An ideas report
I was introduced to Glenn by my employer Robert Wright in the Fall of 2020. Bob’s Nonzero Foundation had been producing The Glenn Show (just like other shows at Bloggingheads.tv), for free, for its first 14 years. This was becoming harder to do, so I was tasked with making TGS profitable.
I created a Patreon page (not updated anymore) and proposed a weekly schedule conducive to growing the show’s audience and revenue.
We reached the initial goal quickly. After all these years, the listeners seemed grateful for the opportunity to support Glenn’s work.
But we liked working together and didn’t stop there. I kept suggesting ideas to Glenn, he kept green-lighting them, and the show kept evolving.
Now, 15 months in, I want to report on this ongoing evolution: the ideas we’ve tried, those that worked, and those that are still being developed.
I also want to talk about the ideas behind these ideas: why we think that recording biographical audio-essays, offering math puzzles, and giving 10% of profits away are all worth doing, and how these seemingly disparate things, in our view, add up to a coherent and inspiring vision.
We launched this newsletter in January of 2021, as an experimental side-project. By that time, we had already started producing clips for Twitter and YouTube, and I started transcribing and posting them here.
There are several reasons I wanted to try this:
Some people prefer reading to listening + there are times when even those who generally prefer audio would opt for a text instead (say, when they’re in a public place with no headphones);
Unlike a video clip, a text is something you can quickly skim through and decide to share;
It’s cost-effective: Glenn’s spontaneous remarks often translate into well-written prose (and Glenn Loury Rants™ into something approaching poetry) with little to no editing;
I was curious about how Glenn’s message would sound (or, rather, read) in a different medium (see McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Massage);
I just wanted to see what happens if we did this for a few months.
Well, one thing that happened was that Substack reached out to us in May of 2021 and offered to move our Patreon operation here, with an advance payment to make sure our first year on Substack would be profitable. Glenn agreed to this offer.
Another was that I eventually handed off my editorial responsibilities to my Nonzero colleague Mark Sussman, and he took the project further than I would’ve been able to. We started with transcripts, but we’re doing more than that now.
Here are some extra dimensions of the newsletter that I find exciting:
Original writing. Glenn had occasionally published essays on Patreon, but it never felt like a good home for writing. With Substack, he felt more encouraged to share original pieces—see, for example, “The Double Life” or “Wrestle Not against Flesh and Blood.”
The extended conversation. Many of the TGS conversations now span two media: they start as unedited, long-form audio/video conversations, but then they continue as written exchanges, oftentimes with graphs, tables, and external links. We get the best of both worlds. On the one hand, the spontaneity, rawness, and personal touch of podcasting, and on the other, the rigor that comes from engaging with unrushed, written critiques. For instance, see this follow-up to a conversation with Briahna Joy Gray by TGS reader Clifton Roscoe; or this exchange between Clifton and Robert Woodson about the black family.
Community voices. Sometimes we publish messages from individual readers, allowing them to connect with the TGS community directly. “A Prisoner and a Ph.D.” is an important example. It’s a letter from an incarcerated man named Johnny Pippins, who has been in prison for nearly a quarter century, but has nevertheless managed to turn his life around: he left the gang, got a BA in sociology, an MA in statistical science, and then earned admission to a PhD program in sociology.
Guest posts. We’ve also published writing by other authors, both established and up-and-coming: see “Building the Alt-Academy” by Albert Eisenberg, “Social Justice Has Changed – I Haven't” by Charles L. Glenn, and “The Record-Breaking Homicide Wave in Philadelphia” by Rav Arora (the latter also serves as an example of what I called “extended conversation” above: it received a strong critique from Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson, which we published along with a response from Rav).
I’m sure there will be more things to come.
Own Youtube channel + Rob Montz
In October 2021, we moved our YouTube operation from Bloggingheads’s channel to our own. It now has more than 25k subscribers.
The first video we put on the channel was a special feature—a Glenn & John episode that was taped in person, with the help of filmmaker Rob Montz and his crew.
