Saturday, January 14, 2012

Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas: The Art of Scandal

The most exciting time in a boy's life is when you hear the words 'pubic hair' on the evening news. No county fair or ice cream sundae can outshine the surreptitious joy of seeing grown adults utter phrases like 'Long Dong Silver' while reading from a teleprompter. These words are candy and Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas was like a Willie Wonka amusement park of sexual taboos.

America makes scandal. It is the one of the few products we still control. The jobs created from our scandals can't be shipped away, or downsized. Our semiotic-based economy runs on images, and our images tell stories. We are in the renaissance of scandals. If you need proof look no further than reality TV, which is a systematic scandal factory. Every week audiences are ensured of a new storyline, revelations, fights. The Real Housewives franchise, The Kardashians, Basketball Wives, The Bachelor, Bad Girls Club, Court TV, Talk Soup, Nancy Grace. These are our nation's factories, our commodities, like frozen orange juice or steel. We export our celebrity sex tapes, reality TV, and scandal news around the world into billions of phones, computers, and TVs.

But there is another side to the production of scandal. It is art. Granted the artistry doesn't endure like a statue, but it blossoms and fades. Scandal is live multimedia performance. It is a theatrical art form involving craftsmen, actors, layered stories, cameras, commentators, analysts. The stage setting takes place in a court room, at a hearing, over the course of an investigation while the real trial takes place on the screens. Part media product and part community crafted performance, the American scandal defines my generation's contribution. And we learned at the feet of OJ Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, and the Clarence Thomas hearings.

At the start of the 1990s you didn't talk about sex on the evening news or front pages of newspapers. A sex scandal was something that was only hinted at from the fringes. When even the whiff of sex or drugs was linked to a politician they were expected to promptly resign and disappear. This wasn't a temporary disappearance to rehab before returning with a book and round of talk shows. It was their unspoken duty to become invisible. Forever. The politician in question was almost always white and male. Women public figures and Blacks were strictly off-limits for sex scandals. When a woman was attached to a philandering politician, they were kept faceless and anonymous.

The Clarence Thomas hearing was the perfect storm. All the right conditions were in place. There was suspiciously unknown Black man with questionable credentials. There was the  bipartisan boys club mentality on the Senate committees that was starting to fracture. Even the Black community was shifting away from blind allegiance to any public official just because of race.

The Right Conditions
Black middle-class households expanded to its largest number in decades. We were less interested in the traditional civil rights arguments and more drawn to the fixtures of American bourgeoisie: sex, relationships, apolitical entertainment, therapy, taboos, and titillation. Hip hop culture migrated from social protest and toward individualism, with an emotional split between bravado and neurosis. No longer in the struggle for greater Black power, the message was individual glory, excess, paranoia, and endless self-reflection.

The start of the decade also marked a shift in our cultural heroes. Michael Jordan just won his first of six championships and the superstar athlete embodied the cultural shift away. America was all about the highlight reel slam dunk. The exorbitantly-priced Air Jordan's were trophies to tongue-wagging, 360 dunk of consumerism. Manufactured in sweat shops for pennies, the shoes weren't great feats in podiatric engineering. Rain and bad weather betrayed Air Jordan's cheap third-world construction and penny material. But the shoes said what the owners wanted: 'I can put $200 on my feet.'

After that Anita Hill testimony we were forever altered in how we dealt with the private lives of public officials. Anita and Clarence were the launch pad for the sex-scandal crazed  decade of resignations, special prosecutors, apologies, mistresses, and impeachments.

CNN and the 24-hour news network was hitting its stride. It's one thing to avoid sex scandal when all the news is compressed into 30-minutes on 3 networks aiming for the broadest possible audience. It's quite another thing when you have cable news streamlining all the time to a small segment of the population. CNN was for politicians and other news wonks. It was one step above C-SPAN and the no-frills delivery of information gushed forth every minute of the day. What's one man's oil strike is another man's busted sewer pipe. And the scandal that spews underground slowly works its way up through the tabloid gutters and media pipelines trickling upward from the lower depths. You could smell it and feel the damp fetid warmth before you actually see the revelation on the esteemed network news. CNN changed the scandal rule out of necessity for content. Sex for cable news are like hurricane season for the Weather Channel. A gold rush of ratings.

Thomas was Black mediocrity incarnate. He was elevated above his level due to racial sycophancy. Embodying both the lower-intelligence and lower-skill level many conservative men expected out of Blacks and managing to stay completely quiet and unremarkable until called upon were Thomas's strengths.

