Rethinking Clarence Thomas

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas
When I think of Clarence Thomas my first thought is not of the man himself but of Anita Hill. I vividly remember sitting in my dorm room between classes, watching her testimony, quivering with outrage. Even before Hill came forward, I had thought that Thomas should not be confirmed, given the American Bar Association’s tepid recommendation; after she came forward, I was exasperated by the way the overwhelmingly male Senate handled the allegations. When Thomas was confirmed, I bemoaned the Supreme Court’s fate to my friends. “He’s going to be on the Court forever,” I said. “He’s going to be there when we’re his age.”

Clarence Thomas was 43 then; I am 48 now. Justice Thomas is, as I predicted, still on the court, and I have spent the last twenty-eight years rolling my eyes at him. “He doesn’t even ask questions during hearings,” I say when his name comes up. Or: “His wife is terrible. Imagine if Michelle Obama hired an aide who had written ‘I hate whites.’” Or, before Antonin Scalia’s death: “He just repeats whatever Justice Scalia says.” I was quite sure where I stood on Clarence Thomas, and I saw no reason to reconsider my opinion, until I read Corey Robin’s The Enigma of Clarence Thomas.

Let me be clear: I still don’t think he should have been confirmed, and I am still mad about Anita Hill. I still think he’s been a participant in some of the most pernicious decisions the Supreme Court has ever made. And yet. I do not agree with every word of this book, but it is an illuminating and path-breaking book that should be read by everyone with an interest in the Supreme Court — even, and perhaps especially, by liberals. This is a short book with a lot to say, and it is worth a careful read. Corey Robin’s thesis is that Clarence Thomas’s jurisprudence is fundamentally misunderstood and (here’s the provocative part) rooted in large part in Thomas’s commitment to black nationalism. He makes it clear at the outset that he doesn’t agree with Thomas’s legal philosophy, but he is writing an analysis, not a takedown.1

Robin’s distinction between Thomas’s skepticism of political–i.e., voting–rights and his embrace of economic rights is compelling and insightful: Thomas believes that African Americans will always be hopelessly outnumbered in the political realm, but they can make money in a (by Thomas’s lights) neutral market and use that money to wield government influence. Thomas, in other words, is leaning in on Citizens United. “If the currency of politics is money,” Robin writes, “if the primary movers of politics are men of means, what better argument could there be for African Americans of few means to withdraw from politics? Why not concentrate instead, at least for the time being, on accumulating wealth in the market? That way, African Americans might return to politics one day, only this time as men of money rather than as a movement of masses.”

Thomas focuses not on the rights of black defendants, Robin argues, but on the rights of the black community to be protected from criminals of all races.2 Thomas’s position is that the black community, in the main, suffers less from overpolicing than from neglect by the police. Robin identifies the inherent contradiction between Thomas’s limits on state power in, say, second amendment decisions while simultaneously championing harsh policing at the expense of individual rights. Again, Robin argues, this strand of Thomas’s thought goes back to his belief in personal economic empowerment as a long-term racial strategy: Thomas’s jurisprudence “empowers the policing and punishing elements of the state. But that is only a means to an end. The utopian vision that Thomas sees beyond the carceral state is the creation of a new generation of black patriarchs–terrifying enough to make their children cry and thereby to teach them how to survive another chapter in America’s long history of white supremacy.” But it’s hard to read this chapter without thinking of the many people of color who have died at the hands of police even when they have not been convicted of any crimes, but this isn’t addressed and I’m not aware of any comment Thomas has made specifically about, for example, Black Lives Matter. To my mind, this was the weakest part of the book, and I don’t think Robin sufficiently answers the question of how someone motivated by black nationalism could be so quiescent in the face of racially disproportionate policing practices.

