Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird Sucks – Also, why Black Artists Don’t Win More Awards

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, Murillo

 

With Harper Lee’s passing the web has been a buzz about her work.  I consider To Kill a Mockingbird (TKMB hereafter) to be symptomatic of the endemic monotonous narrative of victimology, and the megalomaniacal righteousness which accompanies it.

One should expect some psychosubterfuge because as Flannery O’Conner once noted

“It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are buying a children’s book.”

The con of TKMB is that which the existence of the story conceals, not that which is revealed through the narration.  A story is first and foremost a justification.   The narration proposes that young Scout, Atticus the plastic saint, and a small cohort of scooby-doo-gooders are the only ones who witness a travesty of scapegoating qua racism.  Their valiant efforts to see justice done fail under the overwhelming caprice and indifference of the masses.

This on the surface is quite intoxicating, until you consider that the masses love the story, as evidenced by the 30 million book sales and rating of the book as second to the Bible in moral influence in American lives.  The perspective which is portrayed as rare is actually the norm, feeding the narcissism of the reader.  Which is fine for children, but adults?

The true victims of scapegoating by TKMB as opposed to in it are working class white people.  The narration contrasts the educated Finch and his precious family as the ones virtuous enough to face the truth.  The likes of the Ewell Family, Mayella and Bob – a lying slut and the town drunk, are the fictional scapegoats of the narrative.  The reader thinks these people exist, everywhere, and most importantly that the reader doesn’t do the same thing.   The fact that the reader does the very same thing all the time is what is concealed by the narrative, which is why TKMB remains so immensely reassuring as a children’s story.  It reminds you of your comparative innocence and your right to judge.

Affluent white liberals use racism like a dog-whistle to conceal their contemptuous bigotry toward working class whites. (Archdruidreport).

The myth of innocent childhood has always been in service of the vanity of adults who in this case can’t differentiate the ponderous “empathy” of Atticus finch from the turgid ecstasy of embracing  the projective identifications of an underclass.

As defense for my position, I suggest the question:  What does it take to convince a child that someone deserves to die?  It takes a saccharin moral fable. Bob Ewell, after all, perishes in the conflict against Boo Radley and the children.  It is not he who we feel sorry for.  After all, he had it coming.  Nobody really killed Bob Ewell – that’s the lie which hides the fact that ultimately the narrator (as narrator, not character) killed Bob Ewell, and you liked it.  This intrusion of the author into the story parallels the often criticized narrative of the story – Lee couldn’t keep straight whether scout was an innocent and naive child or a wise and reflecting adult voice.  Innocence is a work, fabricated by the creation of a monster.  It is belief in the reality of such caricatures, the exaggeration of their prevalence, and the complete dismissal of balanced or redeeming qualities which make them fit for sacrifice.  It is their death which ends a cycle of blame and violence and restores peace.

Consider that the role of the scapegoat serves to symbolically relieve tension within a community.  It is not the death of Tom Robinson which relieves the tension of the community, but Bob Ewell.  The reason Tom Robinson has to die is to cover the crime of the author.  If after all, Tom Robinson was released and said “I’m glad that lying bastard Bob Ewell is dead.  He had it coming.”  We suddenly would not be left with much of a moral tale because we would be at risk of identifying with these sentiments, those which the story is designed to conceal.  The story would now be:  Everybody scapegoats and disparages other peoples character as a justification, the Ewells were just bad at it because #RACIST.  It is more effective to conceal your motives with claims to virtue

This kind of hypothetical conclusion of direct or mediated vengeance was much more common of the classical period and lasted (as identified both by Nietzsche and Girard) until the ubiquitous expansion of Christian morality and the accompanying identification with the victim.  As an example when Potiphar’s Wife was shamed by Joseph’s rejection she transferred it back on him.  The moral of that story was that Joseph’s shame was undone by later being lifted above and exonerated by a powerful Other.  We don’t bother with that anymore.  Now we just kill the accusers.  Also, in TKMB and to modern SJW’s, it is educated white people who get to play the role of the powerful Other.  Thus, moral megalomania.

(As an aside, the irony of the Christian turn, and the pox of resentment culture, is that one major impact of Christianity and later Islam has been the scapegoating of the Jews – mutatis mutandis – the creation of a victim to justify resentment and violence.)

