Reader at Large: October 8–29, 2021

by David Goodman | November 1, 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 my previous column, I mentioned how eagerly I was looking forward to reading the new novel “The Magician” by Colm Tóibín, based on the life of Nobel laureate Thomas Mann. I have finished it, and it fulfilled my best expectations. Tóibín deftly interweaves Mann’s extraordinary personal and family life, his novels and essays, and the troubled and turbulent history of Germany, Europe and the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Throughout World War I, the rise of the Nazis, World War II and the early years of the Cold War, Tóibín portrays Mann ever reexamining his roots in German history and culture and striving to understand how the glories of its literature and music could have coexisted with the germs of the Third Reich.

What he wished to say was, he thought, perhaps too complex to matter in this time of simple polarities. He was insisting that all Germans were to blame; he wished to argue that German culture and the German language contained the seeds of the Nazis, but they also contained the seeds of a new democracy that could be brought into being now, a fully German democracy. For his example, he went to Martin Luther as an incarnation of the German spirit, an exponent of freedom who was also a set of opposites in which each element contained its own undoing. Luther was rational, but his speech could be intemperate. He was a reformer, but his response to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524 was insane. He had in him all the fury and foolishness that inspired the Nazis, but he also contained a willingness to change, to see reason, to want the sort of progress that might inspire a new Germany.

Though the novel describes the genesis of Mann’s major works (e.g., “Buddenbrooks,” “The Magic Mountain” and “Death in Venice”), this is not a literary history, and one need not have read those works to appreciate this novel.

* * *

George Orwell portrait
A new biography of George Orwell reveals the man who reveled in the simple joys of life behind the anti-totalitarian social critic. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Though George Orwell would probably have rebuffed reverence, I revere him. Fortunately, so does the writer and social activist Rebecca Solnit. In her new book “Orwell’s Roses,” Solnit enables us to view Orwell not only as the prescient, truth-telling, anti-totalitarian author of  “1984” and “Animal Farm,” but also as a man for whom the natural world and the simple joys of life, even during its most horrendous times, were of essential importance. She quotes a passage from Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” that she describes as having become a credo for her:

“But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.”

Solnit also uses Orwell’s life and his love of gardening as a springboard for discussions of topics to which her pursuit of Orwell led her (e.g., the global trade in flowers and the exploitation of its workers), but these forays always seemed to me to enhance, rather than distract from, the life of Orwell at the book’s core.

George Orwell's signature
An example of the signature of British writer Eric Blair, with his pen name, “George Orwell,” in quotes Source: Wikipedia


Gender Ideology

Guardian (10/23/21): “Why Is the Idea of ‘Gender’ Provoking Backlash the World Over?” by Judith Butler
In this article, philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler examines the question why the concept of gender and  “gender ideology” have globally become the object of intense hatred.

For this reactionary movement [i.e., the attack on “gender ideology”], the term “gender” attracts, condenses, and electrifies a diverse set of social and economic anxieties produced by increasing economic precarity under neoliberal regimes, intensifying social inequality, and pandemic shutdown. Stoked by fears of infrastructural collapse, anti-migrant anger and, in Europe, the fear of losing the sanctity of the heteronormative family, national identity and white supremacy, many insist that the destructive forces of gender, postcolonial studies, and critical race theory are to blame. When gender is thus figured as a foreign invasion, these groups clearly reveal that they are in the business of nation-building. The nation for which they are fighting is built upon white supremacy, the heteronormative family, and a resistance to all critical questioning of norms that have clearly restricted the freedoms and imperiled the lives of so many people.

Racism and White Guilt

New York Times (NYT) (10/29/21): “I’m With Condoleezza Rice About White Guilt” by John McWhorter

I always find the views of Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter thought provoking, even when I do not agree with him. This is one of his arguments with which I do not agree, but nonetheless find interesting. McWhorter seems to be creating a straw man by setting up the questionable premise that causing white guilt is the purpose of much of what is now broadly (and wrongly) attacked as “Critical Race Theory,” and he then attacks that purpose. I believe the purpose behind the New York Times’ “1619 Project” and other such efforts to examine the extent to which we continue to be afflicted by racism and segregation and their consequences is not guilt mongering, but rather education aimed at greater awareness, regardless of whether it causes white guilt.  Nonetheless, I think the article is worth reading.

But presumably, the goal is to make America “a more perfect union,” as the Constitution has it. And if that’s the goal, our collective efforts to reach it presumably would be about addressing societal conditions rather than these more soul-focused endeavors. One might argue that a realer, not to mention healthier, manifestation of Black affirmation would come from more concrete markers of progress than the dutiful hand-wringing of well-meaning white people about their forebears’ sins.

Those Damned Leaf Blowers!

NYT (10/25/21): “The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Leaf Blowers” by Margaret Renkl
I look forward to the columns of Margaret Renkl in the New York Times for their gentle descriptions of nature and their reminders of the joys of observing it, but she goes on attack in this column about the scourge of gas-powered leaf blowers. As our neighborhood’s—totally unsuccessful—crusader against leaf-blowers and their horrendous noise pollution, I cheered her on.

But the trouble with leaf blowers isn’t only their pollution-spewing health consequences. It’s also the damage they do to biodiversity. Fallen leaves provide protection for overwintering insects and the egg sacs of others. Leaf blowers, whether electric or gasoline-powered, dislodge the leaf litter that is so essential to insect life—the insect life that in turn is so essential to birds and other wildlife.

Leaf litter, important habitat for insections
Source: Habitat Network



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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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