What I Read This Week

I do not think there is a theme to the books I finished this week. Maybe difficult people? Because certainly all four of these books feature people who are, to varying degrees, prickly and capricious.

My favorite of the bunch is probably Daniel Mendelsohn’s memoir An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, which describes how the author–a classics professor–allows his father to audit his seminar on Homer’s Odyssey. The two men also go on an Odyssey-themed cruise, which sounds cool until it ends in disappointment — they don’t make it to Ithaca! — but is ultimately less interesting than the class. In my GoodReads review I said that this book filled me with wistfulness, and it did; I suppose this is appropriate for a book that features the Odyssey so heavily. But how I would love to take a good lit class now — I suspect I would get much more out of it than I did when I was actually an undergrad. I admit, though, that although this memoir made me want to take up the Odyssey again (maybe I’ll learn ancient Greek, I told myself) I have never quite enjoyed epic poetry as much as I probably should.

I also finished up two big fat biographies this week. I can’t remember why I initially decided to read Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, by Joe Hagan; I suppose it got a good review somewhere interesting, but I am not usually a Rolling Stone person and don’t know that much about music so it’s not the kind of thing I ordinarily pick up. This started out as an authorized biography, but it isn’t what I would call a hagiography and I believe Wenner disavowed it before it was published. And it certainly makes Jann Wenner sound like an absolutely repellent person. That is probably unfair, but I do think it is safe to say he and I would get along poorly. The book itself is well-written and researched and all that but I did get awfully tired of hanging out with Wenner.

The second big fat biography, which took me weeks to read, was the Robert Blake book on Benjamin Disraeli, the Victorian novelist/prime minister. I loved this book to bits. Partly because I am a Victorianist at heart, partly because Disraeli himself was such a fascinating person, and partly because Blake is an interesting writer. I found Disraeli’s relationship with his wife, and his proud but ambivalent feelings about his Jewish ancestry to be the most captivating threads in the book; I was also intrigued by his work as a novelist, and I may even pick up Coningsby at some point.

(I will probably never pick up Coningsby any more than I will read the Odyssey in ancient Greek, but I’m letting myself pretend.)

But in the end Blake’s asides were my favorite parts of the book. This quote, for instance, weighs heavily on my mind as we begin the long road to the 2020 presidential election:

This is the eternal cry of the diehard whether of the Right or the Left — that the way to his party’s political salvation is to adhere more rigidly than ever to the very principles on which it has suffered defeat. All leaders hear that cry often before their careers end. Most of them ignore it.

And this one, which feels less ominous, but which seems like an appropriate idea to keep in mind as I dive into The Old Curiosity Shop in April:

To modern minds the Victorians had an almost morbid preoccupation with death — and no one more so than the ruler who gave her name to the era. Yet perhaps the emotionalism, the tears, the locks of hair, the keepsakes, the plumed hearses, crape, black-edged paper and the rest provided a relief which our stiff upper lips and requests for no mourning and no flowers do not quite give. We laugh at Victorian inhibitions about sex. Are we not equally inhibited about death?

(It is illustrative of the current state of the American presidency that the quote about politics feels more ominous than the one about death.)

Finally, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Fated Sky was just a treat. This is the second book in her Lady Astronaut series; the high concept here is that a meteor hits the earth in 1952, accelerating climate change and pushing the United States and other nations to colonize space. And the urgency of the situation means that women and minorities can participate in NASA’s work at the highest levels much more fully than they could in our 1952, although not without some friction.

I liked the first book in the series, The Calculating Stars, a bit more than I liked this one; by necessity, it has more world-building, which is my favorite part of this series. I also felt that The Fated Sky was just a wee bit tokenish, and I questioned whether racism and sexism could really be pushed aside as easily as they sometimes seemed, even in a true international crisis like the one in the book. But it is still a wildly entertaining story with a really engaging main character, and I cannot wait until the third book comes out next year.

