Hill-Thomas Debate Taxes Civility

By Freivogel, William H. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), November 1, 1993 | Go to article overview

Hill-Thomas Debate Taxes Civility


Freivogel, William H., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


CLARENCE THOMAS started his work on the Supreme Court two years ago this week, yet he is still haunted by the ghost of Anita Hill's sexual-harassment allegations.

Hardly a month passes without a journalistic re-examination of the October weekend when Hill's graphic allegations and Thomas' angry denials captivated the nation.

There was the book by David Brock, a Washington Times reporter, debunking Hill's story. Then a response to Brock, debunking the debunker. Then Brock's rebuttal. Finally, an article in The New Yorker portraying Thomas as an angry man taking his revenge from the high court bench through archconservative positions.

Meanwhile, the subject of this scrutiny is ridiculed in TV skits - can't travel without Secret Service protection and can't give a speech without protesters at the door.

An argument may be made that all this is healthy in a robust democracy.

But there are arguments on the other side. The Hill-Thomas debate drains civility from public discourse. In addition, it encourages the growth of a wing of the women's movement that is focused on victimization rather than a broader view of women's rights.

First, civility.

The notion itself seems hopelessly old-fashioned in this take-no-prisoners era of political combat. Years of achievement are vaporized in a media minute.

Perhaps Robert Bork, John Tower and Lani Guinier all deserved to lose. But the public dismemberment of their reputations was brutal.

What does civility dictate for Clarence Thomas?

Maybe we in the press should avoid snide asides, such as one in a recent wire story saying that Thomas sometimes doesn't listen to oral arguments. Nor do we need a paragraph about Thomas every time a sex-harassment case comes up.

Granted, Thomas is a man of contradictions. He professed sympathy for African-American prisoners at his confirmation, but he doesn't think the Constitution bars all prison beatings. He is the product of largely desegregated schools and colleges, yet is ready to dismantle school desegregation. He is a beneficiary of affirmative action, but seems not to believe in it.

Despite the bedeviling contradictions, legal experts of varying political stripes give Thomas' opinions high marks for scholarship.

The second point, about the role of victimization in the women's movement, is tricky. …

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