politics to be about competing policy visions. And I think the sad fact is, is that A, our political system is not set up to allow wing parties to make policy easier so that there’s an easy way to say to voters, You voted for me and now you have this. You didn’t before. And if you elect those guys, it might go away and like we’ll be able to do less for you. So the political system itself makes a sort of more high minded, more substantive politics hard. And then the way our media system is set up is that it’s almost entirely for profit and there just isn’t a lot of money in talking about insulin prices. You know. Very big deal. Joe Biden cut insulin prices, cut hearing aid prices. Civilization gets through climate change. It will have it will be in no small part because of things Joe Biden did like. These are big deal things and they matter to me a lot. And it’s like why I a big part of why I want Democrats to beat Republicans in elections. But you have to at some point accept the world as it is. Right. And the world as it is makes it really hard for Democrats to capture the public’s attention with appeals to those kinds of substantive things. And it’s not all their fault. It’s not like they’re not trying. Like that’s where they try they’re really pretty good about. Touting their policy achievements, the infrastructure bill, what they did with, you know, getting the economy back to full employment after COVID, they’re they’re not shy about it. It’s just it doesn’t penetrate very deeply because it’s not salacious and the media is drawn to salaciousness. Like, what do you do about that? One is you, as you were saying, you like, why is it important to beat Republicans? So part of it is the policy stuff that they’ll make your drug prices higher. The other part of it is that there’s a deep rot of corruption in that party, and that means that there’s a lot of scandal. There’s a lot of like, juicy, gross things that will make people angry. You know, the fact that that Trump used the presidency to enrich himself is like unprecedented in the ways he did it are hideous. And like, Democrats didn’t really investigate it. I mean, they did a little bit, but they didn’t make a big kind of show trial about it. And that just wasn’t where their hearts were. But if their hearts are in like this is what we did for you, Republicans want to take it back. I think there are ways that they could. Try to, like, marry the two things, right? Like. Joe Biden will tweet about what he’s done for drug prices and the fact that Republicans want to. Repeal that law. It passes without media attention. It doesn’t generate a big public conversation. But if he were to be a bit more combative about it and say something like. All Republicans want to do is humiliate my son and lie about me and my relationship with him to deceive you so that they can make your drug prices higher. And he could take that further. And what’s worse is that our media knows that there’s nothing to. What they’re saying about my son and me and our relationship. And they know that Republicans are going to launch a whole impeachment knowing that there’s nothing there and it’s all so that they can win the next election, so they can make your drug prices higher. And like, shame on them for that. And shame on the media for being complicit in it. Now, that’s like not a register that any leading Democrat is comfortable in, but it would at least grab the media’s attention because it would it would the onramp to it would be the stuff they’re interested in, the juicy Hunter Biden stuff. And the punchline would be, I don’t know how you get from an on ramp to a punch line, but like where he’s leading people, the is the substantive stuff. And I don’t know that that would work as a guilt trip to change the way the media fundamentally operates because it’s you know, it’s an economic incentive system. And there are many other reasons why the media tends to fixate on on stuff like Hunter Biden. But it would generate conversation for at least a little bit, you know, and it’s a theme he could return to over time. And I think it would both blunt the impact of the Republican Hunter Biden feeding frenzy and get people thinking about the drug prices. But you have to pull people in by being like you’re interested in this Hunter Biden stuff. Here’s what it’s really about. I wish it was a better system, but it’s the system. And so. You should try to win within it. And then, you know, I also think Democrats, when they do when they should do things like eliminate the filibuster so that they can make policy more easily, so that they can do more good things for people and have an easier time. Making it clear to voters, if you vote for Democrats, you get this. If you vote for Republicans, they give you that and and make politics a bit more substantive. But we don’t have that yet. And until we do, there’s going to be a lot of like those guys are gross and scandal ridden. And so vote for us. 


Emma Illick-Frank: Lika, and apologies if I’m pronouncing that wrong asks, With Gen Z feeling disenfranchised by older politicians believing America is on the wrong track and in general apathetic towards the current political system, should Democrats be more concerned that the Gen Z energy can be co-opted against them? Should Democrats be worried that young people will turn away from them the same way that some Black and Latino voters have? 


