Go Set a Watchman: Why it’s okay that Atticus Finch is racist

Race is difficult to talk about. It’s hard to say anything on the subject of race with any depth without A) someone being offended by what you actually said, B) someone being offended by what they think you said, or C) someone being offended by what you did not say. So the following I say with a healthy dose of trepidation: I like Go Set a Watchman.

Go Set a Watchman is the sequel novel to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee that came out last week. As the book’s release approached, many critics and reviewers denounced the book because Atticus Finch, one of the most beloved characters in all of literature, reportedly turns out to be racist. This is true. Atticus is a racist. He sits on a Citizens’ Council, he went to one Ku Klux Klan meeting in his youth, and he believes in segregation. People can’t handle this, and they can’t believe that the man once portrayed so artfully by Gregory Peck is not the moral ideal. What they fail to realize though, is that that’s the point.

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To Kill a Mockingbird is required reading in most of America’s high schools, and for good reason. You have ten-year-old Scout in the middle of a whole lot of prejudice, watching events that would form a cornerstone of her personality. She sees her lawyer father defend a black man accused of raping a white woman, and from that moment on, she becomes a progressive and her father becomes her idol. Scout, and most people who read the book, put Atticus Finch on a pedestal, making him a beacon of virtue in an unjust world. That’s what makes Mockingbird important. The audience learns that the world is cruel and wicked, but the truly moral will stand up for what’s right even if they lose the fight.

Go Set a Watchman: Why it's okay that Atticus Finch is racist

Go Set a Watchman is different, but equally important. Where Mockingbird deals with right and wrong, and black and white, Watchman deals with privilege, false gods and perceptions, and ethical gray areas.

The title comes from the Bible, Isaiah 21:6. I won’t quote it at you, but I will tell you it’s when Babylon is falling and God says to have someone be on lookout. In the novel, Jean Louise’s (Scout’s) uncle tells her that her watchman is her conscience, and that everyone needs their own. The problem is, Jean Louise, again like most readers, made Atticus their watchman, but in doing so robbed him of his humanity. The Atticus everyone thought they knew was not allowed to have flaws, because we needed him to be our watchman and tell us what was right and what was wrong. But when Jean Louise finds out that he’s human and flawed, her reaction is much like the fans who refuse to read the book: they can’t stomach it.

I’m going to digress for a moment to talk about Inside Out (I have a point, I swear). Part of the plot of Inside Out is that everyone has specific memories of their life that directly influence who they are as people. When those memories are removed, that aspect of the person’s personality starts to crumble, and that’s what happens to Scout. And just like in Inside Out, she needed this to happen to become a more emotionally complete person. Scout needs to “turn and tackle no less than [her] own tin God” before she can become her own person, instead of projecting what she thinks is moral on that God. Atticus Island needs to fall so that Integrity Island can rise.

The problem with this is that fans of Atticus are afraid to let this happen. I think this is partly because they don’t want to believe that they too are capable of racism. In Mockingbird, the racism was very binary. There were characters who were racist, and there were characters who were not, but Watchman is both more extreme and more nuanced.

There are more racist people, but there are more types of racist people, and no character (save, perhaps one) is portrayed as absolutely good. Even Jean Louise is called a bigot toward the end because she refuses to listen to anyone she thinks is wrong. People don’t want to know that someone can be progressive and narrow-minded at the same time. They don’t want to believe that someone can fight for a man wrongfully accused of a crime, but still support segregation. People don’t want good and evil, they want Good and Evil, so they know exactly where they stand. But if it were that easy, we wouldn’t need to set a watchman; we would just know.

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  • Gallen_Dugall

    I’m offended!
    By the concept of “race” which is poorly defined at best.

  • Or, since this book was written first and only published this year you could look at it as a completely different character who shares a name. Like Red Son Superman. Since these are fictional characters you are under no obligation to care about one book or presentation or another.

    I found the book boring and the movie good. So I just remember the movie.

  • Greenhornet

    Good article except for:

    “…from that moment on, she becomes a progressive…”

    That is an uncomfortable statement to make, especially in these times. In 1944, an American communist leader spoke at a rally, telling his “comrades” (Another word we can’t use any more) that they would not get anywhere calling themselves “communists” because Americans were getting wind of communist inhumanity. He said that they had to call themselves “PROGESSIVES”, because who isn’t in favor of “progress”? A decade or two ago, the “liberals” started calling themselves “progressives” for the same reason.

    • Gallen_Dugall

      What a label means depends entirely on who is using it with typically no more thought put into it than; I am this and I am good, I am not that so that is bad.
      I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve explained the history of labels like “progressive” to people who are convinced they mean “THE GOOD PEOPLE!!!” and it always ends with the brilliantly insightful “But that’s not what it means to me!” and the steady erosion of my faith in the species.

