Author Harper Lee and her groundbreaking novel To Kill a Mockingbird have received a well-deserved defense in the Washington Post, exactly fifty years after the book’s publication. The fact that such a thing is necessary indicates the truly terrifying amount of stupidity and arrogance that stain the contemporary mainstream media.
Columnist Kathleen Parker’s defense of Lee and her only novel is rather weak, but at least she attempts it, rebuking the spectacularly overrated writer Malcolm Gladwell’s meandering article in the New Yorker on the subject. Gladwell’s risible essay is chock-full of instances of his technique of alleged reversals of conventional thinking, which are in fact either already commonly understood or wrong or both.
Gladwell’s notion that To Kill a Mockingbird, first published in1960, is insufficiently hateful toward white Southerners and is unsophisticated in failing to embrace radical politics is a truly breathtaking instance of ignorant bigotry. It is also not original, and it is wrong.
Gladwell writes, for example:
If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict. But he isn’t. He’s not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law. He’s Jim Folsom, looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds. Here is where the criticism of Finch begins, because the hearts-and-minds approach is about accommodation, not reform. At one point, Scout asks him if it is O.K. to hate Hitler. Finch answers, firmly, that it is not O.K. to hate anyone. Really? Not even Hitler? When his children bring up the subject of the Ku Klux Klan’s presence in Maycomb, he shrugs: “Way back about nineteen-twenty there was a Klan, but it was a political organization more than anything. Besides, they couldn’t find anyone to scare. They paraded by Mr. Sam Levy’s house one night, but Sam just stood on his porch and told ’em things had come to a pretty pass. . . . Sam made ’em so ashamed of themselves they went away.” Someone in Finch’s historical position would surely have been aware of the lynching of Leo Frank in Marietta, Georgia, in 1915. Frank was convicted, on dubious evidence, of murdering a thirteen-year-old girl, Mary Phagan. The prosecutor in the case compared Frank to Judas Iscariot, and the crowd outside the courthouse shouted, “Hang the Jew!” Anti-Semitism of the most virulent kind was embedded in the social fabric of the Old South. But Finch does not want to deal with the existence of anti-Semitism. He wants to believe in the fantasy of Sam Levy, down the street, giving the Klan a good scolding.
This is wrong in several ways.
One, Lee does not claim Finch as a civil rights hero, so this is a criticism of others’ opinions, not her book or the character. It is, in fact, a blatant straw man argument, and since it’s central to Gladwell’s thesis, it refutes his entire article all by itself. But wait: there’s plenty more! To wit:
Two, if seeking “racial salvation through the law” is what constitutes a civil-rights hero, then that is definitely a very bad thing to be. I’ll take Atticus Finch over Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton any day, and so would any honest and sensible person.
Three, regardless of what techniques are implicit in “the hearts and minds approach”—and note Gladwell’s blatantly sleazy technique of diminishing the character and his actions by pigeonholing them within a snarky nickname—it’s the only thing that actually works. Government-enforced racial segregation did not fall into disrepute because Congress passed the Civil Rights Act; Congress passed the Civil Rights Act because government-enforce racial segregation had fallen into disrepute.
Four, the real villains who imposed racial segregation were governments. The laws in the American South prohibited blacks and whites from sharing restaurants, water fountains, sections of buses, and the like. Governments delight in such vile social engineering, and the only way to end such policies is for the people to rise up against their government, which requires exactly the kind of courage that Atticus Finch demonstrates. Gladwell himself notes this courage without realizing its greater implications, instead leaping again onto his hobbyhorse, his intense desire for government action, and rocking away furiously:
Finch will stand up to racists. He’ll use his moral authority to shame them into silence. He will leave the judge standing on the sidewalk while he shakes hands with Negroes. What he will not do is look at the problem of racism outside the immediate context of Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Levy, and the island community of Maycomb, Alabama.
As noted, that’s precisely the kind of courage needed to force political changes, and in treating blacks with the same respect he gives to white judges Atticus sets an example for the public by openly demonstrating a belief in equality by his actions, not just talk.
Five, the willingness to place the integrity of the law over the desire for social change is exactly the position that Abraham Lincoln took in going to war against the secessionist South: he didn’t do so to force an end to slavery but instead to preserve the national union. If Gladwell wants to join up with contemporary Southern sympathizers who argue the southern states had a right to secede (which is a reasonable position, I would acknowledge), I’m sure they’ll be happy to have him.
Six, when Atticus says that it’s not right to hate even Adolph Hitler, Gladwell launches into a bizarre disquisition apparently intended to tar Finch as an anti-Semite. He succeeds only in showing himself to be a truly brazen sophist.
But enough. The biggest fault with Gladwell’s silly, long-winded essay is his utter failure to recognize the true core of Lee’s story: Atticus Finch’s courageous and uncompromising Christianity. Once one recognizes that, Gladwell’s every cavil, quibble, mischaracterization, and outright lie about To Kill a Mockingbird is revealed as irrelevant background noise.
As St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” That’s what’s behind To Kill a Mockingbird, and any analysis that fails to account for that earthshaking truth is worthless.
Lee’s book merits the half-century of admiration it has garnered, and Gladwell’s silly attempt to “demystify” the book barely deserves the minor effort required to dismiss his absurd sophistries.
—S. T. Karnick