Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue--Debunkery Edition
Every now and then I get overwhelmingly irritated by tendencies of the modern mind, particularly the ones that preclude rational thought. Like Ford Prefect, I start to feel that people are trying to keep their brains from working:
At first Ford had formed a theory to account for this strange behavior [stating the obvious]. If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their mouths probably seize up. After a few months’ consideration and observation he abandoned this theory in favor of a new one. If they don’t keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working. After a while he abandoned this one as well as being obstructively cynical and decided he quite liked human beings after all, but he always remained desperately worried about the terrible number of things they didn’t know about.
Debunkery is one such tendency.
I know that "debunkery" is not actually a word. I've invented it to mean:
Debunkery (n) 1) the practice of debunking ideas or beliefs, or discrediting people, 2) a habitual predilection for debunking things, 3)the belief that debunking a belief automatically confers moral or factual correctness on the debunker, 4)the use of debunking specifically for the purpose of establishing oneself as a hub around which accuracy and virtue revolve
Debunkery is closely related to another tendency, that I haven't yet named. (I could, in fact, use some help naming it). It's the need to decry one thing in order to like another. (Perhaps we could call it "decryitude.") This tendency is well described in Arnold Lobel's wonderful story "The Club:"
“This is a meeting of the We Love Morning Club,” said the beetle. “Every day we get together to celebrate another bright, fresh morning. Grasshopper, do you love morning?” asked the beetle.
“Oh yes,” said Grasshopper.
“Hooray!” shouted all the beetles.
“Grasshopper loves morning!”
“I knew it,” said the beetle. “I could tell by your kind face. You are a morning lover.”
“I love afternoon too,” said Grasshopper.
The beetles stopped singing and dancing.
“What did you say?” they asked.
“I said that I loved afternoon,” said Grasshopper.
All the beetles were quiet.
“And night is very nice,” said Grasshopper.
“Stupid,” said a beetle.
He grabbed the wreath of flowers.
“Dummy,” said another beetle.
He snatched the sign from Grasshopper.
said a third beetle.
You can see this played out in ways great and small. For instance, go to YouTube and look for videos about Benedict Cumberbatch's masterful performance of a 21st-century Sherlock Holmes
and you will inevitably find comments about how Jeremy Brett's extraordinary, and more traditional, performance of a Victorian Holmes is garbage upon the bottom of the commenter's shoe. Brett can't be a good Holmes, you see...because Cumberbatch is.
My Something Old and Something New today demonstrate both these tendencies, so often found hand in hand.
My Something Old is the Harper Lee novel To Kill a Mockingbird
For those of you who don't know it, this novel, published in 1960, was a semi-autobiographical fictional account of white children growing up in the Deep South, without a mother, but with a highly ethical father who was also a well-regarded local lawyer. The father, Atticus Finch,gets appointed to take the case of a Black man accused of raping and beating a white woman and, rather than doing what was socially expected--going through the motions--he actually defends him the same way he would defend a white man. Lee shows the reactions of the town to the stand taken by Atticus, and to the trial itself, through the eyes of a little girl, Scout. Scout narrates the story as an adult, telling her memories. Yet Lee preserves the child Scout's perspective intact while still allowing the adult's judgement and greater understanding to hover in the wings, watching. This technique is not easy, and is one of the reasons Harper Lee deserved the Pulitzer she got for this novel.
In the novel, Atticus is a hero. In fact, his daughter idealizes him. So does most of America, since if they didn't read the book in school, they watched the movie with Gregory Peck:
A few years ago, a great stir happened, as Harper Lee's sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird was published. There was some controversy around the publication, as Miss Lee had always said she would never publish again, and had in fact led a very retired life, and only in advanced age and with some serious health conditions, including some that affected her mind, did publication of the sequel happen. Some thought she had been influenced to do something which she, in her healthier days, had not wanted to do.
Be that as it may, Go Set a Watchman emerged into the public mind.
Now, I have not read Go Set a Watchman. Initially, I felt a bit squeamish about the fact that it looked like Harper Lee had been manipulated into doing something she never wanted to do, and that made me reluctant to read it. Then, when it became apparent that discussion of Go Set a Watchman revolved around its Big Reveal--namely, that Atticus Finch was a racist--I realized I didn't want to participate in that discussion--not because I refused to believe that Atticus was a racist, but because I always knew that he was. It was somewhat reminiscent of when I went with another LGBTQ friend to see The Crying Game, and we were waiting for the Big Twist. After a long while, I leaned over and whispered to her: "The big twist wasn't that his love interest is a drag queen, and not biologically female, is it?" "I think it was," she whispered back, both of us a bit disconsolate at having wasted our anticipation on something so obvious.
