Reader at Large: May 8-21, 2021

by David Goodman | May 24, 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.


The term “public intellectual” always makes me more than a little suspicious: is the person just a popularizer of ideas that more complex or innovative thinkers developed and that the public intellectual dumbs down to pander to a larger audience? Or is the public intellectual one of the rare individuals with the ability to address philosophical and cultural issues in a way that places them in a real-world context and makes them both relevant and meaningful to the non-academic public?

Book cover of "Aspiration"

I put University of Chicago philosophy professor Agnes Callard in the latter category. Her book “Aspiration” intrigued me, because it raises a question that I—and I think many others—have often tried to address without clear awareness we are doing so: how do we pursue certain values when we do not yet know what having those values will be like? How do we strive to change or develop as a person when we cannot yet know clearly what undergoing that change or development will involve? She writes:

We aspire by doing things, and the things we do change us so that we are able to do the same things, or things of that kind, better and better. In the beginning, we sometimes feel as though we are pretending, play-acting, or otherwise alienated from our own activity. We may see the new value as something we are trying out or trying on rather than something we are fully engaged with and committed to. We may rely heavily on mentors whom we are trying to imitate or competitors whom we are trying to best. As time goes on, however, the fact (if it is a fact) that we are still at it is usually a sign that we find ourselves progressively more able to see, on our own, the value that we could barely apprehend at first. This is how we work our way into caring about the many things that we, having done that work, care about.

Podcaster and now New York Times columnist Ezra Klein interviewed Callard in a recent episode of his podcast “The Ezra Klein Show.” He draws her out on the topic of aspiration in a way that is engaging and enlightening. Via the link above, one can listen or read the transcript.

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Cover to Alison Bechdel's new graphic memoirThough I have not devoted much attention to graphic novels, I love the works of Alison Bechdel, and not just—though at least in part—because she is an alum of my alma mater, Oberlin College. I have been reading and viewing her new graphic memoir, “The Secret to Superhuman Strength.” She deals with many of the same experiences that she portrayed in “Fun Home,” but she does much more in this book. As many great memoirs do, this one captures and conveys her life story while weaving it into the cultural history of her era. The text and and the drawings intertwine seamlessly.

Whence and Whither the GOP

Washington Post (WP) column (5/9/21): “The big myth about Cheney, Trump and the GOP” by James Downie
[W]hile Cheney, Hogan and others want to argue that their vision of the Republican Party competes with Trump’s, that’s simply not the case. I’ve written previously that the GOP is still Trump’s GOP. But the reverse is also true: Trump’s GOP is the GOP as it’s ever been.

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But the broader pattern goes much further back than the Bush years. The Republican Party playbook is the same as it ever was: Disguise worshipfully pro-big business, pro-wealthy policies with appeals to the resentments of President Richard M. Nixon’s “silent majority” or Sarah Palin’s “real Americans” or whatever label the party prefers for a specific type of White American.

But for a different perspective:

WP column (5/13/21) “The GOP has lost its way. Fellow Americans, join our new alliance” by Charlie Dent, Mary Peters, Denver Riggleman, Michael Steele and Christine Todd Whitman (Charlie Dent represented Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District in the U.S. House from 2005 to 2018. Mary Peters was secretary of transportation during the George W. Bush administration. Denver Riggleman represented Virginia’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House from 2019 to 2021. Michael Steele is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Christine Todd Whitman was governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001)

With Cheney’s dismissal from House leadership, the battle for the soul of the Republican Party—and our country—is not over. It is just beginning, which is why we are forming a “resistance of the rational” against the radicals. We still hope for a healthy, thriving Republican Party, but we are no longer holding our breath.

