Saturday, August 08, 2009

CC doesn't like it when people diss Atticus Finch

And she likes it less when they are convincing about it.




Joel Monka said...

I didn't find it all that convincing. I'll have more details when I'm actually awake, as opposed to just vertical from insomnia, but my immediate thoughts are A) Atticus wasn't a minister leading a civil rights campaign, he was a lawyer trying to get his client off. B) He was right to reject hatred. Using hatred as a weapon, even for the "right" cause, is still destructive. C) If he had screamed in rage, as the author seems to expect a "civil-rights hero" to do, would that have caused the jury to change their vote? Would it help his appeal? Eyes on the prize... As for his treatment of the Ewells, was he telling the truth? Was he impugning Mayella? If her father really was an incestuous rapist who beat her, revealing that could save her as well as his client. The author is upset that Atticus wasn't trying to make Mayella a sympathetic character. Well, duh- if he believed his client innocent, then she was lying, and his client would die for it- why would he try to make her more sympathetic?

I have long wondered if the confrontational angry tactics the author prefers his "civil-rights heros" to use weren't counterproductive in real life, if the willingness to use "righteous anger" didn't result in completely unneccessary riots that caused death and blight (many of the destroyed neighborhoods have not to this day recovered) and actually held back progress in the long term.

hafidha sofia said...

I always felt that book was overrated. I liked it, and I view it within the context of when it was published, but I think we definitely need a new story for our times.

kimc said...

Cunningham, Finch tells his daughter, is “basically a good man,” who “just has his blind spots along with the rest of us.”

He said it himself: He is basically a good man with blind spots along with the rest of us.
It's quite common among liberals to think that you can love the world into compliance with your ideals. Can you? Jesus thought so.
As Joel said, would anger have produced any better result from the jury? I don't see why it would.
I don't think there is any right answer in this situation: one person can't change the whole system.

Comrade Kevin said...

Big Jim could have done quite a bit more for race relations and southern liberalism, and what this article doesn't address is how his severe alcoholism meant that there were long stretches in which no one was minding the store back in Montgomery.

And as for the premise that advancing two narratives for the well-off, educated white and the white trash white, if anyone has a strategy for dealing with social divides that pervasive and ingrained in the cultural fabric of an area that, I cannot emphasize overmuch, has never known true democracy, then my hat's off to you.

People who live in other parts of the country fail to understand that the degree of rigid stratification in their own state or region is NOTHING like it exists here. Think of this region like a third world country and contemplate the vast divide that separates the haves and have nots---only then will you have a better understanding of the complete picture. Everything about this region is rigidly stratified. There is no overlap between even the minor difference in social identity.

And as for changing it, or, for that matter, forcing the whites of privilege to see the error of their ways, I consider it a fool's task. They'd have to have the ability to understand that it could be another way. They'd have to be educated through personal experience and having seen for themselves that it didn't have to be that way. When I left the south to travel, my eyes were firmly opened, and I began to see the limitations of the groupthink attitude which had shaped me from birth.

And in saying this, I don't excuse such thinking as pure human nature. But I do know that it will take something massive like migration from other segments of the population, massive job growth, affluence, or wealth redistribution for the south to ever feel any compulsion to change.

ogre said...

kimc made my point--"along with the rest of us."

It's common--not just liberal, but *human* to not see, acknowledge, or even accept the likelihood (unto certainty...) of our own flaws, biases, errors, mistakes and bigotry.

We--whoever we are--are right, saved, and enlightened. We do no wrong... save for small errors for which we duly apologize and ought to be gladly forgiven....

So, Finch is the product of his society, too.

Oh. The. Shock.

Were he not, he'd be implausible, rather than laudable or heroic--admired. He'd be some absurd marble saint.

He's a decent, good--and imperfect--man in a society which is sorely flawed. Flawed in its treatment of people because of their race, their gender, their economic status... their history.

This reminds me of the criticism of Jefferson and Washington (but particularly Jefferson...) for their entanglement in slavery. They both knew it to be wrong. Neither of them could find a way to disentangle themselves from that sticky evil without destroying themselves--and quite plausibly failing in the effort, while still destroying themselves.