      Labels are the modern opiate of the masses. Grab a handful of labels off the shelf, staple them to your face, and free yourself from ever having to think again.

    • Hex

      When I said “a progressive” I didn’t mean “a Progressive” I merely meant “a person who is progressive or who favors progress or reform, especially in political matters”.

      The narrator of Go Set A Watchman doesn’t say much about Jean Louise’s other political opinions so I didn’t want to make the claim that she is left leaning when she very well maybe socially progressive, but economically conservative.

    • Muthsarah

      Progressivism was an everyday political label in the US many decades before that. There was even a Progressive Party (several, actually). And are you merging the “liberals” of the post-Depression era (which, by the current definition of “liberal” in the US, would be New Deal/Great Society Democrats) with the never-more than fringe Communist Party?

      “Liberal” means different things in different countries, at different times. In Europe, it typically refers to what in the US would be called Conservatives, who want a more hands-off government and less economic regulation; classical liberalism, closer in spirit to U.S. Libertarianism (or Tea Party-ism, to some extent) than to the Democratic Party or other left-leaning “third parties”. “Liberal” was never a good fit for the New Deal/Great Society types, except in that they were marked by being substantially less-conservative than their opponents, who went with the more traditional definition of “liberal”. “Liberal” can (or at least has, in the US) been defined as taking a more active role to promote what liberalism is viewed (by “liberals”) to be supposed to provide – a common welfare, protection from institutional discrimination, and other fields where traditional US liberalism wasn’t measuring up for many. Balancing ideals of liberty with ideals of equality. In the US, “liberal” means “social liberal” (a position somewhere between classical liberalism and Reform Socialism, where the government takes some role in the economy and adopts some measures of a welfare state), whereas, in most other parts of the world, “liberal” means something closer to “liberal conservative” (traditional liberalism).

      The “Liberals” pushed for desegregation, organized labor, changes to marriage laws, lifting of restrictions on abortion, greater taxation of the wealthy and greater spending on welfare for the poor. Non-traditional/non-conservative platforms, all, given that the US was founded on “classical liberalism” and leaned pretty hard in that direction for at least the first century of its existence, over which time (classical) liberalism – focused on states’ rights, a decentralized government, limited central power, focus on a free market and defense of private property) became the default conservative position, hence why US Conservatives would be viewed as Liberals anywhere else. So what could the people who want to change the status quo in favor of a more active government and pushing for equality-minded reforms, a move away from classical liberalism, call themselves? “Progressives” fits that definition well, since it highlights that it pushes for reforms, for some sort of change. And just as “conservative” has positive meanings for conservatives (“conserving” traditions and beliefs and laws that have been working well, in their eyes), so does “progressivism” imply “progress”. No party or movement is going to name themselves something that doesn’t sound good to them, and probably to others. There’s no other word that would really fit that, since the US Progressive Parties never really had anything to do with the Socialist parties (except in support of organized labor); socialism is another movement that just had a completely different history in the US than it did in Europe, because the US itself had a completely different historical experience.

      If anyone was trying to rename US “Liberalism” to “Progressivism” (and, BTW, I never hear the latter, but I hear the former constantly – usually from conservatives, but polls clearly demonstrate that a substantial portion of the US electorate still answers to “liberal”), it would partially be because “Liberal” is a vague term that could (and, really, does) apply equally well to both parties. BOTH parties are Liberal. They just have different definitions of “liberal”.

      Also, citation? A communist leader (who?) is worried that Americans would learn of Communist “inhumanity”? I assume you’re referring to the Soviet Union here (where else in 1944?) What Communist Party leader then would view such activities (especially in the middle of the Soviet Union’s “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany) as inhuman, and not as actions fully justified by an invasion by a brutal common enemy? The US public was still being told by all and sundry that the Soviets were their allies and the Nazis the cause of the war and everything that came from it. Or are you referring to Communist “inhumanity” in general? Which would be an even harder perspective to accept from a party leader.

      • Greenhornet

        I know gang, it’s just getting harder to have a “normal” conversation because “certain people” have taken over many words in the English language. I grew up in the ’60’s and remember when the term “liberal” came to mean “communist”.
        Control the language and you can control speech.

        Anyone want to do a review for the movie The GAY Divorcee`?

        • Albert Giesbrecht

          Well, it did have Fred Astaire in the lead role, so….

    • Albert Giesbrecht

      In Canada, we had a political party called the Progressive Conservatives. Work that one out in your head.