Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I Believe Anita Hill


On the news today was a shocking revelation that the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had called and left a message on Anita Hill's voicemail at her office at Brandeis University, where she is a law professor.

Virginia Thomas claims that she wanted to "extend an olive branch", but her message reveals something else. According to news reports, Mrs. Thomas said this:

"I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation about why you did what you did with my husband. So give it some thought and certainly pray about this and come to understand why you did what you did. OK, have a good day."

That doesn't sound like extending an olive branch to me! That sounds like a demand, which she has no right to make. Hill notified her university's public safety office, which in turn informed the FBI. She said that the call was inappropriate and she has no intention recanting her statement because she spoke what she considers to be the truth about her experiences with Clarence Thomas. If Virginia Thomas wants answers, I'd recommend that she read two books: Anita Hill's Speaking Truth to Power and David Brock's Blinded By the Right.

This news story is odd, because why would Virginia Thomas contact Anita Hill nineteen years after one of the most famous Congressional inquiries in television history? In 1991, the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas introduced into the public lexicon: Long Dong Silver, "who put pubic hair on my Coke?", and "high tech lynching." Given Americans natural "amnesiac" memory, the hearings are relegated to the history books, so it is strange that Victoria Thomas would want to refresh our memories about that episode of "he said, she said." Especially when it did not make her husband look good. His confirmation almost got derailed. If it wasn't for Senator Ted Kennedy's own moral lapses at the time (his nephew William Kennedy Smith was facing a famous trial around the same time as the Thomas/Hill hearings in which he was accused of raping a young lady at Uncle Teddy's family mansion in Florida), he might've been "Borked."

Though Thomas was confirmed, the unintended consequences of this hearing resulted in the election of four female Senators in the 1992 elections: Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein in California, Patty Murray in Washington, and Carol Moseley Braun in Illinois (the first African American female elected to the Senate). 1992 was dubbed "the year of the woman" by the media. Part of that was the result of a backlash that there were no female Senators on the panel, grilling Clarence Thomas about his treatment of women while he worked at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In David Brock's confessional book, Blinded By the Right, he writes about how he was tasked with character assassination of Anita Hill, while hiding the truth about Clarence Thomas. Apparently, Thomas had an extensive porn collection, but Senator Orrin Hatch (a Mormon) was part of the cover-up to portray Thomas as a bastion of conservative family values. That's pretty sick. But at BYU, I heard that there's a lot of hush-hush regarding the sexual proclivities of some Mormon leaders. As I know from the Navy, many who claim to be moralistic, "family values" type conservatives are some of the biggest consumers of pornography and other things they consider "immoral."

When I was at BYU, Clarence Thomas happened to come to campus to give a lecture at the Law School. This inspired some protests by students, which impressed me. Though it is an ultra-conservative university, there are some liberal activists who are quite vocal about human rights issues and even a consistent moral standard. Thomas had come to campus in 1998, which was the year of Monica Lewinsky. The school said that they would never invite President Clinton to speak on campus because of his "immorality", yet they turn a blind eye to Clarence Thomas (whose extensive porn collection would get any BYU student expelled from school if they had a similar collection). This double standard is pretty sick. I'm sure, though, that if Clinton was a conservative, BYU leaders would turn a blind eye to his philandering problem. I would not be surprised if Senator Larry "Wide Stance" Craig (R-ID) had spoken at BYU sometime in the decade after I left BYU and before he got disgraced in a Minneapolis Airport men's room.

During the holiday season of 1998, when I returned home to Atlanta for Christmas, I was reading Anita Hill's Speaking Truth to Power. I read her book on the airplane. Somewhere over Texas, while listening to The Preacher's Wife Soundtrack on my discman, I had an odd synchronicity experience when Whitney Houston's song "I Love the Lord" played on my discman, because it started playing on the soundtrack (without my manipulation of fast forwarding songs) just as I read a passage in Hill's book where she mentioned her favourite church hymn being "I Love the Lord." That brief moment of synchronicity made the hair on my arms stand straight up as chills ran through my body. Weird!

During the 1991 Congressional hearings, I was newly stationed at my first assignment in the U.S. Navy in La Maddalena, Sardinia. I bonded with an African American first class petty officer over this hearings, as we laughed over the revelations regarding Clarence Thomas (who seemed to have a strange fascination with porn star Long Dong Silver). The line that Thomas supposedly said to Hill was also deserving of much mockery. He had asked her, "Who put pubic hair on my Coke?" That seems like an odd thing to say. Usually in he said / she said conflicts, it's hard to decide who is telling the truth. It boils down to who's more credible and I simply found Anita Hill to be more credible. There were reasonable criticisms against her, though. Why did she wait to come forward when he was about to be confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice? It felt like an 11th hour act of desperation. She had years to file a complaint, and she even followed him from one job to another. Despite these questions, I thought she was more credible. In the years since, she has shown herself to be a consummate professional. She has never posed nude as I'm certain some skin mags probably offered, and her book was published seven years after the incident. People who "cash in" generally do it when their name is hot (cough, cough, Sarah Palin, cough, cough), not when it has cooled off into "whatever happened to so and so?"