We are guilty, age after age, of being embedded in terribly wrong and destructive things, unable to "Just say 'No.'" It's easy to ask why after it's over and the entangling, sticky embeddedness of it is harder to see and comprehend.

Hard as hell to do it in the now--particularly when one's life and well-being and the lives of one's loved ones are caught in it, too.

Buy clothes from sources that might be overseas sweatshops? Food and fiber from sources that are (likely) destroying the local ecology with various poisons and practices? Drink bottled water? Use "mined" water that's destroying local aquifers? Consume, consume, consume and fuel the ongoing cataclysm of global climate change and species extinction?

A century or two from now, people will look back and ask why people didn't take the obvious and necessary and moral steps that... they should have.

Because... they're human. Because it was easy -- so much easier -- not to. Because they were embedded, entangled, caught...

Jess said...

(This is my very favorite book, ever.)

The beauty of Harper Lee's book is not that it portrays the ideals of what *ought* to be, but that it is a highly plausible portrait of real, human characters at a specific point of American history, doing the best they can with their culture, their time, and their personal sense of right and wrong. Atticus Finch is by no means a saint, and nor should he be -- that's precisely why so many people identify with him as strongly as they do.

The author of this article just doesn't get the point of the book itself -- it's simply not about racial activism, not at the core. It's about people being people, the best they know how, and watching them through the eyes of a child, destined to learn and grow and carry the values of her father forward, hopefully expanding on them as well.

The movie adaptation distorted that basic premise, too, though I personally love it for Gregory Peck's wonderful embodiment of his character. It brings the focus onto the court case as the central theme, when the important stuff is really what's happening all around it. Scout is the crux of the story, not Atticus or his client. That's why there is so much more of the story left after the verdict.

I can't tell if this author is upset with the way Harper Lee wrote the character of Atticus Finch, or the way people over time have sanctified him, glossing over the very things that make him who he is (or could be). The comparison to Folsom is apt, but I don't see that as a negative. To me, this illustrates that Harper Lee was exquisitely accurate in her portrayal of this specific point in time, and the specific individuals who could have lived then.

And I don't know why the idea of winning hearts and minds is so distasteful, either -- that's the crux of how real change happens, over time. Real change will never be immediate, but one person at a time.

PG said...

I thought Gladwell, as he often does, underplays too much of the evidence that would challenge the argument he's putting forward.

(1) "He worked to extend the vote to disenfranchised blacks. He wanted to equalize salaries between white and black schoolteachers."

Those are not just symbolic, hearty-handshake changes that Folsom was pushing. In particular, enfranchising black voters would make a crucial difference, allowing those who lived in areas where they were a third or more of the population to ally with the white liberals/moderates to win narrow majorities and pass larger changes through democratic means instead of solely through the courts.

I am very much in favor of using the courts to obtain your legal rights, but anyone who is quoting Michael Klarman ought to be aware of just how much damage the backlash from Brown did to black children's education, that could have been avoided if the changes had occurred through the electoral process instead. Prince Edward's County in Virginia shut down all public schools and gave white schoolchildren vouchers for "Christian" (i.e., segregationist) academies. Black children lost their opportunity for education for five years.

Had the black voters been able to participate in the election of the people who ran the county (blacks being over a third of the population), county officials wouldn't have dared to do this because they would have lost the next election to a candidate who appealed to the black voters and pulled in just enough whites to win. Equal access to the ballot is the beginning of real political power. Conservative whites, even non-Southern ones like William F. Buckley, recognized this fact and urged that blacks be denied such access in areas where they were a majority.

PG said...

(2) Gladwell's idea that Atticus Finch was impugning Mayella as some evil plotting low-class slut is extremely inaccurate. On the contrary, Finch makes clear that she has done the best she could in her life circumstances (something that the eugenicists wouldn't have considered possible, because "blood tells"), and that her clumsy attempt at seducing a married black man is due to her isolation and loneliness; her desperation for a human connection, not specifically for sex.

