Curiouser and Curiouser
NEWS REPORT You go down a dangerous road when you rely on just partisans or just a single source to tell a story. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's an old journalism story. Garbage in. Guess what's going to come out? From WNYC in New York, This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone
BOB GARFIELD and I’m Bob Garfield. Clarence Thomas has always been thought of as an enigma. In fact, a new book all about him begins with a well-known epigraph.
CLARENCE THOMAS I'm an invisible man and everybody sees everything and anything but me. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Corey Robin writes that, like Ellison's Invisible Man, Thomas isn't seen. But that's not because he's hiding.
COREY ROBIN The real enigma is not Thomas's beliefs. But the fact that white people seem incapable of seeing those beliefs. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. This week on Capitol Hill, another batch of Trump administration witnesses corroborating the president's walk across what might possibly finally be a bridge too far.
NEWS REPORT The ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sunland, now tells lawmakers that the Trump administration held up military aid as it pushed Ukraine's government to investigate Democrats, including the Biden family. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Meanwhile, Trump allies continue to make the congressional inquiry not about Trump's abuse of power, but about supposed corruption by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
NEWS REPORT What you have now is you have the beginnings and the building of evidence, of circumstantial evidence that there was a crime here. [END CLIP]
RAND PAUL: So if we want to investigate Rudy Giuliani's financial dealings, by all means, do it, but same time, you should, if you want to be fair, investigate Hunter Biden's economic dealings in the Ukraine as well. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That was Senator Rand Paul mentioning Rudolph Giuliani, the architect of the teetering Ukrainian conspiracy theory. The goal of which was to turn attention from Russian interference in the 2016 election to suspicions of Ukrainian interference and Obama administration corruption, not Trump abusing power to smear a political rival, but a sinister Biden connection.
Now, you may wonder, where did this all come from? Well, when the history of the Trump presidency is written, along with the likes of James Comey and Stormy Daniels, there will be one less familiar name John Solomon. Until recently, a writer and executive at the publication The Hill. In March of this year, Solomon scored an exclusive interview with Ukraine's then top cop, Yuriy Lutsenko.
And even though a State Department official testified under oath that the interview was, quote, primarily non truths and non sequiturs, Solomon milked it for a series of articles describing how an official of the Ukrainian anti-corruption agency called NABU interfered in the 2016 election, not the Russians, the Ukrainians. Not to damage Hillary Clinton's campaign, but Trump’s. Here's Lutsenko in a taped interview for The Hill's TV show.
YURIY LUTSENKO Yes, according to the member of parliament of Ukraine, he got that court decision that the NABU official conducted an illegal intrusion into American election campaign. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Beyond that convenient counter narrative to the then still going on investigation into Russian election interference, Lutsenko also accused then U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch of providing the Ukrainian prosecutor with a do not prosecute list.
YURIY LUTSENKO And uh, my response of that is, it is inadmissible. Nobody in this country, neither our president nor our parliament nor ambassador could stop me from prosecuting where there is crime. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And then came what Solomon called, quote, Joe Biden's 2020 Ukrainian nightmare. A right wing blockbuster,
NEWS REPORT creepy, crazy Uncle Joe that while his creepy behavior is grabbing most of the headlines, a possible international corruption scandal is brewing under the surface. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Weeks before the Biden presidential campaign officially launched, the anti Biden conspiracy was underway. There was just one problem. It wasn't true.
PAUL FARHI Yes, that is a problem, because Lutsenko, a few weeks later says that the things he told John Solomon didn't happen that way.
BOB GARFIELD Paul Farhi is a media reporter at The Washington Post.
PAUL FARHI It turns out that Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch never handed over any list. And after telling Solomon that he would investigate the company that Hunter Biden sat on the board of, said later on that there really wasn't any evidence to investigate and that he dropped this whole notion.
BOB GARFIELD Once the story broke. Giuliani started peddling it everywhere until it eventually got traction.
NEWS REPORT Documents include a package of disinformation and debunked conspiracy theories. According to a source, Giuliani gave the documents to the White House and they were passed on to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. [END CLIP]
PAUL FARHI Not just Giuliani, but the president of the United States.
PRESIDENT TRUMP It sounds like big stuff. It sounds like very interesting with Ukraine.
PAUL FARHI His son, Sean Hannity.
