by David Levi Strauss
September 28, 2018
Twenty-seven years ago, a woman, highly respected in her field of law, spoke before an all-white male Senate Judiciary Committee on national television, testifying that her former boss, Judge Clarence Thomas, had regularly and repeatedly sexually harassed and intimidated her throughout their tenure as colleagues. Though Anita Hill remained assured and composed through brutal and meticulous rounds of questioning, though she received threats on her life, and the lives of her family for her efforts, her deposition was cast aside. Judge Thomas’s nomination was pushed through, and he received a seat on the United States Supreme Court. David Levi Strauss, Chair of the MFA Art Writing Department, wrote at the time of the proceedings, “The obscene […] language Anita Hill brought into the hearing room, and into millions of living rooms, contaminated the protected discourse of power and privilege with the actual language of power and privilege. This significant and extremely disruptive act could not go unpunished.”
Today, we reprint Strauss’s “The Hearings: Televise and Consent” as the United States prepares for another possible lifetime appointment of a man accused of sexual misconduct to the Supreme Court. Yesterday a woman, highly respected in her field of psychology, spoke before an all-white male Senate Judiciary Committee on national television, testifying that Brett Kavanaugh, a teenage acquaintance of hers and the most recent U.S. Supreme Court nominee, sexually assaulted her when she was fifteen years old. Though Christine Blasey Ford remained assured and composed through brutal and meticulous rounds of questioning, though she has received threats on her life, and the lives of her family for her efforts, she has once again brought obscene language into the arena of power and privilege.
America once again stands on a precipice and, if possible, the stakes are higher than they have ever been. The #metoo movement, formed in the wake of an election that saw a man who grabs women “by the pussy” rise to the presidency, has begun to pick away at this old, dirty scab of power and privilege. But the wound of patriarchy beneath festers, and runs deep.
What has changed in 27 years? What have we learned? We hold our breaths and cringe but persist against the rot, and continue to apply the stinging balm.
— Jessica Holmes, Editor-in-Chief
Clarence Thomas (during the Hearings):
“This is not America. This is kafkaesque.”
Kafka (In The Blue Octavo Notebooks):
“Some say he is a hypocrite, others, again, that he only seems to be one.”
and to Janouch:
“Lying is an act and — like every other act — demands all a man’s skill. One must give up everything to it, one must first believe in the lie oneself, because only then can one convince other people. Lying demands the heat of passion. For that reason, it reveals more than it conceals.”
Christopher Hitchens (on the Hearings, in The Nation):
“Hypocrisy is not the least of the psychic wounds that result from enforced consensus.”
From the people who brought you the Gulf War as a mini-series, the Hill/Thomas hearings trumped tabloid TV by going live and direct, opening up the mainline and collapsing the remaining old boundaries between governance and television. Though a little rough around the edges, and leaking wild meaning from numerous fissures, the show was a hit. In one weekend, this latest spectacle of hypocrisy obliterated all competition for the hearts and minds of the atomized consensual Audience.
Hypocrisy: literally, “to judge under, or separately.” Its etymon is crisis, “turning point,” from the verb ”to decide.” Originally referring to actors playing a part on the stage, by the beginning of the 18th century it had come to its modern metaphorical senses: “Such infamous Hypocrites, that are for promoting their own Advantage, under Colour of the Publick Good.”
A century and a half later, the metaphorical weight of hypocrisy was all but lifted under the administration of actor/President Reagan, wherein hypocrisy became an operational virtue — “You like the Audience. You want to please the Audience,” said the President. Judgment was simplified: if it worked, if the public bought it, it was right, and its effect was immediately statistically measurable and programmable, through public opinion polling and TV. It took the risk out of governance and made the State practically invisible.
The Hill/Thomas Hearings were something else. They were compelling in the same way a high speed collision is compelling. In this case, the collision was between the real language of power (Judge Thomas’s oafish and brutal words as recounted by Anita Hill) and the pretend language of power (the elaborately decorous language of the Senate). Because it was televised, this collision became publicly traumatic. That fourteen of the smarmiest professional hypocrites ever to star in a mini-series (and 51 male members of the larger body) were singularly unprepared to deal with such a trauma should not have come as a surprise.
