Friday, April 04, 2014

The Victory of Clarence Thomas

This evening my wife and I attended the Waltham premiere of Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, a documentary about Anita Hill.  Anita Hill has been a professor of social policy (not of law) at Brandeis University for some time, and she attended the showing and spoke and answered questions from a moderator (but not from the audience) after the packed showing was over.  I will take this opportunity to raise the question I was dying to ask her, in a slightly different form.

As you will all recall,. during Clarence Thomas's confirmation process in 1991, Anita Hill came forward in response to a committee subpoena to testify that Thomas, while her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the Reagan Administration, had sexually harassed her. She did not accuse him of attempting to extort sexual favors, but rather of what is now called "creating an unfriendly environment" by engaging in blunt talk about pornographic movies and his own sexual equipment and performance and repeatedly asking her for a date.  A Senate committee composed entirely of GI and Silent white males varied from neutral to hostile in its response to her and did not reverse its recommendation to confirm Thomas.  The Senate--then Democratically controlled--did so, by a close vote.

I always had mixed feelings about the Hill-Thomas affair, not because I didn't believe her--I did--but because, frankly, I thought, first, that the accusations she made were not all that serious, and secondly, because I thought the controversy was a distraction from the issue. (I know many readers will strongly disagree about the accusations, but that is what I think.) Thomas, who is a year younger than I am, was a conservative Republican who had clearly gotten the appointment in large part because of his race, which would make it harder for Democrats to vote against him.  I was certain that he was going to vote for and hand down decisions that I would regard as catastrophic, and he has been worse, in fact, than I ever could have imagined.  That, not his unseemly behavior towards Hill and other women,. was the reason, in my opinion, that he should have been summarily rejected.

Now the film, as it happens, paid no attention, really, to Thomas's opinions or the rather important role he has played in subsequent American history. It was Hill's story, not Thomas's, and it detailed what happened to her as a result of the hearings--which was disgraceful--and what she has done since.  Essentially, she has become a full-time advocate for gender equality, especially in the workplace. That is what she teaches at Brandeis.  The film--and Hill in her appearance afterwards--took a very upbeat approach towards the succeeding 22 years, arguing that enormous progress had been made in the workplace, thanks in large part to Hill's courageous decision to come forward.

That is probably true, but it is the mistake of the academic left, it seems to me, to act as if these were the most important issues facing the nation, and to ignore other aspects of the story.  When Thomas joined the court in 1991 he, Anthony Scalia and William Rehnquist were  three most conservative justices.  Now he is one of a solid phalanx of four extreme conservatives (Scalia, John Roberts and Samuel Alito are the others), and with the help of Anthony Kennedy, they have steadily scaled back voting rights, done away with restrictions upon gun ownership, and progressively eliminated various restrictions on campaign contributions, making the United States government increasingly the creature of the rich and powerful.  All this has worked to the enormous disadvantage of men and women of all races and sexual preferences, with the exception of a favored few.  TI am certainly not suggesting that this is Anita Hill's fault.  Thomas would have been confirmed and American politics evidently would have moved rightward anyway.  But in the long run, it seems to me, the Thomas confirmation controversy looms as an important step on our drift rightward, not a triumph for liberal values.

That is not all.  One would have thought, from watching the film, that Clarence Thomas was the only political figure ever accused of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct.  There was no mention of the names Bill Clinton, Paul Jones, or Monica Lewinsky; no references to Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, David Vitter or Anthony Wiener; no discussion of whether turning the sex lives (or sexual conversation) of political figures into career-breaking issues has been a good thing. 

According to Nat Silver at, the Republicans now stand about an even chance of taking control of the Senate.  In my opinion there is very reason to think that they could defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016.  Republican control of the government will be a catastrophe for which advances in gender equality and sexual freedom will not, in my opinion, be sufficient compensation.  The Republicans are winning because of a single-minded focus on political power, one that has led them, among other things, to pack the court system with nominees far more extreme than any Barack Obama would dare to pick from the left.  Democrats think they can win national elections based upon racial, gender and sexual identity.  Even if they can,that will not fix the ills of the nation.


ed boyle said...

I must note that my earlier skepticism towards Kennedy was based on the very oneseided focus on his sexual pecadilloes- similar5 to but even more extreme than Clinton, described as sexual addiction, a cold relationship to his mother and that both Kennedy and his wife had fathers who basicallly ignored their wives and had numerosu affairs, whic was reflected in a distanced relationship between the Kennedys themselves. I read nothing of this in Sorensen's book at all and honestly nothing of Kennedy's policies or massiv eimpact on American history in later history, which is focsed purely on his sex life and the variosu assassination conspiracies.

Shakespeare, Julius Caeasar Act III scene II
"The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones;


O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me"

So I feel about Kennedy.

As regarding womens' rights and men's abusing, them obviously women now have more power and nobody can get away with that sort of behaviour nowadays and remain in power (Putin excepted-except his wife also had an affair-so who cares?). One has to measure things according to the times in which one lives. I imagine Kennedy treated his affairs much differently than the way you have described Clarence Thomas behaviour. He was probably quite romantic and really appreciated by the women (insamuch as we give credence to all the reports) and not an aggressive macho talking about the length of his "equipment", etc.

Something romantic and natural of course got lost with the feminist movement between men and women but as we all have to compete at the same level and work together in the job market this is necessary to get through the workday. No more separate but equal and chasing skirts in the secretarial pool of the 1950s.

Bozon said...

Great stuff.
Fragmentation by issue, cross cutting larger common welfare initiatives where they cropped up, has been the mode of the parties for centuries now; looking back, one sees it at every turn.
Recently, with the contribution decision, the mask has been removed re big interests on the center and left.

All the best

sglover said...

Over my lifetime "liberalism" has evolved to mean that all well-credentialed people, regardless of race or gender, must have unimpeded access to status-rich management slots in corporate or government or academic hierarchies. It follows that what's called "liberalism" will never, ever challenge those hierarchies, or even question what and whom they serve.

Golly, I wonder why the proles aren't inspired by this profoundly moving crusade for justice?!?!