NEWS REPORT Alright here with the full report, The Hill's John Solomon, also a former U.S. attorney. [END CLIP]
PAUL FARHI So, this creates a whole feedback loop, which we are still seeing to this day.
BOB GARFIELD Now, that sounds awfully familiar. Back in the run up to the Iraq war, you'll recall Dick Cheney saying this.
DICK CHENEY There's a story in The New York Times this morning. It's now public that in fact, he has been seeking to acquire and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge and the centrifuges required to take low grade uranium and enhance it into highly enriched uranium. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But the source of the information was administration ally Ahmed Chalabi, whose supposed aluminum tubes smoking gun had already been deemed false within the CIA. So the administration and Chalabi essentially laundered the lie through the New York Times. Is that same laundering process what's happening here?
PAUL FARHI Well, in some sense, yes. And what you're pointing to is how reporters, journalists become captive of their sources and can further the narrative of their sources. Now, reporting is about getting a variety of opinions. It's not about getting one opinion. You go down a dangerous road when you rely on just partisans or just a single source to tell a rather important story. And it seems that this is the case with John Solomon's reporting in The Hill that Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, and some Ukrainians who were their allies were the source of his stories.
BOB GARFIELD Now, when people suddenly leave their jobs, often it's to spend a little more time with their family or to pursue other opportunities. Solomon is talking about a start up. But to your knowledge, was there really a startup brewing or is this just a cover story?
PAUL FARHI Well, first, I'll say I don't know the internal dynamics of The Hill or what his entrepreneurial goals are. But John has a lot of prominence in the conservative media sphere. He can cash in on that and leverage that. Yes, it does appear that he wrote a bad story, but I don't think it's going to harm him among a certain segment of the population, the people who already believe.
BOB GARFIELD Let's go back to Judy Miller for a second. You know, she left The New York Times following the world's longest correction. And, you know, to some significant degree of shame, I don't see John Solomon much being shamed in the conservative media. Will there be repercussions, or is he just going to come out of this a you know, a big, bright, shining star?
PAUL FARHI Well, he already was a big, bright, shining star among a certain segment of the population. And as you're probably well aware, we have divided into our camps. And John has got the people behind him believing that what he writes is gospel, including the President of the United States, apparently. Would it pass muster at a mainstream news organization? I don't think it would.
BOB GARFIELD Paul Farhi is a media reporter for The Washington Post. Paul, thank you very much.
PAUL FARHI Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD So John Solomon wrote a bad story, a series of bunk, actually, but not for lack of help. As ProPublica reporter Mike Spies and two of his colleagues learned last month, Solomon's bogus scoops had a key assist from one of the saga’s main characters.
MIKE SPIES The ubiquitous Lev Parnas, the Ukrainian fellow, who seems to be best friends with Rudy Giuliani, was intimately involved in helping John facilitate his work. We discovered it through e-mails and other records, and then ultimately, Solomon himself confirmed it.
BOB GARFIELD So according to Solomon, what was Parnas doing in the middle of the story, including the gathering of the story?
MIKE SPIES You know, he tried to paint it as if it were within the bounds of normal journalistic behavior. He was not quite a source, but someone that could be used to facilitate introductions. Parnas was being used setting up key interviews, including with that prosecutor, acting as a translator, wearing many hats.
BOB GARFIELD So it's a collaboration. If he'd been working at The Hill, he might have been called a researcher, in radio we would call him a producer.
MIKE SPIES Sure.
BOB GARFIELD If you're a foreign correspondent, he's a fixer.
MIKE SPIES Right.
BOB GARFIELD Except he's also an interested party.
MIKE SPIES There is the obvious way in which he was an interested party. But we did not know until John told us was that he met Parnas formally through his attorneys’ Joe DiGenova and Victoria Toensing, who were closely connected to Rudy Giuliani, closely connected to spreading Ukraine conspiracy stuff, closely connected to this other character, Dmitry Firtash, an oligarch who seems to be funding a lot of this stuff to protect him from going to prison, perhaps. It was pretty shocking to see how all these things fit together. John also says that he was relying on his two attorneys. Specifically who had a very direct monetary interest because they're representing or eventually were representing this character, Dmitry Firtash to navigate the wild west of Ukraine, to make introductions to people like Lev Parnas, who then facilitate interviews with people like the former Ukrainian prosecutor, who then lay the groundwork for what becomes the counter narrative to the Russia investigation.
BOB GARFIELD Giuliani took Solomon's stories and sent them around, some accompanied by documents--
MIKE SPIES Right.
