Diary of a Mad Law Professor by Patricia J. Williams: Speaking Truth to Soundbites

 

I've been reading Anita Hill's new book, Speaking Truth to Power. Happily, it is a compelling, intelligent read--indeed, in the rushing river of recent celebrity-lawyer publications, from Marcia Clark to Robert Bork, from Alan Dershowitz to Johnnie Cochran, this one stands out. It offers a fascinating insight into not only Hill's life but also that of her parents and grandparents. It's not just about the battle she waged with the Senate; it's about the social history of rural black America and the entire region in which she grew up.

At the same time, I've been watching the public response to this book. I've been listening to the television interviews and reading the reviews--not bad but thin, as though like lazy schoolchildren they'd only skimmed the assignment. They all ask the same four questions: Why did you write this book now? (She was tired of others characterizing her.) Would you testify again? (Yes. It was a matter of principle.) What do you think about Clarence Thomas now? (General disappointment.) Any regrets? (Aside from the death threats and losing her job, no, none whatever.)

But the book is anything but soundbitten rehash. To me, the most interesting aspect of Speaking Truth to Power is Hill's exploration of the tension in living one's life in a world so invested in its images of race and gender. Hill examines all the ingredients that made the hearing such a spectacle: The drawing of that ever-so-reasonable "I said no" line in the sand has never been a simple affair under the best of circumstances. Add to that the fear of the do-gooder tattle, which is, after all, at the heart of the ambivalence surrounding any whistleblower. Such a brew requires only a pinch of race, but this was like one of those culinary catastrophes where the cap came off and the whole jar fell in. Serve it up to a pack of red-meat-eating Real Hungry Men,and let the feeding frenzy begin.

"She will be injured and destroyed and belittled and hounded and harassed, real harassment, different from the sexual kind, just plain old Washington-variety harassment," then-Senator Alan Simpson announced publicly. And so it was indeed. Hill's book details the remarkable thoroughness of the Bush White House's attempt to smear her at all costs--from the insinuation of a conspiracy with feminist scholar Catharine MacKinnon, whom she had never met, to (senatorially subsidized?) campaigns to solicit letters of complaint from students she had never taught. Much of this effort has already been documented by no less an authority than former Senator John Danforth. In his book Resurrection, he apologized for the abuses to which he, in a self-proclaimed frenzy of religious conviction, was propelled in pursuit of what he still deems to have been God's mission for his friend and mentee Clarence Thomas. And in considerably calmer tones, veteran Wall Street Journal reporters Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer have independently recounted the F.B.I.'s unauthorized search for "dirt" about Hill in their book Strange Justice. (Although I must say that my favorite revelation from Mayer and Abramson's investigation is that the organization known as the "African-American Freedom Alliance" was in fact a group of white fundamentalists who advertised under that name in the black press.)

Public opinion has changed since 1991. These days more people believe Anita Hill. Yup, it probably happened, runs the popular commentary--but it wasn't harassment. They keep skipping over that part where Hill alleges Thomas ignored her work, stopped being her mentor and compromised her job prospects. Instead everyone's debating whether it wasn't just a bit of amorous wordplay, a Rabelaisian flirtation. Even Hollywood, home of the casting couch, has spent millions proving that, lo and behold, women can be harassers too! So since we're all equal now, here's what you do: Dry your tears and forget about it! Chin up, blow your nose and join the boys for a beer.

They keep skipping over that part where she says, repeatedly and very clearly, that he compromised her ability to do her job. "I thought that once I left that place I could get those things that normal people got when they had done well," Hill told me in a recent interview. "That makes for a difficult balance between forgetting about it and not making harassers responsible. Just leaving Washington didn't stop it. It is really difficult, because people do think that leaving a bad situation with your dignity intact means washing your hands of the entire thing and just walking off. I did not realize how sinister the control was, and that it was really all about control."

Control. The sentiment runs like an underground river, a small sound, an ominous rush of circular denials and crushing resentment. She asked for it, don't you know, she stayed, and besides, will you look at what she was wearing. It's the kind of assumption that booby-traps a lot of women, if on a smaller scale. "I lay claim to my rights as a chauvinist any day," says a journalist friend of mine. "But what really gets me is all these guys I interview who say Marv Albert couldn't be guilty because he and this woman had known each other for ten years."

Hill says: "One of the things I've had to deal with is that people create their own [realities] of who I should be. There were a lot of people, well-intentioned people, after the hearing who wanted me to come out and...make these bold statements and denounce this person or that, and demand that Clarence Thomas resign...and that's not the person that I am. And then there were all these other people, the David Brocks, who wanted me to be this completely flaky, incompetent person and/or this totally sexually aggressive person. I think people's willingness to accept these versions of things ties in a lot to preconceived notions we have about black women, but I think that there are also some preconceived notions we have about people who care about issues. The reality is often difficult for people on both sides to accept."

I hope she is heard--and read--in this world of embattled bigmouths uttering small words, the hissing yes's so often drowning out the no's.

 

Source: The Nation Company, L.P. All rights reserved. Copyright (c) 1997

History 122
Hill/Thomas
HIST 122 Syllabus

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