Brian Beutler: I do think they should be concerned, but like less that Gen Z will be co-opted by the right wing, then the Gen Zers will become like past generations of young progressive voters who get disaffected, sort of unconvinced of the huge differences between the two parties and thus just become hard to mobilize. And if that’s if that happens, that just makes it much harder to keep authoritarians out of power. So I guess this is why I don’t think Democrats are doing themselves many favors by trying to muffle or muzzle conversation about Biden’s age. Like, obviously nothing can be done about Biden himself being an old man and incumbent unless he were to choose to retire or not, not seek reelection or whatever. But but he and and the rest of the party leadership and other Democrats can level with those voters. Right. And they can say, we see what you see. Like we understand your concerns. That like the president is 80 and the Senate majority leader is 70, whatever. 69. I don’t know how old Chuck Schumer is old. And that, you know, until Hakeem Jeffries finally took over the house was led by Nancy Pelosi into her eighties. And we see that Dianne Feinstein shouldn’t be in the Senate and like her infirmity, cost us precious time that we needed that we didn’t have to spare. And and so we see that. Like you have a real reason to think we’re not in sync with you or we don’t represent you well. And so we are going to prioritize building a more youthful leadership. You know, I don’t I don’t know how that shakes out in 2024. Exactly. But if you sense and you can in polling, it’s very clear that that Biden’s advanced age is a is a political problem for him. I think you can address that in one or two ways by trying to paper it over in some way or by by leveling with people. And if you if you promise to voters that change is on the way, like. Joe Biden will be the last octogenarian Democratic president for. For a long time. They might think, okay, fine. Like, I’m not thrilled that this election is a choice between two 80 year old’s, but I don’t want the Republicans to win and make elections illegal going forward or whatever. So I’ll like. Do what I did in the last election. Vote for Biden again and then hold them to the promise that. The next. Generation of leadership will be closer to my age. I honestly just think that like a like a healthy intraparty critique. Pays off in that way and that suppressing it. Like erodes trust and causes like grievances and anxieties to fester. Like no therapist would ever tell people in a dysfunctional relationship like you should suppress all of your problems and never talk about them. [laughs] And that’s how you’re going to, like, reach peace with each other, like rekindle happiness or whatever. Like, obviously you have to work through these problems. And so this is a problem. And I think Democrats would do themselves a favor by by working through it and just like level with people. Biden’s the nominee. But we see what you’re talking about and we see that the way we’ve structured our party makes it so that it’s really hard for young people to ascend to leadership. And we’re going to fix it like we we promise will fix it. It’s something like I, I don’t know how it shakes out, like I said, in 2024, but I think that it’s better than ignoring the problem or telling people to shut up about it. [music plays]




Emma Illick-Frank: [?] wants to know what is your favorite episode that you did or to make it less broad in the past year? And why? 


Brian Beutler: What was yours? 


Emma Illick-Frank: Hmm. 


Brian Beutler: I have a hard time keeping track. 


Emma Illick-Frank: I liked all of the climate content that we worked on the David Roberts, Elizabeth Kolbert and David Keith episode that came out recently. Those were really fun. I think that when we switched to the debate format, that was really exciting and like the Wittes—


Brian Beutler: Adam Serwer, yeah. 


Emma Illick-Frank: Yeah. That was a great conversation and it just felt like we were really injecting some energy into these topics. And so I think that was really a standout. 


