No man is an island, but Sierra County could be

by Max Yeh | April 12, 2021
5 min read
Source: New York Times

As of Sunday, this is what COVID-19 looks like statistically in America. It certainly looks like the U.S. is into a fourth surge, with new cases higher than both the initial and summer surges of last year.

If you go to the New York Times breakdown by states, you will see the surge is being driven by states like Michigan, Illinois, New Jersey and Florida.

California, which until recently has seen declining new infections, just started levelling out a few days ago, according to Los Angeles Times stats, but yesterday was up enough to suspect it is not going to stop rising.

New Mexico is doing extremely well, hitting zero infections a day several times recently, though still running seven-day averages in the hundreds. Doña Ana County, which has been a problem area, continues to go down, and El Paso keeps holding flat.

The U.S. eschewed the traditional way of dealing with epidemics (quarantine) by opting for the novel, high-tech method of computer designed vaccines, but now it seems that the populist notion of “freedom,” “choice,” and “independence” has defeated that solution, too.  We are now some four weeks past the new-cases low created by the vaccine, and the deaths are beginning to rise, as one fears. We are still closing in on the dubious record of killing more people by spreading the virus than in any military war.

New Mexico COVID tracker, as of Sunday. Source: New York Times

Initially, when the epidemic was spreading, rural areas mistakenly thought that their sparse population protected them from communal spread. Science told us the disease was bound to spread pretty evenly across the country. It was just delayed by sparsity of population in some areas and states. But, now that the disease is everywhere, the surge will not necessarily even out eventually. We in Sierra County still have a chance—depending on our vaccination rates and sane behavior—not to join the surge. And, if vaccination prevents transmission, we have a pretty good chance.

In Sierra County, about 50 percent of us have been vaccinated once.  Some of these approximately 5,000 people will have gotten the one-shot vaccine, and some will have gotten the first of two shots. Let’s assume that those on the two-dose vaccine will get their second shot and so be protected about 95 percent of the time. That leaves the 5,000 others for us to worry about. If we can convince 3,000 of them to get vaccinated, we just might destroy the virus by starving it of victims. After all, the virus can only increase in numbers by spreading to new bodies and procreating new viruses; otherwise, it dies of old age.

I have many times heard people say that vaccination is a personal choice, implying that we have no right to convince people to do it. But is this true?

My sense of “freedom,” “choice,” and “independence” comes from the Declaration of Independence. That is the basic document in our culture that defined our freedoms and liberties. There, I find this defining sentence, the second one in the document: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

There are, then, three elements to American freedom: equality, permanence, and the right to life, liberty, and happiness. And as the order suggests equality comes first because it describes the general social condition within which the freedoms are defined. Because of that first principle, everyone has those freedoms, not just whoever proclaims them. Because of that fundamental equality, which is “unalienable,” we do not shoot each other and claim to have the God-given right to do so.

Equality makes the freedoms we share a vision of protecting another’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness rather than an assertion of one’s own will or desire or choice to do something. We protect our rights by protecting the rights of others. In America, rights are rights by virtue of our shared equality. Your property rights exist not because of your fence or because the sheriff will protect them, but because others have the duty to keep off your land. The first principle of equality makes duty the corollary of a right.

Your endowment of rights comes along with your duty to protect equality. If you kill someone, you fail your duty and deny that person’s equal right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

So, I am not at all sure that the decision to vaccinate during a lethal pandemic is a personal choice. It seems to me that, in America, especially, it is a social choice. Is it so difficult after 200 years for us to understand that freedom in America means everyone is free equally to live, to enjoy life? It is not authoritarian to tell someone during a pandemic that we all have the duty to protect everyone else. In fact, to do that, is to act like a free and independent person in a free society opting to live in the freedom of equality.

If every two of us successfully convinced one other person to get a vaccination, the county could easily be a COVID-free island.

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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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