When I was eight, my mom (who in a profoundly physically and mentally debilitated state, moved in with Jane and myself last week), took me and my two brothers to see “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It was one of the first films I ever remember attending, and the first impressions has never left me on repeated viewings; the story of a decent man, a good father, trying to deal with the usual foibles of humanity as well as the evil of racism in the South in Alabama c. 1935. I am not sure why my mom took us to see the film, but she had a way of schlepping us to all of the films of great social significance on the schedule at the local bijous. One reason that I am sure never occurred to her was that, as a caption in this week’s New Yorker put it, “In ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch (played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film version) sought to humanize Jim Crow, not challenge it.”
This was conclusion of a provocative, but wrong-headed article by Malcolm Gladwell “The Courthouse Ring: The Truth About Atticus Finch,” that concluded that all of the praise the Atticus Finch character has received over the years has been misplaced. He was a garden variety southern racial moderate of the interwar years, who wanted to purge southern racial mores of their vulgarity but not their fundamental unfairness, and whose gentility and mild paternalism was enough to keep him from asking the bigger questions about the social system into which he was born.
Now, before proceeding I should acknowledge that I have never (or at least not for many decades) read the 1959 Harper Lee novel on which the 1962 film was based, and this is at least a partial disqualification for what follows, but I have to say that I found Gladwell’s article a rather ham-fisted attempt to deal with a profound question: can one be a moral person in an immoral society. There is no easy answer. And certainly Atticus Finch was not a rebel, not a Gandhi, not a Rosa Parks. He was an insider within white southern society. Gladwell assumes that by the 1950s the Atticus Finches of the south, after making a half-hearted attempt, would have learned to tow the segregationist line. Finch is a fictional character, of course, so there is no way of telling what would happened when push came to shove in the South; some southern moderates strongly supported Brown; many others, especially after the rising tide of “southern resistance” after 1954 learned to tow the line. Atticus Finch can of course can only be judged by what Harper Lee wrote.
But the bigger question raised by Gladwell’s article is how one fights evil. Gladwell criticizes Finch for his localism, his belief that dealing with individuals as individuals, in his own little corner of the world, rather than challenging the system as a whole, was enough of a challenge to Jim Crow. But this cuts two ways; if there is a single central flaw to Marxist-Leninism, is the belief that the only sort of change that matters is a global transformative revolution. Everything else is just busy work for do gooders, petite bourgeois reformism at best. And the record of communism amply indicates the pitfalls of trying to bring about revolutionary change, with an army of unanticipated consequences to what might originally be a noble impulse. And often, we change the little things because there is no clear or obvious way to change the big ones. We honor the righteous gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust because they saved individuals, not because they openly challenged Nazism as a whole, which could only be done effectively by Winston Churchill and FDR.
And the key point about Atticus Finch was not his belief in localism, but his belief in the law, and if there was a difference between totalitarian regimes and the Jim Crow South it was there was a possibility of the rule of law, and that the constitutional protection of equality, however traduced and besmirched, would in the end in the rescue the South from its evils, without a revolution, and this is what happened, to radically abbreviate a very long story.
Atticus Finch was a man who believed that he could do more good functioning within the system than agitating from outside the system, and while this is always a tough call, many good persons have made similar choices. And he was a man alert to the contradictions that existed within his society, and tried, in his own small way, to change things. May that those of us who have no choice but to live in the deeply flawed and contradiction-ridden America of our time, as Atticus Finch was obliged to live in his, be able to say as much.