Recently, a reader reached out to us with an idea for an anti-wokeness show that could be pitched to a streaming service or a cable TV channel. While I liked the idea, I thought that creating a TV version of The Glenn Show is 1) probably more realistic, in terms of the organizational effort required, and 2) more inspiring for me personally, because Glenn’s intellectual range is much wider than the confines of the debate about wokeness.
I’m bringing this up because the reader’s email made me think of this episode as something of a pilot that may come in handy down the line.
“The Work” & Discord
After the Summer of 2020, Glenn and John both saw an increase in the number of messages they were getting from listeners. Many of them were reporting on the excesses of wokeness in their places of work or study, and many others were asking for help in dealing with such excesses. There were too many emails to answer, let alone to act on, but we surely didn’t want to ignore them.
So we set up an email address for collecting such inquiries more systematically. In a post titled “Doing Our Part,” Glenn wrote in March, 2021:
…What we did decide to do now is to set up a special email address, email@example.com, for these kinds of concerns.
Please do NOT use it if what you have is a general question, a suggestion for an interview, or a note of support.
Please DO use it to tell us about the ways the zeitgeist is manifesting itself at your place of employment; about the help you might need from us or other members of our community; about the ways you would want to see this initiative to evolve in; or about the contribution you would like to make yourself.
Please also let us know whether you’re comfortable with us sharing your message, or a specific part of it, with others.
It’ll be easier for us to sort through these missives if you help us categorizing them:
If you’re looking for advice, put the word HELP in the subject of your email.
If you have information you want to share with us, use the word INFO.
If you have suggestions on how our community (dare I say movement?) can develop, use GROW.
If you want to offer volunteer work, use WORK.
If none of these match your concern, use no label or suggest your own.
America and the world are in a precarious place. It is hard to see our situation clearly, to provide a useful analysis of it, to figure out the right course of action, and to then take that course. John and I have been trying to contribute to each of these steps, focusing more on the analysis than on action.
Perhaps it is time we start broadening our contribution, and I think it starts with a more deliberate way of paying attention to your concerns. Once we have a better sense of what the members of our community are dealing with at the local level, we should be in a better position to think of ways we can help one another collectively.
Looking back at this effort now, I don’t see it as either a success or a failure.
We did get a lot of very thoughtful messages, and engaged with some of the authors; we hosted a couple of Zoom calls where people were able to share their perspectives with one another; and we set up a Discord account for this community-building process to continue on its own (I invite you to join the ~600 people there).
But we weren’t able to translate this outpouring of concern into something truly productive. The lesson we drew from this is we are not yet ready to become an activist group—we’re a very small operation with limited resources and a lot of stuff on our plates.
So we started thinking of ways we can contribute to efforts by others who are already doing “the work,” and The Woodson Center soon came to mind.
Starting in January 2022, we started donating 10% of our Substack profits to the Woodson Center, an organization dedicated to fixing many of the problems discussed on the show. Here’s an excerpt from Glenn’s announcement of the initiative:
Since the 1960s, Bob Woodson has worked tirelessly to address the social and spiritual crises that afflict some of our most vulnerable people. The Woodson Center helps to fund and advise enterprising individuals and organizations that are doing tremendous things to repair and restore communities with seemingly intractable problems.
How do we support mothers who have lost children to violence and addiction? How do we successfully reintegrate former prisoners who have paid their debt to society? How do we establish resource centers tailored to the needs of specific communities? These are hard problems. The Woodson Center believes that they can be solved most effectively by people who come from within the afflicted communities. I agree.
The examples Glenn gives here—helping mothers of children killed in America’s streets, reintegrating former prisoners into society—refer to specific organizations that the Woodson Center, and now The Glenn Show, support. Glenn will be inviting people behind these initiatives to promote their work on the show.
Here’s an excerpt from one such conversation, with Sylvia Bennett-Stone, the woman behind Voices of Black Mothers United:
This part of our work is extremely important to us. While I think that Glenn’s contributions to the discourse are very valuable, I think it would be a grave mistake to think that this discourse is all there is.