The Token Villain
Down in Miami we had our own Clarence Thomas. Arthur Teele was a Reagan appointee of average skill and success, but fit the Black conservative archetype. He was quiet, highly deferential, and thoroughly corrupt. The political powers had enough dirt on Teele to keep him as a docile token. Teele reeked havoc on the Miami Black community. Entrusted with re-investment strategies, he used his platform to establish a network of cronies that rotted out the guts of Miami government for years. Downtown Miami and Liberty City became a sea of empty, newly paved parking lots with Teele at the helm. This wasn't an accident. Teele would leverage his position to bulldoze churches and small business, and then pay his crony building contractors to pave parking lots in its place. Statistically this showed up as a new building and also a reduction in crime. Of course this was also a reduction in community and long-term growth.

Damaged by poverty, slums, and riots, Liberty City now had Teele. When he tried to run for a Miami commissioner position, enthusiasm for his candidacy in the Black community was non-existent. As my first foray into politics, I volunteered for his phone bank. My Dad thought it would be good for me to help out a Black Republican. Both of my parents were turned Republican by Reagan, but finding other Black professional GOP'ers was still a rare find. Teele represented a conservative Black Miami man.

Although I was only a child, I was shocked at how disorganized and indifferent Teele's campaign was when I volunteered. I made a dozen or so calls and then was told to relax and not work so hard. Only one other person worked the phones and she left early. I wandered around the cluttered office with dim lights and then the man himself walked in. Teele was tall, dark, and regally bald. I vaguely recall he was crouched in by a low ceiling. His secretary pointed to me and whispered something in his ear. Teele walked toward me and shook my hand. He said a few unspectacular words about a young person getting involved in the campaign and moved along.

My instant adolescent reaction was flight. I wanted to get away from this man and his office. After the handshake I checked my palm which felt as if it had been greased. I remember thinking 'wow, politicians really ARE slimy.' I politely waited for him to turn his back before wiping my hands on the inside of my pants pocket.  When my Dad came to pick me up, I carefully choose my words. I knew he wanted me to be impressed and endeared. I informed him that I appreciated the campaign experience and didn't feel the need to come back to the Teele headquarters.

Years later, Teele stormed in the Miami Herald downtown headquarters, after a drug and sex-fueled rampage across town. With the FBI closing in on his ring of prostitutes, drug dealers, and crony friends, Teele was being tailed by federal and local law enforcement. Paranoid, desperate, and armed Art Teele committed suicide with his own gun in the Miami Herald lobby as arresting officers waited outside. Even though I found him thoroughly unlikeable in person and he displayed a cartoon villain-level of corruption that kept their boots firmly pressed on the neck of Liberty City,  Teele was the last of his kind. A former Marine, he was a part of the wave of Black professionals flirting with conservatism in the 1980s, enamored by Reagan's charm and common-sense talk. Clarence Thomas was a part of these new wave Black republicans.

The Scandal

Due my personal history with Black Republicans who I didn't address as Mom or Dad, I had an immediate suspicion of Clarence Thomas. What was in it for this man to promote a cause which hurt people who looked like him? At least Teele had a legacy of parking lots, prostitutes, and kickbacks. His corruption -though slimy- made sense. Thomas's tokenism seemed to be about something a lot more frightening than just another corrupt Black politican trying to 'get over.'

I first heard about Anita Hill on CNN. It was an uneventful fall season of news. The newscaster began by claiming there was a woman who had allegations against Clarence Thomas. A drop of blood in the water. I leaned in, intrigued. The cable news strip tease was underway. CNN ran their alarming 'Breaking News" graphic to report an unnamed, non-specific allegation against a Thomas. Although the dance is slightly different each times, the steps usually go like this: the anchor reports with heavy gravitas almost nothing, just a hint of news. Then there is a cut to another reporter, who throws the bucket of chum into the water by reading the actual claim. Visually, they're often reading from a page, which makes it seem more 'urgent' and fresh to the audience. The anchor and reporter engage in a back and forth conversation, even though they're both already informed about the scandal. It helps if the TV news can refer to a newspaper or magazine or on-going investigation. Now it's a race between the different medias to see who can give the most details and the most updated information. Amidst the churning red waves, a reporter will occasionally throw in a 'by the way, none of these claims have been confirmed' reminder just to keep a sliver of accountability alive before returning to the chum buckets. The news graphic crew frantically scrambles for images to attach to the story because without any footage, there is no buzz. The initial footage is anything they can find, and has little to do with the scandal. It's high school photo, wedding video, dirty socks, anything really.

