Subtitle: It’s All Down Hill From Here
In the interest of full disclosure, allow me to state that, like most bloggers, I am merely skimming the surface of a vast sea of information, fact and opinion. In particular, I understand very little about my ultimate topic, which has to do with the recent Citizens United case and the subsequent DISCLOSE Act. These are some shots in the dark. Maybe you will know enough to shed some light, or at least get interested enough to do some shooting of your own. I promise that, like the stormtroopers on Tantive IV, I have set to stun, not kill.
I do know that “Full Disclosure” is now the title of a song in The Addams Family musical, currently playing Broadway. In a plot pretty much ripped from The Birdcage (or La Cage Aux Folles), the Addams clan hosts a dinner party for a straight-laced nuclear fam (little Wednesday’s in love), and eventually they all play this party game where you tell everyone the truth (sort of like a Festivus airing of grievances), and all kinds of crazy stuff comes out (like, you know, soccer moms like respect, too) to be resolved in Act II.
The relevance is that I have seen this show, with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth, and while it’s not as bad as the critics may want you to find it, it IS part of the cultural black hole which we seem to be spinning into. How many more TV shows and movies are there to make into musicals (and then into new TV shows and movies of the musicals, and so on) or update in an increasingly ironic fashion (a la The A-Team)? What will we do in 2020 after The Facts of Life musical (with Elaine Stritch as Mrs. Garrett) finishes its National Tour? It’s all down hill.
“Full Disclosure” is also the title of an episode of The West Wing which I’ve not seen (this will be a theme), in which the former VP is writing a book, Full Disclosure, which is believed to be a smear against the current Prez. This episode, due to an unrelated reference to a New York state military base, is “notable” (thank you, Wikipedigods) for having elicited a letter from Hillary Clinton to the fictional Josh Lyman. Hillary and smearing will also be themes. Oh yum.
And for something else I haven’t seen, how about the 1994 Barry Levinson film Disclosure, based on a Michael Crichton novel of the same name. Maybe no one has seen this movie, but it stars Michael Douglas as a guy whose life comes dangerously close to ruin thanks to a twisted ex-flame (Demi Moore, still in her first wave of sexiness) who brings false sexual harassment charges against him. Actually, as you can clearly see from the photo, she harassed him.
The movie preys on the fears of the 90s, post-feminist male at the water cooler, who is worried that that bitch in the typing pool could at the drop of a hat make things really difficult for him. It’s not unlike how Fatal Attraction, Douglas again, is about how that bitch with the perm you slept with one time might try to kill your wife in a bath tub. It may even be related to Basic Instinct, in which Douglas tries to protect his junk from the leg-crossing bitch with the ice pick.
Basic Instinct came out in 1992, a year dubbed “The Year of the Woman” by some, because “24 new women” were elected to the House of Reps, and five to the Senate (including my dream girl, Dianne Feinstein).
Pop culture, as Michael Douglas demonstrates, was already responding: early 90s culture was pregnant with the spectre of reverse sexism. In 1992 (see?), David Mamet sounded a pretty shrill alarm in Oleanna, which is about a college professor who has everything crash down around him because that bitch with the big glasses has decided to take all of his pedantic comments really personally. That play, productions of which still manage to get our blood boiling (for one reason or another), may be a thoughtful examination of the line between sexual harassment and the tyranny of politcal correctness. It may also be a 90-minute exercise for David Mamet to justifiably use the word “cunt.” This is up for debate.
And just the year before we were given an overboiling pot of sex and harassment, with a dash of race thrown in for seasoning, in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. During the hearings it was leaked that Anita Hill (all down hill, get it?), a former colleague of Thomas (up for SCOTUS, remember), had described behavior of his which seemed to be TANTAMOUNT to sexual harassment. These are her words:
He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes. He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts involved in various sex acts. On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess.
It seems too bad that Thomas was not around for the heyday of SCOTUS “Redrupping,” watching the pornos in the basement with the brethren. But what do I know? Former Senator John Danforth (referred to in previous post for Faith and Politics, his level-headed response to the Christian Right) believes Thomas was smeared. But it’s hard to leave out this:
One of the oddest episodes I remember was an occasion in which Thomas was drinking a Coke in his office. He got up from the table at which we were working, went over to his desk to get the Coke, looked at the can and asked, “Who has pubic hair on my Coke?” On other occasions, he referred to the size of his own penis as being larger than normal, and he also spoke on some occasions of the pleasures he had given to women with oral sex.
Right. Sexual harassment videos and such are still commonplace, though many of us make fun of them (at least we did the last time I watched one, in public education…). Do you remember that there was a push to pronounce the word HARassment instead of haRASSment? Am I making this up? Was it to make the word sound less prurient?
Have I mentioned the IRONY that this happened when Hill was employed by Thomas at the EEOC? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission? Their job is to protect employees from discrimination, like sexual discrimination.
Thomas, when he testified on his own behalf, coined a term for the political lexicon, calling the proceedings “a high-tech lynching” – there it is – “for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas.” Take note, he warned his brethren (racial, not judicial): “unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. — U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.”
