“To Kill A Mockingbird” is a “classic” novel that exposes “racism”, “inequality”, “hate”, and “evil” blah blah blah in the Jim Crow South. I put all that in quotes because it’s a classic, all right, and it exposes, all right, but something quite a bit different.
We know of course how much leftist attitudes are enforced through popular culture. I don’t know where I have run across such a stark example however. I’m guessing that the author didn’t invent the ideas here, but popularized them in such a way as to make a powerful and long-lasting penetration of the culture. The book is a standard for young readers; the movie a prime example of Hollywood righteousness.
In brief- small girl growing up in Southern town in the 30’s. Black man falsely accused of rape by white trash woman. Girl’s hero father, an attorney at the top of the town’s social pyramid, defends the man in vain. Black man is killed “trying to escape.” Black people are saintly. White people who love black people are saintly. Working-class white people are bad, but redeemable. Destitute white people are irredeemably evil.
Harper Lee’s image of this society is ridiculous. It is slanderous. But worst of all it is self-serving. It is the image of society that the leftist upper class wants to propagate, and has successfully for decades. It is not the sort of thing one is supposed to question, but it beggars belief.
The condition of society has to be set by the powerful. That is what power is, the ability to control things. The condition of society can’t be set by the powerless. Atticus Finch is a respected and affluent lawyer. The sheriff is also a benign character. The working-class whites, as represented by the Cunninghams, are hostile towards blacks but pliable.
This being the case, any excessive hostility or injustice towards blacks would be curbed. And yet the town is, as a whole, is implacably hostile and blatantly unjust towards blacks. How can this be?
The racial attitudes of the town, and the functioning of its legal system, reflect not the attitudes of the sheriff and Atticus Finch, or the humble whites who form the bulk of the population, but those of the lowest of the low of whites, the Ewell family. The first appearance by a Ewell is a boy who shows up on the first day of school, and only the first day of school, which for some reason allows him to avoid attendance the rest of the year. The teacher shrieks when she sees a louse on the boy’s head. But the boy is not a pitiable, sympathetic creature, oh no, he insults the teacher, makes her cry and leaves.
It’s a surpassingly odd social system in which a louse-ridden boy who dresses in rags and lives in a shack has more power than a teacher. And yet the Ewells- who live in a tin shack behind the dump– are a frightening and disruptive presence in town. The widowed father is a nasty drunk. His oldest daughter is responsible for keeping the family together. It is implied she is a victim of sexual abuse. And yet the false rape accusation she makes under the pressure of her father makes her the ultimate villain in the story.
Leftists would assure you they don’t believe in demons, but the Ewells are a demonic presence in the town. Maycombe is populated by all matter of lovely people, the friends and relatives of the Finch family. They live in lovely homes, not tin shacks behind the dump. They may be socially conservative, not terribly enlightened, or eccentric, but they are decent people who wouldn’t see a man die for a crime he didn’t commit. The working class whites aren’t good, but they are amenable to the pressure of their betters- even a nine year-old girl. And yet the “white trash”- the motherless, ragged, louse-ridden, barely housed and fed Ewell family seems to set the moral and social tone of the community.
Scapegoating is a powerful human impulse. The desire to fix blame outside of the group, where it can be punished and expiated without destroying the social fabric, is strong. Leftists recognize and trumpet this all the time, through their invocation of “racism”, “sexism”, and “homophobia”. But they never see this tendency in themselves.
Lee wouldn’t accept the responsibility of her own class for the social conditions of the South. Blaming them on powerless outsiders offered her a way out. It was ridiculous, but scapegoating is always ridiculous. Blaming your sins on a goat? A goat can eat blackberry bushes, but it can’t take responsibility for your sins. And yet she clearly tapped into a national desire to resolve responsibility for something that didn’t fit in social democratic, New Deal America- the status of Southern blacks- by putting it outside the group.
One of the Ten Commandments- don’t ask me which one, I’m not that well-read- states “Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Note that lying is not a sin, society can’t function without lying, but making a false accusation in court is. Oaths and truth-telling are even more critical to the function of society than white lies. From Moses to Tyr, the god of oaths, all civilizations have recognized that. And yet a story that revolves around the evil of a false accusation makes a false accusation itself.
Update- I found this Malcolm Gladwell piece discussing the book in the context of paternalistic Southern liberalism. He, neither, is impressed. One thing I had meant to bring up is how similar the portrayals of poor whites are in the classic reactionary Southern novel, “Gone With The Wind”, and the classic liberal Southern novel, “To Kill A Mockingbird”.