Like all great works of art, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) has many layers. The classic film is, among many other things, a study of the pathology of plutocratic collecting. The movie’s central character, Charles Foster Kane, was an avid art collector and amateur zoo-keeper—exactly like the real-life press baron Kane was modeled after, William Randolph Hearst. But Kane’s relationship with art is inauthentic. He buys art with the compulsion of a shopping addict who finds happiness in ownership rather than genuine aesthetic appreciation. The same alienated relationship to art produced by a proprietorial attitude towards life marks Kane’s dealings with his mates (who are trophies rather than wives and lovers), his friends (who are cronies rather than companions), and his fellow citizens (whose votes he tries to win with demagogic newspaper crusades rather than civic-minded organizing).
The Texas billionaire Harlan Crow, scion of a real estate fortune, stands as the Charles Foster Kane of our time. But in contrast to Welles’s hopeful vision that a tycoon who tries to buy the world will end up an isolated and bitter old man, Crow is, for the moment, not lacking in friends. Crow emerged in the news last week thanks to his long-standing and possibly corrupt intimacy with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. As ProPublica reported on Thursday, for the past two decades Thomas and his wife Ginni have gone on almost annual luxury vacations, often taken on private jets and yachts, with Crow and his families. The value of these trips amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars—and were never reported by Thomas to the court. Considering that the many political causes Crow donates money to often file briefs before the court, the relationship with Crow has emerged as a major conflict-of-interest scandal. Aside from Thomas, Crow often consorts with political and intellectual figures, notably George W. Bush, Marco Rubio, and the think tank experts at places like the American Enterprise Institute (where Crow serves as a member of the board of trustees). In the true collector’s spirit, Crow likes to commemorate his relationship with figures like Thomas and Bush by commissioning kitschy photorealistic paintings.
Charles Foster Kane was portrayed in the film as a fascist sympathizer who palled around with various dictators. In actuality, William Randolph Hearst did shift from working-class populism to authoritarian reaction, which included employing both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini as columnists.
Thanks to his avid collecting habits, Harlan Crow’s own relationship with fascism has become a topic of heated debate. He is an avid accumulator of historical relics, including Nazi artifacts. A guest who visited Crow’s house told The Washingtonian of being startled at the display of three paintings, “something done by George W. Bush next to a Norman Rockwell next to one by Hitler.” Rockwell, a master of anecdotal realism, hardly deserves to be in the company of the amateur dabbing of George W. Bush, let alone the Middle European postcard tackiness of Hitler. In fact, Crow owns two Hitler paintings. He also likes to show off his other Nazi and Hitler heirlooms, notably Hitler’s teapot (engraved with the Führer’s initials and an eagle with its talons gripping the globe), a signed copy of Hitler’s notorious political manifesto Mein Kampf, and even a set of Nazi table linen.
Danah Boyd, who works for Microsoft Research, reported, “Years ago, I attended a meeting about the future of democracy at Harlan Crow’s ‘house’ (which was staged as a museum). I left deeply shaken by the Nazi memorabilia on display.”
In response to the Washingtonian article a phalanx of right-wing polemicists—almost all of whom have taken money from Crow—rose to insist that none of this should be taken as evidence of Crow’s political views. Jonah Goldberg, author of the book Liberal Fascism (which argues that there is a deep affinity between American progressives and the authoritarian right) was upset at what he saw as the unfair insinuation that Crow was a Nazi sympathizer. Goldberg argued that “Harlan Crow is a deeply honorable, decent, and patriotic person.” Like other Crow supporters, Goldberg noted that Crow also maintained a “Garden of Evil” that features statues of communist dictators like Stalin and Mao. According to Goldberg, “It’s not a tribute to evil or something to be mocked. It’s an attempt commemorate the horrors of the 20th century in the spirit of ‘never again.’”
Goldberg also noted that “the Nazi stuff” (which he put in quotes) is “literally .00001 of his collection. He also has Lincoln’s desk from the Illinois legislature and the Declaration of Independence.”
Some of Goldberg’s points are well-made, but he elides the fundamental difference between the communist artifacts Crow owns (public statues kept in his Garden of Evil to mark an ideology he rejects) with the very different Nazi artifacts (personal and intimate keepsakes housed indoors in the company of more personal items such as the Bush painting and letters from Republican luminaries).
In any case, Crow’s other historical artifacts are equally troubling. Crow also used his lavish wealth to buy the death mask of Sitting Bull, made after the great leader of the Lakota resistance had been killed by the police in 1890. This ghoulish trophy celebrating Indigenous genocide should surely be returned to the Lakota, just as the many Nazi artifacts belong in archives in Germany.
Charles Murray, notorious advocate for scientific racism in The Bell Curve, emerged as another unhelpful defender of Crow. Murray tweeted, “Harlan Crow surely has enemies but, as far as I can tell, they consist exclusively of people who don’t know him. Everyone who does know him may disagree with him on some issue, but they universally recognize his decency, integrity, and kindness. Including people of the left.” Since Murray burned a cross when he was a teenager and went on to be the leading voice for racism in modern times, he’s hardly a credible character witness. It turns out that he and Crow have many connecting ties. Murray is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, which Crow oversees. Murray dedicated his book Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race and Class to Crow. Murray had also dedicated his earlier book Human Accomplishment to three friends he described as “brothers.” Crow was one of them. For his part, the billionaire commissioned a chintzy painting immortalizing his friendship with Murray.
With defenders like Charles Murray, Harlan Crow hardly needs any critics. Which doesn’t mean it’s impossible to have a nuanced response to Crow’s collecting of Nazi artifacts. Is Crow necessarily a Nazi? No. There are many complex reasons why people might collect Nazi memorabilia, including victory trophies Allied soldiers gathered after the defeat of Nazism.
But his not being a Nazi doesn’t mean his collecting is innocent. Professional historians have been among the most acute critics of Crow.
Gabriel Winant of the University of Chicago noted:
It’s not credible to say Crow secretly admires figures whose icons he collects; he’s got Mao in there too. Rather, it’s that he has no real appreciation for the meaning of these histories. If he did, he wouldn’t live among them. No Jew has swastikas at home to remind us. What he’s doing is not declaring his affiliation, but rather trying to reduce these histories to something he can own, trivializing them by making them into (almost literal) hobbyhorses. By reducing them to commodities the thing he particularly does is make them indistinct, which he says explicitly is the point—“mass murder,” “totalitarianism,” whatever. Generic forms of evil without actual history, a fairly literal form of fetishism.
Drew Flanagan, a historian at Pitt-Bradford, wrote a thoughtful Twitter thread that also adduced the dangers of fetishizing Nazi art. Drawing on the work of Susan Sontag on the aesthetic fascination with fascism, Flanagan noted that the “dark charisma of objects associated with National Socialism seems to be able to seduce even those who mouth that it represents evil.”
Harlan Crow is both a collector of evil and an evil collector. His evil is not so much the objects he gathers around him as the belief that he has the right to buy anything, without regard to consequences. He’s bought not just Hitler gewgaws but also intellectuals, politicians, and justices. Nor are all these purchases just on the right. House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries is among the politicians who have felt the need to keep Crow’s company.
No person should own as much as Crow. The artifacts he owns belong in public archives and museums. The public officials he owns also need to be pried away from Crow’s grasping hands. Their duty is to the public, not the plutocrats.