 

Robert Mueller Did Not Save Us

TrumpNestingDolls

Photo by Jørgen Håland on Unsplash

So it turns out that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was not, after all, coming to save us. Don Jr. will not be indicted (at least not by Mueller); Hope Hicks and Kellyanne Conway were similarly spared. Mueller — at least according to the Attorney General — concluded that although Russia assisted Donald Trump’s presidential bid in 2016, it was not in coordination with the campaign. More nebulously, Attorney General William Barr and his deputy Rod Rosenstein made the decision that the president did not commit criminal obstruction of justice, although the AG did quote Mueller’s terse assessment that “he is not exonerated,” and the summary of the report released by Barr doesn’t conclude that the president did nothing wrong but that all the elements of the crime were not met. This is pretty weak tea from two Trump appointees!

Still, this wasn’t terrific news for Democrats and Trump and his fans, including his press secretary, are declaring not just a victory but “total EXONERATION.” (This victory lap feels premature to me; I think I would have held back on the gloating until more of the full report was available, since even the summary literally says “he is not exonerated,” but who am I to stand in the way of a good football spike?) It is frustrating to deal with people who apparently did not ace the reading comprehension portions of the SAT. I, too, enjoyed the impressively edited “Russia with Love” montage of Mueller arresting all the most repellent members of the Trump administration. And I, too, long for a Jared Kushner perp walk. (Confidential to my boss: if Kushner is ever arrested, I will absolutely be late for work that day, and it will not be due to an accident on I-96.)

But I do think any criticism of Mueller’s motives is misplaced. I said when Mueller was first appointed that I would trust his conclusions, and I stand by that. I continue to believe in his integrity. If Mueller says he could not find evidence that Trump’s campaign actively worked with the Russians, then I believe him. I have a lot of questions, and I would like to see his evidence, but ultimately I believe him. (I never thought Trump colluded personally, on the grounds that he is too dumb to collude.) On the other hand, I do not trust Barr or Rosenstein, and I cannot take on faith their assertion that obstruction of justice could not be proven. They are going to have to give me something other than their word.

If you were hoping that Mueller’s report would contain so many bombshells even the Republicans would be willing to dump him, then you are entitled to be disappointed. But let’s keep some things in mind:

  • We now know for a fact that the Russians sought to influence the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. It was not so long ago that this idea was dismissed as a liberal fantasy. We now have a former FBI director and a Republican attorney general telling us it is fact. That is important, and we cannot allow Republicans in government to ignore it. It is crucial that we do everything we can to prevent this from happening in 2020; and it is equally crucial to remember that Trump’s narrow win is forever tainted by this actuality. We do not know what would have happened without Russian meddling. Do not let anyone tell you the Democrats cannot win in 2020. We absolutely can.
  • The special counsel did not declare the president innocent of obstruction of justice. He declined to make a decision. This is perhaps the most critical reason why the public needs to see Mueller’s 700-page report. There is at least some evidence against the president, even if every element of criminal obstruction cannot be proven. The American public must see it. Call your senators and representatives and tell them you demand it. No matter how you think they will be voting, it is important that they hear from you.
  • The fact that Trump did not actively conspire with the Russians while running for president does not mean that Trump is not currently in Putin’s sway. We know he has complicated financial entanglements with Russia. We know that his campaign insisted on changing the Ukraine plank in the 2016 platform (that was the only plank the Trump campaign cared about); we saw the disgraceful press conference with Putin in Helsinki. Maybe there’s no criminal conspiracy, but you would have to willfully ignore everything Trump has said about Russia in the last two years to believe that Putin has no undue influence on the president.
  • This report does not end the investigations into the president, his businesses, his charity, his inauguration, and his family. Those investigations will continue for the foreseeable future. Trump has also already been implicated in financial crimes by Michael Cohen. The SDNY is still investigating these crimes. They are not going to go away. It’s very possible that Don Jr. and Kushner and even Ivanka and Eric are going to get swept up into these investigations as well. And the House of Representatives is also investigating a veritable smorgasbord of Trumpian misdeeds; the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has already said he will ask the Attorney General to testify about the report.

