Robert Mueller Did Not Save Us

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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

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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

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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.

The Politics of Dilettantism: Diana Mosley and Ivanka Trump

ivanka-and-dianaFifty years from now, some interviewer will sit down with an elderly Ivanka Trump. What will she say?

“I can’t regret it,” maybe. “It was so interesting.”

Was her father anti-Semitic? “He really wasn’t, you now. He didn’t know a Jew from a Gentile. But he was attacked so much by Jews that he picked up the challenge.”

What was her relationship with him like? “He was obviously an interesting figure. It was fascinating for me, to sit and talk with him, to ask him questions and get answers, even if they weren’t true ones. No torture on earth would get me to say anything different.”

Those aren’t Ivanka quotes, of course. Not yet. No, those are Diana Mosley quotes, and she was talking about Adolf Hitler.

Diana Mosley, you may remember, was one of the Mitford girls — six upper-crusty sisters who grew up in 1920s Britain and went on to lead, to greater or lesser degrees,  splashy, dramatic lives. Diana’s sister Unity was even more enamored with Hitler, to the point that she attempted suicide at the beginning of World War II, surviving but effectively reduced to a childlike state for the rest of her life. Jessica was a communist and muckraker; Nancy wrote novels; Deborah became the Duchess of Devonshire. (Pamela is the one you have to think about for a moment before saying, “Oh, yes, and Pamela.”)

But Diana was a fascist, wed to a fascist in Goebbels’s drawing room, having tea and crumpets with Hitler. She and her husband were both imprisoned in Britain during World War II, and they continued to help finance the British Union of Fascists long after the war ended. And just as I was reading about her fascination with Hitler in Laura Thompson’s Take Six Girls (which I can’t recommend; read Mary Lovell’s The Sisters instead) Ivanka Trump was making news for telling Fox News, “I don’t think most Americans, in their heart, want to be given something. . . . People want to work for what they get.”

Ivanka has since been dragged in a thousand editorials for her lack of self-awareness and stunning hypocrisy, but I could not stop thinking of Diana Mosley. Ivanka and Diana remind me of each other, not so much because each was or is in the sway of a particularly terrible world leader, but because of their dilettantish approach to politics. Hitler ran roughshod over Europe while Diana exulted over how exciting it all was for her and gushed over Der Fuhrer’s blue eyes and charming manner. Ivanka posts Instagram photos of herself snuggling with her two-year-old the same weekend that children are being violently separated from their parents and chit-chats with a long-suffering Angela Merkel, attending foreign policy meetings in her father’s stead while bringing no expertise or experience to the table.

This is a problem in nations afflicted by ever-widening income inequality: the wealthy can afford to approach politics as a diversion, congratulating themselves on having interesting life experiences and wielding influence (and in Ivanka’s case, actual political power) while secure in the knowledge that they will be forever protected from the consequences of the policies they tacitly or explicitly approve. It’s not so much a lack of self-awareness as a hyperawareness that nothing truly terrible will ever happen to them.

And yet perhaps they are not always entirely right about that. Sometimes the stakes are so high that their wealth and privilege cannot quite protect them from their actions. Diana Mosley and her husband spent three years in prison during World War II (Laura Thompson regards this as cruel, but neglects to mention that Diana told her interrogators that “she would like to see the German system of government in England because of all it had achieved in Germany”). It remains to be seen what will happen to Ivanka. Will she be charged and convicted by the state of New York, or by the federal government’s Southern District of New York? (Rumors abound that she and her brothers have already been saved from prosecution once, years before her father’s presidency.) Will her father agree to resign to spare her prison? Will he pardon her? Or has she skirted closely enough to the edge of the law to prevent culpability?

But then again when all is said and done, when the prison doors have opened and they have returned to high society with wealth and status largely intact, maybe even prison is just another life experience. When this era is behind us, in the twilight of her life, what will Ivanka say? Will the scales ever fall from her eyes? “It can’t regret it, it was so interesting.” It’s not hard to imagine an eighty-year-old Ivanka reflecting. “No torture on earth would get me to say anything different.”

John McCain’s Last Wish: Trolling Trump

When Charles Dickens divorced his wife, her sister sided with him and even lived with him for several years to help him raise the children. The ex-Mrs. Dickens took this remarkably calmly, but when she died she left her sister one piece of jewelry: a ring shaped like a snake. I have long regarded this as the finest example of throwing shade from beyond the grave I have ever encountered.