Backlash. Some polls indicate that a majority of Americans believed Thomas and not Hill. These issues, however, are not ones which breed quiet disagreement. One generally does not leave Oleanna quietly contemplating. Sexism and reverse sexism, like racism and reverse racism, put many of us on the defensive-offensive. David Mamet, by the way, pulls an Oleanna stunt in his new play Race, in which he gives the (black) woman the short end of the rhetorical stick, throwing her to the mercy of the audience as she ends the play hollering at her “white man” employer. It’s not a fair fight, but his point may be that it never will be. This stuff makes us angry.
After all, what happened in 1994? What one pollster called “the Year of the Angry White Male.” Newt Gingrich and company swept in and took over Congress. Backlash. We’re living in another “Year of the Woman,” some journalists will argue, as female candidates are dominating in various primaries and races throughout the country. Or maybe it’s like Amanda Fortini says in the New York Magazine: 2008 was the “Year of the Woman,” and it was not a pretty thing for womankind. In reinforcing the ditz/bitch dichotomy, Hillary and Sarah may have set us back. Backlash. More on Hillary later. “Bitch” really deserves it’s own entry, no?
Certainly Anita Hill has shouldered that epithet. For her part, Hill made clear that she was not “raising a legal claim” of sexual harassment. She simply wanted to state the facts and let people come to their own conclusions.
What is sexual harassment, legally? Not coincidentally, 1993 brought a major Supreme Court decision on sexual harassment, Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc. To an extent, SCOTUS was reaffirming a standard which it had already established in the 80s, in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. From Harris:
The applicable standard, here reaffirmed, is stated in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 : Title VII is violated when the workplace is permeated with discriminatory behavior that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a discriminatorily hostile or abusive working environment, id., at 64, 67. This standard requires an objectively hostile or abusive environment – one that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive – as well as the victim’s subjective perception that the environment is abusive.
So here we see the idea that the objective outsider’s opinion is important, as it is in defining obscenity, but that the subjective perception is required “as well.” From this I think we infer that it could be harassment if Jane the Temp sees it that way though I do not, and it is really not harassment if Jane doesn’t see it as such. What distinguishes Harris from its precedent is that the Court made special note that “conduct need not ‘seriously affect [an employee’s] psychological wellbeing’ or lead the plaintiff to ‘suffe[r] injury’ in order to be considered harassment. They were casting the net a little wider.
Need a concrete example? This is from the opinion written by Justice O’Conner (did they give her the opinion because she’s a woman?):
Teresa Harris worked as a manager at Forklift Systems, Inc., an equipment rental company, from April, 1985, until October, 1987. Charles Hardy was Forklift’s president.
The Magistrate found that, throughout Harris’ time at Forklift, Hardy often insulted her because of her gender and often made her the target of unwanted sexual innuendos. Hardy told Harris on several occasions, in the presence of other employees, “You’re a woman, what do you know” and “We need a man as the rental manager”; at least once, he told her she was “a dumb ass woman.” Again in front of others, he suggested that the two of them “go to the Holiday Inn to negotiate [Harris’] raise.” Hardy occasionally asked Harris and other female employees to get coins from his front pants pocket. He threw objects on the ground in front of Harris and other women, and asked them to pick the objects up. He made sexual innuendos about Harris’ and other women’s clothing.
How I wish O’Connor had included a quotation here and not the vague “sexual innuendos.” There was a janitor at one of my schools who would make comments about the clothing of people which some of us questioned. He did occasionally comment on mine, too, but I did not often merit distinction. When is too much, and is there a double standard for men and women commenting on each other’s clothing? Surely there is.
In mid-August, 1987, Harris complained to Hardy about his conduct. Hardy said he was surprised that Harris was offended, claimed he was only joking, and apologized. He also promised he would stop, and, based on this assurance Harris stayed on the job. But in early September, Hardy began anew: While Harris was arranging a deal with one of Forklift’s customers, he asked her, again in front of other employees, “What did you do, promise the guy . . . some [sex] Saturday night?” On October 1, Harris collected her paycheck and quit.
There is no doubt that you cannot and should not restrict any and all sexual speech in the workplace. There is also no doubt that sexual harassment exists. One is tempted to pull a Potter Stewart: do we only know it when we see it?
An even more difficult question is, when does it matter? Does it matter, when evaluating him as a potential Supreme Court Justice, if Clarence Thomas likes porn and talks about sex with his employees?
When does sex matter, in general? Does it matter if Bill Clinton received a blow job in the Oval Office? Does it matter that Jimmy Carter told Playboy he’s “looked on a lot of women with lust”? Does it matter if Elena Kagan or Janet Reno is a lesbian? When is disclosure politically relevant and when is it not? And when it’s not relevant, what is it about disclosure which tickles our fancy?
Is there anyone who’s been more often at the intersection of sex and politics than Hillary Clinton? First she dealt with her husband asking what the definition of is is. Then, as the New York article pointed out, her rise to solo power led her to be seen by Tucker Carlson as “castrating, overbearing, and scary…Every time I hear Hillary Clinton speak, I involuntarily cross my legs.” You remember Tucker. He’s the bowtie bastard whom Jon Stewart embarrassed on his own show a few years ago. If his opinion is stupid, he is not alone in it. You can’t even put up a picture of her without making a conscious, political decision about what kind of picture you’re going to use – which Hillary you will enshrine.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Hillary Clinton was at the center of the controversy that sent Citizens United to the Supreme Court.
To be continued…