Nothing Barr says in his summary of the Mueller report changes the fact that Trump is a terrible president who should be drummed out of office as soon as possible. He is a cruel, selfish, narcissistic grifter who repeatedly embarrasses our nation on the world stage. And so we need to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get on with the business of electing Democrats in 2020. Defeatism is the enemy. I do not believe for one second that the Democrats who are running for president are panicking over Mueller’s conclusions. I do not believe that they have been pinning all their presidential hopes on the special counsel. Now we have to stop daydreaming about Mueller riding in on a white horse, and we have to get to work. We have an abundance of talented candidates running, and they have a lot of impressive ideas and policies and reasons for your vote that have nothing to do with Robert Mueller. I urge you to find and support your candidates of choice, while also pledging to support the ultimate nominee. We need this win. And this race is absolutely winnable. (And don’t stop with the presidential race! We also need to flip the Senate if we can at all.)

Mueller didn’t save us. That is okay. We can save ourselves.

What I Read This Week

I did not notice until just now that three of the four books I finished this week dealt with race. This was pure serendipity, one of those happy accidents that occurs when you read as much as I do. Of the three, Jane Harris’s Sugar Money seemed the least successful to me: I was hoping for something plotty and complicated, like Harris’s previous novel Gillespie and I. Sugar Money is the story of two brothers sent to Granada, where they were raised, to rescue several dozen slaves. It is a straightforward adventure tale for the most part, given additional weight and emotion by the relationship between the two brothers and by the brutality of slavery. It isn’t a bad book; in particular, I thought the character of Lucien, the younger of the two brothers and the narrator was well-developed and realistic, although sometimes his voice sounded a bit off to me. (Was I influenced by my knowledge that the author is a white woman?) But it wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be. That’s probably not fair to Harris, who did not swear out an affidavit guaranteeing me the sort of book I wanted, but I was left unsatisfied.

The New Negro, a biography of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart was pretty much exactly what I expected it to be, if quite a bit longer than anticipated. It was a reading chosen for Black History Month, and then it stretched far into March. On the one hand, I had not heard of Locke before I read this book and I learned a ton about him; on the other, 873 pages of small print is a really long time to spend with someone you’ve never heard of previously, even if you should have. 

Locke, it turns out, was a prominent African-American philosopher who worked in the first half of the twentieth century. He focused on aesthetics and culture and influenced people like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Stewart writes, “Locke’s New Negro advanced a new paradigm — that one was both assimilated and non-assimilated, culturally American, but psychologically Block; and thus, what that meant was that one was thoroughly modern in a complex way.”

Locke was gay and his personal life was messy and unsatisfying — in this he reminded me a bit of Edward Lear’s life as depicted by Jenny Uglow in her recent biography. The two men were very different (although I suspect they might have enjoyed each other’s company) but alike in their frustration that they could not have full personal lives in that era.

Heads of the Colored People, a story collection by Nafissa Thompson-Spires, was another disappointment, albeit a slight one. I  love short stories, but most of these did not quite work for me — I felt that Thompson-Spires was working a little too hard to come up with a twist or a clever ending. The standouts, for me, were “Belles Lettres” (I do love a good epistolary story), “This Todd” (a story about a woman with a very specific romantic type), and the title story “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology.”

I wasn’t really crazy about the story “Suicide, Watch,” but it did have a great first paragraph:

Jilly took her head out of the oven mainly because it was hot and the gas did not work independently of the pilot light. Stupid new technology. And preferring her head whole and her new auburn sew-in weave unsinged, and having no chloroform in the house, she conceded that she would not go out like a poet.

There was a lot here that I didn’t love, but I like the author’s somewhat askew perspective on life and I will happily pick up her next book.

Finally, Nicholas Nickleby. I think I have read this immense novel four or five times now. The first time I read it I was so young I was actually worried that Madeline Bray would have to marry Arthur Gride. (Spoiler alert: Edith Wharton would have made her, but Dickens doesn’t.)

