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?
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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Though 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.
POLITICS AND SOCIETY
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.
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.
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.