BOB GARFIELD --to the White House, the State Department promoting what would turn out to be the latest “birther story”, the latest “pizzagate.”
MIKE SPIES Right.
BOB GARFIELD Fox and its ilk began spinning the same conspiracy narrative. And then it all led to this perfect phone call in which the president put the arm on the Ukrainian president to investigate the Bidens. In exchange for apparently getting their 400 million dollars of defense aid released. And this, of course, now has led to an impeachment investigation. So Solomon has found a place in history.
MIKE SPIES Yep, he seems to have no regrets whatsoever. He thinks that his stories have held up, that ultimately what he's reported, at least at the time he was reporting it was the best information that was available to him.
BOB GARFIELD You quoted Solomon to the effect that he just had no idea about the checkered past and the hidden relationships. “No one knew there was anything wrong with Lev Parnas at the time,” but oh my goodness, some many red flags!
MIKE SPIES Right
BOB GARFIELD It just seems amazing that he could have been so credulous, so many axes and he provided the grinder.
MIKE SPIES I agree. It defies credulity that he was so credulous instead of being a more active participant, because, you know, one of the things you have in the story is an account of him sending files and documents to Rudy and Parness, then printed out in the lobby of Trump International Hotel, naturally. Usually as a journalist, the documents are coming to you, not the other way.
BOB GARFIELD All right. So one possibility is that John Solomon was simply duped along Judy Miller lines to create the news story that his very sources can point to, to say, “aha”, here it's independently reported on by the media. Another possibility is that it was just a story that comported with his own world view, backed up as far as he knew by supposedly official primary source, the prosecutor and the documents, and kind of too good to double check.
MIKE SPIES Right, yeah.
BOB GARFIELD Another possibility is he knew it was phony all along and did it anyway for partisan reasons.
MIKE SPIES One can never comment on another's intentions, but what is certainly clear throughout his time at The Hill before that, when he was at Circa or The Washington Times, that his work began to have a very partisan bent when he got to The Hill. And some time in the summer 2017, he was publishing stories relating to subjects like Uranium One.
BOB GARFIELD The non scandal on which Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State was self dealing with the Clinton Foundation and a Canadian company that wanted to buy American uranium assets.
MIKE SPIES It's also worth pointing out that The Hill's leadership had enough concerns about the way Solomon was operating. He could no longer publish stories under the banner of news. They would have to appear in the opinion section. You know, if you're a sophisticated media person, you make these distinctions. But those stories, if you're reading them and you're coming at them, just as that person is generally interested in politics or the subject or whatever, they just basically read as news stories. And that's the way they were taken.
BOB GARFIELD Well, there’s, yeah, one third possibility, which your piece broadly hints at, and that is self dealing, you know, including financial self dealing. I'd like to dispose of that one. Solomon had two roles at The Hill, one on the business side and one on the editorial side, which would never have happened in the analog old days, but is increasingly common in the age of digital media. But nonetheless, journalists are journalists, and this dual role created a lot of anger internally, especially when it appeared that he'd given an advertiser a prominent quote in a new story had this foul whiff of a quid pro quo.
MIKE SPIES What you're talking about referred to a branded content campaign that Solomon set up, which was one of a number of those kinds of things he set up, and most publications do it, clearly problematic practice, but especially problematic if the person who's running those campaigns has a foot in both sides of the publication. So, yes, in this particular case, the publisher is very concerned because this outside group called Job Creators Network bought a branded ad campaign. Then at the same time, there was a news story that covered the issue that the campaign was interested in. As John took a quote from the branded ad campaign and sent it to the reporters who were working on a story. The publisher used very damning language in her memo saying that he was basically engaged in I think quote on quote, “reputation killing behavior,” something that would she thought, “destroy The Hill.”
BOB GARFIELD Is there any evidence that Solomon's participation playing both sides against the middle at The Hill was a factor in the Ukraine fiasco?
MIKE SPIES There is no evidence that has materialized yet that suggests that what was going on with the Job Creators Network campaign, that there was something similar happening with the Ukraine stuff. Now, that memo was just one of a number of internal concerns that had been loudly raised about how Solomon was working at The Hill. The buck probably stops with the House leadership making the decisions it made, despite the fact that all these concerns have been raised about John, well before those Ukraine stories appeared, they kept him in his role, changed the label of his stories to opinion as if that would fix everything. It clearly did not and didn't take any other action. It is worth noting that the owner of The Hill, Jimmy Finkelstein, does have a longtime relationship with Rudy Giuliani. Jimmy Finkelstein was a bundler for Rudy's 2008 presidential campaign. I'm not suggesting that that's the reason why this is going on, but it's worth pointing out that these relationships exist, which I could imagine make it complicated to address.
BOB GARFIELD Once these allegations broke, it took about five minutes for other news organizations and other third parties to debunk its central allegations.
MIKE SPIES Right. Buried in one of those stories, there was like a statement where the State Department called this allegation an outright fabrication. Calling something an outright fabrication cannot be translated any other way than saying like, this is a lie, we know it's a lie. And we can comfortably stand by the fact that it's a lie.
BOB GARFIELD Being caught in a lie. Do you remember when that used to have consequences?
MIKE SPIES Yeah. I it's been mystifying to watch the publication deal with what happened, which is to say to I guess ultimately not deal with it at all.
BOB GARFIELD Mike, thank you.
MIKE SPIES Thanks so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Mike Spies is a reporter for ProPublica. We once again tried to reach John Solomon and The Hill, but not a peep.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, the enduring enigma of a Supreme Court justice.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. We just heard a story about what could be seen as one variety of situational ethics, the ethics of a particular kind of media steamed and stirred into a mire. This next discussion is of an altogether different strain of situational ethics, born not of greed and willful ignorance, but a profound bitterness and cynicism. In this case, the person who bears them and applies them is the current Supreme Court's longest serving justice, also known to be the quietest on the bench, the most enigmatic and to many liberals, the most baffling. Justice Clarence Thomas, here, queried by Senator Howell Heflin during his 1991 confirmation hearings.
SENATOR HOWELL HEFLIN What did you major in at Holy Cross?
JUSTICE CLARENCE THOMAS I majored in English literature.
SENATOR HOWELL HEFLIN What did you minor in?
JUSTICE CLARENCE THOMAS Um, I think protests. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE No longer am I baffled. Having just read The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, a new book by Corey Robin, author and teacher at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center, it's altogether clear that Thomas is not merely a black conservative who always seems to argue against leveling America's playing field. He's a black nationalist, and it's clear in everything he writes, every public pronouncement.
COREY ROBIN He is. In fact, the book opens with an epigraph, the famous line from the opening of Invisible Man. “I'm an invisible man and everybody sees everything and anything but me.” Clarence Thomas has a very long written record, more than 700 opinions where he sets out this conservative black nationalism. And it's something that a lot of people have not noticed, though, the very few who have tend to be scholars of color. But for the most part, the only thing most people know about him is about Anita Hill and the fact that he doesn't ask questions from the bench.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Something you observed very early on is that Thomas and the man he replaced, Thurgood Marshall, were both considered in their day to be intellectual lightweights whose decisions were written for them by other people. And as we later learn in your book, the kind of racism that rankled Thomas most was this constant charge that black people weren't as smart.
COREY ROBIN Exactly. He was a student at Holy Cross and then at Yale Law School beginning in 1971. And he discovered what he felt was a more insidious kind of racism than what he had known in the south. He grew up mostly in Savannah, Georgia. He was used to and familiar, the kind of overt hatred of black people by white people. And when he came to the north, he found a more genteel kind of racism that was more liberal, that was more patrician, that was overtly solicitous of black interests, that hid its deeper assumptions about particularly the intellectual inferiority, as he said, of black people. And that's something that Thomas has faced from a very early moment in his career and has taken with him onto the court.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He told the journalist Juan Williams that he preferred dealing with an out and out racist to one who was racist behind your back as one of his favorite songs went.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Undisputed Truth is the band.
COREY ROBIN It came out in 1971, I believe, and he used to listen to it all the time at Yale Law School. And when he was asked about the Reagan administration, which he joined in 1981 and about the racism of the Reagan administration, he said they don't lie to you and also they don't smile at you. This is a very resonant notion for him. And I should say it also echoes a lot of sentiments and beliefs in the black nationalist tradition. Malcolm X spoke about the wolves vs. the Fox,
MALCOLM X “...and we don't think that it is any worse to be bitten with a smile than it is to be bitten with a growl.” [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And his first prolonged confrontation with smiling faces would probably have been at Holy Cross in Massachusetts.