I cannot think of a book in all the literasphere that puts me in a better mood than Nicholas Nickleby. It is not by any means Dickens’s best work; it probably isn’t even in the top tier. Madeline Bray, the love interest, barely exists; she may be the least interesting character in all of Dickens’s oeuvre. (Madeline is such a nonentity that I would suspect Dickens of parodying popular romantic tropes, except that’s not really how Dickens rolls.) But on the other hand, for my money Nicholas Nickleby is the funniest of Dickens’s novels, and it certainly has a good heart. I could do without the chapter near the end of the book where Kate and Nicholas congratulate each other on their high-mindedness, but I will never not enjoy Wackford Squeers getting the beating he so richly deserves, and the Mantalinis and the Infant Phenomenon still make me giggle even though I really should be above such things.

 

 

 

 

Felicity Huffman, Ross Douthat, and the Corruption of Aristocracy

Yale-Harvard

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

It’s been a week now since the startling news that a few dozen wealthy parents, including an Oscar nominee and Aunt Becky from Full House, had been arrested in the wee hours of the morning, accused of committing varying types of fraud to get their children into their college of choice. Some of these parents went so far as to manipulate photographs to make their children look like athletes capable of competing at the college level, while others employed the almost quaint method of paying proctors to change answers on their children’s SAT exams.

If I’m being honest, after I’d satisfied myself that I was not reading an Onion article, my very first thought was, dammit, I will never again be able to watch an episode  of Sports Night without thinking of this. But my second thought was of a pair of remarkable columns Ross Douthat wrote in December (and I mean “remarkable” in the least flattering way possible), pegged to the death of George H. W. Bush, in which he bemoaned the rise of the meritocracy and the fall of the WASPs.

Douthat’s first column, “Why We Miss the WASPS,” argues that “if some of the elder Bush’s mourners wish we still had a WASP establishment, their desire probably reflects a belated realization that certain of the old establishment’s vices were inherent to any elite, that meritocracy creates its own forms of exclusion — and that the WASPs had virtues that their successors have failed to inherit or revive.” Douthat does not, at any point, offer evidence for these WASPish virtues, just asserts their existence as an article of faith. This first column contains some truly astonishing passages: he laments that the WASP aristocracy “couldn’t muster the self-confidence to hold on to Yale and Harvard” (meaning, I suppose, that it did not try hard enough to keep the unwashed masses out of ivied halls) and brushes aside concerns about diversity by arguing that “for every Brahmin bigot there was an Arabist or China hand or Hispanophile who understood the non-American world better than some of today’s shallow multiculturalists.” The second column complains that his first column was misunderstood; he is happy that the American upper class is more diverse, he says, but meritocracy is a failure because it lacks the “sense of duty, self-restraint and noblesse oblige” that he believes marks the oldest WASP families.

Douthat, not afraid to triple-down on his argument, responded to the arrests this week with a column called “The Scandals of Meritocracy.” His answer, as best I can understand it, is that dynasties are good, and everyone who wasn’t born into a blue-blooded family should concede the Ivies to the better sort, and go to state schools. In short, the true sin of the families trying to buy their way into universities was not fraud but a failure to know their place, which is decidedly below the New England aristocracy. (Hilariously, Douthat believes that this would make instruction at elite schools more rigorous because professors would be unafraid to fail students, as if universities that rely heavily on donations from wealthy donors would be willing and eager to flunk those donors’ children.)

If Douthat were younger than he is, his starry-eyed admiration of the “nobility” of aristocracy might be forgivable; as it is, he seems naive and willfully blind. Infuriatingly, he argues that meritocracy is inherently selfish and self-interested; apparently a ruling elite that desires to hold onto the privilege into which it was born is not. He takes it on faith that if the United States would simply formalize a ruling class, the families who make it up would naturally raise their children to be self-sacrificing, benevolent, and civic-minded.