Brian Beutler: I think I would go with the the Wittes Serwer episode too. Like, I am fond of both of those people. Personally and professionally. And it was like nice to have a vigorous but friendly disagreement about something that we all agree is really important and like. In that specific conversation about court packing like and how do you restore a sense that the country’s governed in a just way and also like. Repair the unjust damage that has been done. If you think the court is illegitimate. Those are the reasons why I think court packing is like an urgent thing. Democrats should, you know, figure out how to talk about it and advance toward it. But like I thought Ben’s alternative suggestion. Where if you if if you’re uneasy about that or you just accept the reality that Democrats aren’t like, close to being ready to wage a fight over how many justices are on the court. All Chuck Schumer would have to say is there is going to be like a reckoning for what happened first with Merrick Garland and then with Amy Coney Barrett. Like we think that those seats. Should be occupied by liberals. We think that the way liberals were denied those seats was appalling and like there will be turnabout for it. And it’s just a question of when, like at least. Then, someone is doing something to. At least. Like warn Republicans that they the they didn’t get away with it. They’re not going to get away with it in the long run. So far, I don’t detect any kind of like. Just kind of like, okay, well, I guess we’re stuck with a 6-3 court now for who knows how long. Let’s just learn to live with it. Like. I want more than what Ben Wittes wants. But if I was hearing that kind of thing from Chuck Schumer, I would feel better about where things were headed in the medium term. And I hadn’t considered that as just like a thing that was immediately within the Democratic Party leadership’s power right now. And it came to light because we had that kind of conversation about it, like where we intentionally set people who disagreed but could disagree amicably up to talk about it. And and so I still, like I carry that idea around with me a lot. And I don’t think we would have necessarily got it if we didn’t stage that conversation as as like a debate as opposed to like an interview. 


Emma Illick-Frank: Yeah. 


Brian Beutler: Or a chit chat. So I think that would be my favorite. 


Emma Illick-Frank: Yeah. Amicable disagreement is so hard to find these days. 


Brian Beutler: Mm hmm. 


Emma Illick-Frank: We have another question from the same listener. Were there any topics that you wanted to cover but found it unsuitable or difficult to cover in the show’s format? 


Brian Beutler: Um, not really, I don’t think. Maybe I’m forgetting something. There were topics that we wanted to cover that we just—


Emma Illick-Frank: We ran out of time. 


Brian Beutler: Either ran out of time, we ran out of time for or that. You know, something would happen. And it became pressing. Like I definitely wanted to do an episode about what was happening in Israel with Netanyahu’s judicial coup. And then the renewed violence. And what that should do or how the parties in the U.S. and the U.S. government should grapple with it and contemplate changing the U.S. relationship with Israel. I wanted to do that, shown, and like. I think it’s obviously like a touchy subject and I think there are podcasts out there that might have just decided not to do it to avoid the third rail. And really what happened is. Like the news moved on and we wanted to be a bit current with things. And so we didn’t we didn’t get to it. And so that’s a regret. But I don’t think that the show’s format would have limited it by quite the contrary. I think like what was great about the show is like we could just take on hard sometimes unpleasant topics and and bring light to them and. And so it’s not that we censored ourselves or decided. Well, like a show about wrapping your hands around big seismic, disturbing developments in the world. Like it was actually very well suited to to topics like that. We just couldn’t we couldn’t hit them all. 


Emma Illick-Frank: AntiWarlockWJ asks, How is your perspective changed since you started doing this show? Are you more or less optimistic about the future of American politics? 


Brian Beutler: I don’t think my perspective has changed much since I started doing the show. I came into the show kind of. Knowing that, like the U.S. and the world are facing a lot of challenges that are novel to this time and that the U.S., you know, the system that I understand the best has real impediments to addressing them quickly in ways that I would I think of as fair. I think we would all think of as fair and to the extent that the show was about. Staying optimistic. It wasn’t. To try to convince people that things were less bad than they were. It was about treating optimism as an ethic that allows you to, like, stay in the game, essentially just keep plugging away at hard things. Accepting that they will be very difficult to solve for reasons that are outside of your control. And so I still feel that way. And I, you know, I sometimes feel like my my internal life, the life inside my own mind [laughter] would be peaceful and healthier if I just wasn’t a political journalist at all. I wasn’t super engaged in politics. But if you are super engaged and if you found yourself super engaged in politics, or you have to be because of your job or because you’re civic minded or whatever, and so you’re not going to forget. About climate change, about what happened to the Supreme Court, about any of the tough issues that we talked about. You’re better off kind of understanding. How those how like progress on those issues can be made even if it’s slow. What the what the what like a reasonable version of the future looks like. You know, even if it’s not like the future, you would have wanted to live through that it could be made better. Then you kind of feel like it will be because things seem like they’re not moving right now. So it just like it it helped me on a personal level to, like, reassert some control over the things that bugged me and that will continue to bug me. And I guess if you’re if you’re. Committed one way or another to to like improving civic life, improving policy, improving like advancing toward equality, etc., etc.. Understanding why it’s hard to make progress on those issues, but how progress is ultimately made is like the best you can do. And so that’s why we did the show. And it’s kind of it’s kind of helped anchor me and keep me from drifting into like cynicism, paralysis, demoralization, etc.. Like, that’s sort of how I think about the optimism question. It’s not it’s not searching for shortcuts or like secret formulas that will create huge strides towards a better world. But like accepting the world as it is and. Understanding how to change it, even when that process is like very tough is just. It’s. It’s bracing. I guess that’s the word I’d use for it. 


