Thomas hearings test the values of Americans


October 14, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

The Clarence Thomas hearings have become, to borrow from a philosopher, more easily deplored than described.

Are they a morality play? A trial? A soap opera? Soft-core porn?

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., a member of the Judiciary Committee who was questioned on television during a recess, found another image.

"This is warfare," he said.

And so it is. Not only warfare, but total warfare. One in which no prisoners are being taken.

Anita F. Hill, a law professor, accuses Clarence Thomas, a federal appeals court judge, of disgusting acts.

Thomas, categorically denying all the charges, condemns the Senate itself, accusing it of participating in a "high-tech lynching" worse than Ku Klux Klan, worse even than "an assassin's bullet."

And the senators pick and tear at each other like cats on a fence.

America watches, listens, reads about it all. And how does it make us feel?

"I felt like I was in a restaurant with my parents, and they started fighting," a Senate staffer told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times.

That is what it has been like for many of us: sudden shock giving way to profound embarrassment.

In the modern era, the U.S. Senate has been a place where politeness is a rule. Colleagues are always "the esteemed senator from Illinois" or "my friend from Alabama." Politeness is observed not merely to make life pleasant for the senators, but out of the belief that civilized discussion is the highest form of debate in a modern society.

Yet, today, in a committee of this august body, assembled to explore the confirmation of a person to the most respected court in the land, the debate hails not from on high, but from the gutter.

Language heretofore unthinkable on the nightly news or in the breakfast-table newspaper now looms large in both places.

By its very nature, of course, accusations of sexual harassment are going to be unpleasant and seamy. And attempting to sanitize important problems usually serves only to exacerbate them.

But could not all this have been done in private, where private reputations would not be sullied and public ears not assaulted? It is unlikely. In an age of mass communication, the private has become suspect.

After all, most of the criticism now directed at the Senate is because members of the Judiciary Committee met in private, discussed Anita Hill's testimony in private and dismissed it in private.

And today, the public's craving for information and entertainment -- the two are often not distinguishable -- approaches the insatiable.

One can probably find essays on the decline of American standards dating from the first year of the Republic. And it is important to note that the nation's founders, who were turning over the reigns of power to a mass of people much less cultured and educated than themselves, had great faith in what they were doing.

"I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1820, "and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion."

Whether Jefferson would find the Clarence Thomas hearings as displaying much "wholesome discretion" is anybody's guess. But there seems little doubt that no matter what the eventual outcome is of Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court, both a harm and a service have been done.

The service is that millions of Americans who never have done so before are now thinking about sexual harassment in a serious way.

The harm to Thomas and to Hill is obvious. Some stains can never be removed even with the cleansing of time.

But one also has to wonder whether harm also has been done to our society. Politeness or, at least, decent behavior is more than a mere convention: in a society of conflicting racial, ethnic, social and special interest groups, it can be what makes daily life liveable.

The call, now widely heard in the land, is that the "process" must be reformed, that there must be a better way to fill such top positions without such gruesome explorations into their private lives.

This desire for a mechanical reform, however, may mask our larger fear: That to grow up in America today is to grow up other than blameless. That perhaps there is nobody who is a product of modern American culture who can stand up to modern American scrutiny.

And perhaps that is what shocks and embarrasses us most of all.

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