That is not how it would work out. Take the British royal family, which should be the pluperfect example of an elite family with a long legacy of noblesse oblige. Let’s be fair: most members of the British royal family are pretty good at their job, which seems to consist of dressing well, showing up to various ceremonies, waving, and being charming to the small children who hand them bouquets. (I realize that sounds sarcastic, but I would be constantly tripping over things and looking at my phone and rolling my eyes at the wrong moments, so I am being quite genuine when I say I could not do what they do.)

Having said that, the British royal family? Is a hot mess. They do not exude wisdom and they should not really be in charge of anything more important than their wardrobes, their horses, and their dogs. Let’s take the Duke of Edinburgh, who at 97 should be the most sage of them all, and yet could not be bothered to give up driving even after he caused an accident that left one woman injured. And even after that it took a few weeks to coax several members of the family, including the Queen, to wear their seatbelts in accordance with British law. (The Duke did finally surrender his license when a police investigation failed to clear him of blame.)  The Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, was famously dissolute, imperious, and rude. Prince Andrew was pals with Jeffrey Epstein. Prince Edward had to give up his involvement in a dilettantish television company after he was accused of secretly filming his own nephew at college. Prince Charles was caught on tape wishing to be reincarnated as his lover’s tampon. (Apologies for the visual.) Prince Harry wore a Nazi uniform to a costume party. And when Prince Harry announced his engagement to an American woman of mixed race, Princess Michael of Kent wore a blackamoor brooch to the annual Christmas lunch. These are not people to whom I would look for moral guidance or sound judgment. I believe they are dedicated to the limited roles to which they were born, I don’t think they’re necessarily bad people (Andrew might be a bad person), but I wouldn’t trust most of them to run a lemonade stand, much less a country.

Closer to home, the actual Bush and Kennedy families do not resemble Douthat’s idealistic image of them. I can forgive Barbara Bush for calling Geraldine Ferraro a mean name in the heat of a presidential campaign, but there is no excuse for saying, after Hurricane Katrina, that evacuees “were underprivileged anyway, so . . . this is working very well for them.” George W. Bush was an alcoholic with a drunk-driving arrest under his belt before he found Jesus. Neil Bush ran a string of shady businesses and was accused of insider trading. The Bush patriarch himself was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal and in Richard M. Nixon’s attempts to obstruct the corruption investigation of his vice president. Meanwhile, the Kennedy scandals are even more numerous: what seems like dozens of drug and drunk driving arrests; the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick; the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith. Robert Kennedy Jr. uses his position as a scion of American nobility to promote conspiracy theories about vaccines and autism. The well-documented philandering of various Kennedy men seems relatively tame in comparison.

So this is the “intergenerational continuity” Douthat longs for — a stew of scandal and entitlement and antisocial behavior. Why on earth does he believe that putting such families on a pedestal, believing uncritically in their “memory and obligation, wisdom and service and patriotism” would lead to a better outcome than the current system? Would a nation with more Bushes and fewer Lincolns be an improvement? These families are not brought up on the idea of self-abnegation and civic virtue, but on the idea that they deserve the best — the best clothes, the best cars, the best colleges, and ultimately the best cover-ups — just by virtue of who they are.

No, what a formal, inherited ruling class would be more likely to give us is exactly what we saw this week: spoiled rich kids who learned long ago that they had no need to work hard, because their success and financial security was inevitable, an immutable law of the universe; and wealthy parents who wanted to secure not their children’s future–because these kids are going to have plenty of money no matter where they go to college–but their own reputations as people who not only succeeded personally, but also raised accomplished children. It’s not the mythical meritocracy that is to blame for this scandal; it’s the parents’ belief that they and their children should be treated like aristocrats.

