Reader at Large: June 5–June 18, 2021

by David Goodman | June 19, 2021
8 min read

Editor’s Note: The Sun’s Reader at Large, a.k.a. David Goodman, dedicates his leisure to reading voraciously and eclectically about politics, government, society, culture and literature. Every two weeks or so, the Sun will post for your pleasure and edification the Reader’s digest (pun intended) of some of the best and most thought-provoking articles, books and podcasts that Goodman has recently enjoyed. Please note that the italicized text is quoted and that some of the linked articles may be in publications that impose a pay wall. Neither the Sierra County Sun nor the Reader at Large endorses all the views expressed in the featured books and articles.


The Sun book coverIn the lecture he delivered as the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro said, “But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?”

In his new novel “Klara and the Sun,” Ishiguro delves into the realm of artificial intelligence and explores the possibility that the person asking those poignant questions may not be a person. The title character Klara is the Artificial Friend (or “AF”) to an adolescent girl. We see the strangeness of our world and our human flaws and foibles through her eyes. Inevitably, but believably, Klara raises the question whether robots can have the equivalent of feelings and emotions and whether they may be capable of behaving with greater humanity than humans. In her NPR review of the novel, Maureen Corrigan wrote that Ishiguro “is the master of slowly deepening our awareness of human failing, fragility and the inevitability of death — all that, even as he deepens our awareness of what temporary magic it is to be alive in the first place.”

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Cover of Roz Chast's memoirIn the Summer 2021 issue of The Paris Review, one of my favorite New Yorker cartoonists Roz Chast is interviewed. She lampoons the second-class status that “fine artists” often inflict on cartoonists:

Cartoonists and craftspeople—we sit at the children’s table. Don’t get me started about a lot of what people call fine art. So much of it is horrible, horrible art school bullshit. “Kriddlenap’s twenty- by eighty-foot canvas, with its multitudinous chromatic biomorphic forms, condenses the picture plane into a totality of architectonic textured cacophony. The sixteen basketballs that tentatively adhere to the surface are an ironic nod to . . . .” On and on. Fucking hate it.

One of the things I love about her cartoons is the way in which she transforms angst and insecurity into humor. In the interview, she says:

But in general, making cartoons is a way of avoiding feelings of pointlessness and despair and still not being too upbeat.

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Cover of A Goat's SongAs so often happens, the most recent episode of the podcast “Backlisted” brought to my attention a writer of whom I had not previously heard and left me eager to read that writer’s works. In this case, the book is the novel “A Goat’s Song” by Dermot Healy. What most impressed the hosts and panelists was Healy’s deft capturing of both the personal and the political. The Independent wrote of the novel in 1994:

Healy interweaves a not quite documentary verisimilitude of landscape with the taut strands of the novel’s strident, yet cloistered, romance. His portrayal of the myths of Belfast and the West coast pierces through the stereotypes, while helping us to see clearly the justification for their existence.

In its obituary for Healy in 2014, The Guardian wrote:

Despite being lauded in Ireland, where A Fool’s Errand was shortlisted for the 2011 Irish Times poetry prize, Healy remained a bafflingly under-appreciated writer elsewhere. He wrote five works of fiction, including A Goat’s Song (1994), one of the great Irish novels of recent times, as well as several volumes of plays and poetry and an acclaimed memoir, The Bend for Home (1996). His fellow writer Pat McCabe described the latter book as “probably the finest memoir . . . written in Ireland in the last 50 years”, while Roddy Doyle once called Healy “Ireland’s finest living novelist”.



In “Doing the Work at Work: What are companies desperat for diversity consultants actually buying?” (New York Magazine, May 26, 2021), Bridget Read provides an extensive and insightful account of the explosive growth in the diversity consulting business that the past year has generated.
Across the country, consultants in the diversity business felt that same whiplash of pandemic bust turning into protest boom. Practitioners who were collecting unemployment received calls from the CEOs of major corporations looking to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars publicly and fast.

One of her interesting insights:
As more money pours into the diversity industry, the products and services for sale are becoming ever more abstracted away from actual workers in pain.