Cable news orchestrated the Anita Hill news break like a beautifully orchestrated ballet. It is still the masterpiece of sex scandals with plots, characters, and rising tension. Hill's actual identity first came out as someone who worked with Thomas. Of course, she could be just some crazy woman who became envious of Thomas. It's very common to counterstrike against sexual harassment claims with the 'sluts and nuts' retort by casting the woman as jealous, deranged, "Fatal Attraction" femme fatale. Then the catch came out: she was a professor of law at the University of Oklahoma. Not exactly someone who fits the profile 'boil your bunny' profile.

I had never seen a powerful Black man in pitted against an educated Black woman. These things just don't happen in my world. We are taught to circle the wagons, unite, keep our secrets. Black women don't speak out against Black men without incurring the wrath of other Black women, the ridicule of men, and the confusion of Whites.

Anita Hill was challenging the taboos of Black female suppression. It didn't matter that she had no desire to testify and was only seeking to tell her story, a story which seems more and more probable with the passing of time. The act of her speaking in private to the Senate investigators was enough to kick off a wave of claims and increasing buzz. I think if it wasn't for cable news and salacious leaks, Anita Hill might have never been called to Washington. Reporters forced the hand of reluctant Senators, who no more wanted Anita Hill talking about unspoken workplace harassment women put up with every day than they wanted to revisit the politics of the Vietnam War. This was a Pandora's Box America, the Black community, and our government was being forced to open it.

Black Leadership Follows

Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and other people who are confusingly listed as 'Black leaders' were called upon to comment on this issue. You had a political token in Thomas, who believed in everything Jackson fought against: repeal of affirmative action, the dismantling of welfare, weak enforcement of discrimination laws. Conversely, Hill fit into the mold of progressive, liberal. When Jackson and other so-called Black leaders came out in guarded support for Thomas I knew the fix was in. They just wanted a Black face on the bench, regardless of views, skills, or beliefs. That's fine, but did they have to support the worst in us, in the hopes

Thurgood Marshall resigned from the Supreme Court, leaving a slot open that conventional wisdom stated should go to another Black judge. The question was how to find a Black candidate who was also a conservative Republican. Bush was looking for a Trojan Horse Black: someone who could be sneaked through a Democratic majority in the Senate. Clarence Thomas fit the bill. A Reagan appointee whose lone distinction was to lead the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee into a decade of ineffectiveness, Thomas woefully unfit. Thomas lead the charge that gutted the EEOC in the 1980s, and left racial discrimination claims unchecked. Thomas was then shuttled into other positions and was relatively unknown. Thomas's law grades and job record was unremarkable.

It was the first time I saw the strong suggestions of misogyny within the decaying Black civil rights movement. No attempt was made to reach Anita Hill before the Black male leadership cabal hit the airwaves to add their spin. Black men and White men were finally working shut this woman up. Certainly this was not the mountaintop moment we had been working toward as a country.

'That Woman' Arrives

By the time Anita Hill came before the cameras she was Joan of Arc to some and Lady Macbeth to many others. I would come home from school and immediately turn on the TV to get my daily fix.

Her voice was strong and feminine. She looked attracted but very professional. l remember Hill's posture, as she sat through hours of grilling. Her chest would cave ever so slightly, diminishing herself while her voice would quiver at the higher register. She was thoroughly believable in her personal integrity and salacious claims. Hill never wept for pity or dramatically played on her womanhood. that would have been too cheap. She was cool, factual, and smooth.

When she couldn't recall a particular detail, Hill would bluntly tell the Senate Committee that she had no information. When they insisted, prodded, attempted to humiliate, she didn't get emotional or lash back at them. Hill simply wiped the dirt off and continued with her testimony. She was Claire Huxtable. Black womanhood as it had never before been seen outside of fiction, was now being piped into the homes of millions.

The esteemed all-male Senate panel barely contained their loathing and fear of Ms. Hill. They openly sneered at her answers, shook their heads before she would finish, telegraphed their paternalistic disapproval. Senator Arlen Specter and Joe Biden were the most egregious in their kabuki acting. The duo played a starring role in contemptuous male chorus.

