Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Review of an Attitude Mentioned in a Review of a Book

The title of this post should tell you how qualified I am to say what I'm about to say. But then, you are aware you're reading this on a blog, right?

Harper Lee has a new book coming out. I guess real life is turning out to be a lot like the end of Finding Forrester, except without the "you're the man now, dog" line. Anyway, from what I gather from reading some reviews, this book is a lot closer to what Lee originally wrote as a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, but after substantial editing, the works are distinct enough to warrant separate publication (at least in this age of commercializing every minutely-distinct product).

In one review I read of Go Set a Watchman, the journalist noted that fans of Mockingbird will be upset that Atticus Finch is now a racist. People have named their sons after him, they have built him into this godlike figure of pure equality. They aren't going to take kindly to take kindly to finding out that he was (gasp) a fallible human.

But why shouldn't they? No one is perfect. And we all say that when we are excusing our own shortcomings, but none of us believe it about others. As soon as a celebrity or politician steps out of groupthink line they are anathema. We can not tolerate shortcomings, so we either allow them to swamp everything noble about a person (rendering Churchill a Not Great Man because he was wrong on India) or we hide them so we can maintain our veneration (so every January we have a federal holiday commemorating the birthday of a Communist).

A long time ago, I read a book I really like entitled For Common Things by Jedediah Purdy. It was the first time I really understood the way ironic detachment undermined morals. Irony renders modern Americans incapable of holding an ideal they do not meet, so they abandon their ideals. Unless I'm perfect, I'm open to the retort that wins all modern debates, "Who are you to talk?"

I've written before about how this comes up every time a church lesson discusses hypocrisy. The teacher will ask, "What is hypocrisy?" A class member will say, "It's saying one thing and doing another." The teacher will say, "Yes, thank you." And then I will say, "NO, YOU JACKASSES ARE ALL WRONG!" (And I wonder why I don't have friends at church.)

We should ALL be "saying one thing and doing another," because saying is how we start doing. But when we're deathly afraid of being called a hypocrite, we define our current behavior as the ideal. And thus is born every reality TV star.

We refuse to accept that anyone is better than anyone else. This process leaves us wanting heroes, and since real-life people can no longer qualify, we have to turn to fictional characters. So Jack Bauer is a greater American than Chris Kyle, and Atticus Finch is the civil rights crusader par excellence. I think this is a result of the establishment of atheism as the social religion. Without a God there's no One to forgive, so our heroes must need no forgiveness.

So Atticus is a racist. Good. And he's a racist after the events of Mockingbird. Even better. Maybe it will be the start of loosening irony's death-grip on American morality.

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