Finch speaks to her as "Miss Mayella" and "ma'am," which she takes as mockery because she never has been treated respectfully before. To her, the only thing that will show that the community gives a damn about her will be a conviction of Tom Robinson: "I got somethin' to say an' then I ain't gonna say no more. That nigger yonder took advantage of me an' if you fine fancy gentlemen don't wanta do nothin' about it then you're all yellow stinkin' cowards, stinkin' cowards, the lot of you. Your fancy airs don't come to nothin-your ma'amin' and Miss Mayellerin' don't come to nothin', Mr. Finch."

(3) In addition to what Joel has said about the uselessness of Atticus's "brimming with rage" at an unjust verdict, there's also the fact that Atticus never believed he would win the jury trial. He did his best to create a good factual record for appeal and to increase the likelihood of one of those gubernatorial commutations of a sentence that Gladwell notes were fairly common. But from the beginning of the book it is clear that Atticus does not believe that 12 white male citizens of Maycomb will fail to convict a black man of raping a white woman, no matter what.

Gladwell also just isn't in touch with the Southern culture that says you don't show your feelings to your opponents. This rule is very clear in the scene where Aunt Alexandra is hosting a missionary meeting and Atticus comes in to tell her and Calpurnia that Tom Robinson is dead. Alexandra, Maudie and Scout are upset, but all are resolved not to show their feelings among the women like Mrs. Merriweather who don't think Tom even deserved a defense in the first place.

(4) Gladwell's attitude toward racism is precisely the kind I find useless in actually achieving progress at this point in American history. He discounts the idea of racism as a moral failing to which nearly all humans will be subject, just as we are all inclined to be uncharitable, untruthful, excessively prideful, etc. Such a refusal plays beautifully into the hands of the kind of conservatives who declare that they are taking racism SERIOUSLY by not admitting the possibility that racial bias influences anything unless someone actually says, "And this is because you're black!"

If racism were treated as a common moral failing, instead of having to deny all racial bias for fear of being permanently labeled A Racist, people would be able to acknowledge that race influenced their thought or speech or action, apologize and say that they will try to do better in the future. Atticus recognized this about his white neighbors and himself: that some of them (he and Miss Maudie, for example) are better about racial bias than others (Miss Gates, Mrs. Merriweather) and those in turn better than others (Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Ewell), but that it makes no sense to label a few of the worst so that the rest can feel virtuous about themselves.

(5) And some of Gladwell's quotes are just plain dishonest in their decontextualization:
“I won’t try to scare you for a while,” Finch says, when he begins his cross-examination of Mayella. Then he adds, with polite menace, “Not yet.”

Of course, Finch says this because Mayella in her direct examination by the prosecutor had said she was scared of Finch, and the prosecutor played on that.

'Mr. Gilmer called attention to the hot day by wiping his head with his hand. "That's all for the time being," he said pleasantly, "but you stay there. I expect big bad Mr. Finch has some questions to ask you."'

Finch's response is a joke, not "polite menace."

John A Arkansawyer said...

There were no riots in Little Rock and the segregated neighborhoods are still in a state of planned disrepair.

I'm not in disagreement that bigotry is a part of human nature that will take further evolution of some sort to escape. I do think reserving the word 'racism' for organized political and economic activity that discriminates against some people on the basis of ethnicity or skin color is necessary for just that reason. Eliminating that sort of systematic activity is within our reach without massive change in humanity.

epilonious said...

Hmmmm, I am just padding my evidence docket in my mind-file labeled "activism ruins everything"

PG said...

"I do think reserving the word 'racism' for organized political and economic activity that discriminates against some people on the basis of ethnicity or skin color is necessary for just that reason. Eliminating that sort of systematic activity is within our reach without massive change in humanity."

How is that? Studies have shown that resumes with "black sounding" names are more likely to be rejected for employment opportunities. I'm sure the people who engage in such rejection are not "organized," and indeed most probably don't think they're rejecting on the basis of ethnicity or skin color, just that "I don't think Lakisha and Jamal would 'fit in' here."

So long as blackness is associated with inferiority in people's minds, it will be very difficult to eliminate discrimination that operates systemically despite being disorganized and often not even conscious or acknowledged.