Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Atticus Finch, Moral Failure

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


Divers and Sundry said...

"relatively speaking, a saint"


Bro. Dave said...

We can't judge the actions of the past from the comfort of the present. If we did, even Jesus would be faulted for not criticizing slavery and other social norms of his day.

Think about it: how will the future judge us?

johnmeunier said...

Your headline roped me right in.

Atticus Finch was fictional - an important point here - and not God.

He fought injustice. Lived simply. Treated those around him well. Raised his children with as much care as he could. Respected the weak when the rest of society would mock them.

If only the world had more moral failures like that.

John said...

I mostly agree, Bro. Dave. I think that I would express that we can't expect people to embrace values alien to their own native culture.

Clergy Guy said...

It's one of my favorite books, and it's beautiful. The whole aim of the author was to get us to see things through the culture of the day.

If the writer of the article referred to wants to make his own point about looking over the entire cultural structure of racial prejudice in the south, then by all means, let him write it and let's see if it makes as much of an impact as Harper Lee did.

John said...


Good one, Clergy Guy.