On Mockingbirds and Confederate Flags—by Peter Eisenstadt

The two most interesting stories in the American South this past week were undoubtedly the release of Harper Lee’s second novel Go Set a Watchman, and the final furling of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds in Columbia. Both events were decades overdue.

Go Set a Watchman first. Most of the discussion about the novel has revolved around the changed depiction of Atticus Finch. In To Kill a Mockingbird, set in the 1930s, Atticus Finch was an almost saintly lawyer, upholding the idea of justice for all in a deeply unjust society, and the right of everyone to a fair trial. In Go Set a Watchman, set in the 1950s Atticus is a bigoted 70-year old man, telling his now adult daughter that he doesn’t approve of school integration, and goes to a Klan or White Citizen’s Council meeting now and then.

To tell you the truth, Atticus Finch has always made me a bit uncomfortable. What’s the point of upholding the law if the law you are upholding is fundamentally biased? Can a black man or woman really get justice in a place and time where by law there are no blacks on juries, no blacks with the right to vote, and systematic discrimination against racial minorities? Is it enough to try to make the existing system a little fairer, one case at a time, or should one protest against its profound inequities, and press for sweeping and comprehensive change? When you live in an evil society, how do you avoid being tainted by it? In truth, unless you are in open revolt against it, you will always be tainted, to a greater or lesser extent. If the degree of that taint was not apparent in To Kill a Mockingbird, in Go Set a Watchman it apparently is. There is nothing at all surprising about this. There is a long list of southern “liberals” in the 1930s, of whom William Faulkner was the best-known, who had chafed against some of the crueler aspects of the Jim Crow system, who post-Brown, in the late 1950s, were made profoundly uneasy by the possibility of widespread integration of the South. Fighting for basic human rights, like the right to a fair trial, was one thing; social intimacies between white and black children, something entirely different.

These are profound questions, without easy answers. Isn’t it better to be a moral insider in an evil society, with some power to help realize justice, rather than placing yourself wholly outside evil, where likely your only weapon will be to rail against it? This is not an abstract question. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch defended a black man against a false rape charge, and though Atticus did his best he did not win the case (though not before throwing every sexist accusation he could think of at Robinson’s poor-white trash accuser.) Of course, if you are a lawyer who believes in justice, you have to come to the aid of a defendant, especially one you think has been falsely accused. But Harper Lee knew that, whether legally or extra-legally, Tom Robinson would have to die as a result of the rape trial. To write it any other way would simply ring false. And if Atticus Finch was upset about the fate of Tom Robinson, other than commiserating with his family, it is not clear he did anything about it. Atticus always seemed oblivious to the political options that were available in his time and place—the South in the 1930s was on the boil, fermenting with various white and black liberals, socialists, and communists (the late Douglas Egerton’s Speak Now Against the Day is perhaps the best account of this), but little of this political possibility is apparent in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Okay, I am talking about Israel, where there are a lot of Atticuses, both of the 1930s and 1950s varieties, and many think that when you scratch a 1930s Atticus you find a 1950s Atticus. I am not saying Israel is the Jim Crow South, but in both societies the deepest contradictions are right on the surface, like a security barrier or a water fountain with a “whites only” sign. And the question in both societies is not if change will come but when change will come, and how change will come, whether it will be slow and controlled, or develop a momentum of its own, and smash everything in its path. And what Atticuses are most afraid of, and not entirely without reason, is that once the process of change begins, they will not be able to control it, whatever the law or written agreements might say. There is no way to make the process of relinquishing power entirely comfortable to those that exercise it.

What so many white southerners were afraid of in the 1950s and 1960s is that by giving equality to blacks they would lose control of their society, and be governed and dominated by blacks, who would treat them as they had been treated. This has, for a number of reasons, not happened. Whites are strongly and safely in control of the politics in every southern state, though blacks have won, and exercise their political and legal rights. In some ways change has been swift and comprehensive; in some ways, there has been little change at all.

This brings us to last week’s second big news story, the decision, after more than half a century, to furl the Confederate flag for the last time from the South Carolina statehouse. What is remarkable is both how long whites resisted removing this obvious affront to the state’s black citizens, and how quickly the end came, and how something that, just a month ago, seemed outside the realm of political possibility, suddenly became politically urgent. I have long thought that the South makes for a better analogy to Israel than South Africa—for one thing, the numbers are more similar, more of a rough equality between the contending parties than an overwhelming majority of the oppressed. And perhaps, some half century after a peace between Israel and Palestine, the area might look like the South today, with great, lingering hostile undercurrents alongside a sincere effort to get along and avoid future conflict. Whatever Atticus thought in the 1950s, if he was around in 2015, I suspect he would be in favor of taking down the Confederate flag.

Last Friday, the day the flag was taken down for the last time, I found myself travelling in rural South Carolina, the most conservative part of this most conservative state. (Most of those who voted to keep the flag flying were from this part of the state.) Outside Greenwood, South Carolina, we passed a house with three large flagpoles. On one side was an Israeli flag; in the middle was an American life; and to its right was a large Confederate flag. Let us assume the owner of the flagpoles is not Jewish, and he sees (let us assume it is a he) in Israel a continuation of his Confederate “values” are still alive. That is, a nation where whites unapologetically are in charge, and that deals with the threat of terrorism by trying to exterminate it, not mollycoddling it. To him Israel takes its (supposed) ostracism by Obama and others as a badge of honor. In other words, for him Israel is a rebel nation, it won’t be reconstructed, and it doesn’t give a damn. It is a nation and a well-regulated militia, bearing its arms proudly, with the motto, to all comers, if you know what’s good for you, don’t tread on me.

Well, if he wants to fly the Confederate flag on his own property, I suppose it is his right to do so. The history of the Confederacy is finished and complete, and its evil history is in the books. But the history of Israel is very much an unfolding story. And Israel needs to turn a page, commit itself to principles of justice for all of its inhabitants, so that someday soon, this southern gentleman, disgusted, takes down his Israeli flag.