Emma Illick-Frank: Mm hmm. So I mentioned to some people at Crooked that we were doing a mailbag episode and there was one topic that people really, really wanted answers on, and that was the movie Top Gun Maverick, which I believe we covered a few months ago. So Ben Talisman asks, Would Brian have pulled Rooster’s papers? 


Brian Beutler: Okay, I did see Top Gun Maverick twice in theaters, but like right when it came out. So it’s been a year. Rooster is in Top Gun Maverick, the son of Goose from the original Top Gun and Goose dies. Rooster hates Maverick is furious at him. And you’re led to believe that it’s because Rooster holds Maverick accountable for his father’s death. But it turns out that Rooster’s really actually mad. That Maverick intervened. He promised Rooster’s mother. So Goose’s widow. I will not let him end up like his father. A pilot who flies dangerous missions and and could die. But that’s really what Rooster wanted with his life. He wanted to be a naval aviator like his dad. And he was really mad that Maverick honored his promise and interfered with his life. 


Emma Illick-Frank: Well, he doesn’t know about his mother’s request. And. 


Brian Beutler: Right. 


Emma Illick-Frank: Tom Cruise Maverick can’t tell him because that would be betraying her trust. 


Brian Beutler: Right, right, right. So now that I’ve gone through the whole process of reminding myself what happened in the movie [laughter] what I think I would say is that. If I were Maverick, and I mean, I’m much cooler than Maverick, but if I were significantly less cool on the level of Maverick, I just wouldn’t have made the promise even to the dying widow of my of my friend. Because that’s a person’s life. And you shouldn’t really, like, interfere with people’s lives to alter their destinies and their ambitions in ways that matter only to you. Like that’s not anyone’s business. I don’t know. I’m. I’m like a pretty big fan of keeping promises. 


Emma Illick-Frank: That’s a hot take. [laughter] What I’m hearing is, you would have pushed his papers, not pulled them. 


Brian Beutler: Yes, I would have not made the promise. And then I would have let him do what he wanted. 


Emma Illick-Frank: Spread his chicken wings and fly. 


Brian Beutler: Yeah. And like, there are many jobs in the world that are very dangerous. And it’s good that there are people who are born brave or who teach themselves to be brave, to go do them. And like obviously, no parent wants to lose a child to war or to, you know, construction people fall off roofs doing hard work to build people’s houses. It’s dangerous work. Nobody wants that for their for their child. But the way to prevent it, if it really matters to you, is to try to level with them about your concerns and then hope that you persuade them not to go behind their backs and secretly intervene to get them denied access to the jobs that require bravery. It’s that’s like a wrong and bad way to be. And I would encourage all parents listening, even though I’m not a parent myself. To not—


Emma Illick-Frank: Don’t ask Tom Cruise to pull your child’s papers. 


Brian Beutler: Yeah, don’t double deal on your—


Emma Illick-Frank: That’s gonna set him back in his military career. You know, four to five years. 


Brian Beutler: Yeah. And like, military careers are relatively short anyway for most people, so. 


Emma Illick-Frank: All right. Our next question Aviva Berchad Cohen asks Twitter is becoming more and more difficult to use as a means to get information. Are there media alternatives you like? I’ve been returning to just looking at news sites directly, but I’m now caught in a cycle of reading the same two or three outlets because it feels impossible to cast a wide net like you could on Twitter. 


Brian Beutler: So yeah, I I’m still on Twitter. Like I, I have moral misgivings about Twitter because it’s it’s like. Run by a bad person to bad ends. And you see that with with the user base and the and who gets amplified. And it’s you know, it’s a bunch of liars and Nazis and just terrible people. Valuable voices and and trustworthy voices are still there and they’re they’re still providing minute by minute updates from Ukraine and they’re still providing updates about domestic news. And the way I’ve managed to make Twitter still very useful for me is to not use the algorithmic feed at all. I use lists to make Twitter useful, manageable. So I have a couple of like private lists and I have just a few people on one list that’s for sort of like domestic political affairs, and I’ll either create new lists or add to an existing list. Trusted voices, experts, etc. When something happens and suddenly you have a much more manageable news tracker like a transom and not like a computer program that’s going to feed you stuff, that’s a dubious veracity that’s kind of designed to make you pissed off. So I just I never use the algorithmic feed and I use almost exclusively these lists, these very small tailored lists to keep me up to speed on stuff, and also make sure that I’m following updates from a wide range of people, not just the New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN or whatever. There’s no alternative that has the scale and the network effects that Twitter had. And so, so far, they’re sticking around. And that that means I haven’t had to, like, dramatically retool how I consume information. 




Emma Illick-Frank: Ashley asks. You’re able to tackle so many different topics thoroughly and thoughtfully. How do you retain so much information and any suggestions for people who want to do the same? Are you reading and studying at all hours? 


Brian Beutler: I love this question because it’s so flattering to me, and Ashley is not a family member or anyone I know. I am not reading and studying at all hours. I do try to do a lot of due diligence, especially when we’re going to record an episode, say, on a topic that I’m rusty on, or that I haven’t covered much. But really what I benefit from is is immersion. Like I got into journalism in 2005 and so that’s like eighteen years ago now. It’s been a while and in that time I’ve had a few different beats. But what that really means is that I’ve kind of learned the language, like the idioms and the and like the the the scope of debate and so on across a bunch of relevant news topics. And so if we do an episode on climate change like it’s been, I covered climate for a brief period of time in the late aughts. I haven’t covered it specifically except here and there when Congress would consider a climate change bill and I was a Capitol Hill reporter, I would delve back into it. But so then years go by and we do a climate change episode. And in the same way that people who are immersed in foreign languages pick them up much faster than people who take a class here, there, and like native speakers can go years without speaking in their native tongue, but they don’t lose the ability. You know, getting up to speed on on those topics is easier for me than I think it is for people who don’t do this for a living. But I don’t think it’s like. Some sort of rare talent. 


Emma Illick-Frank: How do you tailor questions differently now that you’re a podcast host versus when you were a reporter? 


