Clarence Thomas: I was never a liberal, I was a radical

From an interview at Regent University:

Interviewer: What’s a nice person like you doing being a conservative? How did that happen? You, like I, started out to the left.

Thomas: I was truly on the left.

Interviewer: How far left were you?

Thomas: Well, there was no body on the other side of me. Let’s just put it this way. I thought George McGovern was a conservative.

Interviewer: How did you go from a McGovern liberal to …

Thomas: I was never a liberal.

Interviewer: What were you?

Thomas: I was a radical.


  1. Paul Rosenberg July 11, 2016 at 11:14 am | #

    Vocabulary has never been his strong suit. The word he’s looking for is “angry.” He still is.

  2. wtimberman July 11, 2016 at 11:53 am | #

    The curse of the autodidact: words don’t mean what he thinks they mean. Sometimes I feel sorry for Thomas, never more so than when he tries to be persuasive. The pain in that process of externalization is palpable to his audience, even if his intent is not.

    • Corey Robin July 11, 2016 at 12:05 pm | #

      I really don’t know what you mean here. I think he has a pretty clear idea of what these words mean. Why do you assume otherwise?

      • wtimberman July 11, 2016 at 12:24 pm | #

        It seems pretty clear to me that his internal struggles are mapped onto the political vocabulary of our time in a fairly eclectic, if not totally impenetrable way — which is why I have some sympathy for him. Certainly he’s not alone in that. You might even say that it’s the obligatory flip side of the American dream. With Thomas, though, the pain never quite seems to be find articulation except in the distortions that seem to be working themselves out through his developing ideology. As I understand him, he’s always wanted to be an actor in the world free of the burden that the history of his race in America has dumped on him. His ideas about how he should go about that have evolved, but not the impulse driving them.

      • Chip Berlet July 11, 2016 at 12:24 pm | #

        Revisionist History by Thomas.
        Excerpt from “Black Conservatives,” by Deborah Toler, PublicEye Magazine

        In terms of institutional structures for disseminating Black conservative ideas, the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education in Washington, DC, is the bastion of Black conservatism. Founded by Jay A. Parker in 1978, the Institute illustrates the typically overlooked importance of Black conservatives to conservative US foreign policy agendas.

        Since its founding, the Lincoln Institute has had close ties to the extreme rightist World Anti-Communist League (WACL). WACL aggressively supported right-wing governments and military movements in Central America and Southern Africa, such as the Contras in Nicaragua, the ARENA Party in El Salvador, UNITA in Angola, RENAMO in Mozambique, and the Inkatha Freedom Party in South Africa, among others.

        Clarence Thomas, widely portrayed as a neoconservative, is a classic illustration of the murkiness of the dividing line between mainstream conservatives and ultra-conservatives. Clarence Thomas and Jay A. Parker served together on Ronald Reagan’s 1980 transition team for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). According to Parker, the team “argued strenuously” against affirmative action, which they viewed as “a new racism.” By March 1981, Parker had become a registered agent for the South African homeland of Venda.

        In June 1981, Clarence Thomas joined the Advisory Board of the Lincoln Institute’s quarterly publication, The Lincoln Review. At the same time, Thomas became an Assistant Secretary of Education. Parker’s Justice Department filings state that soon after he began representing Venda, he held discussions with US Department of Education officials about his client.

        • Corey Robin July 11, 2016 at 1:35 pm | #

          Chip: There’s no revisionist history by Thomas here. You’re just omitting the fact that Thomas has a history that precedes 1980.

  3. Roquentin July 11, 2016 at 12:00 pm | #

    Maybe he’s a little like Eldridge Cleaver. Although, partially I think that was the only way Cleaver could get away with coming back to the US: by becoming a conservative and getting involved with the Republicans. That trajectory is more common than a lot of people might think. David Horowitz is another example. Even Christopher Hitchens fits that mold to a certain degree. It makes sense. There are few better ways to distance oneself from a radical past than becoming a vocal reactionary. Even Mussolini had been involved with the socialists at various points in his youth.

    Sometimes I see young people who espouse radical views and think “How many of you are going to be voting Republican in 20 years?”

    • s. wallerstein July 11, 2016 at 5:02 pm | #

      I wonder if converting from far left to far right is basically an American phenomenon.

