Judicial Power and American Character: Censoring Ourselves in an Anxious Age

By Robert F. Nagel | Go to book overview

2
Watching Ourselves: The Thomas Hearings and National Character

For three days in October 1991, millions of Americans watched in appalled fascination as the Senate Judiciary Committee considered Anita Hill's charges against Clarence Thomas. Given the mystifying nature of the confrontation between two apparently honest, capable individuals and given the public's normal interest in all things sexual, widespread attention to the televised hearings was to be expected. But our absorption had qualities of intensity and seriousness that suggest a deeper explanation. Certainly many viewers thought that they saw in the hearings a drama conveying something significant about our moral circumstances and political institutions. Thus, citizens across the country discussed the disturbing symbolism of fourteen white male senators sitting in judgment on a black man and a black woman. Many women found common ground in the angry thought that "they just don't get it." For their part, incredulous men for the first time began to take seriously the claim that coping with vulgar sexual advances is a pervasive problem for working women. Pundits wrote gravely about the decline of the confirmation process and, possibly, of the Supreme Court. In short, the public perceived the hearings as a moment of important cultural self-recognition.

But what should we have recognized about ourselves? Could we have seen anything of sustained significance in those fleeting, disturbing images? I believe the Thomas hearings do contain important cultural mean

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