Extending Life and Pursuing Death With Dignity

New Yorker article (5/10/21) “We’ve Had Great Success Extending Life. What About Ending It?” by Brooke Jarvis (a review of “Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer” by Steven Johnson and of “The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die” by Katie Engelhart)
[T]he innovations that have saved the most lives are the product of piecemeal improvements, built on networks of support and inspiration, and spread by social movements. Most were not blockbuster therapies or expensive medicines but unsexy, low-tech ideas, like water chlorination or better techniques for treating dehydration. Almost none, he [Johnson] points out, came from profit-seeking companies. And many were just advancements in basic bureaucracy—the creation of public institutions that could systematically track health data, require that drugs be tested and regulated, or enforce simple safety measures.

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A remarkably nuanced, empathetic, and well-crafted work of journalism, it [Engelhart’s book] explores what might be called the right-to-die underground, a world of people who wonder why a medical system that can do so much to try to extend their lives can do so little to help them end those lives in a peaceful and painless way. Engelhart writes, “It would be hard to exaggerate how many people told me that they wish simply for the same rights as their cherished dogs—to be put out of their misery when the time is right.”

Apropos of this subject, on April 23, 2021, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published my guest column “Ohioans need access to legal end-of-life options such as medical aid in dying,” prompted by New Mexico’s enactment earlier that month of the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act.

Abortion Rights

New York Times (NYT) column (5/13/21): “The Anti-Abortion Movement Can’t Use This Myth Anymore” by Jessica Valenti
For years, anti-abortion activists have tried to impose their morality under the guise of women’s health and protection. Legislators have proposed anti-choice bills with names like “woman’s right to know,” which sound compassionate but in reality force doctors to falsely claim that women who end their pregnancies suffer physical and mental harm. The primary political strategy of abortion foes relies on the claim that abortion is brutal and dangerous, a myth that is much harder to perpetuate when people can easily access medicine to safely end their pregnancies at home.

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Every abortion advancement—from earlier, less invasive procedures to increased access to medication abortion—forces anti-choice activists and legislators to show their most extremist hand: Their goals have almost nothing to do with health, safety or even babies but everything to do with controlling women.

The Environment


President Nixon signing Clean Air Act in 1970
Source: Wikimedia Commons

National Geographic (April 2021): “An Environmental Problem We Can Fix” by Susan Goldberg, Editor
There’s no better example of that than the experience of the United States, which last year celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act. Signed by President Richard Nixon on December 31, 1970, this single statute resulted in a 77 percent decrease in the nation’s air pollution. It lengthened millions of American lives, saved trillions of dollars, and according to the American Lung Association’s Paul Billings, became “the most powerful public health law enacted in the 20th century.”

The Middle East

NYT column (5/19/21): “The ‘Unshakable’ Bonds of Friendship With Israel Are Shaking” by Nicholas Kristof
Some young Americans see the rise of this hawkish, more extremist Israel and perceive not a plucky democracy but an oppressive military power. What strikes them most isn’t democratic values so much as what Human Rights Watch calls “crimes of apartheid.” Netanyahu also undermined bipartisan American support for Israel by undercutting Democrats like Obama and aligning himself at the hip with Donald Trump and America’s right wing.

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It isn’t Islamophobic to denounce Iran’s nuclear program. It’s not anti-Christian to reproach President Donald Trump for condoning white nationalism. And it’s not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel for possible war crimes.

Local Government Support for Local News

NYT column (5/20/21): “How City Hall Saved Local News” by Sarah Bartlett and Julie Sandorf (Ms. Bartlett is the dean of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and Ms. Sandorf is the president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation.)
At a time when newsrooms nationwide are laying off reporters and some are closing down, a program begun by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has been helping to sustain small, independent media outlets in every corner of the city.

In May 2019 he signed an executive order requiring city agencies to direct at least half their budgets for digital and print advertising to community newspapers and websites.

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Other solutions are emerging. More local news outlets, for instance, are considering becoming nonprofits to enable philanthropic support for their work. In the meantime, New York City has created a model that we know works, that doesn’t require new taxpayer funding and that can be readily adopted in communities across the nation.


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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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