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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Clarence Thomas interview: Equal time for Anita Hill

I too watched Clarence Thomas on 60 Minutes and found him more impressive than I expected. However, I was surprised that all these years later and having enjoyed a career not available to most people, he still has to indulge in an ad hominem attack on Anita Hill. She has responded with an editorial in the New York Times that says she stands by her testimony. Its title? "The Smear This Time"

The Wall Street Journal law blog picked it up, and what is really sad was the level of discourse in some blogger's comments. Speaking of ad hominem attacks, one blogger wonders if Hill is fun on a date. Speaking also of sexism, several comment on how "hot" she is. Come on, people.

Nothing much has changed since I went to see Hill speak at Hamline University shortly after the Thomas hearings. Young men lined up along the doorway to offer the (mostly women) attendees cans of Coke, and one seemed genuinely surprised when I called him a name I can't use here. (I too was guilty of an ad hominem attack). I thanked Hill for coming forward, and I stand by that now. Perhaps her allegations shouldn't have taken center stage they way they did, but she had written them in a private letter to the Judiciary Committee, not in a book for which she was paid a $1.5 million advance. But as Hill says in her op-ed piece, reopening the smear campaign against her will not encourage future objects of sexual harassment to vindicate their rights.


Peter said...

There is so much on which to comment here.

1. The debate was not about ideas, in which ad hominems (attacks on the person, rather than the ideas) would be inappropriate. It was about whether or not then-Judge Thomas was the type of person who belonged on the Supreme Court. It was an attack on him as a person. And then it was a question of the credibility of the witnesses for and against him. Now if by "ad hominem" you mean "insults," you should say so. But the hearings were all about the character of various people, not about ideas.

2. Remember that SUPPORTERS of Anita Hill said that she was a Republican lawyer who had no ax to grind, meaning that we should believe her testimony because she had no motive to lie. It is entirely proper for defenders of Thomas, in this case Thomas himself, to raise questions about what supporters of Hill were saying to bolster her testimony.

3. EQUAL TIME???? Do you forget that Hill wrote a book, "Speaking Truth to Power"? What about all the "I believe Anita Hill" buttons? What about the "Designing Women" episode trashing Thomas (produced by Clintonistas Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason - They took on VP Quayle in their Murphy Brown series, too). Not to mention _objective_ legal reporters like you and Nina "Alan-Simpson-is-an-evil-man" Totenberg.

4. Both you and Ms. Hill try to make this about group rights and not about the facts of a specific incident. Her op/ed piece is all about this is how accusers are treated, etc. Sexual harassment is a bad thing. Rape is a bad thing. So was the Olympic Park bombing. But just because something is bad and may have happened to someone close to you (or in the case of Nina Totenberg, to her personally) does not relieve us from the duty of the presumption of innocence or journalistic objectivity. Think of the late Richard Jewell. Think of the Duke LaCrosse players.
The lessons from those cases are not that women lie or that cops pick up the wrong suspects, but that we have to look at the facts of each case individually. And, sorry to say, the accuser's possible motive to lie is part of it.

5. You thanked Anita Hill for coming forward. Did you also thank Paula Jones?

6. Did you condemn people like James Carville for saying mean things about Paula Jones? Or is your ire reserved for "bloggers" (read: conservatives)? If they post a comment on the WSJ blog, does that make them "bloggers"? Are you equating all critics of Hill with the losers who wrote inappropriate stuff or who handed out Coke cans?

7. Is it possible that Hill wanted to derail the nomination without having to come forward? Do we allow accusers to do that in court, without allowing the accused the right to confront their accusers? Do you think her letter to the judiciary committee helps or hurts her credibility?

Barbara Jones, Associate Editor said...

Peter: Thanks for reading Minnesota Lawyer’s blog. I think this might be the only time I’m mentioned in the same sentence with Nina Totenberg. I have a few responses:

1. The hearings were about the character of various people, not ideas. That’s a valid point, but I thought Thomas’ remarks about Hill’s not being the kind of Christian she presented herself to be crossed the line. Why is he re-opening this chapter on television if it’s so painful? Could it be the $1.5 million advance he has to earn though book sales? Why not take the high road and simply say Hill was mistaken? Criticize the process and not her personally? But you’re right, perhaps I should have used the word insult instead of ad hominem.

2. I didn’t write anything about what supporters of Hill said during her testimony, so I’m not clear about this point.

3. The “Equal Time” reference was to the Minnlawyer blog, not a global reference to all the news in the world, let alone television. I thought that would be clear, but I guess it wasn’t.

4. The accuser’s motive to lie is part of the story in a sexual harassment case. The presumption of innocence is important. Agreed. How does that relate to blog postings about how hot Anita Hill is or whether she’s fun on a date? (For the record, I have consistently supported the lacrosse players.)

5. I’ve never met Paula Jones. Would this be a good time to mention David Brock’s apologies for Troopergate?

6. I thought people who posted on blogs were bloggers. Sorry if that was incorrect. I am not equating all critics of Hill with losers who handed out Coke cans. I am equating losers who handed out Coke cans with “bloggers” who wrote trash about Hill.

7. The right of confrontation is important. Agreed. It’s hard to know what a person in Hill’s situation could have done without being criticized. Writing a private letter apparently makes her look dishonest and fearful; making a public statement exposes her to retaliation: criticism of attempting to destroy a good man and remarks on her physical appearance, religious faith, etc. Evidently the only thing she could do to satisfy everybody would be to keep quiet. Scaring victims into keeping quiet is the traditional method used to prevent objects of harassment from coming forward. As a (male) friend of mine recently wrote me about this post: “How better to control any group than by intimidating people who have been wronged through humiliation, ridicule, risk of job loss, blacklisting, and even more unsavory tactics?”

