Atticus Finch Obama: Evoking Harper Lee in an Exit for the Ages

 

Part of what defines a “classic” is that everyone has a personal history that goes with it. Here’s mine for To Kill a Mockingbird. The book resonates for me because my mother was raised in a small town in the segregated south where her father was among the few lawyers who would represent black people in court. I can still remember reading it one summer in my early teens. It hadn’t been assigned for school. My mom probably told me to read it and you don’t mess with my mother. That same summer the movie adaptation was shown at The Uptown Theater, a Minneapolis art-deco landmark specializing in classic films, where I would later work as a janitor and usher. It wasn’t a new release but it was a premier viewing for me. When I say, I saw it on “the big screen,” I mean it was a BIG screen. Decades later, I’d re-read and re-watch To Kill a Mockingbird with my own children. As a Rabbi-in-Residence at a Jewish Day school the same students that delved into Torah with me, dived into Harper Lee’s classic during Language Arts class just across the hall. Telling your kid that although he couldn’t win the case for Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch achieved a moral victory is almost as futile a task as explaining how someone can win the popular vote but lose an election. In hindsight, the former counseling failure was good preparation for the later. How can a “moral victory” provide consolation for an existential loss

After Tuesday night, we as a nation, have a new collective memory to add to our collection of To Kill a Mockingbird stories. Looking to inspire optimism and involvement amidst tremendous temptation to give in to cynicism and disengagement that comes with defeat, the President’s farewell address found source material in the work of Harper Lee. Quoting one of Atticus’s great speeches to his precocious daughter, the President reminded us of how essential it is to give one another the benefit of the doubt, no matter how odd someone’s behavior may seem:”You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

 

The context in which these words were said, both in the book and in last night’s speech, bear remarkable similarities. In this particular instance, Atticus is not telling his daughter to be open minded about wrongly accused black people, but misunderstood white ones. The same white people who enable and empower the racism that pervades every aspect of life. Think about these words when a black president, speaking to an audience that supports diversity, inclusion and multiculturalism, reminds his listeners that those who voted differently than them are people too. A real life African American Presi57a7a4b92135b2bbb9d5ccffdd83fffbdent echoes the words of a fictional Caucasian attorney, and in both cases, they are admonishing their listeners not to belittle the humanity of the white working class. And why not? Because its morally hypocritical and politically suicidal.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg applies a basic premise of couples counseling to the realm of socio-political relationships. “You cannot convince anyone of anything while asserting that they are sick, evil, or stupid.” The President expressed gratitude and displayed empathy for ALL Americans last night. Having earned the moniker “Pastor-in-Chief” for his response to terrorist attacks, mass shootings, wars, earthquakes, and hurricanes, we saw Atticus Finch Obama provide comfort and consolation in the wake of a different kind of despair, that of political defeat. Democracy, after all, is about more than winning democratically. It’s about governing, behaving, and thinking democratically. The time has come for both the dejected and the delighted with the outcome of this election to rise to the challenge of working for a nation that fulfills its dreams and keeps its promises.
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