JUSTICE CLARENCE THOMAS I was out here writing in 1970 because I was mad at the world. That was cynicism and negativism, eating me up, hatred, animosity. And I felt justified because of all the race issues. I was really upset. [END CLIP]
COREY ROBIN Thomas comes there in 1968. He's a part of a cohort of 18 black men, one of the poorest of that cohort, recruited by a very liberal Jesuit who is seeking to integrate Holy Cross. The differential treatment of white and black students becomes very apparent. White students are sent letters in the summer before asking them, would you mind having a black roommate? The black students don't get any such letter at all. The experience of being in almost all white classrooms, of reading all white authors, of having mostly white music played at campus events, not having black professors spurs them to form the black student union. And this is a very deliberate decision and nomenclature they choose. The word black at this time is kind of more militant affirmation that you hear more on the West Coast than the East Coast. They have a statement of demands and then they issue a manifesto of their own internal rules, many of which involve, you know, that black men should respect black women. Black men should not be involved with white women. And so it's a whole statement and coherent platform that's very familiar among radicalized black students across America.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is this when he first encounters or first makes use of the ideas of Malcolm X?
COREY ROBIN Yes, he reads the autobiography of Malcolm X in 1968, starts listening to the records of Malcolm X’s speeches.
MALCOLM X It is better for us to go to our own schools, and after we have a thorough knowledge of ourselves, of our own kind and racial dignity has been instilled within us. Then we can go to any one school and we will still retain our race pride, and we will be able to avoid the subservient inferiority complex that is instilled within most Negroes who receive this sort of integrated education. [END CLIP]
COREY ROBIN Nearly 20 years later, when he is giving these interviews to people like Juan Williams, Thomas can recite from memory various passages from the autobiography and from those records.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is this when he comes to the conclusion, the crucial conclusion that racism is not really addressable through the courts or through legislation?
COREY ROBIN Yes, we have to remember at this time, there's all kinds of political efforts to deal with racism. Some of it is electoral. Some of it is legislative. Some of it is judicial. And some of it is much more militant, radical action in the streets. And what he comes to by the sort of early to mid 1970s is a belief that white racism is permanent, pervasive and ineradicable in the United States. It has roots that cannot truly be fathomed. And because they cannot be fathomed, we can't pull them up. And that once you come to terms with that, several conclusions follow. And the first and the big important one is that the political process, whether it be voting or protest or organizing, that all of this is a misbegotten enterprise that black people should get themselves out of. This explains in part why he almost always comes down against voting rights. He believes that this is a fool's errand.
The second conclusion is that capitalism, the marketplace, while it tends to be geared towards white interests, nevertheless offers niches where black people can achieve some kind of measure of autonomy, specifically black men. Thomas derives this in part from his reading of Malcolm X. I should say a selective reading because Malcolm X had a complicated view on this. Thomas also derives this from reading a black economist by the name of Thomas Sowell, very prominent conservative and in Sowell, Thomas finds a vision for black people not of emancipation, but of a kind of autonomous space where black people can create their own world apart from white people. So that's the second conclusion that follows from this bedrock principle of the ineradicability of white racism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He may have been more receptive to this idea because of the examples set by the most powerful male figure in his life. His stern, humorless but successful grandfather, Myers Anderson.
JUSTICE CLARENCE THOMAS My wife had a bust of my grandfather made right after I was confirmed, and I put it up on a bookshelf where it looks down on me. He’s that brooding omnipresence and he's looking down on me with one of his favorite sayings inscribed on it. “Oh, man, can't is dead. I helped bury him.” And here's what I wondered on the days when self-pity is consuming me, I look up at him. How can I complain to him? No education, no father, raised in part by freed slaves in Jim Crow South. He never complained. My grandmother never complained. How can I tell him that as a member of the United States Supreme Court, I can complain? [END CLIP]
COREY ROBIN Part of Myers Anderson's whole gestalt was a refusal to look to any kind of benevolence, help or aid from white society through that kind of self-reliance. That very stern iron discipline. He created a world for his family that was relatively safe and spread that protection and largesse to other parts of the black community. And so this spirit of what in the tradition is called do for self, a kind of collective self-reliance, looking inward to the community and particularly to very strong, powerful black male figures is something that Thomas learns very early on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And of course, in his college years
MALCOM X Once you can create some employment in the community where you live. It will eliminate the necessity of you and me having to act ignorantly and disgracefully boycotting and picketing some cracker someplace else, trying to beg him for a job. Any time you have to rely upon your enemy for a job, you're in bad shape. [END CLIP]
COREY ROBIN In the mid 1970s, Thomas makes his right turn toward more conservative principles, and the key element is some of those principles that we just heard in Malcolm X. This belief in creating black institutions that are primarily economic. And that this creates a kind of autonomy, even semi sovereignty, separate from the helping hand of white people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I guess you can learn something about a Supreme Court justice from their relationship with their clerks. He had a couple of traditions. At the end of his term, they'd all take a trip out to Gettysburg and at the beginning of the term he'd host a required screening of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
MOVIE NARRATOR This is Howard Roark, possessed of a great talent, but unwilling to compromise his ideals at any price. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE What's Thomas teaching them?