      In Chile (where I live), people often drift from far left to what is called a “liberal” in the USA as they get older and their liberalism is often associated with promoting the interests of business, but I can think of very few cases where someone went from left to right or vice versa. There seems to be a line in the center of the political spectrum which almost no one crosses during their lifetime. Thus, in Chile one finds a fair number of people, including intellectuals, who started out on the revolutionary left, drifted towards the center-left, often out of opportunism (the pay is better), but who still swear that they’re on the left and maybe in certain areas stlll participate in what might be called “left-wing culture”: the music that they listen to, the books that they read, the movies that they see.

      • Roquentin July 12, 2016 at 9:33 am | #

        That’s relatively common too, retaining the trappings of radicalism with very little of the serious political thought and action to back it up. Politics is a little like fashion sometimes, people join groups and causes because it’s the hip thing to do. Sometimes at different points in their lives they change.

        As an aside, my political trajectory was the opposite of that. I’m way more left wing now than I was in college. I even considered myself a libertarian for my first couple of years at university, largely due to coming from a privileged upper middle class white family and having the legalization of marijuana as a primary political goal. It wasn’t until I got out and entered the workforce full time that I began to understand capitalism itself was bad, something to be opposed.

        • s. wallerstein July 12, 2016 at 10:08 am | #

          I was very left-wing in the university, mainly because it was the cool thing to do and out of intellectual pretentiousness, but life trapped me in my own rhetoric, life called my hand: events and commitments to others forced me to become more serious or more real and I ended up very left-wing.

          • Will G-R July 13, 2016 at 12:01 am | #

            I wonder how US-specific this assumption is that an educated person’s moment of peak leftism will naturally occur during the university years of their youth, and entering the “real world” of the workforce will naturally induce a rightward ideological shift to one degree (left-liberalism) or another (right-liberalism i.e. what Americans call “conservatism” or “libertarianism”). Is it really that inconceivable for wage laborers not to construct their identity, political-philosophical or otherwise, around the Panglossian inevitability of wage labor itself? Or maybe it’s only inconceivable for those of the global labor aristocracy?

        • Will G-R July 13, 2016 at 12:10 am | #

          Anyway, Roquentin’s case is similar to mine: I never imbibed more than a cursory amount of radical political literature until toward the end of my traditional undergrad years, I read much more of it now than I ever did then, and exposure to the Office Space lifestyle has only solidified these convictions. And I was never an anarcho-capitalist but I certainly had a stereotypically cringeworthy “New Atheist” phase before I wised up and sat down with Marx and Engels.

    • Jed Hovey July 14, 2016 at 8:12 am | #

      I’m not sure. Being relatively young (I’m in my early 30s), I that logic traces back to the Boomers. The hippie kids of the 60s by and large became the Reagan adults of the 80s. Let’s not kid ourselves about how popular Ronnie was here, a whole lot of people had to switch sides for that to happen.

      Jerry Rubin is the archetypal baby boomer in that regard. He made a seamless transition from “radical” to entrepreneur. All the criticism of the New Left starts to ring true when you sit down and think about guys like that.

      • s. wallerstein July 14, 2016 at 8:25 am | #

        Jerry Rubin was always a clown.

        I suppose that Sanders redeems all the sins of 60’s radicals.

    • Roqeuntin July 14, 2016 at 8:29 am | #

      It keeps defaulting to my legal name. So much for a nom de plume.

      Anyhow, I wanted to add that it shouldn’t be seen as mere coincidence that Silicon Valley happened in San Fransisco. That is exactly the sort of economic configuration the ideas of the hippies, the radical Boomers would produce. Maybe it’s a function of being younger, but I’ve always felt a high degree of cynicism towards the hippies. All this bullshit about “disruptors” is just an extension of hippie ethics into business.

      • s. wallerstein July 14, 2016 at 10:42 am | #

        I sometimes wonder if just as the French Revolution was not really about the rights of man, but about preparing society for capitalism, the 60’s weren’t really about peace and love and racial equality and the end to the war in Viet Nam and sex and rock and roll, but about paving the way for Silicon Valley capitalism, which is worse in many ways than 60’s capitalism.

        All of which does not deny the real merits of some 60’s activists (not Jerry Rubin), both black and white.

      • Will G-R July 14, 2016 at 3:17 pm | #

        @ The Commenter Formerly Known as Roquentin: Having been born and raised in the Bay Area (a Bay Aryan, you might say?) I consider this to be essential reading. In fact it’s almost as much essential reading as this is essential listening.

  4. wtimberman July 11, 2016 at 12:15 pm | #

    If faith is all you have, keeping it will always seem at some point to be more trouble than it’s worth. Maybe when the kids arrive, maybe when you first get that offer which a seemingly reasonable fear warns you not to refuse. The only way to be free is not to want what the seducers are offering. That takes discipline and self-knowledge, not faith.

