Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rethinking To Kill A Mockingbird


On a cruise ship it is common to have “enrichment lectures.” I have often found them good and interesting, but on this trip I found the best yet. Marty Aronson has been a Boston lawyer and a teacher at both Boston College and Harvard. Now in his early 80's but very young and lively, his on board presentations involve first, run a movie that involves the law, and then discuss it with the group the next day. The format is great for someone who likes movies and likes to think, and Marty is a really great teacher, asking questions, eliciting points of view, making points softly. That's him on our right in the picture, his wife Ellen Sax beside him, and then Ann and yours truly. We got to be friends and since both they and we were staying on Cap Ferrat for a few days after the cruise ended in Monte Carlo, we spent a couple of days touring together, and this picture is in front of their hotel.

I liked the movie Erin Brockovich and its discussion. One question was whether Erin was an opportunist or a sincere person with a cause. Clearly, she does well by doing good, but I was decisively in the sincerity camp, as were pretty much all of the other viewers (clearly, that's what we were supposed to think.) I made what I thought was an interesting connection between Erin, who lacked special training and had a checkered background, but was inherently very smart and had intuitive human skills and practicality that others lacked, and Virginia Johnson of Masters and Johnson fame, who could make the same claim. I also made the point that the film was about corporate evil, the embodiment being PGE in the film, and proved by PGE's subsequent history. Corporate culture is hard to shake.

But what really set off my analytical thinking was the discussion of To Kill A Mockingbird. As you all know, when you read or see something once when you were younger and again when you are older, it's a different experience, because even if it doesn't look like it, both are interactional experiences, and the older you is changed. So I kind of remembered TKAM as a movie, certainly remember Gregory Peck, but I don't think I actually ever read it. And even when viewing it this time, I didn't think all that much about it. But then when Marty led the discussion, it really set out a chain of thinking that led me onward and upward.

The obvious point is the viciousness of Southern prejudice, the counterpoint of patient and God-fearing blacks against scurrilous whites, the righteous whites caught in the middle (while still bowing to mores of segregation without a second thought, apparently) and how the righteous man Atticus Finch stands up against prejudice using the law, but how in the end evil wins as the Negro defendant, Tom Robinson, gets scared and runs away after being convicted and is shot down by the sheriff's men, but not completely, because while the heinous white accuser, Bob Ewell, tries to kill Atticus's children, they are miraculously rescued by the mute (autistic) neighbor they had feared, Arthur “Boo” Hadley, and Ewell dies. That was pretty much all I got the first time around, and had forgotten much of it, and I wasn't getting a lot more out of it while I watched it this time again. I did get this time that the point of the title is that Atticus said that the only thing a mockingbird does is sing for our pleasure, so it's not right to kill one. But I just took it fairly literally. Truthfully, when it comes to fiction, my skills are … marginal.

But what set me off thinking was in the discussion when Marty asked about the episode with the rabid dog. Seemingly out of nowhere (beware of things coming up from nowhere – symbols!), after Atticus has been assigned to defend “the negro” Tom Robinson who has been accused by Bob Ewell of raping his daughter Mayella, a rabid dog is spotted in the field next to Atticus's house while he is at work and his kids Jemmy and Scout are at home. While the rabid dog is dangerous if others get near it, the dog is mainly bothered by its own disease and is biting itself furiously. (Symbol!) Atticus is summoned and comes with the sheriff. The dog needs to be shot, but it is off about 100 yards it looks like, and the sheriff, whose official job it should be to shoot the dog, defers to Atticus. Atticus demurs, but the sheriff insists, Atticus takes the rifle, aims with his glasses on a few times than jettisons the glasses (symbol!) and hits the dog solid with one shot. We get a close-up shot of Jem being amazed, admiring, and somewhat befuddled, since he has been badgering Atticus for his first gun and Atticus has been resisting, and Jem imagines that Atticus must be some kind of a sissie. The sheriff observes, when he sees the amazement on the kids faces, that Atticus is well-known to be the best shot in the county. (Symbol!)

Then the movie just moves on. “What was that all about?” asked Marty.

There were some answers from the crowd, but my answer was, “Restraint.”

“Restraint?” asked Marty. “What do you mean?”

I said that so much of what Atticus did showed the value of restraint, that he tried to reach the better angels of everyone's nature by his restrained behavior, by reason, by appeal to fairness, and by reliance on the law and not on violence. That was illustrated by his not wanting to shoot the dog, but he clearly had the ability – not doing something only shows restraint if you could do it if you wanted to. I could have added that his difficulty in taking off his glasses to see clearly to shoot only emphasized more how he was casting off his usual restraint and perhaps bookishness, when the situation demanded it and his children were threatened, and he had to look at the situation clearly, without distortion. “Use your words,” that old pediatric standby, could be Atticus' message, but that can't be always.

The deference of the sheriff to Atticus is also notable for the distinction made between official and natural power and responsibility. Heck the sheriff is officially in charge, but natural nobility takes precedence, even though it's true that Atticus is an officer of the court. There's an awful lot in that little rabid dog episode.