COREY ROBIN A vision that sees the government as an enemy of progress. That the market is the path to salvation. These are standard conservative ideas. But Thomas inflects them with this heavy racial pessimism. What Thomas is really trying to do on the court is develop a conservative, African-American, black nationalist public philosophy. His real audience, he's said, is a potential black community that would embrace his ideas to stop looking to politics, to the Democrats, to liberalism as the path forward.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, how Justice Thomas enacts those bleak principles through his decisions and the vision of justice they represent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. So when Clarence Thomas arrives on the court, he carries with him a vision of the nation and its history and of human nature so remorselessly painful that the only way out is through more pain. Author and educator Corey Robin, whose latest book is The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, explains.
COREY ROBIN So Thomas believes that black people, all black people in the United States are surrounded by a stigma of intellectual inferiority that they are simply not capable, is the belief among white people of any kind of achievement their advancement on their own. Thomas does not believe affirmative action created that stigma, but that affirmative action reinforces that stigma. It stigmatizes all black people with that notion that but for the help of white people, they could have never gotten where they are. And in this regard, he thinks that affirmative action stigmatizes it in the same way that slavery did. It didn't matter under conditions of slavery, whether you are a free black person or an enslaved black person. All black people were stigmatized with that sense of inferiority. And Thomas believes that affirmative action continues and that makes his decisions on affirmative action very different from other white conservatives on the court who emphasized this vision of colorblindness, that all people are equal and ought to be treated equally. For Thomas, it's an almost literal continuation of the kind of stigmas that black people have been subjected to throughout the ages of American history. And one last point when white liberals say the difference with affirmative action is that unlike Jim Crow or unlike slavery, affirmative action is designed to improve the conditions of African-Americans to get us beyond race. Thomas will point and cite chapter and verse from white slave holders and defenders of segregation who made very similar claims about their systems that they were overwhelmingly for the benefit of black people. So Thomas is not impressed by that argument. And then the last piece of his attack on affirmative action is that affirmative action is very much a white program for white people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That was fascinating in your book. Basically, affirmative action enables an institution, say, an Ivy League school to keep its same elitist, selective, perhaps white supremacist admissions policies in place while tinkering around the edges that it basically offers a fig leaf.
COREY ROBIN Yes, Thomas makes this very careful argument that the first commitment of these elite institutions is to their exclusivity. It is to their selectivity, because he says, if you really wanted to diversify yourself, the simplest, most effective, most efficient way is to change your admissions standards, not to rely on things like the LSAT, for example, which Thomas says everybody knows are racially skewed and racially biased. So change your admissions standards and you could instantaneously become a more diverse institution. But those institutions don't want to do that because what they care about most is remaining elite institutions and exclusive institutions. And so they come to rely on affirmative action, which, as you say, allows them to tinker around the edges. The other thing that affirmative action allows these white elites to do is to choose that black person that they think could be one of us. It enhances the discretionary power of white people. And to Thomas, this has a kind of terrible resonance with America's racial patterns of the kind of the white paternalistic choosing among those black people upon which they choose to cast their favors. And that's what affirmative action is for him. And then the very last piece of this, that this is all part of white elites self conception. This is kind of cosmopolitan, tolerant, multicultural aesthetic, and that's actually the word that Thomas often uses in his affirmative action opinions. So it has nothing to do with equality or social justice. It's really a way of white elites preserving their discretionary authority over black life and enhancing a kind of cosmopolitan, multicultural aesthetic of themselves that
BROOKE GLADSTONE Makes them look better.
COREY ROBIN That's exactly what Thomas says.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's pivot to gun rights.
