Reader at Large: May 22–June 4, 2021

by David Goodman | June 7, 2021
9 min read

Murakami's First Person Singular book coverEditor’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.

Haruki Murakami has been among my favorite contemporary writers for nearly 20 years, since I read—and was captivated by—his novel “Kafka on the Shore” when it came out in 2002. His most recent collection of stories, “First Person Singular: Stories,” preserves his place in my personal pantheon. It may not be a positive confession, but I have always felt a connection with his typical male narrator: intelligent, observant and generally well-meaning and kind, but often clueless and befuddled. The narrator of the story “Cloud” in this collection is quintessentially Murakami:

So I’m telling a younger friend of mine about a strange incident that took place back when I was eighteen. I don’t recall exactly why I brought it up. It just happened to come up as we were talking. I mean, it was something that happened long ago. Ancient history. On top of which, I was never able to reach any conclusion about it.

* * *

On the theme of “my favorites,” I again include the podcast “Poetry Unbound,” in which the poet Pádraig Ó Tuama reads and then talks about a poem he loves in each episode. Ó Tuama’s discussions are never pedantic in the way that caused many of us to stop reading poetry after a high school teacher pulverized whatever interest we might have had in it. (Fortunately, I was not among those. I was blessed to have teachers who took genuine pleasure in the musicality and love of words in poetry.) In a recent podcast, he featured the poem “From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee. The poem itself, and Ó Tuama’s discussion of it, are a joy to listen to. From that poem:

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

* * *

One of the joys of Sunday morning for me is reading the “By the Book” column in the New York Times Book Review. Each week, the column interviews someone (not always a writer, but always—or almost always—a passionate reader). Recently, the interviewee was the iconoclastic writer Lionel Shriver. Here is part of her answer to the question “How have your reading tastes changed over time?”

Although I appreciate distinctive style and turns of phrase, I’ve grown less interested in language for its own sake. That is, I resist acrobatic show-off prose and abstruse vocabulary (though is “abstruse” abstruse?) — and I’m more interested in skillful or artful language as a route to content. I don’t like detail for detail’s sake, either.

Though I am not as proud of it as she is, I share her growing impatience, and find myself saying, “Life is too short,” when I encounter the “acrobatic show-off prose” that exasperates her.

As evidence of her iconoclasm, here is a link to her 2016 speech about cultural appropriation, which the Guardian published. In that speech, she said:

. . .[B]oth as writers and as people, we should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth. If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us. We pigeonhole ourselves. We limit our own notion of who we are, and in presenting ourselves as one of a membership, a representative of our type, an ambassador of an amalgam, we ask not to be seen.

Amen to that.


Daniel Patrick Moynihan Remembered

NYT column (5/15/21): “Daniel Patrick Moynihan Was Often Right. Joe Klein on Why It Still Matters” by Joe Klein
Twenty-five years later, we live in a world that was Moynihan’s nightmare: Postmodern tribes—with their own fake “facts”—have gone virtual; affinity groups are organized by cable news networks and social media platforms. Cynicism about government’s ability to do anything useful abounds. It remains to be seen if Joe Biden’s postindustrial version of the New Deal—which Moynihan would have voted for enthusiastically, as it reduces inequality with a minimum of social engineering—will heal the wounds.

The Middle East

The situation in Israel and the Middle East continues to change so rapidly and significantly that articles I read only a week or two ago now seem out of date. Some of the more thoughtful articles I have read during that time may still have some relevance:

Israeli police upholding recent ceasefire on the streets of an Israeli city
The uneasy Israel-Palestinian ceasefire Source: Wikipedia

Washington Post (WP) column (5/23/21): “Netanyahu has more than the left to worry about” by E. J. Dionne Jr.
“Netanyahu is singularly responsible for driving an enormous wedge into American public opinion,” Connolly [U.S. Representative Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.)] said. “It’s not about abandoning American support for Israel. It’s about policies we see as threatening Israel’s long-term viability as a democratic Jewish state, and about a right-wing lurch in Israeli politics.

NYT column (5/25/21): “How the Mideast Conflict Is Blowing Up the Region, the Democratic Party and Every Synagogue in America” by Thomas L. Friedman
Therefore, I hope that when the secretary of state, Tony Blinken, meets with Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week, he conveys a very clear message: “From this day forward, we will be treating the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as a Palestinian state in the making, and we will be taking a series of diplomatic steps to concretize Palestinian statehood in order to preserve the viability of a two-state solution. We respect both of your concerns, but we are determined to move forward because the preservation of a two-state solution now is not only about your national security interests; it is about our national security interests in the Middle East. And it is about the political future of the centrist faction of the Democratic Party. So we all need to get this right.’’