I know this seems like a lot of time and energy and pixels to devote to a briefly newsworthy scandal and a trio of foolish columns, even if they were printed in the New York Times. But this thinking goes to the heart of an important question: what kind of country do we want to have? Do we want dynasties? Do we want a system that differentiates between the highborn and the low? Because that is essentially what the families involved in this mess were paying for, and what Douthat is literally suggesting. He doesn’t object to different families playing by different sets of rules; he objects to these particular families doing so, because they have no centuries-old dynasty to fall back on. He isn’t troubled by the corruption involved; indeed, he wants to formally enshrine it, to make de jure what increasing income inequality threatens to make de facto. And that is a problem, because the promise of the United States is that anyone can be anything. Yes, it’s a promise that often goes unfulfilled, that is plagued by hidden pitfalls, that is much thornier and more difficult to keep than it seems on the surface. But it’s still a central American ideal and if we explicitly abandon it then we are explicitly changing the country’s core principle. In exchange for what? For generational stability? For a formalized system of haves and have-nots? I am not at all sure that is a trade I want to make.

What I Read This Week

So many biographies read as if they were written by the subject’s defense attorney. Frederick Crews’s Freud: The Making of an Illusion feels like it was written by a prosecutor. Everything Freud did is pulled apart, every inconsistency noted, every sin meticulously documented. I wasn’t a quarter of the way through the book before I started to feel a little sorry for Freud, and by the halfway point I was actively constructing a defense strategy in my head. This is not my usual reaction to criticisms of Sigmund Freud!

Look, Crews is probably right about a lot of what he says. I am not an expert on Freud, but the research certainly seems solid. I do not find it difficult to believe that he fudged data, that he exploited his subjects, that he used lots and lots (and lots) of cocaine, that he had an affair with his wife’s sister. But without any counterbalance at all, with no sense of what Freud was like as a human being, it just reads like a brief for the prosecution, and 700 pages is a very long brief indeed.

By contrast Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth exudes empathy to spare. What struck me the most about this book is that Smarsh seems to have a bottomless well of compassion for her flawed family; her upbringing was messy and unstable and I would not begrudge her some bitterness but none is apparent. Instead, she calmly points out the socioeconomic factors that combined to complicate her parents’ lives:

To be made invisible as a class is an invalidation. With invalidation comes shame. A shame that deep–being poor in a place full of narratives about middle and upper classes–can make you feel like what you are is a failure.

No one around me articulated these things, let alone complained about them. The worker who feels her poor circumstances result from some personal failure is less likely to protest, strike, or demand a raise. Further, the Midwestern Catholic ethos that surrounded me as a child defaulted to silence. Our sense that our struggles were our own fault, our acceptance of the way things were, helped keep American industry humming to the benefit of the wealthy.

Smarsh is right, of course, but I sometimes wondered if her clinical analysis of the invisible forces shaping her parents’ lives masked a more personal sense of betrayal. Can all this intellectual and emotional distance be the real story? She doesn’t owe anyone an explanation of her feelings; she is entitled to keep her emotional life as private as she wants, but I could not help but muse about whether she had really discarded all that childhood baggage.

Smarsh uses a framing device in this memoir that seems to be somewhat polarizing, based on my perusal of the GoodReads reviews: she frames it as a letter to an unborn child, a child whom, she concedes late in the book, will never be born (not because she will never have children but because she will never have that particular child). This grates on a lot of people, and it did grate on me at first, but by the end of the book I had entirely come around on it.

Finally, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is the best novel I’ve read in a while. I did not expect that! I’ve only read one other book by Shamsie, A God in Every Stone, which I found dull and forgettable. But I was determined to give Home Fire a shot because it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and I am glad that I did. It’s an utterly beautiful novel, consistently captivating, and it held my attention until the very last page.

Home Fire is a very modern story: the story of three Pakistani siblings living in London. One joins an extremist group (think ISIS), one tells the authorities, one can’t forgive her sister for betraying her brother. Nothing could be more current; it felt ripped from the headlines, especially since I was reading and writing about Hoda Muthana at the time. But Shamsie bases her story on the plot of Antigone, a play written in 441 B.C. To me this was a powerful reminder of why fiction matters: a work more than two thousand years old can still feel relevant, can still have something to say so long after its author has turned to dust.

