Submitted by Amisha Upadhyaya
Atticus Finch is one of my favorite, if not the favorite hero of mine from childhood. He is the widower who will never remarry from profound love and devotion to his wife; the father every child dreamed of; the justice-driven lawyer that Jimmy Stewart embodied but Gregory Peck so well-played. Scout, maybe the first tomboy heroine I related to. But like every other thing of childhood, this image is fraying at the corners, not holding up so well in the harsh light of analysis.
Malcolm Gladwell is the culprit of this particular childhood desecration, shooting down Finch in the Aug 10 & 17th issue of “the New Yorker.” To sum up his article, “The Courthouse Ring,”: “a book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism in Maycomb, Alabama.”
I’m of two minds with this. On one hand those limitations are absolutely true. Finch’s greatest legal argument came from replacing one prejudice of race with another prejudice against women. As I predicted in the early days of Obama vs Hillary, race is always a nobler issue to embrace since the feelings about gender and esp its links with sexuality run so deep as to be almost inextricable from our psyches — and thus left unexamined longer and much more accepted.
My first question was why legal scholars are examining a fictitious lawyer and fictitious case with such seriousness and on top of it, attacking it. Is that legal scholarship? Shouldn’t they be examining real precedents?
Aside from that, I can’t fully agree with Gladwell. This power “to change hearts and minds” must go hand in hand with structural change. One does not rank above another as Gladwell argues. To embrace one is not to cop out on another. There are many liberal leftists who could fight for feminism, women’s equal rights, structural change as it were but then not have any change in their hearts or minds when it came to sharing housework or child-rearing or sacrificing their career as any study of the 1970’s feminism movement will tell you.
Laws cannot have impact w/o hearts and minds. A law is decreed and then a century or two must go by before it is accepted. The Suffragist Movement or African Americans from the time of Emancipation to the Civil Rights Bill still had to deal with lynchings and other daily injustices up until and past the Civil Rights Bill.
Laws must be changed no doubt. That is the starting point for real progress but simultaneously a different cultural more must be set if we are to acknowledge that our neighbors not only have a right to live and to a fair trial and every right we do but that we have common bonds of humanity coursing through us.
There was no common societal language to even voice equality for most of human history. White men were top and then everyone else. Not everyone then nor now want to be political no matter how bad the situation. It is just human nature that most people will not be out lynching nor will they be out raising hell for society’s progress. Most victims will not be launching a movement. Like Charles Dickens’s characters, Harper Lee’s Finch was not an activist nor Jim Robinson out to free his fellow bretheren.
Gladwell parallels his critique with George Orwell’s critique of Charles Dickens. Orwell, an author for whom I have immense respect, was a lion of a man who challenged the status quo with powerful eloquence. That is what he was about, so of course there were many, most of us, who could not rise up to Orwell.
“[Dickens] believed in the power of changing hearts, and that’s what you believe in, [George] Orwell says, if you ‘do not want to endanger the status quo.'” The same case could be made for Obama truthfully. His core base would love for justice to be doled out to Bush and his cronies for the false war, the wire tapping, torture, and questionably Constitutional decrees empowering the Pres and VP powers. The strategies Obama is carrying out in Iraq and Afghanistan, experts agree, are what the Bush Admin was doing towards the end anyway. By constantly reaching out to the other side of the aisle even to those who are fundamentally against all he believes in, Obama is changing hearts and minds. Improving but retaining status quo. Which is what it is. It’s the centrist position smart political leaders take.
To want to change the hearts and minds of neighbors in a cultural time when that was radical, to struggle internally to come to terms between what you know to be right and what society constantly assaults you, to stand up against injustice if not to start a movement than to save a neighbor’s life, is still at the crux of Atticus Finch. Thank God for activists but also thank God for the Finches who quelled riots. A man in his position could easily have fanned the flames. He didn’t. That still makes him my favorite hero, flawed in his own way as all beloved people are, real and unreal, but honest about his failings, which is a rare virtue in itself.