  5. Dean July 11, 2016 at 12:26 pm | #

    He seems to be a random thought/meaning machine. So much of this “randomness” finds its way into his voting record. No wonder he’s kept his mouth shut for so long on the Bench, and allowed Herr Scalia to do his talking for him. There is NO line of coherent thought that runs from his set of professed left-wing beliefs to how he votes on the Court.

  6. Joel in Oakland July 11, 2016 at 1:27 pm | #

    Once again: the familiar pattern of idealization to demonization, hero to enemy, with no stop in the middle, no stop to consider what other possibilities there may be and what they offer. But it makes (perverse) sense that those who see themselves as heroic warriors simply change sides, preserving their self-image.

    In my biz – psychotherapy – we call this “reactionary”, because it’s dominated by our limbic system – our emotional wiring – with its neural networks controlled by one’s amygdala, the center of our fight/flight/freeze system. It takes the “reflective” parts of the cortex offline – those parts involved in critical thinking, “playing with ideas” (i.e.exploring possibilities without feeling the necessity to come to a predetermined conclusion), etc – also digestion, immune response and other functions that either take energy that may be moot if one doesn’t survive the perceived threat at hand or that might inhibit combat or escape. Empathy gets stripped down to cunning; pattern recognition to grasping for anything that might hurt “the enemy” or evade an attack. (Ah, those not-so-good old daze when characters would throw their gun at their opponent after running out of ammunition. It had to have worked at least once, but I don’t recall it).

    A minor corollary is that the only aspect of one’s sense of humor that’s kept activated is humiliation, (hence right wing humor – the difference between Doonesbury and Mallard Fillmore).

    That’s not to say that right-wingers – or reactionary left-wingers or centrists – can’t engage the more subtle humor functions or critical/reflective thinking functions when they aren’t feeling threatened – especially feeling that some sense of privilege is threatened.

    • Joel in Oakland July 11, 2016 at 1:29 pm | #

      “… hero to enemy…”
      Should be “ally to…”

  7. Glenn July 11, 2016 at 9:03 pm | #

    I could have been described as a conservative in my youth because my hate for bullies was aroused against those proclaimed to be bullies by the culture I grew up in. I was mentally owned.

    Afterwards, I could have been described as a radical leftist after my hate for bullies turned me against the hegemon who used me to bully. I was mentally freed.

    I didn’t change in my hatred for bullies.

    This process seems to work in reverse for most others I’ve met.

    “The truth will set you free, but not until it’s finished with you.”— D.F. Wallace

  8. PatinIowa July 11, 2016 at 9:06 pm | #

    He’s always wanted to pull up the roots. He’s changed what he wants to plant in their place.

    That get it?

  9. mark July 12, 2016 at 4:51 am | #

    “He said this perhaps most clearly in a letter to A.P. Stanley a few years later, on the 4 March 1835: ‘my love for any place, or person, or institution, is exactly the measure of my desire to reform them…’. This was such an obvious truth to him that the very idea of conservatism made him angry, and he stormed against it throughout his life. Nothing could possibly excuse conservatism but perfection, and until the advent of the millennium, it was completely negative. In a similar way, he once said that it had been wrong at all times, since the Fall, and in every place, expect Paradise. There was no doubt, therefore, that reform was correct in all circumstances. The exact nature of the reform, however, was another and somewhat personal matter.” (T W Bamford, 1960, on Thomas Arnold).

  10. stevenjohnson July 13, 2016 at 11:59 am | #

    Not only is it very bad practice to rely on self-reporting without confirmation, it is bad practice to ask for general impressions rather than specifics. There is a common tendency in religious converts to exaggerate how sinful they were and how they never had any real knowledge of yet opposed the truth. It magnifies the seriousness of the conversion. It seems to me the same tendency applies to political conversions.

    As to the phenomenon of “conversion” from leftism to reactionary conservatism, it seems to me very likely that every such person underwent a powerful education in conservatism as a child…and it was the “leftism” that was a flirtation never consummated. I suppose it’s possible in principle children who were educated in left wing thought can convert to reactionary conservatism. But it seems very unlikely that there are any children raised in the US who weren’t thoroughly exposed to pro-business propaganda, chauvinism, racism.

  11. Bill Glover July 18, 2016 at 7:22 am | #

    Any chance that Justice Thomas is still a radical and he’s trying to hasten the revolution by heightening the contradictions?

    Probably not.

  12. steeldiamonds January 13, 2017 at 1:49 pm | #

    Fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

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