Malcolm Gladwell has a fascinating article in The New Yorker in which he argues that Atticus Finch, the hero of To Kill A Mockingbird, was hardly a paragon of virtue. Gladwell asserts that Finch's legal defense of Tom Robinson discreetly urged jurors to substitute their racial prejudices for their classist prejudices and that he was far too tolerant and accomodating of racist attitudes. Gladwell compares Finch to postwar Alabama Gov. "Big" Jim Folsom, who not as ruthlessly white supremacist as many of his contemporaries, but was inadequate in his willingness to fight for justice:
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.
Folsom was the same way. He knew the frailties of his fellow-Alabamians when it came to race. But he could not grasp that those frailties were more than personal—that racism had a structural dimension. After he was elected governor a second time, in 1955, Folsom organized the first inaugural ball for blacks in Alabama’s history. That’s a very nice gesture. Yet it doesn’t undermine segregation to give Negroes their own party. It makes it more palatable.
Gladwell has a point, but I think that the critique is a little harsh. As a (fictional) man living in that era, he was, relatively speaking, a saint. And as an attorney, he was obligated to defend his client to the best of his ability. To make the hypothetical perfect the enemy of the realistic good is to reject any incremental progress.
HT: The Agitator