The Traitor in My Family Tree


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.

Hillary Clinton and The Cult of True Womanhood

The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors, and society, could be divided into four cardinal virtues – piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Put them all together and the spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife – woman. Without them, no matter whether there was fame, achievement, or wealth, all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power.

— Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820 – 1860”

I agree w/Hillary, it’s time to elect a woman for President. But I want that President to reflect the values of being a mother. #MothersDay

— Jill Stein, Twitter, May 8, 2016

What’s important about Hillary Clinton? She’s been a Secretary of State, a senator, a partner in a law firm. She has a much stronger understand of policy, both foreign and domestic, than any of her opponents. But that’s not what’s really important. What’s really important, Jill Stein tells us, is her fitness to be a mother, which is apparently lacking, despite the fact that her only child seems to have turned out just fine.

One of the many, many infuriating things about Stein’s tweet is that it’s impossible to imagine anyone saying something similar about a man. Does anyone think that  either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump “reflect the values” of being a father? Would anyone even ask that question out loud?

I think what Jill Stein is getting at — although it’s impossible to be certain from this tweet — is that Hillary is too “hawkish.” It’s true that Hillary favors a more interventionist foreign policy than Stein (or I) would like. But why frame that in terms of motherhood? Denigrating Hillary’s maternal qualities, doesn’t make Stein’s message any clearer; indeed it makes it harder to understand. And this kind of framing plays into True Woman stereotypes: all real women are gentle, demure, peaceful. No True Woman would willingly go to war.

I grew up in Arkansas; Bill Clinton is the only governor I remember. I learned the definition of the word “lesbian” because I overheard my mom speculating about Hillary. It’s not that there was any reason to believe that she was a lesbian; it’s just that she didn’t seem like other women. She was bossy, pushy, opinionated. She talked back to people. She made no bones about the fact that she thought she was smarter than, well, most everyone. “You have to admit,” my mother said darkly when I tried to defend her, “she’s an awfully strong woman.”

It’s been common, in this electoral cycle, to joke about the double-bind Hillary finds herself in (Brett Arends compiled this helpful list for MarketWatch, and Jimmy Kimmel assisted Hillary with her speech delivery on his show). But it’s not just about Hillary, and it’s not just conservatives and third-party outliers. In 2008 even feminists disparaged Sarah Palin for campaigning with a young baby and joked about her teenage daughter’s pregnancy. Palin was running for national office and wasn’t clear on the fact that there was both a North and a South Korea; there was a lot of room for criticism. There was no need to bring up her maternal success. But people did. What kind of a father is John McCain? I have no idea. I don’t remember that the topic ever came up.

Welter argues in her essay that the True Woman explicated in the ladies’ magazines of the nineteenth century eventually evolved into the New Woman–a woman who was strong, independent, and ran her own life. “And yet,” Welter writes, “the stereotype, the ‘mystique’ if you will, of what woman was and ought to be persisted, bringing guilt and confusion in the midst of opportunity.” It’s been two hundred years, and the evolution isn’t complete. The guilt and confusion still linger. You have to wonder if, as a country, we’re ever going to get to a point where a woman’s motherliness is not the overwhelming criterion for how we judge her.


The Perils of Criticizing Donald Trump

melaniaHere is something that is happening in 2016: Julia Ioffe, a Jewish journalist, wrote a profile of Melania Trump for GQ, and she incorporated less-than-flattering facts about Melania Trump’s father, and now she has a bunch of Trump supporters tweeting her with references to the Holocaust.

In this profile, Ioffe included three paragraphs about Melania’s father, and specifically about the fact that he supported financially but never had a relationship with Melania’s half-brother, the product of a youthful dalliance. Other than that, the profile was generally positive. Sample passage:

…[U]nlike her husband, Melania is reserved, polite, and steady, say those close to her. “There is a peace in her,” one old friend from Slovenia tells me. She is a homebody. She’s rich, but not a socialite; she prefers family to the It set and retires early after events.

Now, had I been the writer of this profile, I would not have included the information about Melania’s father. I get that it’s a scoop, or at least a scooplet. But as a reader, I would be far more interested in three more paragraphs about the elusive Melania, for whom, full disclosure, I have an inexplicable fondness.1 I think she is probably a fairly interesting person, and I would like to know more about her. And so to me the whole mess with Melania’s father and the son just felt extraneous. He did support him, after all; more to the point, what does a half-century-old private scandal once removed have to do with the presidential race in 2016?

Melania Trump didn’t like the profile, and hey, fair enough. Let’s be honest: even if I thought it were relevant I wouldn’t appreciate having my dad’s wild oats strewn across a national publication either.2 But it bears repeating: it is a generally positive profile. If everyone had just remained calm the profile would have been a net win, if a small one, for the Trump camp.

Of course, the Trump camp being the Trump camp, there was no calm. Here’s what happened:

Melania Trump tweeted her displeasure, as is her right. And then all hell broke loose. Over the next several days, Julia Ioffe received an anonymous call from someone who played a Hitler speech in her ear. There was another call from an outfit called “Overnight Caskets” (I don’t know what that is, but it certainly sounds vaguely threatening). She got another call from a company that specializes in cleaning up after homicides. (Points for creativity, I guess?) She got emails suggesting that her face would “look good on a lampshade.” Someone tweeted a picture of her with a yellow star photoshopped onto her blouse. There is a bunch of other truly vile anti-Semitic nonsense that was tweeted, but trying to summarize it just made me sad about the world and I eventually gave up. The Daily Stormer, an online bastion of white supremacy, wrote a blog post with the charming title “Empress Melania Attacked by Filthy Russian Kike Julia Ioffe in GQ!”3

Again, I don’t blame Melania Trump for not liking the profile. I wouldn’t have liked it either. But that’s not the story anymore. The story now is that Trump’s supporters have horrifically overreacted to a very mild affront, and Trump has, to my knowledge, done nothing to disavow this. And one has to wonder, what happens if Trump becomes president? Is every journalist in America going to face this kind of invective every time he is criticized?

I am currently reading Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain. She cautions against referring to American politicians as totalitarian:

In popular speech, the word “totalitarian” isn’t so much self-serving as overused. Democratically elected politicians are described as totalitarian (e.g., “Rick Santorum’s Totalitarian Instincts”), as are governments or even companies (one can read of “The United States’ march toward totalitarianism” or learn that Apple has a “totalitarian approach to its app store”). Libertarians, from Ayn Rand on, have used the word to describe progressive liberals. Progressive liberals (and indeed conservatives) have used the word to describe Ayn Rand. The word is nowadays applied to so many people and institutions that it can sometimes seem meaningless.

So far, I agree with her. Constantly invoking the names of Hitler and Stalin every time an opposing politician says something we don’t like only cheapens the narrative and allows us to obscure the horrific number of deaths and ruined lives in the wake of true totalitarianism. Yet I admit these passages gave me pause:

Everywhere the Red Army went–even in Czechoslovakia, from which the Soviet troops eventually withdrew–these newly minted secret policemen immediately began to use selective violence, carefully targeting their political enemies according to previously composed lists and criteria. In some cases they targeted enemy ethnic groups as well. . . .Soviet authorities, again in conjunction with local communist parties, carried out policies of mass ethnic cleansing, displacing millions of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and others from towns and villages where they had lived for centuries. Trucks and trains moved people and a few scant possessions into refugee camps and new homes hundreds of miles away from where they had been born. Disoriented and displaced, the refugees were easier to manipulate and control than they might have been otherwise.

Is it really so hard to believe that a Trump inauguration might usher in that kind of trumpviolence? I would never call Trump a totalitarian, if only because I find it difficult to imagine him implementing the kind of centralized economic control that was the hallmark of totalitarian governments. But I think some of his rhetoric and behavior taps into a totalitarian impulse in his supporters–a desire for strong authority, a desire to show people who’s boss. They’re attacking bystanders at Trump rallies; they’re sending anti-Semitic death threats to journalists. And what does Trump say about the attacks? At a press conference in March, he said, “The audience hit back and that’s what we need a little bit more of.”

This is a thing that is happening in 2016. It may not be totalitarianism, but I think it might be the thin edge of the wedge.

1 At least, I do not think she is dumb, as some have implied, and I do not think that her posing on a bearskin rug should disqualify her husband from the presidency. return

2 My dad’s wild oats consist, in their entirety, of a youthful scrape with the law for hunting without a license. Also I think he failed a class in college. return

3 Of course, the great irony of all of this is that Trump’s daughter Ivanka–with whom he is clearly besotted–is a Jew by choice and is raising her three children in the Jewish faith. You have to wonder (a) does the Daily Stormer know about this? and (b) does Ivanka know about the Daily Stormer? return