Until today.

 

Morning Reading, May 25, 2018

This morning:

  • Harry Litman, writing for the Washington Post, tells Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Christopher Wray to resign in protest:

    Resignations are a time-honored response for executive-branch officials and Cabinet members — think Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus in the Nixon administration — confronting orders that violate their consciences or oaths of office. We take it as not only permissible but also commendable, and at times morally necessary, for senior officials to resign rather than comply with objectionable presidential directives. Their actions are widely seen as a matter of higher duty, and an expression of fealty to law over men and office over officeholder.

  • The New Republic has a really fascinating story about John McCain and the media, and why the Washington press corps loves him so much. The thesis: that the press adores McCain because he  gives them access that no one else does, and also he seems to be interested in them as people.

    McCain understands something elemental about journalists: They love to hear good stories, and they love to tell good stories. This might seem obvious, but few politicians, in 2000 or 2018, have shown a willingness to give reporters the necessary access for such stories—nor do many politicians have personal stories as dramatic as McCain’s. Thus, most campaigns and congressional offices these days are more tightly scripted than a prime-time crime procedural on CBS.

    I have always liked McCain, as I think most people do, even though I find him frequently infuriating. How much of my affection for him is his own likability, how much of it is my connection to his PoW experience (my grandfather was a PoW in World War II), and how much of it was affected by media spin? It’s hard to say.

  • In the Nation, Laila Lalami argues that publicly shaming racists is totally appropriate:

    Schlossberg’s assertion of authority over public space is, of course, protected from government interference by the First Amendment. But that right doesn’t protect him from the social consequences of his speech, including disruption and discomfort. Those protesting Schlossberg’s actions are, in fact, exercising their own free-speech rights to object to his racism and nativism. The simple truth is that if racist behavior is insulated from social shaming, it will likely continue and multiply until it becomes accepted. What happens when a majority of Americans hold views like Schlossberg’s?

    The history of this country is replete with examples of how public space was regulated to ensure that one racial group was made comfortable at the expense of others. This is why it’s important to speak out, and speak out now. Allies can help to stop the harassment, or at least deflect it.

  • And Foreign Policy has a really interesting piece on the vote to repeal the pro-life amendment to the Irish constitution:

    As polls have shown the repeal vote maintaining a significant lead, some on the wilder fringes of the anti-abortion rights campaign have been evoking catastrophic scenarios in which Ireland becomes depopulated, baby-hating Muslims take over, and the Irish become “strangers in our own land.” Others, concerned by evidence that compassion is at play among voters, have stated in recent days that it will be possible to legislate for “hard cases” — such as pregnancy arising from rape, suicidal tendencies arising from crisis pregnancy, and pregnancies involving fatal fetal abnormalities — without repealing the constitutional ban on abortion. They are saying this despite 35 years during which there have been multiple attempts to create laws for the so-called hard cases of rape and fatal fetal abnormalities, but all have been ruled unconstitutional.

    The Taoiseach, Varadkar, has firmly rejected such scare tactics. He told the Dail, the lower house of Ireland’s parliament, this week: “I would contend that it is actually our hard laws that create those hard cases. And the Eighth Amendment is too hard and forces a very hard law on Irish people and Irish women.”

    Thousands of young Irish emigrants are returning home from Britain, the United States, and farther afield to vote for change. Whatever the outcome, feminism has energized the people, reached the halls of power, and made it into Ireland’s mainstream public debate at last.

Morning Reading, May 24, 2018

Weird that yesterday felt very busy and full of news and yet this morning’s articles weren’t particularly interesting. Maybe everyone is, like me, processing last night’s The Americans.

  • In the New Republic, Maya Wiley writes about how district attorneys can change criminal justice:

    These are different campaigns, in different communities, but one thing they all have in common is a focus on how “prosecutorial discretion” can be used as a tool for reform.

