Reader at Large: March 22–April 2, 2021

by David Goodman | April 5, 2021
5 min read

Editor’s Note: This is the inaugural column by the Sun’s Reader at Large, a.k.a. David Goodman, who 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.



“A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” by George Saunders

From the New York Times review by Parul Sehgal, “George Saunders Conducts a Cheery Class on Fiction’s Possibilities
He offers one of the most accurate and beautiful depictions of what it is like to be inside the mind of the writer that I’ve ever read—that state of heightened alertness, lightning-quick decisions.

George Saunders book cover
From the book
Essentially, the whole [story-writing] process is: intuition plus iteration.

* * *

You don’t need an idea to start a story. You just need, a sentence. Where does that sentence come from? Wherever. It doesn’t have to be anything special. It will become something special over time, as you keep reacting to it. Reacting to that sentence, then changing it, hoping to divest it of some of its ordinariness or sloth, is . . . writing.


“On Being with Krista Tippett” podcast (3/25/21), “The Vitality of Ordinary Things” featured an interview with the beloved Irish poet Michael Longley.
For me, it’s quite an extraordinary gift to see something beautiful—say, like a lark or a flower—and to write about it. For me, no experience is complete, really, until I’ve written about it. And that’s extraordinary. And it’s a way of having more than one life.


“Survival Is a Style” by Christian Wiman

From “I Don’t Want to Be a Spice Store”
I want to be the one store that’s open all night /and has nothing but necessities. /Something to get a fire going /and something to put one out. 


Media and Misinformation
Misinformation graphic
Source: Visuals on Unsplash

New York Times (NYT) column (3/29/21): “The Fight Against Misinformation Isn’t Just on Facebook” by Nicholas A. Ashford
Government proposals to reform Section 230 or break technology companies into several smaller companies will not solve the misinformation problem. But increased fact-checking by independent bodies and mandates to present more reliable perspectives will help. Because of the reinforcing influence one medium has on another, reforms must include both the platform and broadcast industries.

Procedures for Allegations of Sexual Assault on Campuses

Washington Post (WP) editorial (3/28/21): “Opinion: Biden has a chance to restore balance to the rules on campus sexual assault
Mr. Biden now seems poised to undo regulations that govern how allegations of campus sexual assault are handled. But unlike the Trump’s administration’s harmful policies on the environment and immigration, there are some things worth saving in these educational rules — and so the administration should tread carefully. 

Voter Suppression Legislation

Guardian column (3/28/21): “Republicans have taken up the politics of bigotry, putting US democracy at risk” by Robert Reich
The party that once championed lower taxes, smaller government, states’ rights and a strong national defense now has more in common with anti-democratic regimes and racist-nationalist political movements around the world than with America’s avowed ideals of democracy, rule of law and human rights.


WP column (3/30/21): “The Birx dilemma is a lesson for the ages” by Matt Bai
And the larger lesson here—as though we should have to learn it again—is that appeasement never works. It doesn’t work for nations facing down aggressors. It doesn’t work for a political party that’s been taken over by a nativist bully. And it doesn’t work when you’re serving a president who demands unyielding loyalty and a willful disregard for the truth.

The Supreme Court

NYT column (3/30/21): Republicans Have an Ambitious Agenda for the Supreme Courtby Ian Millhiser

U.S. Supreme Court Building

Yet while the party appears to have no legislative agenda, it’s a mistake to conclude that it has no policy agenda. Because Republicans do: They have an extraordinarily ambitious agenda to roll back voting rights, to strip the government of much of its power to regulate, to give broad legal immunity to religious conservatives and to immunize many businesses from a wide range of laws. It’s just that the Republican Party doesn’t plan to pass its agenda through either one of the elected branches. Its agenda lives in the judiciary—and especially in the Supreme Court.

Investigative Journalism

ProPublica column (3/25/21): “Why There’s So Much Investigative Journalism About Utility Companies” by Stephen Engelberg
Regulatory capture is ubiquitous in the arcane universe of utility oversight. 


“On the Media” podcast (3/25/21): “Corruption at the Highest Levels, Exposed
In 2015, a tragedy gripped Romanian consciousness when a fire at a popular club in the country’s capital killed 27 people, injured nearly 200 more, and sparked national protests about corruption.  . . . In 2019, filmmaker Alexander Nanau wrote, produced and directed the film “Collective,” chronicling this saga. Last year, the film was released in the U.S., and, this month, it received two Academy Award nominations. In this podcast extra, Nanau speaks with Brooke about why he decided to follow the story, how the pieces fell into place, and how this single story changed Romania’s relationship with the press—possibly for good.

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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: March 22–April 2, 2021”

  1. What would be helpful with a new column like this one would be to have links to the articles being noted. I’m not sure of the regulations or permissions needed for that but trying to find these articles—even when the date and publication are mentioned—is a difficult task for the average computer person.

  2. Good morning, Dennis. Happy to tell you there ARE links to the featured articles in this column. Just hover over the headline of the article and you’ll see that the type turns purple, indicating the existence of a hyperlink. Click on it and away you go. Also, there are hyperlinks to bios of the featured authors in the Literature section of this column. Hover over their names. In most of the Sun’s stories, when reference to a specific article or publication is made, we provide a hyperlink to that material. Hope this is helpful.

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