Atticus Finch-Barack Obama give way to Bob Ewell-Donald Trump in this post-“To Kill a Mockingbird” world
Atticus Finch-Barack Obama give way to Bob Ewell-Donald Trump
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
In this 57th anniversary year of the debut of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the 55th anniversary of the 1962 film adaptation’s release, I reflect on some sobering truths taken from that classic, much beloved story. Truths reflective of today’s American civil-societal-political landscape.
The irony is that the story’s revered figure of Atticus Finch, a fictional white Southern lawyer who represents so many universally admired qualities, found his most direct expression in this nation’s first black president, Barack Obama. The comparison was obvious and Obama’s admiration for what Atticus embodies was made evident when in his farewell address he quoted something that fictional character utters in the book and film. Obama said, “If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us needs to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch: ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.'”
Yes, Atticus turns out to have racist leanings in the long-delayed sequel “Go Set a Watchman” but that’s hardly surprising given the time and place he came from. None of us are free of sin or fault. Good principles and actions don’t require perfection. The revelation that Atticus attended KKK meetings and opposed integration while still defending a black man accused of a rape he didn’t commit is simply acknowledgement of how complex race is and how far as a nation we have to go in addressing it. In his farewell speech Obama told blacks to learn the struggles of other minority groups and he admonished whites to acknowledge the stain of this country’s earlier generations are not gone. When minority groups “voice discontent,” he said. “they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised.”
During his two terms the diplomatic, gentlemanly Obama championed social justice and opposed infringements on freedom and equality. Like Atticus, he walked the walk of virtue and idealism, of fair play and public service, and he extended his hand to the equivalents of Boo Radley and Tom Robinson in our midst. Though Obama had considerable support within the Democratic party and even more broadly throughout the nation and world, he was repeatedly criticized and stonewalled by the Republican controlled Congress. Many of us surmised this was due to the gridlock of entrenched, unwieldy party politics grinding the tried and true American system of across-the-aisles idealogical compromise to a halt. Racism may have been the bigger issue in play. The recent election revealed how reviled Obama is by a sizable segment of the American populace whose elected representatives are some combination of Republican, conservative and fundamentalist. Not every Obama detractor and Trump supporter is an out and out racist but it’s true about enough of them to show a clear pattern.
Trump’s angry man campaign was filled with bigoted, misogynistic, nationalistic rhetoric that put big business and capitalism ahead of human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, social safety nets and environmental protections. He referred to harsh law and order crack downs on those deemed to be disloyal dissidents and enemies of the state. He threatened closing borders and deporting undocumented millions. He connoted militarism with nationalism, patriotism and Christian values. In his first few days in office he seems hell-bent on following through on his alarming agenda.
All of this has gave permission to white supremacists and other hate mongers to react violently against people of color and different origins, to disrespectfully treat women, to ignore clear and present danger realities such as global warming and to override the will of the people by renewing projects that history tells us will deface and pollute precious lands and waters.
It is as if Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, Ross Perot and Rudy Giuliani have somehow been melded together in the amoral heart of Trump. Just when America needs an Atticus Finch in its top leadership position, we now have someone who seemingly speaks more to the Bob Ewells of the world than to those of us who believe in the better angels of a more perfect union.
Instead of a voice of calm reason, considered compassion, resolute peace and sincere unity, we have a strident, histrionic voice of acrimony and division who speaks for the supposed moral majority and special interests of privileged white males. In movie-movie terms, I am reminded of the Franklin Schaffner adaptation of Gore Vida’s “The Best Man.” where the choice for a presidential nominee came down to a reactionary opportunist played by Cliff Robertson and a thoughtful, progressive essayed by Henry Fonda. It is unfortunate that Trump did not face anyone like the statesmen Fonda portrayed in “Young Mr. Lincoln,” “Advise and Consent,” “The Best Man” and “Fail Safe” or the socially conscious Everymen he played in “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Oxbow Incident” and “12 Angry Men.” Hillary Clinton embodied some of these same ideals, but America just wasn’t ready for her or for a woman like her as President.
How unfortunate, too, that there isn’t someone like the noble Atticus Finch or other figures of high character that Gregory Peck played (“Twelve O’Clock High,” “The Big Country,” “Captan Newman M.D.”) to lead us.
Then again, we had our Atticus Finch situated in the most powerful post in the world and a chunk of this nation rejected him and what he espoused. Obama even sounded a lot like Atticus when he called on people who want a more perfect union to not merely be bystanders but to be participants: “Show up, dive in, stay at it…Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America — and in Americans — will be confirmed.”
For all its enduring popularity, “To Kill a Mockingbird” still only speaks to those willing to learn its lessons. Too many Americans, I’m afraid, are still unprepared to accept The Other represented by Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. Even in 2017 the notion of embracing all people, regardless of color, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, physical-mental capability, is still too radical for a whole lot of folks to follow. These are the very same things Christians are called to do by 2,000 year-old teachings. Yet many bristle at the core idea of loving their fellow man even though this is the basis and essence for the very organized religions they’re baptized in and purport to believe.
All of which tells us we are one hot mess of a nation. There’s nothing new about that, it’s just that events of the past few years make it easier to see things for how they really are. The cloak of civility and cooperation has been lifted. Maybe it’s a good thing the hate is there for the viewing and not all concealed or dressed up as something else. Now that it’s out in the open, at least we know who and what we’re dealing with moving forward.
We need all the Atticus Finch’s and Harper Lees amongst us to stand up and be counted lest the Boo Radleys and Tom Robinsons continue to be oppressed. The conspiracy of hearts who love what “To Kill a Mockingbird” and works like it teach about tolerance and love need to raise their voices against injustice. If this book and film that have touched so many can lead to social action, then their collective impact will be far greater than all the sales, box-office receipts and rentals they’ve earned over these last six decades.
Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden," "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film" (a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker) "Open Wide" a biography of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, Leo Adam Biga's My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com, is an online gallery of his work. The blog feeds into his Facebook page, My Inside Stories, as well as his Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Tumblr, About.Me and other social media platform pages.
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