    It’s a relatively new idea. For decades, reformers focused on changing America’s criminal justice system through its legislatures, a process that is vital but necessarily slow. Entrenched, powerful constituencies, like police unions and DA associations, can often slow legislation or stop it altogether. The California legislature, for example, took almost two decades to amend the notorious 1994 “three strikes” law, which required a 25-years-to-life sentence for a third felony conviction. This was despite the fact that just two years after its enactment, black people were receiving three strikes at 13 times the rate of whites. Today, with more than two million people languishing in America’s prisons and jails, at a cost to taxpayers of $87 billion per year, waiting for a legislature to act is not acceptable. Families with members suffering abuse in jail, job loss, and separation simply can’t afford to wait.

    The quintessential example of this, of course, is the high-profile Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, but according to Wiley, other cities — such as Albuquerque, Denver, Houston, Jacksonville, and Tampa — have also elected reforming prosecutors. It does make me wonder why it’s so hard to convince politicians to change the laws, since apparently these kinds of prosecutors are becoming more popular.

  • In the Weekly Standard, Jonathan V. Last surprises me by offering up a solution for the kneeling-NFL-player conundrum that I can actually get behind, if for slightly different reasons than he suggests. Yesterday the NFL owners announced that players could remain in the locker room during the anthem, but would be fined if they knelt during it. Here’s Last’s alternative:

    [T]he League understands the underlying point of your protests and we agree with you. The statistics on police use of deadly force are sobering. The statistics on police shootings of African-American men are sobering, too. And the specific cases of misconduct that America has seen over the last few years are simply awful. No matter which side of the culture war you’re on, a case like the murder of Walter Scott and the attempt of police to cover it up, ought to fill you with rage.

    So instead of making a gesture by kneeling during the national anthem, we want to try to address the problem in a concrete way. The League is going to start funneling some of its charitable giving to local police departments to fund body cameras.

    I . . . kind of agree with this? (This is very confusing for me.) My issue with the kneeling is not that I think it’s unpatriotic or an insult to the troops or any nonsense like that; the best way to honor the troops, in my opinion, is to take full advantage of the Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms they fought for. It makes no sense to me to elevate a symbol (the flag) over the substance (the Constitution). But why are liberal protestors ceding patriotism to the right anyway? If there’s anything that the last eighteen months has cemented in my mind, it’s that protestors are the real patriots. So protesting in a way that allows the Right to feel morally superior is not my favorite. But I do like the idea of the NFL owners ponying up some of their own cash to try to actually solve the problem, and of them stating on the record that police brutality is a real problem that deserves a solution.

    My guess is that Last’s compromise wouldn’t work largely because a lot of the owners don’t think that police brutality is a real problem. They can’t even be convinced to take it seriously when their players are arrested for domestic violence!

  • At Lawfare, Tamara Cofman Wittes writes about her experience observing the Lebanese elections. Her conclusion:

    New movements in any democracy take time to see electoral gains—the more so in a system as clientelistic and fractured as Lebanon’s. While the United States has for years hoped to see alternative Shia movements to Hezbollah and Amal emerge in Lebanon, such efforts remain marginal and face relentless intimidation and harassment from Hezbollah. Still and all, the emergence of trans-confessional, independent politicians and the continued pressure for improved governance mean that there is hope for change in Lebanon. The United States currently provides $80 million in economic aid and $120 million in military aid to the country, with funds focused on the army, education, and governance. Developments over the nine years since the last parliamentary elections strongly suggest that change in Lebanese politics won’t come from above but rather from the grassroots. The lesson for American policy makers is to stay in the game.

  • And Rosie Gray profiles Stormy Daniels’s colorful attorney, Michael Avenatti, for the Atlantic:

    As far as media coverage, the Daniels story has started to resemble nothing so much as major spectacles like the Simpson trial did. It’s an all-encompassing vortex that has pulled all kinds of issues into its wake and become about much more than Trump’s alleged affair: Cohen’s selling of access to the president, his potential role in Russian efforts to help Trump, and what his role in Trump’s world says about how the whole thing works. None of these angles have gotten by without a boost from the smooth-headed Avenatti, who broke the news of the payment from a Russian oligarch to Cohen. “I’m the lawyer for Stormy Daniels in the first instance and I’m the lawyer for the truth in the second instance,” he said on MSNBC last week.

    It’s kind of confusing to me how much people on the left seem to like Avenatti. I suppose it’s because (unlike Robert Mueller) he seems to be spilling information all over the place. But he’s just a lawyer: I believe that he wants to represent Stormy Daniels to the best of his ability but I’m much more skeptical that he’s a disinterested warrior in the battle for the Truth.