Brian Beutler: That’s a great question. Okay. So like, one thing is that you probably knows we didn’t have a lot of politicians on the show and that was intentional. There are a few politicians who are good conversationalists and will open up and just relax a bit, but most aren’t. Most are very cautious about what they say in public, and they have good reasons for that. But it makes for really boring conversation or really and a really like frustrating one for me. So I always like for the podcast to endeavored to find guests who were good communicators, who could speak clearly and engagingly about things that they understood well. And so when that’s the goal, you find them, you bring them on. And I like to think of times when, like I’ve been at a coffee shop or whatever, hearing two friends who have expertise in music or whatever else talking about an album. And I don’t haven’t heard the album, I don’t know the artists, but they’re having a really engaging conversation. I’m learning just by listening with them. Like, I want that effect. Like I want to bring you all into the coffee shop conversation I’m having with some expert and I’m I’m learning from them and and trying to, like, get my arms around what they know so that I can now know it, too. When I was a reporter and this is. I think particularly important for people who are political reporters dealing with politicians. I would put a lot of time and thought into phrasing questions in ways that were hard for them to dodge. So like not open ended questions. Yes, no questions are important. Having a like a follow up in mind before you ask your opening question, because you learn to anticipate how they’re going to how they’re going to answer a follow up in mind that might hem them in a bit more if they if they’ve been evasive in answering the first question. I don’t know why I remember this specific incident so clearly, but I do. During the first President Obama’s first term, there was the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf Coast, the BP oil spill. And it was it was terrible. And it was an acute crisis and it was like badly covered by most of the TV news media, you know, just like wall to wall coverage of oil slicks floating atop the Gulf of Mexico. And opportunistic operatives and politicians trying to turn it into this was the phrase of the time, Obama’s Katrina. And and sort of like little about how how to how the government would stop the the oil leak coming out of the bottom of the ocean and even less about like what should be done about it. Who should pay? Who should pay to clean up the water? The the who should make the the business owners that are being affected on the coast whole and. The Republicans were at the time, kind of pretending to be opposed to bailouts. Right. Like the the financial crisis had just happened. They were instrumental in bailing out the big banks. But then they lost the election. They wanted Democrats to own the bailouts. And so they took this sort of very strange, anti-corporate anti-Wall Street anti bailout line that, like they plainly didn’t believe it wasn’t really like their party was constituted around the Chamber of Commerce and the Wall Street donors. And it was it was very insincere. And now here was a moment where there was going to be like this multibillion dollar cleanup project that had to happen like urgently. And the Chamber of Commerce, huge supporter of the Republican Party, came out in favor of a government bailout, basically, that like the it couldn’t be on BP alone to fork over the money required to to clean this mess up. And I sense that as an opportunity to kind of trap John Boehner, who was the House minority leader or possibly by then he was speaker. I may be getting my timeline wrong on that, but he was the leader of the Republicans in the House at the time. And I asked the question, I think I think verbatim was something like, do you agree with the Chamber of Commerce that the government should pay to clean up the oil spill? And so that’s a yes or no question. Do you agree with your buddy Tom Donohue of the Chamber of Commerce that there should be a bailout and Boehner didn’t want to get crosswise with the Chamber of Commerce. So he said something like, you know, I think all responsible parties that’s BP and the government will have to contribute to the cleanup effort or something like that. And so there was like 24 hours of blowback against him for this. And his you know, his press aides at the time tried to pretend that he didn’t hear the question. Ultimately, they put out a statement saying like walking it back this there will not be a bailout here. Like, I took that to be like evidence of effectiveness in answering questions that, like there’s a I think, a tendency to to want to ask it in an open ended way. Who should be responsible for the cleanup in ways that are much easier to dodge than creating like a yes or no where there’s like a wedge where if you answer yes, you’re aligning yourself with your donor, but you’re adopting a really unpopular position that there should be a bailout here. If you answer no, that’s the politically astute answer, but it might hurt your party’s bottom line. And so he was trapped. And he he answered in a way that generated news. And like, it was sort of like I was like, okay, like that was a learning experience for me, too. I should I should endeavor to figure out where he stands, to to ask questions like that. So that’s that’s how I went about being a beat reporter on the Capitol to try to get politicians to answer things in ways that shed light on where where their heads were and what how they intended to use their power. Whereas like if John Boehner was ever a guest now in retirement on Positively Dreadful, we would have a conversation that was much more. Like about, you know, there was much more free wheeling. 


Emma Illick-Frank: So this question is from Saul, who was a guest producer a couple of weeks ago, and we ran out of time to do this as a full episode. But he had a lot of questions about countering the rise of anti-Semitism. And he shared this piece written by Dara Horne in The Atlantic, which was about the shortcomings of Holocaust education and how it rarely links Nazi ism to a longer tradition of blood libel or Jew hatred. And it also doesn’t extend the thread of violence against Jews from the 1930s and forties to the present. Do you think that the resurgence in antisemitism has to do with education? 


