Still a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird

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As a professor of English literature I’ve heard more than one colleague comment wryly that the only legitimate purpose of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is that it introduces the character of Huck Finn. The same could be said of Harper Lee’s newly published novel Go Set a Watchman; its only legitimate purpose is that it introduces the characters of Scout and Atticus Finch, the main characters in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).

The new book takes place nearly two decades later than the first, when the 26-year-old Jean Louise (aka Scout) Finch, now living in New York, returns to Maycomb, Alabama, for a two-week visit with her family. There she reminisces about childhood adventures with her brother Jem and friends Henry and Dill. The adult Jean Louise views her family and neighbors through more cosmopolitan eyes and finds them severely wanting, particularly in their attitudes toward civil rights and racial equality.

Watchman's detached, undefined narrator tells the story but doesn’t draw the reader into the scene.

According to interviews with her current publisher at HarperCollins, Lee wrote this manuscript in the 1950s, when she was in her twenties, and although it takes place after the events in TKAM, it was actually written several years earlier. Lee’s agent submitted it to publishers, and in 1957 Tay Hohoff, an editor at JB Lippincott, picked it up. However, Hohoff recognized that the book wasn’t ready for publication and that the flashback scenes were far more compelling than the main narrative. She recommended that Lee rewrite the book using six-year-old Scout as the narrator. Better advice was never given to a first-time author. Hohoff worked closely with her, guiding her through several versions until, three years later, Lee’s Pulitzer-prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird was published. It has been read and reread by admiring fans for over 50 years.

Meanwhile, Watchman had been sitting in a secure area of Lee’s Alabama home, attached to the original manuscript of TKAM, since at least 1964, but was uncovered only recently by Lee’s attorney — conveniently after Lee suffered a stroke that left her virtually deaf and blind, and just three months after Lee’s sister and executor had passed away. Permission was secured from Lee to publish the book, but controversy swirls about the question of whether the privacy-seeking author, who always maintained that she would never write a sequel, was competent to understand what she was being asked.

So what about the book itself? Is it good enough to sell out an initial run of two million copies and sit atop the bestseller list, which is what it has been doing?

Sadly, no. On so many levels! It just isn’t very well written. Its detached, undefined narrator tells the story but doesn’t draw the reader into the scene to experience it in the way Scout would eventually do in TKAM. The book is didactic and preachy, full of long philosophical harangues between characters but without the episodic storytelling that would make TKAM’s lessons so bittersweet and lasting. Watchman is a valuable first draft, but Lee needed to mature and grow as an author.

As I watched Atticus Finch become involved in a community council whose purpose was to restrain the upward mobility of black citizens, I kept waiting for the wise ulterior motive to emerge.

The themes of Watchman are certainly timely. Scout talks about white privilege (yes, she uses that term) when she confronts lifelong friend Hank Clinton about some of his compromising actions. She doesn’t see that privilege in herself, just as African-Americans today complain that whites don’t see it in themselves. But Hank, whose family is considered “trash,” tells her, “I’ve never had some of the things you take for granted and I never will. . . . You can parade around town in your dungarees with your shirttail out and barefooted if you want to. Maycomb says, ‘That’s the Finch in her, that’s just Her Way. . . . But let Henry Clinton show any signs of deviatin’ from the norm and Maycomb says not ‘That’s the Clinton in him,’ but ‘That’s the trash in him.’ . . . You are permitted a sweet luxury I am not. You can shout to high heaven, I cannot” (231–34).

More importantly, Watchman destroys the reputation of one of the most beloved civil rights heroes in American literature. As I watched Atticus Finch become involved in a community council whose purpose was to restrain the upward mobility of black citizens, I kept waiting for the wise ulterior motive to emerge and the lesson to be learned — for Hank to be right when he said of Atticus, “He joined . . . to find out exactly what men in town were behind the masks. . . . A man can condemn his enemies, but it’s wiser to know them” (229–30). Lee does give a faint nod to the revolutionary battle cry, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” when Uncle Jack explains, “People don’t agree with the Klan, but they certainly don’t try to prevent them from puttin’ on sheets and making fools of themselves in public” (267). But this does not take away the bitter taste of hearing Atticus Finch saying, “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia? . . . You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? . . . You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to fully share in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?  . . . You’d have Negroes in every county office. . . . Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world? Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?” How can these words come from the mouth of the man who defended Tom Robinson so eloquently and taught his children that it was a sin to kill a mockingbird?

