Saturday, September 26, 2015

Go Set a Watchman and the Law: or, Scout, Calpurnia, the Supreme Court, Race, Sex, Parenting, and Conscience

     There‘s been too little commentary on this just-past summer’s blockbuster book, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, from the legal point of view. The present author is no enemy of Lee, having recently asked a school board to consider renaming a local Robert E. Lee elementary school after Harper Lee instead.

     Everyone’s noted (spoilers ahead) the horror of Atticus Finch turning out to be a closet racist in Watchman, but what about the Supreme Court angle? or anything else related to today’s legal landscape? We’ll look at a few interesting wrinkles, including how some of today’s self-styled “civil rights experts” might consider Scout Finch and the Finches’ housekeeper Calpurnia to be a bunch of ignorant bigots. (!!!) Frighteningly enough.

Law and H. Clinton’s Dilemmas

     As for the legal profession itself: legal education gets beat up on a little, when the book notes (pp. 34, 52-53, HarperCollins hardback edition of Watchman) it takes 5 years to learn law—including reading the Bible and Shakespeare—after the worthless experience of law school. Some things are more complimentary to lawyers, such as when Scout’s, a.k.a. Jean Louise Finch’s, beau Henry “Hank” Clinton consults her dad for help when she throws her “falsies” (false bosom) over part of a school billboard and the school principal isn’t too happy. Henry says he consulted his lawyer (Atticus), who’ll never discuss it with Scout, since “everything anybody tells his lawyer’s confidential” (pp. 224-225).

     Also, a “lawyer’s hide” (p. 268) is memorialized as being pretty invulnerable to insults, after Scout has discovered Atticus’ racism and dumped some choice language on him. And Atticus himself is defended as someone who “lives by…the letter and by the spirit of the law” (p. 268), e.g., despite his personal feelings, Atticus would be the first to defend bombing or beating victims from the Ku Klux Klan.

     While Henry Clinton (who is Atticus’ protégé as a young lawyer) is bright and hard-working, he is of impoverished and troubled background, which makes his courting of the higher-class Miss Finch more difficult. This is interestingly reminiscent of another Clinton of great ambition in the law, but a poor background, William “Bill” Clinton. (Infamously, Bill supposedly said of Barack Obama, during the 2008 presidential campaign, “A few years ago this guy would be getting us coffee”. Maybe Bill has some of Hank’s racism?) Also, there is another H. Clinton currently running for President. Perhaps Harper Lee had clairvoyance or something.

     It gets edgier after Scout discovers her fiancé attending a Klan-type meeting (the “Maycomb County Citizens’ Council”) along with Atticus, and then confronts Hank about it. He gives as excuse, “I just know Maycomb; [i]t says to me . . . there are certain things . . . I must do if . . . . I want to make a name for myself as a lawyer” (p. 232). This chilling assertion that one must live down to the lowest standards of one’s community—such as attending racist meetings—to be a successful attorney, reminds us of real-life compromises that lawyers might feel pressured to make today.

The Court in Watchman Times and Now

     Speaking of today: in Watchman there are parallels with how the Supreme Court and other bodies are perceived today in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges. Atticus and pals repeatedly pillory the Court, talking of “the Supreme Court’s bid for immortality” (p. 24), probably referring to Brown v. Board of Education; and a Mr. O’Hanlon—a cousin of Scarlett O’Hara?—speaking at the racist meeting says, “no n---ers and no Supreme Court was going to tell him or anybody else what to do” (p. 108), and that somebody “bribed the Supreme Court” (p. 110). Henry says (p. 229), “All the Maycomb Citizens’ Council is in this world is—is a protest to the Court”.
     From pp. 238-248, Watchman says a lot about the Court, and the NAACP. Scout says she was “furious” about Brown (p. 238), and gets into some amateur constitutional law when she brings up the Tenth Amendment as a reason the Court should’ve stayed out (p. 239). She further opines, re the Constitution, “Well, it seemed that to meet the real needs of a small portion of the population, the Court set up something horrible that could—that could affect the vast majority of folks. Adversely, that is.” (pp. 239-240) At this point, Scout may sound a little like the States in Obergefell saying same-sex marriage could be decided locally.