But as I thought more about it in subsequent days, I realized there was even more than I realized. Mad dogs, unreasoned fury is the heart of the movie. And fear, fear for the innocents, fear of the other, fear of blowback from our own actions. The strong second theme of TKAM is the society of the kids, how they look at the adults from below, from sneaking around, how they accept a different-looking visitor from Mississippi for two weeks every summer to be their pal, and how they are afraid of everything around them, even as they tempt them, Boo Radley chief among the fears. It reminded me of The Sandlot or Stand By Me in exploration and fear, fear of what adults can do, but here there's more connection with the adult world that is protective.

Where the fear clearly is, akin to fear of a rapid dog, is fear in whites of unbridled fury of blacks, and perhaps of superior sexual attraction and prowess. The fear in blacks of the whites is certainly more grounded in reality and borne with more religious deference and dignity, but in the end Tom Robinson's running out of fear and being shot down by legal deputies is not dignified, nor morally justifiable. Everyone has a breaking point, and as Harold MacMillen said, “Events, dear boy, events!”

It was a legal discussion, so we turned to Atticus' decision to take the case at the direction of the court, risking social opprobrium and even the safety of his children. But faith in law and rejection of violence is the point, and risks must be taken, knowing at the end that one might have to give up on restraint as with a rapid dog. Taking the unpopular case was addressed by Marty in an earlier lecture, as he referred to his own career. He went to a first visit with a prisoner that his elder partner was going to represent. The man was obviously guilty and had stabbed the victim multiple, multiple times. Marty noticed that his partner never asked the prisoner if he had done it – that didn't surprise me, I've heard this before. But Marty asked his partner how he could take this case with such an execrable human being? His partner replied that Marty obviously could never be a criminal lawyer, because he was too humanly involved and that he didn't appreciate the larger point. The point, the partner explained, wasn't to defend the person, about whom he didn't care too much. The point was to defend the constitution. “I'm going to make damn sure the prosecution does everything they have to do!” was his defense of his defense.

What makes the Tom Robinson case different, of course, is that he is obviously innocent, so the dilemma Atticus has to confront is different from Marty's partner's. Atticus doesn't have to defend the odious, he can defend the righteous, which makes it a simpler case morally. It becomes a case of prejudice, and racial oppression by odious low-lifes. Atticus observes that the depression has hit everyone hard, that they are all poor, but that's pretty much all the complication we get from the poor white side.

The point of restraint, and appealing to the better angels of our nature, recurs when the town bullies rabidly want to lynch Tom Robinson at the local jail, when once again the sheriff defers to the socially higher-ranking Atticus, who sits unarmed in front of the jail to rebuff the would be lynchers. The force of his presence and his belief – and the naive interference of Scout who brings out the better angels of the crowd's nature by addressing one of them warmly and personally, making the crowd not a crowd but individuals – is beyond what the sheriff can offer. It recalls High Noon of ten years previously in standing up for justice against a crowd, but here with willful self-disarming. These rabid dogs will not be quelled by violence, because they are human and more capable of salvation.

And at the end? At the end, after Tom Robinson dies, the rapid dog Bob Ewell goes after the children. No one is safe from a rabid dog, because the law demands that people pay obeisance to it, that people think, that people cooperate, that people put away their weapons and adhere to the state's monopoly on violence. The law works when the great majority cohere around it, but there will always be rabid dogs who cannot be faced down by morality. But humans are just human, and tragedies will happen when it is left to them. Here, when Bob Ewell tries to kill the children – do we really need to ask why, of a rabid dog? – God intervenes in the person of Boo Radley (as Robert Duvall foreshadows his own illustrious career), whose autism and silence can be seen as a touch of godliness. And like God, he goes from fearsome (Old Testament) to savior (New Testament), enters ordinary life with and through the children, although Atticus obviously has known him before (“Children, meet Arthur Radley”), and then dwells with them quietly on their front porch. Wild nature has both its infections and its salvations.

And at the very end, when the question comes up between Heck and Atticus on what to do about the death of Bob Ewell and Atticus muses over accusing and defending Boo, the good common sense of Heck asserts itself. Atticus, Heck says in effect, let me handle this one. I'm practical, and I know what is right to do and what will hurt people the least and will do justice. The law is a great general guide, but that's all it is, in the end. We need people to administer it, lawyers to plead, and officers to make decisions. The law is a blunt instrument, and in the end it is good sense and goodwill and an approach to godliness among people that must be relied upon. And Heck is up to the job here. Atticus, you can keep your glasses on!

Well, over the next few days after the lecture, I bugged Marty and his wife Ellen with my further reflections on TKAM (the mockingbird being a singing angel, I'd say), probably with the fervor of someone to whom fiction does not come naturally and who then can't get away from it once it gets hold of him. And I intentionally didn't look up commentaries, all of which would probably have dampened my fervor even if it informed me superiorly. Hey, I'm retired, I can do that! Marty said I reminded him of students who pursued him always wanting to improve their grade, even after grades were in. But what the hell, he took it like a man, and we got on famously. Good friends are great when you find them.

Summary: good cruise!

Budd Shenkin

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