I don’t believe they could. As Harper Lee took the advice of her original publisher and returned to her manuscript, she came to know her characters better. I don’t think she quite knew them when she began writing. She had a sense of them, but she only knew them from their dialogue, not from their hearts. Her title, Go Set a Watchman, comes from a passage in Isaiah suggesting that Israel needed a moral compass. In her early twenties, Lee thought that she, through her character Jean Louise, was that moral compass. She even called herself “Scout,” the one who blazes a trail through the wilderness.

Many authors did not want to have works immortalized whose words were unpolished, story lines were unclear, or philosophies no longer endorsed.

But Hohoff recognized something more significant in a short flashback scene, where Jean Louise reminisces about Atticus defending a one-armed black man against a rape charge brought by a white woman. That was the real story. As Lee struggled through the editing process with Hohoff, she finally discovered that the moral compass was Atticus all along. Scout’s liberality came not as resistance to her father’s bigotry and paternalism, but from following her father’s example. Ironically, the younger Harper Lee in her twenties drew the old Atticus Finch through the eyes of a woman rebelling against patriarchy. But the slightly older Harper Lee, in her thirties, writing through the narration of a six-year-old girl, understood the father character with a maturity that allowed her to draw him exactly right.

Foreseeing their deaths, authors have often instructed their servants or their heirs to destroy their unfinished manuscripts. Adam Smith, Thomas Hardy, Franz Kafka, Nikolai Gogol, and even Virgil are among them. We lament the loss of some treasured works (others, such as the Aeneid, were saved), but perhaps the authors usually knew best — they did not want to have works immortalized whose words were unpolished, story lines were unclear, or philosophies no longer endorsed. If Harper Lee had the mental capacity to realize what has happened to her beloved Atticus, I’m sure she would be ready to throw all two million copies of this printing into the fire. Already possessing more millions of dollars than she could possibly spend in the time she has left, she has been betrayed by the desire of her attorney, her agent, and her publisher to make money — a lot of it. They have discovered a new golden goose, but they have finally killed the mockingbird.


Editor's Note: Review of "Go Set a Watchman," by Harper Lee. HarperCollins, 2015, 278 pages.



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Legal Predation

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Alabama has not escaped an abuse suffered elsewhere in the country, one reminiscent of lawyers’ trolling for plaintiffs in their nightly TV ads. The Opelika-Auburn News has carried stories about a form letter (copied online by the newspaper) that local businesses have received from a law firm in Montgomery. (I have also had a brief conversation with an attorney for some of the victims.)

The letter threatens a federal lawsuit on behalf of not-yet-specified plaintiffs for not-yet-specified violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act unless the targeted firm agrees to an out-of-court settlement. The letter expressly says that a suitable settlement would cover legal fees. The amount later suggested, typically a few thousand dollars, apparently turns out to be small enough to persuade some victims to settle to avoid risking further and possibly great expense and trouble.

Such predation is one more example of using or threatening government power to redistribute wealth away from its real producers. It is also an example both of quasi-deception and of regarding business firms as fair game that just exists, almost automatically, to be exploited in various ways as might occur to somebody.




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Lessons from November 2013

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Let’s look at three of the elections held on Nov. 6, and try to discern what they could be telling us about 2014 and ’16.