There are many real people in need of real help. And there are others—us—who claim that we care about them. If that is indeed the case, we must try to help in concrete ways.
So this, the 10%, is a step, and The Glenn Show is making it together with every paying subscriber of this newsletter.
Glenn often says, “Nobody is coming to save us,” the implication of which is we should get busy saving ourselves.
“Tolstoy Is Mine”
“Tolstoy is already mine” is a phrase I first heard from Glenn in a 2021 episode of TGS:
There's this famous quote from Saul Bellow, the late great author said something in rebuttal of anti-Western culture types: “When the Zulu produce a Tolstoy, I will read him.”
Which is horrible, you sneer down your nose at the Zulu: “They don't have a Tolstoy, but when they produce one, I'll read him.” How big and open-minded of you!
To which my answer is, wait a minute, Tolstoy is already mine! What are you talking about, “When the Zulu produce one”—there's already a Tolstoy! Why does it have to be a Zulu Tolstoy?
I'm a black man in the West. Tolstoy is already mine.
When Glenn repeated the phrase at the National Conservatism Conference in 2021, it received an ovation.
A (white) listener emailed us to say he would love to have a t-shirt with this phrase. I made a couple of sketches.
We are yet to produce any merchandise, or indeed any kind of “visual propaganda” at all, but I see these sketches as a good first step in that direction.
We’ll be working more on this.
One of the new formats I’m most excited about is the audio essays Glenn has recently started to record.
In some ways, they are a by-product of his ongoing work on the memoir. But they’re also incredible pieces of audio content in their own right. Raw, intimate, thoughtful, and with all the texture that the recorded human voice provides—the timbre, the cadence, the pauses, the emotions felt in the reading.
Here is the first one. It is a sketch of Glenn’s early life and academic career, a brilliant juxtaposition of the two very different worlds that shaped him: the university, rich with intellectual challenges, conquering which brought him both self-respect and respect of his peers, the brightest students from all over the world; and the South Side of Chicago, vibrant with life and filled with many shades of suffering.
And here’s a two-parter, only the first part of which has been available to the public until now—here, Glenn tells a story of his betrayal of his black, but white-looking friend Woody, which took place in a Chicago church basement, at a meeting dedicated to an upcoming Black Panthers rally.
I don’t think I need to spell out the value of these stories—if you give them a listen, you’ll appreciate their beauty and depth yourself. But I do want to touch on one specific way they factor into the rest of our enterprise.
I think Glenn’s message is reinforced by what these reflections highlight: he’s more than a “black conservative,” or a professor of economics, or a podcaster. He, like all of us, is a complex human being, with a complex life; his history, like all of our histories, can be a source of both pride and shame; and his dedication to making something decent out of the raw materials of this life makes him worth listening to.
One more genre we’ve only started to experiment with is a series we call Beautiful Ideas.
For its point of origin, I could point to something Glenn said, in conversation with me, of Critical Race Theory:
I think it’s solipsistic and self-absorbed and small.
I think it’s small.
That’s why I wanted your reaction to our discussion of Russian literature in that Cornell West interview, because I thought, “That’s what we should be thinking about and that’s what we should be talking about!”
And a hundred other things like that.
I’m reading Liu Cixin, who’s a Chinese science fiction writer. He’s got a trilogy out there about The Three-Body Problem. It’s a magnificent set of books—about particle physics, and speculating about interstellar, intergalactic civilizational contact and whatnot, and everything in between.
The point I’m trying to make is: it’s a BIG world, it’s a MASSIVE palette of human endeavor and reflection. And the world grows smaller with technology now. So to be obsessed with race, and to be teaching children: “You’re white, you’re black, the white kids are like this, the black kids are like that…”
It rubs me very profoundly the wrong way.