Though Clarence Thomas did get confirmed (as the worst Supreme Court Justice in my lifetime), this highly publicized hearing was not a total loss for women. The hearings brought the subject of sexual harassment into the public sphere. The timing was perfect for such a discussion. In fact, I credit the "Anita Hill Effect" for a scandal that consumed the Navy during my entire enlistment. That's right. I'm talking about the notorious Tailhook.

At a Las Vegas Convention in 1991 of Naval Aviators, known as Tailhook (for the "tail" of a Navy plane used to catch one of the four wires across the flight deck of an aircraft carrier so that it can come to a quick stop on the short runway), drunken aviators formed a gauntlet down the hallway of the Las Vegas Hilton (where the church young adult group spent a couple nights during our roadtrip to Vegas in November 1999). Female aviators and even an admiral's aide were forced to walk this gauntlet (with drunken male aviators lining both sides grabbing or groping at the women). There were other debauchery, such as the infamous "Rhino" that held the grog (an alcoholic brew that was dispensed through the faux rhino's male anatomy).

The admiral's aide complained to her boss, but was ignored. She kept taking it higher until someone took her seriously. The shit hit the fan in the summer of 1992 and in the Navy's effort at damage control, we received training in sexual harassment 6 times in one year! I learned a lot, but in the Navy's overreaction to this scandal, the fear was that an innocent joke could be taken out of context and the guy's career would be ruined. Or, an even bigger concern was that a woman could make a false allegation against a guy and she would be believed over the guy, regardless of her credibility. One thing I loved about being on an all male ship is that one didn't have to worry about being offensive, because the natural sense of humour of most men is vulgar, coarse, and would shock a lot of women. Men generally don't get as offended as women do. Since my second ship had a 3o% female crew, I made sure that I did not do anything that could be misconstrued. I looked forward to the dating opportunities, but my cautious nature was on high alert.

Would the Tailhook Scandal have come to public awareness without Anita Hill's testimony to Congress in 1991? I doubt it. Tailhook was an annual convention and I'm certain that it was as raunchy in 1991 as it was in 1990 or 1980. The only thing that changed was that a woman was emboldened by Anita Hill's testimony that she decided not to remain silent, even if it made her boss (Admiral Kelso) uncomfortable. Because of the Tailhook Scandal, the next Chief of Naval Operations went to Admiral Jeremy "Mike" Boorda, whom I had met when I was stationed in Italy and he was the head Naval officer for Naval Forces in Europe. He was quite popular among enlisted men (because he started out as an E-1, switched over to the officer ranks after an enlistment or two, and rose all the way to Admiral). Very personable, approachable, and less obsessed with rank protocol than most officers. He was making positive changes in the Navy, until he committed suicide in 1996 when a reporter discovered that he was wearing a medal he never earned and was planning a front page story in a news magazine.

Finally, in 2003 when I visited my Washington Seminar roommate Matt when he was attending graduate school at the University of Minnesota with his wife, they took me to their Mormon Ward one Sunday. One elderly man who gave off negative vibes (a kind of creepy vibe that he should not be in charge of any children classes) had a button on the lapel of his dress jacket. The button said "I believe Anita Hill!" I remarked to Matt how odd I thought this was, because it was old news. Why would someone wear that button in 2003, a dozen years after the fact? To this day, whenever I talk to Matt, if I want to make him laugh, all I have to say to him is: "I believe Anita Hill!" Aren't "inside jokes" awesome? I believe at the time, when I attended church with him and his wife, I told him, "Hey, I believe Anita Hill, too, but why would anyone wear that button in 2003?"

Here we are in 2010 and Virginia Thomas wants to bring up the issue once again. So, I'll say it again, like I said in 1991, 1992, 1998, and 2003: "I believe Anita Hill!"

Basic psychology would say that Virginia Thomas is still haunted by the allegations against her husband and needs confirmation from his accuser that it was all a lie. She cannot rest until she gets confirmation that Anita was lying, because she'd rather be blind to her husband's sexual proclivities. She needs to get over herself. And she really needs to read Blinded By the Right. After reading that, she would then need to tear her house apart looking for his porno stash. She'll find her answer there, not in some phony olive branch to Anita Hill two decades later.

1 comment:

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

I've always believe anita hill and have never understood how thomas was confirmed. He's scary. So is Scalia.