The Traitor in My Family Tree

799px-LoudonParkCem.ConfedMemDay.2012.flags.20120602

Confederate Memorial Day 2012, Loudon Park Cemetery, Baltimore. Photo by Sarnold17.

My great-great-great grandfather, Asa Ladd, was shot by the Yankees. This happened for two reasons: first, he adamantly refused to declare his allegiance to the United States when given the opportunity to do so; second, he and five of his fellow Rebels drew an unlucky black bean. His death, then, can be traced to both a certain stubbornness in political opinions (some might say this is a family trait) and unhappy fate, an adverse decision by God or the universe or a simple unfortunate arrangement of random events.

Asa Ladd’s grandson-in-law, my great-grandfather, was named Jefferson Davis Rogers, from which I conclude that it took a few decades for my family to become fully reconciled to the Southern defeat. My older son, having grown up well north of the Mason-Dixon line, was so mortified by his ancestor’s name that he insisted on replacing it with “Jeff” in a school family tree project, and in general my children regard Asa Ladd with an air of embarrassed resignation. (“At least he didn’t own slaves,” one of my sons said ruefully. “He just *aspired* to own them.”) My parents would no doubt be chagrined to learn this.  I wasn’t raised to think of Asa as a hero, exactly, but he was certainly not to be considered a villain; he was more of a tragic figure, someone who may have made some mistakes but did nothing worthy of his ignominious death.

I’ve been thinking about Asa Ladd the last couple of weeks because of Hoda Muthana and Kimberly Gwen Polman, two American women who flew to Turkey to join ISIS and now want to come back home. The government does not want them; Muthana had the dubious honor of appearing in a Presidential tweet (“I have instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and he fully agrees, not to allow Hoda Muthana back into the Country!”). Both women were befriended by Islamic militants online and convinced to leave the United States, neither seems to have done more for the cause than spread propaganda, and provide medical care. (A British woman in similar circumstances, Shamima Begum, also wants to return to her native country, and is also being kept away.)

These women made such outrageously foolish and misguided choices that it’s hard to feel a lot of sympathy for them. But there are practical reasons to repatriate these women, and other repentant refugees from ISIS: most importantly, taking a hard line against repatriation strengthens ISIS’s ability to hold onto regretful recruits, since they will believe they have nowhere else to go. It’s hard to believe these women are actually dangerous; the worst thing Muthana seems to have done is tweet intemperately, which, it must be admitted, the president does on a daily basis. It’s possible that that the women can offer intelligence on how ISIS operates and how radicalization happens. And Muthana is willing to face the prospect of American prison, if she is allowed to return and give her infant son to her parents to raise.

Was Asa Ladd any better than Hoda Muthana? In our minds we’ve sanded down the fury and oppression and sheer wrongheadedness of the Confederates to a simple disagreement on principles: they weren’t traitors but devotees of federalism. But the historical evidence does not bear this out. They believed in states’ rights, sure, but only when it was rhetorically useful to them: you don’t find any Southerners denouncing the Fugitive Slave Act in a fit of intellectual consistency. We have to be honest with ourselves even if it doesn’t make us feel good about our forebears: the South did not secede out of an excess of ideological purity. Southern appeals to ideology were purely pragmatic. The South seceded because it was a slave society and so determined to remain one that it was willing to abandon the United States.

Asa Ladd and his fellow soldiers took up arms against the United States and swore allegiance to another country, and then when that new nation collapsed, those Confederates who were not hanged or shot or bayoneted were allowed to return home and rebuild their lives. And when the survivors returned home, some of them helped form a terrorist organization: the Ku Klux Klan, which terrorized communities and beat people and photographed lynchings. In fact, 150-plus years later, white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan are still more likely to cause death and destruction in today’s United States than Islamic extremists, even if it’s the Islamic extremists that many Americans tend to fear most. And yet for the most part we don’t regard our Civil War ancestors with scorn. We put up statues in their honor and name schools after them, and we resist mightily when others suggest that maybe honor is not appropriate.