COREY ROBIN Most white conservatives and I think people on the left, when they think of gun rights, think of either white colonial militias defending against the British Empire or white suburbanites, gun owners protecting themselves and their homes from black criminals. When Thomas thinks of gun rights, one of the great freedoms that he thinks was won for black people in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction was the right to arm themselves. And this was also one of the freedoms that white supremacists were the very first to take away from black people. Thomas's black arms as a statement of black pride, of black self-reliance and particularly of black power for black men. Elaine Brown, in fact, has a song about how one could find freedom in the arming of black men.
ELAINE BROWN You know that dignity, not just equality is what makes a man a man. And so you laugh at laws, passed by a silly lot, that tell you to give thanks for what you've already got and you can't go on with this time-worn song that just won't change the way you feel. Well then, you believe it, my friend. That is silence will end, we'll just have to get guns and be men. [END CLIP]
COREY ROBIN And what's amazing about Thomas is that he channels this subterranean part of the black radical tradition, which is again well-known among African-Americans. And he turns this into a foundational argument for the extension and the insistence that the right to bear arms is something that should be pervasive throughout the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's go to decisions that speak to the second part of your book. Capitalism, he said, that money enabled rich people to purchase politicians as mouthpieces for their points of view. And this is perfectly legitimate. And since black people will never be able to dominate power under the system of majority rule, money was the only way. And that led him to the decision he took on Citizens United.
COREY ROBIN In a 1987 speech he gives, he says what we need to do is to remove the stigma of shabby ness that surrounds wealth, particularly amongst liberals, to make the amassing of wealth almost as sacrosanct as speech itself, liberate commercial pursuits and make them seem moral. And if you read that speech in 1987, the redescription of money as speech is his grandfather who amassed resources and power for himself and his family and the black community. And Thomas says, you know, liberals would essentially dismiss my grandfather as a nothing. But this is the kind of black man upon whom the salvation of the black race depends.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So the third part of your disquisition on Thomas is titled The Constitution. You note, as others have, that really we function under two constitutions, the one before the Civil War and the one after.
COREY ROBIN Yes. And I call this “the white constitution and the black constitution.” And Thomas says that the second constitution, the one that was created by the Civil War and Reconstruction, fundamentally transformed this state. And Thomas believes at the heart of that black constitution is this figure of the black man whose most precious freedom is the right to bear arms. There is also that first constitution that you mentioned.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The slave document.
COREY ROBIN Yes. This is the constitution that Clarence Thomas states forthrightly was created by slave holders and racists. Now, one would think that Thomas would want to have very little to do with that constitution, but that's not the case. And I think here we come to the heart of the most unsettling parts of his vision. He has said the salvation of the black race depends upon black men and that one of the byproducts of liberalism was what he calls the rights revolution. These rights made life easier and more tractable, and black men began to disintegrate. They lost their authority. They lost their will. They lost their discipline. And the results for the black community are catastrophic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because the burdens they faced were so much greater.
COREY ROBIN Exactly. So what Thomas believes is that we need to recreate those conditions of exigency and constraint and adversity, because under the harshest, most exigent conditions, black men will rise to their potential greatness. They will overcome precisely in the way that his grandfather overcame.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How does it play out in his decisions? I
COREY ROBIN In order to recreate those conditions,Thomas also tries to enhance the white constitution, the antebellum constitution. And one of the features of that constitution were harsh conditions of punishment. And Thomas believes that one of the most terrible things the Warren Court did, the liberal Warren Court of the mid century, was to mitigate the conditions of punishment, to introduce the federal courts, to oversee the practice of punishment and imprisonment, that should be the province of local governments in states. And Thomas would like to actually empower the state to punish, even if, and sometimes it seems, particularly if that state is racist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's perverse.
COREY ROBIN It's the most unsettling part, I think, of Thomas's vision, but it comes from this idea that it was under Jim Crow when black men rose to the level that someone like his grandfather did and were able to create enclaves of black autonomy and black separation and black community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He talked about black men, what about black women?
COREY ROBIN There is very little room in this vision for black women. Black women at best are the recipients of the beneficence of black men. But at worst, black women he views as very dangerous figures. Either the dependence upon the welfare state, which is how he dismissed his sister, that she's so dependent upon welfare. She gets mad at the mailman when he's late with her check. As black feminists like Kimberly Crenshaw and Nell Painter pointed out at the time of his hearings, Thomas's view of his sister was not only extraordinarily ugly and cruel, it actually did not account for the fact that she was one of the pillars of the black community and the black family that she maintained the black community and the black family through her efforts with minimum wage jobs. But black women, as I say, they've played very little in this romantic fantasy that Thomas has. Sometimes when they appear, they're also perceived to be traitors. And that's where I think we come to the question of Anita Hill
ANITA HILL Telling the world is the most difficult experience of my life. But it is very close to having to live through the experience, that occasion, this meeting. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Anita Hill, a lawyer who worked under Clarence Thomas when he was working for Reagan, who charged him with a number of incidents of sexual harassment.
COREY ROBIN And it's how we mostly remember Clarence Thomas in this country. He responded to the charges not simply by denying them, but by really going on the offensive in the attack.
JUSTICE CLARENCE THOMAS It is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order. This is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US Senate rather than hung from a tree. [END CLIP]
COREY ROBIN While Thomas was definitely lying about what he did and didn't do with Anita Hill, I don't think he was lying when he made that charge in the following sense. At the heart of Thomas's vision is black male authority, and Thomas believes that white liberalism has been an, essentially a conspiracy to take down black male authority. And so when he saw the Democrats and liberal groups in alliance with this black woman, he saw everything that he had been narrating in both public and private about the way the deck is stacked against black men who are trying to advance the race. And in that sense, Thomas was telling his truth, revealing in very plain terms what is at the heart of his entire constitutional vision, which is the attempt to preserve the role of black men.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And being utterly blind to the even higher barriers faced by black women.
COREY ROBIN Absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did you come away from this project with any more sympathy for Clarence Thomas?
COREY ROBIN I think whenever you write about anybody, you have to have some degree of imaginative sympathy. But actually, I think I came away more horrified in a way by Clarence Thomas. All countries like their monsters. But the true horror of a monster is when they reveal a kind of truth about a larger world. And I think when Thomas begins with these very deep beliefs in racial pessimism, the fact that black people cannot be accommodated by a white society
BROOKE GLADSTONE And are better off if unboundedly repressed?
COREY ROBIN And that's the monstrosity of it all, is that he begins with beliefs that I think are widely shared and he follows them to conclusions that are not simply horrifying, but which actually do reflect the world that we live in today, where people are armed to the teeth, where white racism seems almost worse than ever, where wealth is accumulated in even more obscene ways and where black men are locked up in jails. This, in a way, is Clarence Thomas's preparatory vision to some kind of path out of it. And it's a very dark vision.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Here's Senator Howell Heflin during Clarence Thomas's confirmation for the Supreme Court.
SENATOR HOWELL HEFLIN There are some that believe you are a closet liberal and some, on the other hand, that believe you are part of the right wing extreme group. Can you give us any answer as to what the real Clarence Thomas is like to date?
JUSTICE CLARENCE THOMAS I don't know that I would call myself an enigma. I'm just Clarence Thomas and I tried to do my grandfather set stand up for what I believe in. There has been that measure of independence. But by and large, the point is I'm just simply different from what people painted me to be. And the person you have before you today is the person who was in those army fatigues, combat boots, whose grown older, wiser, but no less concerned about the same problems. [END CLIP]
COREY ROBIN That young man in army fatigues and combat boots who as a black power devotee and aficionado, has undergone some fundamental changes in terms of his beliefs about capitalism and so forth. But at the heart, that vision of racial pessimism, which Thomas has never been shy about. Has always been there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We began talking about The Invisible Man, one of Clarence Thomas's favorite books in this at least he was certainly right. He never really was an enigma at all. It's just that so many of us liberals were outraged by a black man not pursuing civil rights in a way that made sense.
COREY ROBIN For many white liberals, Clarence Thomas doesn't make any sense at all. Once you look at African-American intellectual history and political history, Thomas's views are actually quite legible as part of a tradition. So the real enigma that I came to in all of this is not Thomas's beliefs, but the fact that white people continuously seem incapable of seeing those beliefs. And as I say in the book, there is this character in American literature whose experience looks remarkably like that. And that, of course, is Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. And it's not just the fact that the invisible man is not seen, it's that white people think they do know who he is and they haven't got a clue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Corey, thank you very much.
COREY ROBIN Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Corey Robin is the author of The Enigma of Clarence Thomas.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, John Hanrahan, and Asthaa Chaturvedi. We had more help from Charlotte Gartenberg and our show was edited by Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.