Brian Beutler: It’s hard for me to answer because I learned about this, you know, as a child. And when I was a child, we were 35 years closer to that period of history. There were a lot of greatest generation people still alive. There were a lot of Holocaust survivors still alive. And so there was a lot of social proof that what you what we were taught in a more formal sense in school or whatever was true, people could could recount what they lived through. And that is going away. So we don’t have those, like daily haunting reminders of of what happened. We only have. You know what documentary evidence they left behind, any videotaped testimonials they made and what they wrote and how how, how what they relayed to historians and educators and stuff is is recounted in in textbooks and by teachers and professors. And so that makes history more likely to repeat itself. So how should we be countering the rise of anti-Semitism? I don’t know. I mean, how do you talk about racial injustice in a way that best advances the cause of racial justice or any any kind of civil rights advancement without like dividing society into into factions and and like losing some people because they don’t see how the fight for something over here that seems abstract to them matters to their lives. Right. And so there’s a faction of progressives who thinks it’s really important to like make. Identity, politics and intersectional politics central to Democratic Party politics or progressive politics. And then there’s another faction that says. We should speak about these issues in more solidarity or we should try to reduce the salience of race when we’re talking about policy issues, even when those policy issues would, if advanced, redound to the benefit of poor people, minorities, etc. Don’t emphasize that because that’s a good way to get people to either tune out or to lose their support for for, for, whatever policy change is on the table. And like, I think just as a strategic matter, I tend to to side with the latter group. Like it’s less important how whether we talk about these issues in the most precise and morally unobjectionable ways than that we actually make the progress. And I think that there’s an analogy between that debate about current policy issues and civil rights fights and about how to educate people about past horrors like the Holocaust or like slavery. The thing to emphasize is not that the Holocaust was bad because it happened to Jews. The Holocaust was bad because Jews are people. And the same thing goes for slavery, right? Like. Slavery wasn’t bad because it happened to Black people. Slavery was bad because Black people are people. And if if the if the caste system were inverted and people in your affinity group were treated like. Antebellum slaves. Or like Jews in the Holocaust. You wouldn’t need me to teach you that. It was bad and that it was evil, like imparting that sense to it, that the deeds were evil because humans are equal is a way to make sure that the lessons reach as far outside, like the most vulnerable people, the minorities, who are most likely to be revisited with those horrors again, to people who could more easily convince themselves well that someone else’s problem. That’s just my instinct. It’s like a fascinating pedagogical question, and I’m not an expert in pedagogy at all, but I think I know a little something about like persuasion. And if I were dealing with somebody who. Didn’t seem to take, say, the rise of antisemitism in the year 2023 seriously. I would appeal not just to the vulnerability of Jewish people. I would appeal to their sense that people are equal, and so perpetrating evil on them is wrong. And if you tolerate it when it happens to someone who’s unlike you, then you’re opening the door to a world where it happens to people who are more like you. 


Emma Illick-Frank: Hmm. Okay, last question. What do you want Positively Dreadful fans to take away from the series? 


Brian Beutler: What do I want Positively Dreadful fans to take away from the series? When we conceived the show, we wanted to meet people where we thought they were, and we thought many people, particularly younger people, younger liberal, progressive people mostly were feeling really unsettled about the direction of the country, the world, like everything from democracy in America to the habitability of the planet. And we understood that those feelings, that kind of feeling of unsettledness could give way to despair and then ultimately resignation, which is kind of like checking out of public life or civic life or whatever. And instead of painting a happy face on those issues to try to persuade people that things aren’t as bad as they seem or feel, we wanted to tell them like, you’re not wrong to feel unsettled about those things, but it might help ease that feeling to get a bit deeper into the weeds on them. So that you can better understand why they seem so intractable and what, if anything, citizens can do to address them, even if, you know, individual and individuals power, even small groups of individuals power only allowed them to make small improvements. And so I like to think we accomplish that across a whole range of issues. And I’d like Positively Dreadful fans to carry on with the mental habits required to grasp and address big problems in a knowing way. 


Emma Illick-Frank: Well, on that note, Brian Beutler, thank you so much for spending so much of your time with us this week. 


Brian Beutler: [laughs] Thanks for spending so much of your time with me week in, week out, Emma. [music plays] Positively Dreadful was a Crooked Media production. Our producer was Emma Illick-Frank. Evan Sutton mixed and edited the show each week. Our theme music was by Vasilis Fotopoulos.