Robin’s argument that Thomas’s decisions are motivated in large part by black nationalism and a deep-seated belief that racism is a permanent feature of American society is often convincing and always interesting. At times I felt he was stretching to make a point, or working too hard to make Thomas’s worldview seem consistent. And, frustratingly, Robin does not discuss Thomas’s decades-long second marriage to a white woman with a bent for right-wing conservative activism; she barely merits a mention. How does Thomas reconcile his belief in inherent white racism with his marriage to a white woman? How has Virginia Thomas influenced his views? There’s got to be a story there — it’s hard to believe that Thomas has completely compartmentalized his work from his home life, given his wife’s abiding interest in politics. And yet there’s no hint of it in Robin’s book. To me this felt like a missed opportunity. Anita Hill gets slightly more attention — Robin points out that (a) journalism since the infamous hearings has established the truth of Hill’s accusations but also (b) Thomas himself sincerely believed in his own innocence. But I would have loved a chapter about Thomas’s approach to cases that involve sex discrimination, and how that might intersect both with Robin’s theories about his approach to racism and with Thomas’s response to Hill’s allegations.

Still, Robin has done good work here. Perhaps because of Thomas’s rocky start to his Supreme Court tenure, liberals have a tendency to write him off as a Scalia clone, someone who functions as a reliable conservative vote without having much of interest to say himself.3 Robin has made the case, I think, that Thomas grounds his opinions differently than other conservative justices do, even if they ultimately arrive at the same result. At a minimum, a good-faith liberal reader would be hard-pressed to walk away from this book without taking Thomas’s philosophy seriously and considering the challenges it poses to progressive thought. “We may wonder whether we’re not trapped in the same historical moment as he, making sense of the same defeats of the last century in not dissimilar ways,” Robin writes. ” . . . And then we may come to a realization: that the task at hand is not to retrace and rebut his moves from premise to conclusion, but to go back and start again with different premises.”


 

1 From my point of view, the book treated Thomas very fairly and engaged earnestly with his ideas; I would love to have a conversation with a conservative reader to learn whether they felt the same way. Did Robin do a good job presenting Thomas’s thinking or did he put his thumb on the scale?

2 For a different spin on a similar argument, see James Forman Jr.’s excellent Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.

3 Robin points out that conservatives often made the same sorts of criticisms of Thurgood Marshall–and so one has to wonder if the tendency to dismiss Thomas is an objective assessment or the product of unconscious bias.

The 2019 Books that I Loved

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2019 could have been written by Gary Shteyngart. The president tried to buy Greenland this year. Who could have imagined reading that sentence four years ago? In 2019 the septuagenarian president’s staff photoshopped his head onto the body of a young Sylvester Stallone and then got all huffy when none of us believed it was real. In 2019 an Oscar-nominated actress went to prison for paying someone to sweeten her daughter’s SAT score. 2019 gave us an eight-way tie for first in the National Spelling Bee. Twenty-eight different people decided to run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2019.1 In 2019 Jeffrey Epstein–credibly accused of sex-trafficking minors to a number of high-profile men–died while in police custody, spawning a thousand different conspiracy theories that spanned the entire political spectrum.2 Britain and Israel both spent most of 2019 trying to sort out who should run the countries and neither of them seem to have come up with a satisfactory answer, although Britain did manage to find time in its busy schedule to yell at its newest duchess–a biracial divorced American–for various imagined transgressions. In 2019 someone inexplicably agreed to marry Stephen Miller.3

And it wasn’t just the news that was weird: in 2019 my personal life was also extremely–well, let’s just say eventful. In April, right before the Game of Thrones premiere, my husband and I were smugly congratulating ourselves on weathering some family medical storms when we got a phone call that sent everything spiraling into chaos all over again.4 And still there was more: If you had told me on January 1 of 2019 that in less than a year I would be living in a different house in a different city with a different job, I would not have believed you. And yet here we are.

And so in 2019 I used reading mostly as an escape: with a couple of exceptions, I responded most strongly to non-fiction that allowed me to imagine a different reality and fiction that held out the prospect of a happy ending or, failing that, that offered me a pleasantly whimsical world to inhabit for a few hours. 2019 was not a year when I went in search of deep character development or narrative realism or emotional truth. In 2019 I wanted to play pretend.

Do not take that to mean that my favorite books of the year offered nothing more than escapism. No, the best books gave me everything: a different world, yes, but also beautiful prose and vividly drawn characters and original thoughts that made me put the book down and stare dreamily into the distance. What these books all have in common is that I’m still thinking about them now, weeks or months after I read them.