Virginia

In the Virginia gubernatorial race, a “DC swamp slime” (Democrat Terry McAuliffe) defeated a “crusading prude” (Republican Ken Cuccinelli). McAuliffe got 1,065,000 votes (48%) to Cuccinelli’s 1,010,000 (45%). The Libertarian Party candidate, Robert Sarvis, garnered 145,000 votes, or almost 7% of the total. Sarvis, a young and very well-educated man with business experience, stood head and shoulders above the two major party candidates in terms of policy, personality, and integrity. Given the cankerous quality of the two leading candidates, Sarvis ought to have done even better. His distant third-place finish reinforces the already well-established fact that American voters are pretty much addicted to the two-party system. If the Virginia electorate won’t rise up against the McAuliffe-Cuccinelli choice presented to them by the two established parties, what hope is there for the LP becoming a national force? (Equally telling is the fact that Rand Paul went to Virginia and campaigned for Cuccinelli, not Sarvis.)

Sarvis took more votes away from McAuliffe than from Cuccinelli. He did best among young voters (18–29 age group), taking 15% of that vote. He won 15% of independents, and 10% of self-described moderates. It’s unlikely, however, that 15% of Virginia’s young voters will continue, as they age, to support the LP. The thirties and beyond bring new life burdens and responsibilities such as parenthood, mortgages, and paying for college. Some and perhaps most of those young LP voters will morph into persons who look to government for help with their adult responsibilities. It’s easy for young people to vote LP when they have a social safety net — their parents — to fall back on.

The youth vote in Virginia should give Republicans pause. Cuccinelli won only 40% of voters 18-29. Advocating state intervention in people’s sex lives, as Cuccinelli has (on this see Andrew Ferguson’s Oct. 3 Liberty article, “Two Evils”) is not the way to win the votes of young people. Keeping social issues to the fore is a sure recipe for helping Democrats win elections in most parts of this country.

McAuliffe won among all income groups, with the single exception of those making between $50,000 and $100,000 (this group, of course, is the one that is most squeezed by taxes). McAuliffe’s margins were highest among those making under $30,000 per year (65%–28%), and those making over $200,000 (55%–39%).

Cuccinelli carried the male vote, 48%–45%; McAuliffe won women by 51%–42%. These figures mirror national trends. Cuccinelli, however, won a majority of married women. McAuliffe won handily among unmarried voters; he carried single men by 58%–33%, and single women by 67%–25%. These are worrisome figures for the Republican Party.

Cuccinelli won the white vote, 56%–36%, yet still lost the election. Whites make up 72% of the Virginia electorate. That percentage will continue to decline in Virginia as well as nationally. McAuliffe won 90% of the African-American vote.

Virginia is of course something of a special case. McAuliffe won big in northern Virginia. The Washington, D.C. suburbs, which contain a large number of government employees, carried him to victory. He also won the Tidewater region by a large majority. This area includes a sizable military population, and in the past has been kinder to Republicans than it was to Cuccinelli. Almost one third of Virginia’s voters said that someone in their household had been affected by the government shutdown. These people voted heavily for McAuliffe. Government employees and their dependents have turned Virginia from a red state into a purple one.

Despite declining faith in government across almost all demographic groups, the great majority of Americans are not libertarians or rugged individualists.

But the problem for Republicans goes deeper than this. Demographic trends are turning the Old Dominion blue. Older white voters from rural areas no longer decide the winners in Virginia elections. Women and nonwhites are now the deciders, and Republicans in Virginia and across the nation are increasingly viewed with disfavor by both groups.

For the first time in 40 years, Virginia has elected a governor from the same party as the sitting president. The governor, the lieutenant governor, and both US senators are Democrats. Had the Republicans run a moderate against McAuliffe, they probably would have taken the governorship. But had the Democrats run just about anyone other than McAuliffe, that Democrat would have beaten any Republican. Republicans in Virginia should be worried — very worried.

New Jersey

Governor Chris Christie rolled to reelection with 60% of the vote. It’s surprising that he didn’t score even higher, given that the Democratic Party did little for its candidate. Christie got the attention of some analysts by carrying 57% of women and 50% of Hispanics. He even took 21% of the black vote. In the wake of the election, journalists and political junkies began speculating anew on the prospects of a Christie presidential run in 2016.

