Reader at Large: June 19–July 2, 2021

by David Goodman | July 5, 2021
7 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.


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 cover of The Moviegoerit, 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.

* * *

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.


Freedom of Speech and Hate Speech

Cover of Nadine Strossen's "Hate"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. 

Voting Rights

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

Protect My Vote demonstration outside Supreme Court
Source: People for the American Way

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.


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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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