Anita who? As we sink ever deeper into the sordidness of the Lewinsky affair, one begins to wonder: What was that Anita Hill business about anyway? It is not just that the feminists who waxed apoplectic about Anita Hill's charges seven years ago are now exposed as rank hypocrites for their silence and/or agnosticism regarding Bill Clinton's use and abuse of women.
It is that the political firestorm set off by Hill appears in retrospect hallucinatory. After all, what Clarence Thomas was accused of seems positively prim compared with the string of charges leveled against President Clinton. Thomas, unmarried at the time of the alleged misdeeds, was never in the worst characterization of his attackers accused of laying a hand on or forcing himself upon or taking advantage of anyone.Against the background of the Clinton scandals, the savaging of Thomas takes on more clearly than ever the aspect of a high-tech lynching, the first and most egregious contemporary case of (to quote Clinton) the "politics of personal destruction."
In comparison, the charges against Thomas appear faintly ridiculous; the vindictiveness with which they were delivered, contemptible. Hence the only good thing to come out of the Lewinsky affair: The aura of disreputability so cruelly inflicted upon Thomas by his ideological enemies has begun to lift.
The personal having given way to the political, the country is finally, seven years late, getting to hear the man. And what he has to say is impressive. Not just in his closely reasoned opinions, but now, in a kind of belated coming out, in his recent speech to the National Bar Association.
Thomas made the most of it, highlighting unflinchingly the great divide between his politics and those of his opponents. In the end, it is a matter of identity. "I am a man, a black man, an American," declared Thomas. The rank order of these identities is unmistakable. They stand in clear ascending order of importance.
There is a great irony that this forthright assertion of Americanness should make Thomas so radical, indeed so dangerous, to the African-American leadership he was addressing. After all, as Thomas takes pains to point out, the acquisition of full and equal American citizenship was the supreme political goal of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.
The great divide occurred after that goal was won. King's successors made for themselves a new goal: the achievement of a new special identity conferring unique privileges that set black Americans apart and made race the supreme identifier.
That vision Thomas unequivocally rejects. He gives two reasons: the first, instrumental; the second, principled.
First, anything more or less than simple and equal citizenship undermines the very claim to black equality that King and the civil rights movement had made at such tragic cost. The claim for a preferred form of citizenship rests, fatally, on an assumption - a confession - of black inferiority and sentences blacks to a political future of begging and special pleading. For all the material short-term advantages it might confer, in the end it is for African-Americans a path of folly, destructive both of social harmony and self-respect.
Thomas' second reason is more striking and more personal: He is a judge, and no judge of whatever race can in his official duties seek the special advancement of any group. Sworn to uphold a Constitution that on its face recognizes but a single citizenship, a judge must act from a perspective of utter ethnic impartiality. (Or, to borrow a phrase from political philosopher John Rawls, to judge from the "original position," meaning, unconscious of one's own race, social status, identity and endowments of any kind.)
Thomas sees no other principled role for a Supreme Court justice. He sees it as a betrayal of both the trust placed in him by society and of his own obligations to the Constitution to rule as a "black" judge. The politician, the activist, the citizen suffers no such constraint. It is perfectly legitimate - though unwise and self-defeating, Thomas argues (reason 1 above) - for them to pursue special ethnic privileges. But not for a judge.
To be sure, this message is no revelation. It can be read into practically all of Thomas' court decisions. What is significant is that it is finally getting the respectful hearing it deserves. That this should in part be an odd side effect of the president's troubles is but more evidence of the quite crazy political times we are living through.
It is nonetheless something to be grateful for. Justice Thomas has much to say, and the country is better off for finally being willing to listen.