Yet the fact remains that Christie would find very rough going in the Republican primaries. He’s little better than a Democrat to Republican voters in such places as Iowa and South Carolina. A strategy based on New Hampshire-Florida-California doesn’t get Christie the nomination. Even if he somehow won the nomination, his prospects in the general election would be much iffier than most analysts appear to realize. His penchant for insulting people may work well for a New Jersey governor, but it’s not what most people want in a president. There are personal and ethical issues lurking in the background as well. A series of negative ads featuring Christie being Christie could have a devastating effect. The Democrats may have taken his measure already, which would account for their failure to try to drag down his majority in the election just past. Even New Jersey voters favor Hillary over their governor by 48–44. Christie may very well take the plunge in 2016, but one way or another his fate is likely to be the same as that of another New Jersey blimp — the Hindenburg.

Alabama: the establishment strikes back

A special Republican runoff election was held in Alabama’s 1st congressional district (the incumbent Republican resigned to take a position in the University of Alabama system). It pitted Chamber of Commerce-backed lawyer Bradley Byrne against Tea Partier and businessman Dean Young. The two candidates were neck and neck in the polls going into election day, but a late blizzard of spending by Byrne carried him to victory with almost 53% of the vote. National Tea Party organizations largely ignored the race, a tactical error that could mean the ebbing of Tea Party fortunes in the battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

The Chamber and other business organizations, as well as leaders of the establishment wing of the GOP, were energized by the government shutdown debacle. Since 2010 they had largely avoided confrontation, hoping to channel the radicals’ passion and energy into promoting establishment policies and goals. Prior to the shutdown, this dual track hypocrisy wasn’t working very well. Maintaining the dual track became impossible when Ted Cruz and Co. brought the federal behemoth to a halt for 16 days, a move that alienated wide swathes of the public, including many Republicans.

It remains to be seen whether the financial clout of the establishment can bring the Tea Party definitely into line. If the establishment fails in this the GOP will remain hopelessly divided between pragmatists and radicals, with electoral doom the result. Should it succeed, the Tea Partiers may just take their ball and go home, with electoral doom the result. To put it in another way, will the Tea Party accept more moderate policies in return for winning elections and gaining power? Centuries of political history tell us the answer is yes. But so far at least this grassroots movement has defied logic and convention. The GOP’s ability to remain a viable force in American politics is, therefore, uncertain.

What comes next?

Are the Democrats also staring into a pit of their own making? Just a month ago, things seemed to be going their way. The shutdown had obscured the botched rollout of Obamacare. The polls indicated widespread public disillusionment with the Republicans, who themselves seemed hopelessly divided. The October jobs number looked pretty good. Then came the second blow to Obamacare: several million people learned that the president’s promise, “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it,” was a bald-faced lie.

The ripple effect was immediate and profound. Obama’s favorability rating, and that of his party, plummeted. Democrats in Congress started peeling off and calling for changes in the Affordable Care Act. Public faith in government action as a force for good took yet another hit, and a big one — something that can only hurt the party of government. Obama himself appeared pathetic as he tried to explain his playing fast and loose with the truth. Does this portend an unraveling of the Democratic Party, with major consequences for 2014 and ’16?

Christie would find very rough going in the Republican primaries. He’s little better than a Democrat to Republican voters in such places as Iowa and South Carolina.

Probably not. The Obamacare storm is likely to blow over. A return to the pre-Obamacare healthcare system would not mean healthcare bliss for most of the uninsured, for people with pre-existing conditions, for parents whose children are unemployed (official youth rate unemployment is currently around 15%) and therefore dependent upon them for healthcare. Despite declining faith in government across almost all demographic groups, the great majority of Americans are not libertarians or rugged individualists. They want a certain amount of protection from the cold, cruel world and the powerful forces that inhabit it. The Republican Party, which is the party of less (though still big) government, has lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections. Although it has a majority in the House of Representatives, it actually lost the total vote for Congress by five percentage points in 2012.