Seeking to embarrass or stutter her calm demeanor they lingered over the most infamous claims. Pubic hair on Coke, discussions over women's breast size, and recounting porn star Long Dong Silver. Hill didn't gasp or pause as she reconfirmed the allegations. She drove ahead, even more determined by the attempt to shame her. This is startling because shame is often the cause of silence. The abused often keep quiet from shame. There were others who made harassment claims against Thomas, but almost all of them kept silent. Hill's calm delivery spoke loudly to millions. She was not ashamed, she did not need to apologize, she would not go away.

It was the senators who ended up blushing and stuttering. While they faltered, she shined. The cameras devoured Hill. Now I understood why senators, presidents, and Black leaders were scared. Truth is scary when you're living a lie. And the confirmation hearings were the centerpiece of this untruthful culture of politics and noise. Anita Hill cut through this in a few short days of testimony. Her outrageous allegations fed the scandal, but Hill's presence superseded it.

High-Tech Lynching

Although he had been in high-level government positions for over a decade, there were no co-worker or managers who were coming out to praise Clarence Thomas. "Yeah, he worked here" seemed to be the general praise toward the nominated judge. Not encouraging. When Thomas's underwhelming grades came out I finally recognized who he was.

I went to school with students like Clarence Thomas. They were picked on by other Black kids for being too dark, too ugly, too dumb, too slow. The White teachers would show them charity them and shield them from their own people. Mistaking pity for love, these Black kids became devoted teacher pets and vicious attack dogs. Their harshest attacks were reserved for other Black students. Failing at looks and brains, their man assets were fealty and cunning. They held their appointments through sycophancy and fiercely protect their territory against other Blacks. These kids grew into young adult whose main aspiration was to join the Young Republicans or manipulate their way up the ladder, while kicking down any other Black competitors. And when they were backed into a corner, they played the proverbial race card. They would scream 'racism' to the white hierarchy if exposed as frauds and then demand racial loyalty from other Blacks in their fight. Once their survival was ensured they would return right back to their token pet/attack dog dual status. Their main excuse for their ruthless traits was that everyone was secretly like them.

True to form, Thomas declared that he was the victim of a 'high-tech lynching.' Those three words made the Senate committee melt. The tough questions, the other women who made similar claims against Thomas, the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace all evaporated. Thomas righteous indignation was so strident and vigorous that you could feel the balance of the hearing shift.

Gender expectations were also switched. Hill offered coolness and precision that many didn't expect out of a Black woman. Thomas emoted white-hot anger, blanketed denials, and hysterical language. I deeply dislike emotional manipulation that shuts down debate. But as I watched Thomas's nostrils flare and eyes narrow it was hard not admire the performance. He knew that he couldn't stand days of follow-up testimony that would revolve solely around these allegations. If the confirmation hearing was drawn out, more of the allegations would come out. As more doubts arised, the Democratic coalition might rediscover their spine. Thomas's name and the Bush administration might face permanent damage.Your name can only be associated with 'pubic hair' so many times before people stop thinking you're the rightful inheritor of Thurgood Marshsall's legacy.

After Thomas's late-night performance it was a done deal. The vote was close but enough Democratic Senators were scared into confirming the nation's second Black Supreme Court justice. Anita Hill didn't go on talk show circuit. Thomas cloaked himself in the regal black robe of justice and disappeared from the cameras. And still there was a sense that almost nothing had been resolved.

The Aftermath

The fact that Clarence Thomas was one of the most under qualified nominees to the Supreme Court has been forgotten. No one remembers test scores and bar exams. Everyone remembers pubic hair being discussed in the Senate. It was a fitting start to the decade of sex scandal. It seemed like every few months there was a new official being charged, being accused, resigning, and apologizing to their wife. Most were mid-level politicians. Then there were the big names. Bob Packwood, Bill Livingston, Newt Gingrich and, of course, Bill Clinton.

These days there is no shame. Politicians don't go away when allegations surface. Networks don't shy away from vivid details. We seamlessly bounce from celebrity trial, to sex tapes, to corruption charges on our screens. In recent years we've added disaster pornography, child murder cases, and missing White women to our scandal industry.

Our politics and news are scored by who's winning and who's losing, instead of what is actually happening in the world. And few seem to notice, and even less seem to care. The mindset has overtaken us and we're in a perpetual group performance, loooking for the camera to validate our experience.

As a child I enjoyed the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy. The scandal  highlighted many hypocrisies in Black culture and the American political system. As an adult I dread what was created in its wake.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your blog, I'm doing a project for school and it was really nice to be able to read such a well-written article that was from a real person's p.o.v. instead of just a news article. Thank you for your account.