Reader at Large: July 2, 2021–September 3, 2021

by David Goodman | September 7, 2021
9 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.


I had long wanted to read Iris Murdoch‘s novel “The Sea, the Sea” and was finally prompted, in a circuitous way, to do so. I heard an interview of the philosopher Susan R. Wolf  on a Phi Beta Kappa “Key Conversations” podcast. At the end of the interview, in recommending books that had influenced her, Wolf said, “For me, some of my greatest influences are Iris Murdoch, who is also a novelist. She has a little collection of three essays called “The Sovereignty of Good” that changed my philosophical life and worldview.” I had not known that Murdoch was a philosophy scholar, as well as a novelist. I read the first of the essays in that collection and was deeply impressed by her erudition and (not surprisingly) by the lucidity of her prose, even in dealing with some difficult concepts regarding morality and moral reasoning.

Cover of "The Sea, the Sea"That prompted me to read “The Sea, The Sea,” which won the Booker Prize in 1978, and I am glad I did. The exceedingly unreliable narrator, Charles Arrowby, is a case study in self-deception and obsession, and he is a genius in rationalizing his own selfishness. He can perpetrate casual cruelty on those most devoted to him without apparent qualm. Murdoch makes him a maddening character, but never ceases to make the story a compelling one. Excerpts from the book cannot convey its power, but perhaps this excerpt from a June 2009 Guardian article, “The moral brilliance of Iris Murdoch” by Bidisha (the byline of this British broadcast critic) conveys the exceptional quality of her writing :

Murdoch was a genius. . . . She took on the most profound moral questions that we ordinary, flawed, troubled creatures grapple with: the battle between good and evil within ourselves and within society; the possibility of faith and the death of God; the occasionally delightful and playful, occasionally dangerous and destructive urges of erotic desire; the compulsions of amorous and intellectual obsession; artistic creativity and the artist’s ambition to create the one ultimate and universal work that addresses every moral dilemma with its overarching theory.

All that makes it sounds as though reading her work is like finding oneself in the middle of an endless Brothers Karamazov-like rumination. Yet lightly thrown over these huge issues were plots of a disarming playfulness, creativity and joy: realistically daft adults making buffoons of themselves, androgynous girls, tough but unimaginative women, happy dogs, tortured gay priests, angry clever bullies and power-holders, hypocritical husbands, melancholy wives. Murdoch’s characters are fallen, her world post-lapsarian, full of contingency and realistic illogic. Her characters act against their own happiness with frustrating frequency. But then, that is what people are like. They behave absurdly, yet Murdoch does not write absurdly. She examines human silliness with her own clever, tolerantly smiling seriousness.

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Eudora Welty
Eudora Welty Source: Library of Congress

In a recent New Yorker Fiction podcast, Ann Patchett reads Maile Meloy‘s story “The Proxy Marriage.” The story is beautiful and heart-warming without ever being clichéd or sappy. Not surprisingly, Ann Patchett’s discussion of it with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman is almost as engaging as the story itself.

* * *

In August, I took a four-class course on the short fiction of Eudora Welty. We started by reading Welty’s stories “”Lily Daw and the Three Ladies” and “Why I Live at the P.O.”; for the second week, “Petrified Man” and “Curtain of Green”; for the third week, “The Wanderers” and “No Place for You, My Love”; and for the fourth, “Circe” and “Asphodel.”

Those stories showed her exceptional range as a storyteller. Each is distinctive, but all of them reflect Welty’s affection for her characters, however ordinary or strange.  The course also touched on Welty’s photography—she was a photographer for the WPA—and its relationship to her writing. In 2009, the Smithsonian Magazine said Cover of Eudora Welty photography bookof an exhibition of her photographs: “The pictures, made in Mississippi in the early to mid-1930s, show the rural poor and convey the want and worry of the Great Depression. But more than that, they show the photographer’s wide-ranging curiosity and unstinting empathy—which would mark her work as a writer, too.”

