Reader at Large: April 16–May 7, 2021

by David Goodman | May 10, 2021
7 min read
Faulkner accepting the Nobel Prize Source: Internet Archive

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.


In a lifelong learning course I am taking on Faulkner, we are focusing on “As I Lay Dying” and “Absalom, Absalom.” In 1949, Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in literature for these and other novels. At the end of his acceptance speech he memorably said:

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.


New York Times (NYT) By the Book interview with Olivia Laing, author of the new book “Everybody: A Book About Freedom.”
“What writers are especially good on the politics of the body?” Laing was asked.
Over the five years that I was writing “Everybody,” I read hundreds of books on the body so I give this list with some confidence. Deep breath: Andrea Dworkin, James Baldwin, Kathy Acker, Audre Lorde, Malcolm X and our old friend Sigmund Freud. The novels and not-novels of Marguerite Duras and Angela Carter are always acute about women’s physical and especially sexual lives. Sarah Kane gets down to the marrow in a cheerless way; you might want to chase her with Joe Orton for a bit of levity. Alison Light’s “Mrs. Woolf and the Servants” is astonishing on the complex interrelations between bodies and class, bodies and gender. I read it just as I was finishing “Everybody,” and it really got under the skin, so to speak, of the kind of horror bodies can engender, and the kind of cruelties it can lead to.


Lorna Goodison
Lorna Goodison

In a recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Poetry Unbound,” poet Pádraig Ó Tuama reads and discusses the poem “Reporting Back to Queen Isabella” by former poet laureate of Jamaica Lorna Goodison. I will avoid a spoiler and not quote here the haunting last line of Columbus’s description to the Spanish monarch of what he “discovered” in Jamaica, “the fairest isle that eyes ever beheld.”


Washington Post (WP) column (4/19/21): “Howard University’s removal of classics is a spiritual catastrophe” by Cornel West and Jeremy Tate
Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture. Those who commit this terrible act treat Western civilization as either irrelevant and not worthy of prioritization or as harmful and worthy only of condemnation.

The removal of the classics is a sign that we, as a culture, have embraced from the youngest age utilitarian schooling at the expense of soul-forming education. To end this spiritual catastrophe, we must restore true education, mobilizing all of the intellectual and moral resources we can to create human beings of courage, vision and civic virtue.

This brings to mind the response of African-American journalist Ralph Wiley to Saul Bellow’s snide, patronizing and parochial question:
“Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”—Bellow

“Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus. Unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”—Wiley


A Howard administrator and professor responded to Cornel West and Jeremy Tate in the New York Times: “There’s No Classics ‘Catastrophe’ at Howard University” (5/2/21) by Brandon Hogan and Jacoby Adeshei Carter. Dr. Hogan is the director of undergraduate studies and Dr. Carter is the chairman of the philosophy department at Howard. They are both H.B.C.U. graduates.

There is no spiritual catastrophe unfolding on Howard’s campus. Quite to the contrary, our campus, students and faculty are in the midst of a Renaissance replete with all the accompanying spiritual and intellectual affirmations. The administration decided to eliminate the classics department, but it also started majors in 
interdisciplinary humanities (which incorporates classical studies courses), bioethics, international affairs, and environmental studies.


Biden Administration Challenges

Guardian column (4/16/21): “Can Joe Biden make America great again?” by Fintan O’Toole
There are, of course, many basic ways in which Biden must indeed restore the idea of a government of laws, not of men. The rule of law itself has to be re-established after Trump’s flagrant delinquency, corruption and treachery. The commitment to competence and expertise, so wilfully trashed by Trump, has to be renewed. The tools of democratic deliberation—truthfulness and evidence-based rationality—have to be refashioned.

Climate Change and Fear-Mongering about Beef

NYT column (4/26/21): “Beer, Brussels Sprouts, Bernie Madoff and Today’s G.O.P.” by Paul Krugman
The goal is to portray Democrats as woke feminist vegetarians who don’t share the values of Real Americans. Hence the right’s obsessive focus on “cancel culture” and Democratic women of color, and the continual assertions that the white male senior citizen who leads the party is somehow a passive puppet.


Washington Post (WP) column (4/28/21): “Substack wants to disrupt reading habits. Will its newsletters upend newspapers? by Megan McArdle
Our model is that the attention economy we’re giving our lives to is a mistake,” Chris Best, Substack’s co-founder and CEO, told me. “We need to have a different model with different rules.” Instead of competing for algorithmic engagement with clickbait, authors can build a long-term relationship with the readers who support them.

Race and Statues

NYT column (4/30/21)): “Some Statues Tell Lies. This One Tells the Truth” by Timothy Egan
Replacing the statue of Marcus Whitman, an inept Protestant missionary who tried to Christianize the natives (as Whitman might have put it), with a Native American who was arrested more than 50 times for practicing his treaty rights to fish for salmon is a karmic boomerang. Statues, especially those in the sacred space holding the Capitol’s collection, where each state is given only two, are national narratives set in stone.

Native Americans and Our National Parks
Bison crossing Yellowstone River
Yellowstone National Park Source: National Park Service

The Atlantic article (May 2021): “Return the National Parks to the Tribes: The jewels of America’s landscape should belong to America’s original peoples” by David Treuer
In 1914, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued that American democracy was forged on the frontier. It was there that the uniquely American mixture of egalitarianism, self-reliance, and individualism commingled to form the nation and its character. “American democracy,” he said, “was born of no theorist’s dream. . . .  It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier.” Turner was almost right. It wasn’t the frontier that made us as much as the land itself, land that has always been Native land but that has also come to be American. The national parks are the closest thing America has to sacred lands, and like the frontier of old, they can help forge our democracy anew. More than just America’s “best idea,” the parks are the best of America, the jewels of its landscape. It’s time they were returned to America’s original peoples.


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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.

2 thoughts on “Reader at Large: April 16–May 7, 2021”

  1. Thanks for this. All good to know.

    I’d suggest a book I just finished, a bio of singer songwriter Guy Clark: “Without Getting Killed or Caught.” It’s a troubled, inspiring and entertaining read.

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