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Apropos of diversity, in a June 12 NPR Weekend Edition Saturday interview (“Critics Concerned About Princeton’s Removal Of Latin, Greek Requirement In Classics”) with NPR’s Scott Simon, John McWhorter, linguist professor at Columbia University, expresses his views about why Princeton University’s new policy for classics major is problematic for students of color.
Corporate Political Donations

New York Times (NYT) column: “Corporate America Forgives the Sedition Caucus” (June 16, 2021) by Michelle Cottle
But as the election and pandemic traumas fade, corporate America is easing, quietly, back into the giving game. Lobbyists are suiting up. Fund-raising events are on the calendar. Wallets are reopening. It will take a while yet for the giving to return to its normal, obscene levels, but the trajectory is once more headed up—with the trend expected to accelerate in the coming months.

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The further Jan. 6 recedes from view, of course, the more that Corporate America will deem it less risky to donate than to not. As any savvy politician can tell you, the attention span of the American public is short. Without constant stoking, widespread outrage fades quickly—or is replaced by the next outrage. Just ask gun control


Washington Post (WP) article (June 13, 2021): “As Israel’s longest-serving leader, Netanyahu transformed his country—and left it more divided than ever” by Steve Hendrix
As Benjamin Netanyahu ends his tenure, following the parliament’s approval Sunday of a new governing coalition that excludes him, he is not only Israel’s longest-serving leader but also one of its most influential. He reoriented the country’s decades-old approach to peace and security, reshaped its economy and place in the world, and upended longtime legal norms and notions of civil discourse. To his supporters, Netanyahu, known by all as “Bibi,” leaves behind a booming economy, newfound international respect and a decade without bus bombings by Palestinian militants. To critics, he leaves a country more divided, less equitable and largely indifferent to peace with the Palestinians.

Supreme Court

WP column (June 15, 2021): “I’ve urged Supreme Court justices to stick aroundbut never to retire. Until now“by Ruth Marcus
Note to Justice Breyer: This is not Ted Kennedy’s Senate, where you worked as his chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee four decades ago. This is not the Senate that confirmed you 87–9 in 1994. Those kind of bipartisan votes on Supreme Court nominees are ancient history. That Senate is no more. “Talk to them” until you discover common ground—Kennedy’s approach for dealing with Republican colleagues, as Breyer related in a talk to students at the National Constitution Center last month—is great advice for high-schoolers learning to navigate the world. It doesn’t work with McConnell.

three cocktails

In the article “America Has a Drinking Problem” (The Atlantic, July/August 2021), Kate Julian examines recent trends in American consumption of alcohol in a large historical context. Here is how she frames the issue:
What most of us want to know, coming out of the pandemic, is this: Am I drinking too much? And: How much are other people drinking? And: Is alcohol actually that bad?  . . .The answer to all these questions turns, to a surprising extent, not only on how much you drink, but on how and where and with whom you do it. But before we get to that, we need to consider a more basic question, one we rarely stop to ask: Why do we drink in the first place? By we, I mean Americans in 2021, but I also mean human beings for the past several millennia.


The Guardian column (6/16/21): “Did I use the pandemic for ‘self-improvement?’ Nope. And that’s fine by Jessa CrispinI always enjoy Jessa Crispin’s columns in The Guardian for their sharp prose and iconoclastic attitude. In this one, she deplores our pervasive and compulsive urge to turn everything into a prompt toward self-improvement.

There is something truly warped about the way American culture prioritizes growth and romanticizes hardship. Call it hustle culture, or manifest destiny, or the myth of the self-made man: we are incapable of just having a hard time. Cancer is your teacher, poverty is supposed to inspire ambition, a tragedy is just a teachable moment. A year spent in lockdown is an opportunity to pivot, to build wealth from the fear of others, to self-improve. There is nothing about you or your life that cannot be enhanced, monetized, upgraded, or learned from. And our culture believes strongly that if you are unwilling or unable to participate in this hysterical climb upward, you are undeserving of assistance or care.


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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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