I remember my own intellectual awakening, I remember coming off the South Side of Chicago to the Northwestern University, in 1970, 71, 72. I remember some of the books that I read. I read classical books in political theory and philosophy. I was trained in mathematics, I read some foundational books—you know, Principia Mathematica, that’s Russell and Whitehead. And I ended up in economics…
You know, I just remember what it felt like to become aware of the vastness of it.
[Critical Race Theory] is the opposite of that, in my mind, and it partly motivates me to want to fight.
I thought, that’s a good argument against CRT. But it’s also a good argument for not fixating on CRT and for finding time to talk about all those things—math, physics, literature, music—that really are worth our attention.
So we came up with Beautiful Ideas. The premise is to simply let Glenn talk about any idea that he finds interesting and inspiring, and to then package it for Youtube and Substack.
We’ve discussed a few, for instance:
Showing how the literal act of burning money can often be profitable;
Proving with words alone that there is no largest prime number;
Riddle of the barber who “shaves all of those, and only those, who do not shave themselves”. Who shaves the barber?
Paradox of the “hats”: how announcing to a group of people something that they already know can significantly increase their knowledge;
Using the “two things kissing the same thing at the same point must be kissing one another” idea to prove the First Fundamental Theorem of Welfare Economics...
But we started with something simple.
Here are a couple of puzzles from Glenn, and solutions for them.
I like the purity and the positivity of this project. Here, Glenn is not trying to convince anybody to share his political stances. He shares the joy of exercising one’s intellectual faculties, and the way we did this—the puzzles came first, along with an invitation to share one’s solution, and the answers a couple days later—has hopefully made the readers, the puzzle solvers to feel they’re a part of a larger community with shared and worthwhile interests.
A conversation with the past
One other format we’ve started to experiment with is getting Glenn to react to pre-selected video clips.
I started by playing a provocative throwaway remark by Terence McKenna. He he argues that higher public education in America was intentionally diminished to its current sorry state, because, after the social unrest of the 1960s, the ruling class had decided a properly educated public is too “ungovernable.” I asked Glenn to respond:
Here, my goal was to simply see if this format works—in terms of the recording technology, and in terms of the flow of the conversation. (I also wanted to sneak some McKenna into The Glenn Show because he’s had a big influence on me; I laughed at a YouTube comment that said this was “truly, the most unexpected crossover in history.”)
The format did seem to work. We tried it again a little while later, when Mark Sussman hosted a “debate” between the Glenn Loury 20 years ago (“Old Glenn”) and the Glenn Loury of today (“New Glenn”):
I see the value of this approach in that worthy voices from history—say, MLK or Malcom X or FDR or Vaclav Havel—could be brought into the conversation, enriching it with perspectives that are lacking today. It is indeed a big world, and it didn’t spring into existence ten years ago.
As you see, we’ve done a lot of experimentation. I hope that it doesn’t seem aimless.
The way I see it, we’re simply trying to make TGS a richer, more multidimensional entity that does actual good in the world: we want to educate, inspire, provoke, entertain, help people in need, and make the world slightly better than what it would’ve been without our efforts.
I invite you to share your feelings and thoughts on whether we’re being successful or not, which of the approaches we’ve tried strike more of a chord with you, and what else you would like us to try in the future.
I’m very grateful to all of you for making this work worth doing.
I don't think it was mentioned, so I want to point out the Q&A. Not only does it make for a great show, but it is no small thing psychologically for subscribers to know they have a place where they can broach any topic. At a time when off-narrative words can be essentially banned from public discourse, it's comforting to know we have the Q&A.
I liked the Old Glenn vs the New Glenn because Glenn Loury really had to grapple with a good-faith argument on the other side. I get that the the woke are not typically good faith but it's easier to have and hone arguments against their views (even if only in my head) when you take their views seriously. I find that in the John and Glenn episodes of the podcast, their arguments against the woke are easy since they characterize and translate the views of the woke in a way that's easy to refute - John McWhorter in particular. I have learned so much from both McWhorter and Loury and TGS has been so helpful in this crazy woke time, I'm not complaining; I'm just saying it's more effective to refute views when you are forced to take them seriously.