Ask any hooker or call girl that’s ever worked the Hill about the sexual practices and interpersonal behavior of Congressmen and judges. Ask any D.C. waiter or waitress about the congressional “standard of decency and fairness.” Congressmen had to exempt their employees from the Civil Rights Act to avoid a litigious logjam.
The spectacle of the Hearings was also compelling because one had the sense that anything could happen. Would anyone have really been surprised if Strom Thurmond had suddenly slumped forward, hand in pants, spouting racist epithets and spluttering to death in masturbatory overexertion? Or if Ted Kennedy had awakened with a start and launched into his speech from the Saturday Night Live sketch prematurely? Or if Oprah, Phil, Sally Jessy and Geraldo had stormed the tables, demanding to take their rightful places next to Hatch, Simpson, Metzenbaum and DeConcini? The hearings had the kind of edge to them that threatens to render all satire obsolete.
But behind these spectacular compulsions was the intuition that something real was going on here, some absolutely necessary ritual of public disclosure. Kafka again (in The Blue Octavo Notebooks): “The history of the world, as it is written or handed down by word of mouth, often fails us completely; but man’s intuitive capacity, though it often misleads, does lead, does not ever abandon one.”
All opinions about the Hearings are determined in large part by who one believed. I believed Anita Hill, finally, mainly because her allegations made sense in terms of what we already knew about Clarence Thomas: that he is nothing if not a hypocrite. He benefited enormously from affirmative action, and then worked to deny it to others who came after him. He came out of poverty himself, receiving assistance from many, and then criticized his own sister for briefly accepting public assistance. He was raised as a Catholic, educated by nuns, and even trained in seminary to be a priest, and then told Congress and the world that he had no opinion about abortion and had never even discussed it with anyone. He built his career decrying the racial analyses put forward by civil rights leaders, but the first time he felt the cold hand of the Man on his shoulder, he pulled the race card fast, with the aggrieved petulance of an informer caught on the wrong side of the new two-tiered racialism.
The idea that Thomas would sexually demean, bully and harass a co-worker while presiding over the public commission set up to hear complaints of such offenses, and then react with self-righteous indignation when confronted with the charges, seems entirely plausible and consistent with his overall pattern of behavior.
So why did seventy percent of the polled public (blacks, whites, women and men) disbelieve Anita Hill? In the present climate, the tightly woven blanket of consent offers security and warmth. The propaganda blitzkrieg during the Gulf War put ninety percent of the population under the blanket in complicity. Dissent was effectively demonized. In the Hill/Thomas passion play, Hill was the other. She was a disturbance, a dissenter, “an unwanted animal at the garden party of democracy.” Besides, women lie.
The obscene (literally “off-stage,” off-camera) language that Anita Hill brought into the hearing room, and into millions of living rooms, contaminated the protected discourse of power and privilege with the actual language of power and privilege. This significant and extremely disruptive act could not go unpunished. Though the words were originally used by Clarence Thomas as a weapon against Hill, she brought them into the public space, and it was she who was blamed for the transgression. The Senators blamed her and the public blamed her. Newsweek concluded its cover story on the Hearings with the pronouncement that “The public was mesmerized by the show, yet shuddered at the indignity of it all. Politics has become pathology.”
If Anita Hill had been forced to wear a scarlet letter on her chest it might have been an “I” for indiscretion and individualism, refusing to consent. She needed to be disciplined and punished. The minister Dimmesdale (Thomas) needed to be rewarded with a seat on the highest court in the land. The rest of us have status only as statistics, our opinions inferred from numerical sampling. There are no individuals in public opinion polling or in front of the screen. The “personal” has been colonized and represented beyond recognition in the long passage from “the personal is political” to “politics is pathology.”
From Bastard Review, 5/6, 1991.