Peter said...

1. Why not say that Hill was mistaken? One of them was lying. Hill and others (including you) had no problem saying that Thomas was lying and a harasser to boot. How else does he rebut the charges against himself? Sure people have a motive to sensationalize things to drive up book sales or for many other reasons. But when Hill brought out her sensational charges, we were supposed to just accept them at face value and not look to possible motives to lie.

2. The point is that Thomas is not the first person to bring up the various aspects of Hill's character. People who were trying to bolster her credibility did that. Thomas was responding, albeit too late for my taste, to those supporters of Hill, who called her, inter alia, the "Rosa Parks of Sexual Harassment." If you believe her religion and her politics are not relevant, you should equally criticize pro-Hill and anti-Hill forces. This is like being in court and one litigant brings in good character evidence. That litigant opened the door to bad character evidence.

4. Good misdirection. The comments were bad. So were the racist comments about Thomas. You must have missed those when you wrote your blog post.

5. Feminists did not support (and give the benefit of the doubt to) Paula Jones like they did Anita Hill because Jones was lying and Hill was telling the truth, right? After all, that's why you bring up David Brock. This is also an example of the logical fallacy of begging the question. The nice thing about David Brock is that each side of the political spectrum can point to something that Brock wrote as supporting their cause. If only the late Barb Olson hadn't disinvited him to a party, he would be in the conservative camp today. BTW, Brock still affirmed what he wrote about Anita Hill at the time he apologized for Troopergate. Like Minnesota weather, he has changed frequently on this point.

6. I once wrote a letter in response to an editorial in Minnesota Lawyer. Using your logic on the definition of "blogger," I guess I am an "editor" of Minnesota Lawyer.

7. "person in Hill's situation..." again, you are begging the question. You assume her allegations to be true in order to evaluate her credibility. Sometimes there are mixed motives. Sometimes the evidence is ambiguous. But we still have to look at the evidence. I see Hill as a person, and in this context as a witness. Since the sexual harassment alleged had, for the most part, only two witnesses, we have to weigh the credibility of both witnesses. If you stop seeing her as a person, and make her a symbol of every harassment victim, then you are no longer engaged in the search for the truth. The search for the truth is what the judicial system and the journalism profession is all about.

Sometimes it is worthwhile to treat people as symbols rather than as people. Does it really matter whether George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and then told the truth about it? This is where the ad hoc/ad hominem distinction really comes into play. The apocryphal story may tell us larger truths about ourselves or about ideas. The only problem with the Thomas hearings is that a very real person was accusing another very real person of some very bad things.

Both sides of the ideological divide do it (and David Brock represents the worst of each side). But deeply held beliefs about feminism, sexual harassment, or anything else is not a substitute for finding the truth in a specific case. You were able to see that in the Duke case. Hopefully you were able to see that in the Richard Jewel case. Whatever side you ultimately end up on in the Thomas/Hill case should be the basis of critical thinking and evaluation of evidence. Anything that short circuits this search for the truth does more damage to society than some anonymous commentor or student with a Coke can.

T.K. said...

I watched the 60 Minutes interview with Clarence Thomas, too, and was surprised at how likable he seemed (get the viewpoint I had coming in?). I thought that if this guy really was wrongly accused (after all, his wife seems to believe him), then that is a huge tragedy.

But I was also troubled by what appeared to be Thomas' razor thin skin and thinly veiled rage. Not just anger, but rage. He way overreacted to what seemed to me pretty tame questions, even when trying to take into account our vastly different experiences in this racist culture.

How to know who was telling the truth, Thomas or Hill? We will never know. But others have come forward since Hill with reports of very similar experiences with Thomas. And I have known way too many people in positions of power in my life (not just men) who are almost pathologically blind to the effect of their conduct on others. Discrimination and mistreatment rarely come anymore in the form of the overt acts of yesteryear. Now they are more subtle, acts and remarks that are open to more than one interpretation. The modern day defense: it flat out didn't happen because I didn't perceive it that way.

As for Barbara Jones, I, for one, am glad she was there back in the day to make her support known to Anita Hill, and to confront the sleazy handers-out of Coke with a choice retort. Those “ad hominen” attacks were of the completely justified variety, in response to the in-your-face acts of the mean-spirited hecklers.

Peter said...

TK, which witnesses are you talking about? The ones whom he had fired?

I, for one, criticize both the pro-Thomas and anti-Thomas hecklers. My call for civility is not dependent upon which person you believe.

Who Am Us Anyway said...

Thanks for this fine discussion, Barbara & Peter! The topic? Important! The wits? Like rapiers!

I do think it important to remember (I think the historical evidence will bear me out on this!) that one’s good and bad private behavior bears precisely zero relationship to one’s deeply held political views. And it’s always an interesting thought experiment to switch the protagonists’ political parties and genders. Would Republicans have backed Ken Starr’s unending investigations into Monicagate if Reagan had been the target instead of Clinton? Would liberals have been so OK with the manner in which various pundits & political cartoons mock a black woman if Anita Hill were the target instead of Condi Rice?

But it is human nature (he proclaims grandly) to want to believe those with whom we feel a political or racial or religious or gender affinity. Polls showed white folks overwhelmingly rejected O.J.’s claims of innocence; blacks, not so much. I suspect most white conservatives tended to believe the Duke lacrosse team’s denials; most liberals, not so much. I still remember the unnerving looks of complete and utter shock on my parents’ faces when at long last they could no longer deny that Nixon had been lying to them.

Lee Phillips said...

I'm enjoying the interesting and civil debate here. I still don't know who was telling the truth in 1991, but after reading Professor Hill's op-ed I find myself leaning toward the Justice and away from the Professor.