     However, Scout seems willing to take it, the fallout of Brown. But her daddy isn’t it, he saying to her, “You slang the Supreme Court within an inch of its life, then you turn around and talk like the NAACP” (p. 243), and “there’s only one thing higher than the Court in this country, and that’s the Constitution” (p. 241), while spewing out about 10 pages of bad reasons for his racist ideas. This prompts Scout, whose sensitive conscience is basically the “watchman” of the book’s title (referencing Isaiah 21:6), to rejoin, “I think we deserve everything we’ve gotten from the NAACP and more.” (p. 245)
     (Incidentally, there’s not room here to mention all the infamies heaped on the NAACP by Atticus and friends. One example is on page 149, where Mr. Finch proclaims, “the NAACP-paid lawyers are standing around like buzzards down here”.)

Calpurnia and Scout the bigots?

     One wonders if the people who thought the States should decide on issues like same-sex marriage, will one day be reviled as those in Scout Finch’s time who thought the States should decide on racial segregation issues. This is possible, and one can likely find people who think that a lack of same-sex marriage is identically evil to having separate bathrooms for blacks and whites. However, it might not be entirely so, even in Obergefell itself. Justice Anthony Kennedy admits, “Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.” (Slip op. at 19) There are few people who would say it is “decent” or “honorable” to have racial segregation.

     On that note: in Watchman, the Finches’ cook and maid, Calpurnia, has to deal with Scout’s attempted suicide (!) after Scout thinks she’s become pregnant just because a boy kissed her using his tongue (!!). (Harper Lee, like Flannery O'Connor, sure contrives some interesting situations.) Calpurnia informs Scout of the way that the birds and bees actually work, and is astonished at the otherwise learned-and-precocious Scout’s ignorance of certain matters. Calpurnia then says that Scout has missed out on certain life knowledge because Scout’s mother was absent, having died long ago: “if there’d been any women around—if your mamma had lived you’da known it” (p. 138). Calpurnia is saying that having a mother, a female parent, can be a positive factor in a child’s life.

     For those who think there is no possible difference between being raised by a man and a woman, on one hand, and being raised by two men or two women, on the other hand: Calpurnia must likely be considered a hateful bigot—logically speaking—, for spreading the idea that having a mother could possibly teach you anything that a father couldn’t. But who would have the courage to call her a bigot, when she is part of a victimized racial group in the world of Watchman? —Actually, Scout would be a “bigot” too, since she did not dispute what Calpurnia said. Fascinating.
     (Speaking of race vis–à–vis sex: an item of interest is the mobilization of some people of color against same-sex marriage, including Australian aborigine leaders. Some traditional peoples may feel that legalized gay marriage is part of a militant or neo-colonialist Western agenda; cf. Robert Oscar Lopez’ essay “Paris” in a book he and Rivka Edelman edited, Jephthah’s Daughters (p. 235), “So it goes with ligbitists [LGBT activists]. [T]heir modus operandi has ended up being more invasive than Marxism, because what ligbitists regulate is intimate, relating to the pleasurable acts that were previously private. . . . America is to the ligbitist movement as the Soviet Union was to communism.”)

Roberts Is Dead; Roberts Is Not Dead

     Back to the Supreme Court: on page 240, while explaining her opinion of the Court re Brown, Scout “looked at the rows of brown-and-black bound books, law reports, on the wall opposite. She looked at a faded picture of the Nine Old Men on the wall to the left of her. Is Roberts dead? she wondered. She could not remember.” Scout was probably referring to the late Justice Owen Roberts, but in our own day, there is a Roberts, Chief Justice John, who is still breathing pretty well. The latter had some interesting words in Obergefell, including, “If a same-sex couple has the constitutional right to marry because their children would otherwise ‘suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser,’ ante, at 15, why wouldn’t the same reasoning apply to a family of three or more persons raising children?” (Slip op. at 20-21 of C.J. dissent)

     Which raises interesting questions about same-sex marriage. Arguably, various States made at least some accommodation for gay couples, such as domestic partnerships or civil unions. So by Scout’s standards when she says,

“…Has anybody, in all the wrangling and high words over states’ rights and what kind of government we should have, thought about helping the Negroes?
     “We missed the boat, Atticus. We sat back and let the NAACP come in because we were so furious at what we knew the Court was going to do, so furious at what it did, we naturally started shouting n---er. Took it out on them, because we resented the government.”

