Tuesday, July 21, 2015

haven't read it

I'm curious to read Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, but I thought I should re-read To Kill a Mockingbird first. I've only read it once, maybe forty years ago; I haven't seen the movie in nearly that long, either: I figured I should refresh my memory.

Then I saw this English professor looking for people to read Watchman* who haven't read Mockingbird at all. He's gotten one offer; I wonder if I should offer myself as a semi-hemi case. After all, of the set of people likely or able to read Watchman, few even of those who haven't read Mockingbird won't at least heard of it and know how it goes.

But I have read a lot of discussion of the new book, enough to have some thoughts on the "Is Atticus a racist?" question. Perhaps I should have remained silent on this until reading the book myself, but if the testimony of others who have read it is worth anything - and if not, what would my testimony be worth once I have read it? - I see a consistent pattern emerging even from the contradictory views.

My tentative conclusion - subject to revision later - is that Atticus is a racist, but there are different kinds of racists. Atticus is a paternalistic racist, not a hostile one. From the quotes given of his talk that drives Jean Louise so angry, he considers the blacks ignorant and politically undeveloped. There's no assumption that they'll always be that way, that they're inherently that way, that they're malevolently out to take "our" women and drive "us" into the slavery that had been their state, which is what a hostile racist would say, which is what the Charleston shooter did say. Those who say Atticus is not a racist mean that he's not a hostile racist, and with that modification they appear to be correct.

And Atticus' concern about political infancy is real. Political infancy is a flaw in society: it's politically infantile whites today who are supporting Donald Trump, for instance. It was only universal public education, introduced in the late 19th century, that made universal adult suffrage a practically feasible notion, and we desperately need a little more universal public education today, in hopes fewer people will be quite as dim as Mr Trump. What makes Atticus racist is not his concern, but his policy for responding to it: keep 'em down. That's paternalistic condescension at the very least, and applied to a race of adults, it's racist, by definition. A liberal would say, if they're repressed and uneducated, then educate them and stop repressing them, pretty damn quick!

It's also been pointed out that even the Mockingbird Atticus is not the moral ideal he's usually pictured as. The image of Gregory Peck in those stirring courtroom scenes has clouded our vision. Really, Atticus has to be a racist: it would be impossible for a white man of his time and place not to be one. He'd be too pure and noble to be believable. But he is believable, even in Mockingbird, and his flaws - his passivity towards his client, his refusal to believe in malevolence in the accusers' hearts - are what make him so.

*Every time I see that word alone in a headline, I find myself expecting an article about Alan Moore.

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