The Democrats have certainly been hurt to some extent. While they had very little chance of recapturing the House in 2014, any hopes in that direction have now been definitely dashed. The Senate, which appeared safe only a few weeks ago (despite many more vulnerable Democrats than Republicans being up for reelection), may now be in play again.

2014 may then turn out to be a better than expected year for Republicans, though by no means a repetition of 1994 or 2010. How much success the GOP has will depend largely upon whether its two wings can come together to fight the common enemy. Of course, many Tea Partiers view the establishment wing of the GOP as the other enemy; at this moment it seems doubtful that many of them will choose unity over ideological purity. To the extent that this proves true, Republican gains will be limited.

And so to 2016. Republican strategist Mike Murphy sees three strong (i.e., electable) presidential candidates in the Republican stable for 2016 — Chris Christie, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush. I’ve already discussed the likely outcome of a Christie candidacy. Walker is not a national figure; he lacks the personality, drive, and money that would be required to make him one. This analyst would be flabbergasted if Walker made a splash outside the Great Lakes region.

Which leaves Bush. Should he run, the whole weight, financial and otherwise, of the GOP’s establishment wing will be behind him. His conservative credentials are superior to those of the two previous nominees. He has an attractive family, including a Mexican-American wife. Polls show that the public is gradually coming to have a more benign view of his brother’s disastrous presidency. All this indicates to me that he can win the GOP nomination for president, if he chooses to run.

An insurgent candidate representing the Tea Party wing — that is, Rand Paul or Ted Cruz — could score some surprising victories in the caucuses and primaries. He could even go all the way, in the absence of a heavyweight establishment candidate. But in that case the general election would end in Goldwater fashion.

The problem for the Republicans, even if united, is that their base of support is shrinking because of demographic trends. Voters who are white, married, and making between $50,000 and $150,000 per year will elect Republican candidates again and again and again. But this demographic is shrinking, while Democrat constituencies are growing. Attempting to combat this trend through voter suppression, as the Republicans have sought to do in many states, is both wrong and impractical. Somehow the GOP must broaden its appeal if it is to survive and prosper.

Hillary is probably the next president, unless she decides not to run. Any other Democrat could be vulnerable, depending upon how badly the Obama administration ends. In the absence of Hillary there is a small chance that Democrats will turn to a far-out candidate, such as Elizabeth Warren. A Warren candidacy would breathe new life into the Republicans.

It seems to me that either Hillary or Jeb will take the crown in 2016. Should both stand aside, we will be in for a very interesting campaign. In any case we should recognize that the best people rarely seek office, while government continues to grow bigger and more intrusive. This is a recipe for more bad things in our future. The decline of the Republic, which began in the mid-1960s (or, more precisely, at Dallas in 1963), will continue.




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Beer Battle

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Here in Alabama we beer drinkers are still warring with the state. We won our most recent engagement, however. On May 16, the governor signed a bill allowing our favorite elixir to be served in 25.4-ounce, rather than 16-ounce, containers.

Of course, the goal of the state had been to keep large quantities of beer out of the lower colons of our young people. This assumes a school system that doesn’t teach that 2 times 16 is 32 and 3 times 16 is 48 — both larger than 25.4.

A couple of years back, in 2009, we legalized beers with over 6% alcohol. So we’re definitely making progress.

The opposition filibustered the large-bottle bill, ranting that alcohol had “broken up many families.” Yeah, I guess. So has fried chicken.

“Dear, pass me that drumstick.”

“But you ate the first one, and I want that remaining plump piece of chicken. Here’s a nice, crispy neck for you.”

The drumstick consumer throws the bone of the first — now deceased — drumstick at his “dear” dinner partner. (Not the half-full beer bottle, which she served without a glass.) Obviously, a freshman sociology student could observe this tension brewing for weeks.

And remember, all you legislators, he threw the chicken bone — not the beer bottle. So what’s beer got to do with it? More importantly, what’s the state legislature got to do with it?




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