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The legacy of the Thomas-Hill hearings
- Article by: RUTH MARCUS
- Washington Post
- October 5, 2011 - 1:32 PM
Even now, with the healing distance of two decades, the subject of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas retains its power to provoke and divide.
It was 20 years ago this month that Hill's allegations of sexual harassment surfaced, threatening to derail Thomas' imminent confirmation to the Supreme Court.
I spent the weekend-long marathon of hearings in the Senate Caucus Room, the majestic setting of soaring marble columns and gilded ceiling contrasting with the squalid details of Hill's allegations.
At the time, it was both riveting and horrifying. By the time the hearing was gaveled to a close at 2 a.m. on Monday, I was -- like everyone else -- simply relieved that it was over.
Looking back, it is possible to trace the larger cultural and political legacy, both good and bad, of that painful moment.
First, the Thomas-Hill hearings heralded a coarsening of the national dialogue. It goes too far to suggest cause and effect; there is no straight line between the hearings and, say, wardrobe malfunctions or "Jersey Shore."
But the hearings, with their nationally televised discussion of Thomas' alleged tastes in pornography and his explicit overtures, crossed an invisible line into a cruder culture.
A few years earlier, I had covered a trial involving a sexual act that the existing stylebook would only let me describe, rather misleadingly, as "sodomy."
A few years later, the nation found itself engaged in a graphic national discussion about the precise meaning of "sexual relations" and the DNA evidence deposited on Monica Lewinsky's blue dress.
The intervening experience of the Thomas-Hill hearings, with the discussion of Thomas' alleged interest in "Long Dong Silver" and commentary about pubic hair on a Coke can, helped defined deviancy downward.
As we sat at the press table during the most explicit testimony, the New York Times reporter turned to me, a stricken look on his face, and asked how we were going to write about all this, given our newspapers' notorious queasiness about sexual matters.
In the end, our stories were unexpurgated.
Second, the hearings heralded -- although again they did not create -- an intensifying of the partisan divide. The 1987 fight over the failed nomination of Robert Bork was intense but nowhere near as personal or partisan.
As with the Clinton impeachment several years later, the Thomas nomination witnessed each side automatically lining up in support of, or opposed to, the protagonist.
Senators who wanted to see Thomas on the high court credited his version of events; those who wanted him defeated for other reasons chose to believe Hill. The facts themselves took second place to the political interests involved.
Indeed, the very women's groups most exercised about Thomas' alleged misconduct were notably, shamefully silent when it came to Clinton's behavior with a White House intern, and his false statements under oath.
In hindsight, the Thomas confirmation seems almost quaint, with its majority vote in favor of the nominee. The possibility of a filibuster was bargained away early on. Today, an option that once seemed nuclear has become the norm.
The third legacy of the Thomas hearings is a positive one: lower tolerance for sexual harassment and greater political prominence for women. Back then, an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee was inclined to ignore the Hill allegations.
That would not happen today, with two women on the panel, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Two women served in the Senate in 1991; there are 17 today.
As to sexual harassment, of course such behavior still occurs and some women still endure it rather than speak out.
But Hill's reluctant testimony educated and chastened many men, and it emboldened many women. The workplace of 2011 may not be perfect, but it is a better, fairer place.
For me, the final legacy of the hearings is entirely personal: It's how I met my husband, who worked on the committee staff for a Democratic senator.
Late on the weekend the Hill story broke, he returned my phone call, explaining that he had been away at his grandmother's 90th birthday party.
Who, he asked, was Anita Hill? He seemed like a nice guy, so with uncharacteristic patience, I brought him up to speed, instead of following my instinct to pronounce him useless and hang up.
It was only months later -- after we started dating -- that I discovered he was feigning ignorance.
Twenty years and two beautiful children later, I still believe Anita Hill. But I owe an odd, unpayable debt to Justice Thomas.
Better late than never, the movement to take America back from Wall Street has arrived.
On Wednesday, the ranks of the Occupy Wall Street encampment will swell as MoveOn.org members, union activists and ordinary disgruntled citizens join the demonstration against our financial sector's misrule of the American economy.
What's more, long-planned anti-bank demonstrations in major cities this week are growing beyond their organizers' fondest hopes as the Wall Street protest movement catches fire.
The anti-bank campaign has in fact been incubating for years — a "seed beneath the snow," as the Italian novelist Ignazio Silone once termed the slow-to-arrive left. The sit-ins, teach-ins and street demonstrations popping up in Boston, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles are formally the handiwork of a coalition of community groups that recently gathered together as the New Bottom Line. Many of these groups have focused on immediate goals — such as stopping particular banks from foreclosing on more homes. They, along with unions, have demonstrated on Wall Street many times since the 2008 financial crisis. But only now, as Occupy Wall Street — an organization that they didn't create — has grabbed the public imagination the past few weeks, are the myriad mobilizations commanding the media's attention.
"It's a confluence of planned and unplanned demonstrations," says Stephen Lerner, a longtime organizer for the Service Employees International Union who once spearheaded the union's successful campaign to organize big-city janitors and today helps guide the groups in New Bottom Line. "We build on each other. We go ping-ponging back and forth."
Planned and unplanned, the groups are coming together. The imminent mixing of largely young and countercultural Wall Street occupiers with more seasoned and hard-nosed unionists and middle-class liberals may produce some clashes of style, but their shared anger at what banks have done to them — to all of us — should be sufficient to cement this nascent coalition. It had better be.
At the moment, this fledgling movement is awash in a range of demands. Occupy Wall Street has tended toward the amorphous, expressing a generalized rage at economic inequality and financial hegemony. The New Bottom Line groups, and the wonks of the anti-bank left, have more concrete demands, including modifications and cancellations to student and housing debt, a financial-transaction tax, and the reinstitution of the 1932 Glass-Steagall Act (which would make garden-variety banking safer and less speculative by rebuilding the wall between commercial and investment banking).
That the proposed reforms are all over the map is understandable given the enormity of the problem. As finance has become a larger and larger part of the U.S. economy in recent decades, the U.S. economy has grown more and more dysfunctional. At Wall Street's prompting, the New Deal's constraints on finance were loosened in the 1980s and '90s, enabling banks to grow huge by speculating with other people's money and by restructuring the economy so that it ran on credit and debt.
From 1973 through 1985, as Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, documented in 2009, American banks never earned more than 16 percent of domestic corporate profits. By the mid-2000s, that figure rose to 41 percent. As with profits, so with pay: For more than three decades, from 1948 to 1982, pay levels in finance ranged from 99 to 108 percent of the average of private-sector pay. By 2007 they had reached 181 percent.
Once the servant of industry, banking became our dominant industry. It has ceased to serve us. We serve it. And when it went all but belly up in the panic of 2008, the federal government bailed it out, on the assumption of those authoring the Troubled Assets Relief Program legislation that the banks would use those funds to bail out our larger society. Instead, they took the money and sat on it. Lending to small business in particular has not bounced back.
Not all of the problems with the current American model of capitalism originate with banking. But Wall Street's growth has long come at the expense of productive enterprise, diverting dollars and talent from the business of making goods. Merely occupying Wall Street doesn't go remotely far enough. We need to diminish finance with regulations that would make our economy both more secure and more productive. Here's hoping the disparate groups of protesters come together, grow and stay in the streets. It will take a massive, vibrant protest movement to bring America's subservience to Wall Street to its overdue end.
Meyerson is editor-at-large of American Prospect.
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