If Asa Ladd had abandoned the Confederate Army and fled north, should the North have taken him in? Muthana has a child, an infant living in a detention camp, whose future is no more than a question mark, whose citizenship is unclear. Asa Ladd’s children lived to be Americans, to have children of their own, and now 150 years later I am typing this paragraph in a comfortable American home. One hundred and fifty years hence, what will the lives of Hoda Muthana’s great-great-grandchildren look like? (And if Muthana’s grandson were named after an ISIS leader, how would we feel about that?)

It seems that so many of us — up to and including the president — are content to abandon her and her baby to the fate she recklessly chose at nineteen. It’s an understandable human impulse. But how many of us would have the lives we have today if our ancestors had been dealt with the same way we want to treat Muthana? You’d think we’d find more sympathy, since so many of us have traitors in our family trees.

What I Read This Week

I expected that Adrian Tinniswood’s Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the British Royal Household would be about royal servants. Alas, it mostly was not, no doubt in part because those who serve the British royals have been, ah, strongly discouraged from spilling what they know. Witness–for example–the sad tale of Marion Crawford, the governess to the future Queen of England and her sister, whose multiple memoirs–it will not surprise you to learn that Princess Margaret was a biter–caused her to be cut off from her former charges without so much as an annual Christmas card or even a wreath at her funeral.

But I already knew about what had happened to Crawfie, just as I already knew about Lady Flora Hastings (Queen Victoria accused her of being pregnant out of wedlock, when in fact she was suffering from cancer) and Sarah Churchill (a childhood playmate of Queen Anne who lost her position, for reasons that are minutely detailed in The Favourite). In short, I would have enjoyed Behind the Throne much more if I hadn’t already consumed so much media about the British Royal Family. As it was it served only as a mildly entertaining diversion.

Elmet, by Fiona Mozley, made quite a splash when it was published a couple of years ago, making both the Women’s Prize longlist and the Booker Prize shortlist. It’s a novel about class and poverty and family with a gothicky vibe: it is set in Yorkshire, but it reminded me forcibly of the Ozarks, where I grew up. Some have taken issue with Elmet‘s depiction of child abuse but for me the dark-fairy-tale quality kept it from being misery porn in the way that, say, A Little Life was.

The writing is beautiful and if I had had a less stressful week I might have fallen in love with this novel. As it was I struggled to focus and I only liked it. But I so felt Cathy when I read this:

I told her that I was hardly ever angry and then she told me again that she felt angry all the time.
She told me that sometimes she felt like she was breaking apart. She told me that sometimes it was as if she was standing with two feet on the ground but at the very same time part of her was running headlong into a roaring fire.

Cathy, of course, is talking about something specific in that passage but it did make me think of all the news stories about the anger of women in the past few years. I have different problems than Cathy does but boy do I feel like I am running headlong into a roaring fire some days.

I found myself very frustrated by Gerald Horne’s The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. Horne’s argument is that the primary motivation of the American Revolution was not a desire for political freedom but the colonists’ desire to preserve slavery. The thesis is so provocative and intriguing, the research is so impressive. But the presentation of the argument is strident and one-sided, to the point that it becomes difficult to take Horne’s argument wholly seriously. He makes so many good points! Yes, large sectors of the American economy at the time did rely upon slavery. Yes, the British government was pursuing abolition throughout its empire. And Horne is right to draw attention to the way colonists rhetorically compared themselves to slaves when they argued for rebellion in the years before 1776. But on the other hand Horne doesn’t seem to grasp the nuances of British history — I took issue with his account of the Jacobite rebellions, for example — and he gives short shrift to facts that do not serve his thesis.

But Horne’s thesis — poorly presented though it may be — remains a genuine contribution to the way we think about the Revolutionary War. If you’re only going to read one book about the causes of the American Revolution, this should not be the one. But read in tandem with a more conventional account (maybe Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution), it would serve as a useful corrective to the rah-rah depictions of the American colonists as devotees of freedom.