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Thomas, Hill, and the Culture War

AT the end of Prof. Anita Hill's testimony, Sen. Joseph Biden observed that she seemed to have become embroiled in something over which she had no control. The truth of the matter is that what occurred in the Senate confirmation hearings is larger and beyond the control of everyone involved: Judge Thomas, Professor Hill, the Senate, the White House, and the nation. The individuals who have riveted our attention are merely the most recent symbols of a larger cultural war through which the meaning of America is being debated. We often forget that politics is, most often, an expression of deep cultural ideals and commitments. Politics is a conflict over fundamentally different ideas of how to order our lives. Nothing else can explain the passion witnessed in the Senate confirmation hearings. At stake were two fundamentally opposed but equally cherished ideas about what is right, just, and in America's best interest. This is the same passion expressed in the debate over abortion, homosexuality, arts funding, the conduct of public schools, "political correctness" on campus, the role of women and men, child care, the meaning of the First Amendment, and the interpretation of Christopher Columbus. Each of these di sputes contains a deeper debate over what constitutes the "good" society. On these issues, cultural conservatives and cultural progressives have opposing if not incompatible world views. They have little in common. Indeed, each side draws from very different sources of moral authority. Cultural conservatives tend to draw from tradition and embrace a communitarian vision of social life. Cultural progressives often reject tradition and have a secular liberal vision that celebrates the individual. Each side imputes different meanings for the symbols of national life: freedom, justice, pluralism, the Constitution, the Republic's founding myth, the family, and so on. In the larger drama, law is an important field of conflict. The contest in the area of jurisprudence is about procedures for working out moral disagreements in the public realm. How the rules for resolving a conflict are written is critical to its final outcome. It is no surprise that there is a battle over the meaning of particular laws (like the First Amendment), but also over the personnel who decide what the rules will be. This was the lesson of Robert Bork and David Souter. It is the lesson of Clare nce Thomas. It is curious. Some observers view the last stages of the Thomas confirmation hearings as a racial matter - pitting blacks against whites. Others viewed the conflict, particularly the charges of sexual harassment, as a gender issue - women against men. In fact, the spectacle played out themes of the larger culture war to define America. Public opinion polls made clear, as did the lineup of special interest groups, that both women and the black community were divided along cultural - not race or gender - lines. Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill became symbols of opposing sides of the cultural divide. They were used to advance different ideals of America. Thomas was a conservative whose professional life thrived in a conservative Republican administration. He was supported by 75 conservative groups. Whatever Hill's personal views, she was promoted by liberals in the Democratic Party, and more than 50 progressive groups - including National Organization for Women and the Alliance for Justice. In the middle of his rebuttal to the accusations of Hill, Thomas said the final hearing was "not what America is about." His was one side of the story. The confirmation of Judge Thomas to the Supreme Court shifts the balance of power slightly. But it hardly settles the issue of what America is about. That question will continue to be debated passionately, if not viciously, for a long time to come.

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