The best that can be said of TKMB is that it reveals to us James Gilligan’s compelling thesis:  Shame is the root of all violence.  Shame is an inevitable byproduct of being part of an underclass, and the resentments born of the desire to rise above leads to a denial of the vulnerable need to fit in and be safe in the community, subsumed as it is in by the role of victim – one who has been made low.  Always, this perspective of entitlement to moral vengeance makes each crime a solipsistic restitution. 

What is restored in and by TKMB is an uneasy truce between blacks and a certain class of whites – all it takes is the sacrifice of a certain kind of white people.

This childish story remains popular based on its reassuring banality, but another kind remains decidedly unpopular:  The corollary story told by black artists of how hard it is to be black.  This will never rise to the same level of popularity because if there is one thing black artists will not accept is white folks identifying with their characters.  “That is so like me!”  If you’re telling a story in which this feeling is not possible for your audience then you may not be telling a story, but rather covering one up.

This applies in the same way to art which explores sex and gender issues.  Angels In America won the Pullitzer and the Tony, after all.  It can be done if you’re willing to step beyond resentment to vulnerability.  Despite my criticisms, Jenner has done a decent job of this, despite an inability to speak the language of desire vs materiality.  To some large extent this is one challenge of the trans community.  It is after all one’s desires that allow people to understand you.  For artists it amounts to an admission that it’s hard, but not that hard to be me.  Like not so hard that nobody else can relate.  And for stories of the hard knock life it means being a minority may not be as hard as being poor or living in a bad neighborhood.  But it’s hard to tell a story about that because the knee jerk rejoinder to “work harder and move” seems an awful lot like the horror movie shtick of “don’t go into the basement.”

The lesson for artists is that resentment can be viewed as refused identification. The stigma, the sign of the scapegoat, is a symbol of refused identification.   And the author of a victim tale always refuses first…

12 thoughts on “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird Sucks – Also, why Black Artists Don’t Win More Awards”

  1. This was fascinating, thank you. Can you help me understand what you mean by ‘now we just kill the accusers’, in the paragraph about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife?

    1. Thanks! I was contrasting the similar roles of Potiphar’s wife and Bob Ewell as false accusers with their opposite ends. In the former Joseph’s was elevated and restored through the interventions of God and the accuser needed no punishment. Scapegoating was common and not noteworthy at the time. In the latter it is the author-audience relationship through the narration which takes a quasi god-like character. The author kills both Ewell and Robinson in a tragedy, largely to hide the vengeful spirit and scapegoating of poor white people by rich white people. It’s part of a psychological defense which turns it into a tragedy of sorts – written from the naive romantic perspective of the scapegoating victors. Hope that helps.

  2. “it is educated white people who get to play the role of the powerful Other.”

    When I was at school, this was what the middle class white kids would do. I read somewhere it was a type of cultural capital and a way for them to deal with guilt. The white liberal teachers would do this to.

    1. Interesting – to take this through to its conclusion being the target of resentment ordinarily would produce contempt. This dyad generally leads to violence of the strong against the week. If there is enough fear of violence on the side of the object of resentment (such as the presence of powerful third party authorities) guilt (as fear of punishment) will supervene. In this case identification with the powerful Other on behalf of the guilty/afraid/contemptuous party becomes the position of the moral high ground, sharing the belief of all that the resentful party is the identified patient.

      1. Thanks for your reply, although I might need you to put it in laymen terms.
        I think the book I read it in is called Whiteness and Class in Education.

        1. How about: The moral high-ground is a third-person perspective designed to avoid participation in more direct conflict.

          1. That makes more sense to me. It would be interesting if you did a Marxist analysis of #Rhodesmustfall and ‘why is my curriculum white.’

  3. I have it on good authority that women never lie about rape. Harper Lee’s rape culture manifesto is just another weapon of the patriarchy.

    Hillary 2016

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. My rejoinder would be that “never” is certainly an exaggeration. I assume you probably know this and said it that way for rhetorical effect. I’d agree that they don’t lie about it nearly as much as the popular false-rape allegation trope would lead one to assume.

      But from your first statement you proceed to call the book a “weapon of the patriarchy.” I think this kind of metaphorical rhetoric obscures the impact of the text and think the feminist reading of TKMB is pretty weak. I would suggest some intersectional critics who examine the triple impact of race, gender and paternalism come closest to what I argue for as the full picture.

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