Harlan Crow, Clarence Thomas’s Benefactor, Is Not Just Another Billionaire
If not for his relationship with Justice Clarence Thomas, Harlan Crow would be just another billionaire among many.
But because Crow has showered Thomas with lavish gifts and luxury trips (and more), over a period of more than 20 years, he has opened himself to scrutiny.
Among the subjects of that scrutiny is Crow’s interest in history and its artifacts.
Crow, a Dallas businessman, maintains a sculpture garden on his Texas estate. But these aren’t ordinary statues and busts. They are representations of many of the most infamous dictators and authoritarians of the 20th century.
A sampling of figures in what has come to be known as Crow’s “garden of evil” includes the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Lenin and Stalin.
In 2003, a reporter for D Magazine described the sculpture garden:
It is a collection of history’s felons. Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first commissar of the Soviet secret police, looks smug. Fidel Castro seems crestfallen, Joseph Stalin resolute. The bust of Nicolae Ceausescu captures him in his youthfulness, the towering Lenin at his most powerful.
In 2014, a reporter for The Dallas Morning News toured the garden, calling it a “historical nod to the facts of man’s inhumanity to man.”
“If these statues can be utilized as a tool to remind newer generations of the failure of the bad guys and the triumph of the good guys,” Crow said at the time, “then it’s a lesson worth having.”
Crow keeps an even larger number of historical items inside. They include a painting of George Washington by Rembrandt Peale, a document signed by Christopher Columbus and a collection of Nazi artifacts and Hitler memorabilia. Visitors attest to seeing a signed copy of “Mein Kampf,” two paintings by Hitler himself, Hitler stamps, Nazi medallions and linen napkins embroidered with the iconography of the Third Reich.
It is, to most people, jarring to see Nazi paraphernalia in the wild (versus, for example, in a World War II museum). And it is alarming to learn that one such collector of Nazi paraphernalia is a close friend of a Supreme Court justice and has strong ties to conservative media and the conservative movement. It is thanks to those ties, in fact, that Crow saw no shortage of defenders when news of his collection broke to the wider world.
“Harlan Crow is a deeply honorable, decent, and patriotic person,” said Jonah Goldberg, editor in chief of The Dispatch, on Twitter. Defending Crow’s “garden of evil,” Goldberg said that it’s “not a tribute to evil or something to be mocked. It’s an attempt” to “commemorate the horrors of the 20th century in the spirit of ‘never again.’” Crow, The Dispatch noted, is a minority investor in the publication.
“Harlan Crow surely has enemies but, as far as I can tell, they consist exclusively of people who don’t know him,” Charles Murray said on Twitter. “Everyone who does know him may disagree with him on some issue, but they universally recognize his decency, integrity, and kindness.” Murray, who is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is a close friend of Crow’s; Crow is also chairman of the board of trustees at A.E.I.
Ben Shapiro is a right-wing media personality who does not appear to have any direct ties to Crow, but he defended him all the same: “He said that he’s filled his property with these mementos because he hates communism and fascism. Well, I mean, that seems like a reason why you might own this stuff is to remember the things that you hate.”
In reading these defenses of Crow, including this one by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic (“Crow’s politics are not mine. But in the matter of his pastimes, he is blameless.”), I was struck by how each defender takes the billionaire’s rationalization as his own. Each one seems to accept, without question, that an enemy of tyranny would keep mementos of the tyrants to remind himself of his hatred. Most people go to museums and sculpture gardens for peace, enrichment and quiet contemplation. Harlan Crow, by his own testimony and according to his defenders, goes to get angry.
I don’t think Crow is a Nazi or an admirer of dictators and authoritarians. But I don’t think we should take his explanation for his collection at face value either.
Public memory is real. The controversy over Confederate statues was a conflict over those we remember and those we leave to the past. For all the arguments about the intrinsic value of these objects, one thing was clear, even obvious, to everyone involved. A monument to Robert E. Lee stood for Robert E. Lee. It was a monument to his life, his values and his cause. Or put another way, it was not a monument to the Union dead or a memorial to the enslaved.
When we want to memorialize an atrocity or a crime — when we want to remember the consequences and costs of evil — we focus on the victims. The Equal Justice Initiative did not commission a statue of Theodore Bilbo, the United States senator and infamous Mississippi segregationist, to commemorate the horrors of lynching; it built the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, with 800 six-foot coffin-like monuments to symbolize the dead. To honor the enslaved Black Americans who worked on and built its original campus, the University of Virginia did not commission a new bust of Thomas Jefferson; it built a memorial to the enslaved laborers themselves. And you won’t find a statue of Osama bin Laden at ground zero.
Even in the privacy of your own home, it does not make sense to honor victims of tyranny with statues of the tyrants or knickknacks from their regimes. How does a signed copy of “Mein Kampf” speak to the horrors of Nazism? How does a “resolute” statue of Stalin capture the misery of the gulag or the murderous brutality of his rule?
They don’t. They can’t. So why are they there?
I don’t know what is in Crow’s heart. But he is a wealthy man. He is a powerful man. And power is attracted to power. “Crow might earnestly think he is buying this stuff to provide some kind of object lesson about the perils of tyranny,” writes John Ganz, my friend and podcast co-host, on Substack, “but there is an unavoidable suggestion of idolatry and vulgar power-worship just under the surface.”
That’s right. Does Crow secretly admire these figures of his fascination? Probably not. But he doesn’t seem to understand them either. He doesn’t respect the weight and meaning of the histories in question.
What Crow has done is trivialize them. He has made them objects of curiosity. He has stripped them of specificity; they are meant to represent evil at its most generic and abstract. “Tyranny” here doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a word.
And that, whether Crow realizes it or not, might be the point. To gaze at your collection of tokenized evil is to separate yourself from the perpetrators and their victims. It is to tell yourself — consciously or, more likely, subconsciously — that there’s nothing you could do to ever be like them.
Or so you hope."