(p.245), maybe those States making some accommodation for same-sex couples actually acted somewhat decently. One may debate this. (This author is well aware that this time around, the NAACP supported the plaintiffs for same-sex marriage. Not much of a surprise, since today’s NAACP may lean more towards Democratic Party-associated causes than it used to. Still, one may debate. After all, Justice Clarence Thomas, a man in an interracial marriage, did not support the Obergefell plaintiffs.)

To Marry a Mockingbird?

     There are some shockers in Watchman, not just Atticus’ bigotry, but also, e.g., when Scout’s Uncle Jack hits her twice in the mouth, drawing blood (!!!) (p. 260) and this makes her calm down and behave better (!!!!). Frightening, and this author has seen little commentary anywhere about that part of the book. While today, with an increased awareness of domestic violence, a physical beatdown by your uncle might not pass muster, the shockingness of the scene at least reminds us to be alert to the craziness that can happen in real life, and thus reminds us to keep our minds open.
     One shocking thing that may happen in our near future is the appearance of even more unconventional forms of marriage. Human embryos are about to be genetically manipulated in Britain, which raises the question of when, say, tiger, elephant, or even mockingbird (!) DNA might be spliced in with human, creating a sort-of-human and sort-of-something else type of mixture. Or machine parts might be joined to human, creating a cyborg or part-cyborg.

     To marry a cyborg…if there is any human DNA in the cyborg, might it not be “denial of human rights” to prevent such a marriage, after Obergefell? Especially if there are children, see John Roberts’ compassionate remarks toward the children of polygamists, supra. And the same with a part-mockingbird person, who desires to marry either a 100% human, or maybe a cyborg. To say that there is a fundamental right to marriage for such relationships, without the People and the legislature having anything to say about it, may be a debatable proposition. But some fans of Obergefell might not see it as debatable, if for them, “Love wins” in all circumstances.

Setting Our Own Watchman, or “Killing” It, or Both

     Things are often worth debating, though, which is why the courage or energy to bring up issues of conscience is admirable. Examining our own consciences, as Atticus should have done a little harder, takes work, of course. Setting your watch may be easy; setting your watchman inside may be more difficult.

     The Supreme Court in Washington can help inform our consciences, but we all should also heed the “Supreme Court” inside us, i.e., our own watchman or watchwoman, our conscience; and some folk think about the “Supreme Court” in the sky with a Judge more powerful than all of us, it is said.

     The admirable persistence of Scout’s conscience, her watchwoman, throughout Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird, inspires readers (or should), even if the failures of Atticus’ conscience are sad and repulsive. As a tomboy in Mockingbird, Scout even flouts gender conventions somewhat, showing her independent streak. (Still, she remains a girl, as opposed to transgender. Her behavior is proof that one does not need to change one’s gender to behave in flexible, non-gender-stereotyped ways.)

     Her ritual “killing” of her father (p. 265), or the image of her father as the infallible watchman, has some Oedipal/Electral undertones, and a redolence of the old Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”, meaning that outmoded authority, teaching, or ideas must be done away with.

     Maybe Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis feels that the Supreme Court should be thrown under the bus like the Buddha, supra. In any case, one can admire her following her conscience, without endorsing her particular cause. Similarly, one can admire James Obergefell following his conscience and filing lawsuit, even if one is on the other side. In their own ways, Davis and Obergefell may have felt a need to “kill” the watchman, to challenge the artificial conscience that the law often aspires to be. As long as real killing, real violence is avoided, then, some benefit may accrue from “killing” the old watchman—especially with the consent of the old watchman, just as Atticus consented (p. 266)—to replace it with a newer, truer, better one.

     Scout’s weaving through the confusion and paradoxes, as she scouts through the moral haze of 1950’s Alabama, needed her to still the parrot (as opposed to killing a mockingbird) in her, in that she was blindly parroting Atticus for decades. To gently put either “parrot” or a previous “watchman” in a place of honor in the past, so that your own conscience can come to the fore, is in the best of the American tradition, which is a tradition of progress—an oxymoron, a tradition of abandoning tradition, which helps define the American dream, even as the paradoxicality evokes some of the nightmares America has to swim through on the way to the dream. If contemplating all this can help us be better lawyers, or people—lest we degenerate into Henry Clintons—, then it is well worth contemplating, and Go Set a Watchman is well worth our attention and praise.

     (Cross-posted to Casetext)

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