That article also quotes her own views of her photography career and its connection to her writing:

In her memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, published in 1984, Welty paid respects to picture-taking by noting: “I learned in the doing how ready I had to be. Life doesn’t hold still. A good snapshot stopped a moment from running away. Photography taught me that to be able to capture transience, by being ready to click the shutter at the crucial moment, was the greatest need I had. Making pictures of people in all sorts of situations, I learned that every feeling waits upon its gesture; and I had to be prepared to recognize this moment when I saw it.”


Conflict is Not Abuse” by Sarah Schulman

I had not heard of Schulman or this book until I heard political analyst Ezra Klein interview the writer-activist in his eponymous podcast recently. Shulman makes arguments that are thought-provoking and courageous in today’s environment.

My thesis is that at many levels of human interaction there is the opportunity to conflate discomfort with threat, to mistake internal anxiety for exterior danger, and in turn to escalate rather than resolve. I will show how this dynamic, whether between two individuals, between groups of people, between governments and civilians, or between nations is a fundamental opportunity for either tragedy or peace. Conscious awareness of these political and emotional mechanisms gives us all a chance to face ourselves, to achieve recognition and understanding in order to avoid escalation towards unnecessary pain.

Reproductive rights

Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe elucidates the implications of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to allow the Texas “heartbeat bill” abortion ban to go into effect in his column in the Guardian (9/2/21), “Roe v Wade died with barely a whimper. But that’s not all.”
For years, as the Supreme Court’s composition kept tilting right, reproductive rights have been squarely on the chopping block. Now they are on the auction block as well.

It wasn’t just Roe that died at midnight on 1 September with barely a whimper, let alone a bang. It was the principle that nobody’s constitutional rights should be put on sale for purchase by anyone who can find an informant or helper to turn in whoever might be trying to exercise those rights.

End of the war in Afghanistan

Since reading Robert Wright’s book “Why Buddhism is True” several years ago, I became an admirer of his ability to bring secular concepts of mindfulness and meditation to bear on contemporary issues. I subscribe to Wright’s Nonzero Newsletter, in which he recently reflected on the unlearned lessons that again emerged in the Afghanistan situation, “Afghanistan: 3 Unlearned Lessons” (8/30/21).

The speed with which the Afghan army collapsed this summer, and the ease with which the Taliban took city after city, caught pretty much every American official by surprise. That surprise shouldn’t surprise us, given that these officials had been getting feedback about the war that was, predictably, biased in a positive direction.

* * *

Afghan citizens boarding plane
Evacuees at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul Source: U.S. Department of Defense

Unlearned Lesson #4: We should try really, really hard to avoid military interventions. This follows—not quite inexorably, but plausibly—from unlearned lessons 1, 2, and 3. If indeed (Lesson 1) the presence of foreign troops tends to energize and expand opposition; and if indeed (Lesson 3) this problem, along with other problems, is exacerbated by the difficulty of navigating ethnic and other social and political complexities—complexities that we tend to have only a dim comprehension of; and if indeed (Lesson 2) attempts to deepen that comprehension, and navigate these complexities, will be frustrated by the systematic corruption of relevant information—well, then maybe the odds against success are pretty steep. And since confirming how steep they are tends to get tons of people killed, maybe we should quit repeating that exercise.

Critical Race Theory

New York Times (7/5/21) “This Wave of Anti-Critical Race Theory Laws Is Un-American” by Kmele Foster, David French, Jason Stanley and Thomas Chatterton Williams. The authors are a cross-partisan group of thinkers who have written extensively about authoritarianism, liberalism and free speech.) Their thoughts shed light on this recent hot-button issue in our culture wars, which also seem to be never-ending wars.

These [anti=CRT] initiatives have been marketed as “anti-critical race theory” laws. We, the authors of this essay, have wide ideological divergences on the explicit targets of this legislation. Some of us are deeply influenced by the academic discipline of critical race theory and its critique of racist structures and admire the 1619 Project [the New York Times Magazine’s ongoing, long-form journalism project whose self-described aim is to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’  national narrative.”] Some of us are skeptical of structural racist explanations and racial identity itself, and disagree with the mission and methodology of the 1619 Project. We span the ideological spectrum: a progressive, a moderate, a libertarian and a conservative. It is because of these differences that we here join together, as we are united in one overarching concern: the danger posed by these laws to liberal education.


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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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