Seconds into this week’s This American Life, I heard Ira Glass intone the words: “Ladies and gentlemen, meet Terry Gross.” I pressed my earphones in deeper and drifted into my long-held fantasy of Glass and Gross patiently and studiously interviewing me, all three of us adjusting our glasses and politely interrupting each other in turns.
But Glass had said “Terry Grosz”, not “Terry Gross”, a homonymic hiccup quickly clarified when Mr. Grosz identified himself as a retired fish and game warden who stands at six-foot-four.
During his warden days, Grosz wanted to catch a group of men who were illegally fishing salmon in the middle of the night. He donned a wetsuit and entered the river. Hooking the fingers of his glove onto a lure, he slapped around like a flailing fish. When the fishermen pulled him in, he served them with citations.
Grosz’s account is a mix of a Paul Bunyan-esque tall tale (complete with an oversized protagonist) and a Parks & Rec-reminiscent devotion to public service. His big fish of a story sets us up for two more reports of people addressing their problems in counterintuitive ways.
The lead story, reported by Zoe Chace, introduces us to Alex Chalgren, an 18-year-old high school student who lives in Columbia, South Carolina, and directs that state’s branch of Students for Trump. What’s atypical about Alex, Chace finds, is his stated rationale for backing the Donald. Alex supports Trump because Trump—so he believes, in spite of evidence to the contrary—accepts same-sex marriage, whereas the other leading Republicans, above all Ted Cruz, do not.
The endearingly gravel-voiced Chace suggests that supporting Trump is a way for Alex to reconcile two divergent aspects of his identity: growing up among evangelical conservative and being gay.
This segment eschews broad political analysis to focus on the anomalies that have formed Alex’s political and personal identity. He lacked stability in his childhood and was passed around foster homes. Ultimately, his third-grade teacher adopted him. His adopted parents admire his passion and charisma: Alex is a politician in the making, mimicking Trump’s vocal cadences and even the way he holds his hands. But they also seem to resent his big dreams. His father calls him “high-falutin’”. And they respond to his sexuality with anger, assured that being gay is not part of God’s plan for their son.
I found the interviews with Alex’s parents the most affecting parts of the segment. I grew up in North, not South Carolina. My parents were not born-again Christians but Republican Jews, wedded to a brand of conservatism marked by fiscal prudence, reverence for tradition, and a commitment to middle-class ordinariness, rather than the hellfire and doomsayings of South Carolina preachers. I felt some annoyance at the nakedness of Alex’s ambition, and his tendency to parrot Trumpisms about the threat of Islam—although he is just 18, after all. But I was surprised to find how much of Alex’s story resembled my own. His parents, though generally loving, are unable to understand a son who differs from them. He runs away multiple times, at one point jumping out of a slow-moving car. These runaway attempts might seem like actions of a petulant child, and maybe they are; I saw them as efforts to break away, an establishment of distance necessary for self-formation. Here in England, I sometimes marvel at the narrowness of my own escape.
Delving into the attention-sucking Trump sideshow, Chace has managed to find a touching personal story, one that reminds us of how our private lives intersect with mass politics, and how we test our own convictions against the often-unsatisfactory political options available to us.
The second act discusses the ethics of kidney donation. Sigrid Fry-Revere, a medical ethicist, recounts her time spent researching organ donation in Iran—a nation that has solved its kidney shortage by permitting people to buy and sell their kidneys. Fry-Revere intelligently describes the risks and benefits of a regulated organ market. The most important part of her analysis is a simple point she makes at the segment’s end: donors in the U.S. need to be compensated for the money they forfeit (mostly through lost wages) when they donate. Reducing these financial disincentives, Fry-Revere says, would be a good step toward treating our donors with the respect they deserve.
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