Reader at Large: April 5–April 16, 2021

by David Goodman | April 19, 2021
6 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.



“Homeland Elegies” by playwright-turned-novelist Ayad Akhtar

Homeland Elegies book coverThe only one of Akhtar’s plays I have seen performed is “The Invisible Hand.” In both that play (and, from what I have read, in “Disgraced” and his other plays) and in this book—I am avoiding the “novel or memoir?” debate—he brilliantly weaves current political, economic, social and religious themes and developments into personal stories and narratives without letting his characters become two-dimensional embodiments of attitudes and without diminishing the complexity of the issues he is addressing.

Looking back at that trip [to Pakistan], I see now the broad outlines of the same dilemmas that would lead America into the era of Trump: seething anger; open hostility to strangers and those with views opposing one’s own; a contempt for news delivered by allegedly reputable sources; an embrace of reactionary moral posturing; civic and governmental corruption that no longer needed hiding; and married to all this, the ever-hastening redistribution of wealth to those who had it at the continued expense of those who didn’t.


New York Times (NYT) column (4/5/21): Thank God for the Poets by Margaret Renkl
Thank God for our poets, here in the mildness of April and in the winter storms alike, who help us find the words our own tongues feel too swollen to speak. Thank God for the poets who teach our blinkered eyes to see these gifts the world has given us, and what we owe it in return.


In her essay “Excited Quotes” in the first issue (Autumn 2020) of “Liberties” journal, poetry scholar Helen Vendler examines the William Butler Yeats poem “The Second Coming.”    She explores why the first verse is so often quoted (“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”), especially in times of political turmoil (e.g., the past five years), but the rest of the poem is largely ignored. “The poem itself has become lost behind the quotability of its opening lines,” she contends. In her view, Yeats used the second verse to reject the persona who presumes to speak so prophetically in the first verse and to speak of something more dark and uncertain:

The “something” turns out to be a single historical fact: the exhaustion of Christian cultural authority after its “twenty centuries” of rule.


The three-part, six-hour PBS documentary “Hemingway” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which you can watch online here, captures the phenomenon of the writer who constructs a mythical persona for himself and is eventually worn down and consumed by the effort to live the myth.

Hemingway documentary poster

In Hilton Als’s review of the documentary in the New Yorker, he explores that theme as well as the complexity of the influence of Gertrude Stein on Hemingway.

Part of the sadness at the core of the film “Hemingway” is how much life we see happening to the writer that he doesn’t seem to feel, or doesn’t want to feel, protecting a self he didn’t know, or could not face.

And Als asks this question:

But why a film about Hemingway now, and not, say, Faulkner? Is Faulkner not a more vibrant figure, who prefigured in his Snopes stories and novels the age of Trump and Derek Chauvin’s trial, and the Gordian knot of race that continues to choke large portions of our country? In this context, Burns and Novick’s “Hemingway” feels a little anachronistic, and “smells of the museums,” as Stein once said of Hemingway.


COVID-19 and Vaccinations

Washington Post (WP) (4/5/21): Why tearing down Fauci is essential to the MAGA myth by Michael Gerson

But on the whole, American citizens have witnessed one of the most dramatic vindications of scientific expertise in our history. We have been healthier when we listened to the experts and sicker when we did not. This is the context in which the MAGA right has chosen to make Anthony S. Fauci—the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984 — the villain in their hallucinogenic version of pandemic history. 


New York Times (NYT) column (4/14/21): These People Should Be Required to Get Vaccinatedby Ezekiel J. Emanuel, Aaron Glickman and Amaya Diana

We need to sharply reduce coronavirus infections to turn the tide and quell the pandemic. The best hope is to maximize the number of people vaccinated, especially among those who interact with many others and are likely to transmit the virus. How can we increase vaccinations? Mandates.


None of us likes being told what to do. But getting vaccinated is not just about our personal health, but the health of our communities and country. Health care workers are professionals whose primary obligation is to their patients’ health and well-being. Except in extreme cases, their personal preferences are secondary.

Protesting and Governing

NYT column (4/14/21): Lessons for America From a Weird Portland by Nicholas Kristof

There was too much deference to people sowing chaos under the banner of social justice, perhaps for fear of seeming unprogressive, and after the feds left, the city never tried hard enough to pivot to re-establish order.


Grand gestures for justice are fine, but they can’t substitute for quiet competence in keeping people safe, getting people housed or picking up the garbage. 

Climate Change

Guardian article (4/7/21): Banks pledge to fight climate crisisbut their boards have deep links with fossil fuels” by Emily Holden and Emily Atkin

“The banks are gorging on doughnuts and then eating an apple afterwards,” said Richard Brooks, the Toronto-based climate finance director for “We certainly can’t rely on banks or the private sector to lead us into climate safety and lead us toward emissions reductions. We need policy, we need regulation. We need government to act.”

Labor and Business

ProPublica article (4/13/21): Lessons From Bessemer: What Amazon’s Union Defeat Means for the American Labor Movement by Alec MacGillis

Union organizing at Amazon
Source: ucommblog

As word came in last week of the RWDSU’s decisive loss in Bessemer—1,798 to 738, with another 500 or so ballots still under challenge by Amazon—there was this consolation for organizers and their allies: these things took time, all the more so when the employer was as enormous as this one. Still, the numbers were stark, especially when one considered that barely half of the 5,876 workers who were eligible had even bothered to take part in the election.


One can’t help but wonder what sort of transformational event or outside force it would take to have a similar effect on Amazon and its workers, after this cataclysmic year that served to make the company only that much larger and more dominant.

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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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