Being “Woke” and “Cancel Culture”

NYT column (5/25/21): “Is Wokeness ‘Kryptonite for Democrats’?” by Thomas B. Edsall
Nadine Strossen, professor emerita at N.Y.U. Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote by email that she considers herself “a ‘bleeding-heart liberal’ but even more important to me are the classic liberal values that are under siege from all sectors of the political spectrum, left to right, including: freedom of speech, thought and association; academic freedom; due process; and personal privacy.”

Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard and the author of the forthcoming book, “Say It Loud! On Race, Law, History and Culture,” cited in an email a similar set “of reasons for the deficient response to threats against freedom of thought, expression and learning emanating from the left.” His list: “Woke” folk making wrongful demands march under the banner of “EQUALITY” which is a powerful and attractive emblem, especially in this George Floyd/Covid-19 moment when the scandalous inequities of our society are so heartbreakingly evident. On the campuses, many of the most vocal woke folk are students whom teachers and administrators want to mollify, comfort and impress. Many teachers and administrators seek desperately to be liked by students.

* * *

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass Source: Wikimedia Commons

For another perspective:

WP column (5/27/21): “When it comes to knowing U.S. history, we should all be ‘woke’” by Michael Gerson
For [Frederick] Douglass, however, this founding crime did not discredit American ideals; it demonstrated the need for their urgent and radical application. He insisted that the Constitution was “a glorious liberty document.” He drew encouragement from the “great principles” of the Declaration of Independence and the “genius of American institutions.” He challenged the country’s hypocrisy precisely because he took its founding principles so seriously. How can you love a place while knowing the crimes that helped produce it? By relentlessly confronting hypocrisy and remaining “woke” to the transformational power of American ideals.

* * *

And for yet another perspective on that topic, Robert Wright in his “Nonzero” Substack newsletter item, “The Truth about Darwin,” rebuts the vilification by some of Charles Darwin as an alleged apologist for racism and colonialism. In Wright’s view, Darwin sought only to explain, not to condone or rationalize.
He [Darwin] wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray: “I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I should wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”


NYT column (5/27/21): “The Great Unmasking” by David Brooks
All around I see people determined to undo what Covid tried to do to us. Covid isolated us, but I see people thinking about how they can replace social distance with social closeness and social courage. I’m hoping to practice what a friend calls “aggressive friendship,” being the one who issues the invitations, reaches out first.

As David Brooks often does in his columns, here he expresses fine sentiments like this one about “aggressive friendship,” but he does so in a way that to me shows that he is oblivious to some of the larger and more troubling aspects of the environment we are living in. In this column and in the commencement speech on which it is based, he makes removal of his mask into an act of liberation, playing into the views of those whose animus against government, public health and science caused them to make masks a symbol of servitude. (Recently, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green compared mask mandates to the yellow star Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust.) I am grateful to my masks for having helped keep me and my family and friends healthy this past year, and I think we should all be.



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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.

3 thoughts on “Reader at Large: May 22–June 4, 2021”

  1. Thank you for carrying David Goodman’s literary observations. He points me toward books and articles I’d like to search out. I could also add my own love for the articles and columns (which are about to be transformed into another format) of Frank Bruni in the New York Times. Not only is he an articulate observer and commentator on the sociopolitical scene, but he also appends to his columns a section called “For the Love of Sentences,” in which he culls his own as well as readers’ suggestions for brilliant usages of the English language which never fail to humor and elucidate while demonstrating the loveliness of our native language when used by folks who enjoy playing with it.

    1. David S Goodman

      Thanks for your kind words, Dennis. Apropos of your appreciation for Frank Bruni’s “For the Love of Sentences” sections, I enjoyed Brian Dillon’s recent book “Suppose a Sentence,” in which he considers and reflects upon 27 sentences from literature that he loves. In discussing one by Gertude Stein, he noted, “At Harvard, her teachers complained of her cavalier attitude to grammar, but Gertrude Stein had always taken pleasure, she said later, in learning and testing the rules: ‘I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.’ Has any writer of English prose been so vocally affected by the rigours and romance of the sentence?”

      1. Hah, I have to admit to loving diagraming sentences back in the dark ages—something I’ve never felt comfortable acknowledging in public too often. Fortunately, that subject hardly ever comes up in conversations. Yes, Gertrude did enjoy bending the rules but to do so brilliantly one must know what they are—and diagraming would definitely have helped with that. One could also imagine Alice’s brownies had some salutary effect on the enjoyment of the testing of rules in general.

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