I always knew Atticus was racist. But Atticus is a racist who is willing to put his body between an accused Black man and a lynch mob. He is a racist who is willing to risk his children's lives by defending that Black man when most of the town would rather he didn't. He is, in fact, a character who is both right and wrong.
This does not mean that Atticus Finch is a resident of the "well everything's so morally gray and all us adults know the world can't be fit easily into categories of good and evil so never mind all that morality stuff" intellectual abyss; Harper Lee is much too fine a writer, and much too honest an artist, to spread such garbage, which uses complexity as an excuse for amoral behavior while ignoring how any particular complex situation actually works. Atticus is able to be both a racist and a moral man--both right and wrong--because the moral center he is defending is not actually about race, but about what the law, and the courts, are supposed to be. Defending that moral center leads him inexorably into a struggle with entrenched, structual racism in his town, even though he himself has racist beliefs.
I sensed there would be an upsurge of debunkery and Morning Is Tops style thinking in the wake of this publication, and so I stayed out of it. Now I'm sorry I did, because not having read the novel makes it more difficult for me to critique debunkery like the following video by Lindsay Ellis.
When I clicked on this, I didn't think it was about Atticus Finch or Harper Lee at all. It looked like a critique of Peter Jackson's Hobbit movies. I never got to that part because I got so annoyed at the clumsy debunkery:
Atticus doesn't care about Black people or their plight in the Jim Crow South? He's just a good lawyer who was appointed to do a job?
"If you shouldn't be defendin' him, then why are you doin' it?"
"For a number of reasons," said Atticus. "The main one is, if I didn't I couldn't hold up my head in town, I couldn't represent this county in the legislature, I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do something again."
And then there's the scene where Atticus puts himself outside Tom Robinson's jail cell. "Just doing a job" would hardly be enough motivation for me to risk myself at the hands of a lynch mob:
In ones and twos, men got out of the cars. Shadows became substance as lights revealed solid shapes moving toward the jail door. Atticus remained where he was. The men hid him from view.
“He in there, Mr. Finch?” a man said.
“He is,” we heard Atticus answer, “and he’s asleep. Don’t wake him up.”
In obedience to my father, there followed what I later realized was a sickeningly comic aspect of an unfunny situation: the men talked in near-whispers.
“You know what we want,” another man said. “Get aside from the door, Mr. Finch.”
“You can turn around and go home again, Walter,” Atticus said pleasantly. “Heck Tate’s around somewhere.” “The hell he is,” said another man. “Heck’s bunch’s so deep in the woods they won’t get out till mornin’.”
“Indeed? Why so?”
“Called ’em off on a snipe hunt,” was the succinct answer. “Didn’t you think a’that, Mr. Finch?”
“Thought about it, but didn’t believe it. Well then,” my father’s voice was still the same, “that changes things, doesn’t it?”
“It do,” another deep voice said. Its owner was a shadow.
“Do you really think so?”
This was the second time I heard Atticus ask that question in two days, and it meant somebody’s man would get jumped. This was too good to miss. I broke away from Jem and ran as fast as I could to Atticus.
Jem shrieked and tried to catch me, but I had a lead on him and Dill. I pushed my way through dark smelly bodies and burst into the circle of light.
I thought he would have a fine surprise, but his face killed my joy. A flash of plain fear was going out of his eyes, but returned when Dill and Jem wriggled into the light.
There was a smell of stale whiskey and pigpen about, and when I glanced around I discovered that these men were strangers. They were not the people I saw last night. Hot embarrassment shot through me: I had leaped triumphantly into a ring of people I had never seen before.
Atticus got up from his chair, but he was moving slowly, like an old man. He put the newspaper down very carefully, adjusting its creases with lingering fingers. They were trembling a little.
“Go home, Jem,” he said. “Take Scout and Dill home.”
Yeah. That sounds like somebody who doesn't care.
Debunkery and decryitude are inherently reductionist modes of thought. As such, they tend towards the abstract and the authoritarian. Imagine the conversation we could have if we actually discussed how Atticus' morality was constituted, on what it was based, and how he both lived up to it and failed it.
You can acknowledge the moments he rises to moral greatness-and understand how that morality was constituted--and also feel with the grown-up Scout when she says:
My Something Borrowed today is the song "Oye, Como Va?"
For a long time I didn't know Carlos Santana's version of this song was a cover:
It was actually written by Puerto Rican jazz great Tito Puente. Here's a live performance of it by Mr. Puente. I really loved the video I found of him doing this song at the Newport Jazz Festival, but now can't find it! Darn.
This is a picture of the Bahamas and the ocean around it, from space: