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 2005, novelist and book-lover Larry McMurtry wrote an essay for The New York Review of Books (July 14, 2005) entitled “On Rereading,” in which he says “Now, though, I’ve become principally a rereader, a habit that’s prevailed for nearly a decade.” I had occasion recently to reflect on the fact that in 2005 McMurtry was 69, the same age I am now. The occasion was my decision to reread “The Moviegoer” by Walker Percy, which won the 1962 National Book Award for fiction. I had read it around 30 years ago, and I recalled loving it, but could not recall why. Though, like McMurtry, I find myself more drawn to rereading at this stage of my life, rereading can sometimes lead me to disappointment and puzzled wondering “What was I thinking?” Happily, this is not one of those cases. I am as captivated now as I was on the first reading of narrator Jack Bolling’s strange and estranged reflections, such as this one:
The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.
Percy himself described “The Moviegoer” as the story of a ‘young man who had all the advantages of a cultivated old-line southern family: a feel for science and art, a liking for girls, sports cars, and the ordinary things of the culture, but who nevertheless feels himself quite alienated from both worlds, the old South and the new America.” Though it is a novel of its time and place, the ways in which Bolling seeks to make sense of and make a life in a perplexing world and universe continue to resonate far beyond Louisiana and the 1950s.
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I had been unfamiliar with the poet Jeffrey Harrison until reading his poem “The Little Book of Cheerful Thoughts” a few months ago, but that prompted me to get his recent collection, “Between Lakes.” This collection has heightened my appreciation for his poems, especially those that relate to his relationship with his father in the time leading up to and following his father’s death. Harrison writes with clarity, empathy and spare beauty, as in the poem “Gratitude”:
And so, despite the decade or more
the cancer stole, I’m grateful for
that year and a half, for those two springs
when we watched the goldfinches turn
from green to yellow, like autumn leaves,
for the flame-emblazoned shoulders
of the red-wing, and for that new,
gentle father who kept telling me
how grateful he was that I was there.
POLITICS AND SOCIETY
Freedom of Speech and Hate Speech
Nadine Strossen served as President of the ACLU from 1991 to 2008 and is now a professor of law. In her 2018 book “Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship,” Strossen takes on the complex and controversial topic of the extent to which “hate speech” can and should be punished or enjoined. Her cogent thoughts on the topic have become even more timely in the intervening years, with “cancel culture” having become a battle cry in the culture wars. She is clear and candid in her view:
My mission in this work is to refute the argument that the United States, following the lead of many other nations, should adopt a broad concept of illegal “hate speech,” and to demonstrate why such a course would not only violate fundamental precepts of our democracy but also do more harm than good.
The Constitution, Religion and the Supreme Court
Linda Greenhouse reported on the U.S. Supreme Court for the New York Times over four decades. Her articles on the Court were perceived as so influential that conservative jurists complained that there was a “Greenhouse effect,” causing conservative Justices to take more liberal positions to obtain more favorable press coverage. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, “Grievance Conservatives Are Here to Stay,” Greenhouse reviews two recent books on another current hot-button issue: the role of religion in the selection of SCOTUS justices and in the decisions of the court. She asks this provocative question:
What accounts for this paradox of religious ascendance over an ever more secular society? The asymmetry between the strategic single focus of the Christian right and the secular majority’s diffidence in confronting claims to religious privilege explains a good deal: political victory goes to those who try harder. That questioning someone about their religion is the last taboo in American society has been a gift to the religious right: the secular middle doesn’t know how to talk back or even how to frame the questions.
The editorial board of the New York Times examined another topic on which the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court is having a profound influence: voting rights. In its editorial (7/2/21) “The Supreme Court Abandons Voting Rights,” the Times addressed the Supreme Court’s decision upholding Arizona voting law despite lower federal court findings that the laws made voting harder for
voters of color. Noting Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion that the “mere fact that there is some disparity in impact does not necessarily mean that a system is not equally open or that it does not give everyone an equal opportunity to vote,” the Times responded:
Since the court is talking about “mere facts,” the conservative justices might have noted the mere fact that voting fraud, which lawmakers in a number of states claim they are trying to prevent with laws like the ones in Arizona, is essentially nonexistent. As one federal judge put it several years ago, such laws are akin to using “a sledgehammer to hit either a real or imaginary fly on a glass coffee table.” That doesn’t appear to bother the conservative justices, who have given a free pass to state legislatures to discriminate, even as they demand more and more from voters trying to show that they are hurt by that discrimination.
Critical Race Theory
Staying with the theme of hot-button issues in the culture wars, Dana Milbank took on the topic of the demagoguery and distortion in the Republican crusade against “critical race theory” in his Washington Post column (6/22/21) “Why does Biden hate the flag, family, grace, God and America?”
The irony, of course, is that Republicans are now proving that systemic racism exists—and they, along with Fox News, are the primary offenders. With their united stand against the voting-rights bill and their united votes against Ahuja [Kiran Ahuja, recently and narrowly appointed to run the Office of Personnel Management] on the bogus justification of critical race theory, they’re the ones reducing Americans to “their racial identity alone,” as [Senator Josh] Hawley put it. The Proud Boys who attacked the Capitol must be filled with pride anew.