The list, in the order that I read the books:

  • Bowlaway, by Elizabeth McCracken. It’s about candlepin bowling, and family, and marriage, and love. Some people didn’t like it because it isn’t super-plotty, but I loved hanging out with McCracken’s characters.
  • L. E. L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron”, by Lucasta Miller. If you read Miller’s The Bronte Myth, then you know to expect great things from her latest. I have never been a scandalous woman, to my eternal regret, but this book let me imagine what it might be like to be one.
  • Golden State, by Ben Winters. I have been a Ben Winters fan since his Last Policeman trilogy. In this book he pays as much attention to plot and story as he does to world-building and the result is a captivating thriller in a world where lying is one of the most serious crimes you can commit.
  • City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Look, I get it, Gilbert is not everyone’s cup of tea. But I love her characters and I found this book wildly engaging, a story about a fun, naughty girl who unashamedly loves sex. It reminded me a bit of Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet, but to be totally honest, I enjoyed this one more.
  • The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple. Does impeachment even matter if the president is not removed? In this account of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, Wineapple makes the case that it does. She must have started this book before January 2017, because there’s a lot of research here — but it still made for awfully comforting reading while the debate over the current president’s impeachment swirled.
  • The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood. A follow-up to Atwood’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Is there a bit too much fan service in this novel? Does Atwood channel Katniss Everdeen to an excessive degree? Yes and yes. I loved it anyway. I liked the way Atwood bounced off the television series, making some plot points canon while refashioning others, and you know what, the hopeful ending may not be realistic but I’ll take it.
  • Sontag: Her Life and Work, by Benjamin Moser. There are few things I love more than big fat literary biographies. This one is smart and insightful and well-written, and will make you–as Jamaica Kincaid says–never want to be great. Sontag was a marvelous writer who was also a toxic parent, friend, and lover, and this book will make you consider, among other things, whether the one was worth the other.
  • Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout. OK, this one wasn’t escapism so much. On the other hand I think this is the first time I’ve ever had a best book list with two sequels on it.5 Maybe in 2019 I was trying to travel back in time? At any rate, this is Strout’s follow-up to Olive Kitteridge, a collection of short stories centering on one difficult woman that was my favorite book of 2008. The first book was insightful about love and marriage; this one is insightful about old age, loneliness, and coming to terms with yourself as you approach the end of your life.
  • Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe. This is a pretty amazing account of a murder in 1972 that would only be solved thirty-plus years later. I cared about the victim, and I especially cared about her children, and I even found myself caring for the murderers. Along the way I learned a great deal about the IRA and “The Troubles,” about which I knew virtually nothing before.
  • The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, by Corey Robin. I have been angry at Clarence Thomas since I watched his hearings in my dorm room in 1991.6 Now that I have read Robin’s analysis of Thomas’s judicial philosophy, I am not less angry, but I do take Thomas more seriously as a thinker. Robin’s argument is that far from being a faint echo of Antonin Scalia, Thomas has developed his own strain of conservatism grounded in black nationalism. Maybe this is not an uncommon thesis among Supreme Court watchers–I don’t read legal journals so I don’t know–but it was new to me and I found it fascinating. Another book that wasn’t really an escape to a different world, but there’s nothing I like more than a fresh perspective on a subject I thought I’d made up my mind about.

1 Although that may seem like a humorous exaggeration, it is the actual number.
2 I have to be honest, you guys, I think he probably killed himself.
3 This seems like a life mistake on par with marrying Anthony Weiner, but the heart wants what it wants.
4 Pro tip: Never smugly congratulate yourself on weathering a storm! It only tempts the universe.
5 It’s probably also the first time my list has featured three Elizabeths, but I haven’t actually checked.
6 I am also still mad at Joe Biden for the way those hearings were run, but that’s a story for another day.

What I Read This Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Robert Mueller Did Not Save Us

TrumpNestingDolls

Photo by Jørgen Håland on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I Read This Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Felicity Huffman, Ross Douthat, and the Corruption of Aristocracy

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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.