Saturday, June 26, 2010

reading my future

"I'm a prosecutor.

"I'm part of the business of accusing, judging, and punishing.

"I explore the evidence of a crime and determine who is charged, who is brought to this room to be tried before his peers. I present my evidence to the jury and they deliberate upon it. They must determine what really happened.

"If they cannot, we will not know whether the accused deserves to be freed or should be punished.

"If they cannot find the truth, what is our hope of justice?"

The voice is Rudy Sabich's.  Created by Scott Turow in Presumed Innocent.  One of the books that accurately portrays the moral ambiguities of the law.  Where lawyers try to act nobly, but do not always succeed. 

Just like the rest of us. 

Just like real life.

But there was a day when the dew coated my eyes.  When law was nothing more than a statue of Justice come alive.

A book was one of the two reasons I became an attorney. 

In 1961 a neighbor lady gave me her copy of a recently-published book.  She knew reading was one of my favorite activities because I would frequently walk  past her house with my nose in a book.

The book was new to me.  By Harper Lee.  (A man, I thought.  Not knowing the eccentricity of southern names.)  To Kill a Mockingbird.

I read it in one sitting.  Flipping page after page as a young girl narrated the tale of her family in Alabama during The Depression -- especially, the tale of her noble lawyer father, Atticus Fitch.  A man who would stand up to prejudice to defend the concept of law.  He was as heroic as any caped crusader.

The seed was planted.  How better to put my faith into practice than by being a defender of justice?  Within three years, my course was set.  And I never swerved from it.

I wish I could say that I was consistent in my ultimate goal.  Over the years, I became a bit more cynical.  A bit more sarcastic.  Until I seemed to be swimming in a sea of irony.

But I never regretted the choice. To Kill a Mockingbird has had a very special place in my life.

Now that my ankle is strengthening and I can move around, I started straightening up some piles in my library.  And there was the book I received from my neighbor.  I pulled it down, vowing to re-read it during the next week.

At least, that was my plan.

In the late 1970s, James Burke hosted a television series entitled "Connections."  In each episode, he would examine how various discoveries, scientific achievements, and historical world events built off one another in an interconnected way to give us some sort of modern technological advancement.  Each episode was consistently clever and interesting.

I felt a similar connection on Thursday.  Felipe posted an essay on how his lawn was "mocking" him.  Connection number one.

Then I received an email about a recent Wall Street Journal review of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Connection number two.

The review is best summed up in Flannery O'Connor's observation:  "It's interesting that all the folks that are buying it don't know they are reading a children's book." 

Here is the core of the review:

In all great novels there is some quality of moral ambiguity, some potentially controversial element that keeps the book from being easily grasped or explained. One hundred years from now, critics will still be arguing about the real nature of the relationship between Tom and Huck, or why Gatsby gazed at that green light at the end of the dock across the harbor. There is no ambiguity in "To Kill a Mockingbird"; at the end of the book, we know exactly what we knew at the beginning: that Atticus Finch is a good man, that Tom Robinson was an innocent victim of racism, and that lynching is bad. As Thomas Mallon wrote in a 2006 story in The New Yorker, the book acts as "an ungainsayable endorser of the obvious."

A portion of me -- the more sardonic part -- wants to say, you bet.  That is the guy who attends Philip Glass concerts, mocks inappropriate dress, turns up his nose at Miracle Whip.  The kind of guy you would find at an elite political fundraiser.

Fortunately, the boy who read To Kill a Mockingbird is still alive.  I know Scott Turow writes better literature.  That moral ambiguity is the way the world works.  That Atticus Finch is a cardboard figure from a comic book.

But, so what?

So what if there is no ambiguity in the novel?  So what if we learn nothing new from it?  So what if it merely reinforces the obvious.

Sometimes we need heroes with unalloyed virtues.  Heroes who make us look at our better nature.  And what better narrative than how a young girl sees her father?

I cannot say the review is entirely wrong.  It simply misses the point of the novel.  Harper Lee wants us to see a world that may never have existed.  But it is a world where hurt, justice, and Doing the Right Thing all come together wrapped in the adhesive of true family values.  That when we start looking at the world through the eyes of others, we learn kindness -- and what it means to be part of a functioning society.

So, I am going to pick up the book.  Read it through.

And see if I can find that boy who found a map for his life in books.


Anonymous said...

Yes, the so-called real world is uncertain. But that uncertainty has many forms. Atticus was a good man fighting a righteous battle, but the outcome of that trial was not certain, even though it was waged for all the right reasons. Even when reason has everything stacked on our side, the outcome is always up for grabs.

What is important to remember, however, is that simple failure does not make everything else untrue.


American Mommy in Mexico said...

Curious - how old were you in 1961?

Adrienne on E Street said...

That would be a splendid find, indeed, because after all of the cynicism we develop over the years, inside we're really who we were when we were ten.

And I love your reminder about "Connections". That was a favorite of mine.

Rick said...

Steve, many years ago I was involved in legal education and traveled to law schools form Harvard to Berkeley with many in between.

I was encouraged by the idealism and ethics all the young law students exhibited with virtually everyone of them waving their ACLU membership.

But it seems that somewhere reality bites and good old greed moves in. Sad that somehow all these young law students cant change a profession that is the most hated in U.S.

My favorite law story - "Absence of Malice" - I never came across the book but the film was fantastic starring Paul Newman and Sally Field.

Laurie said...

Love the new rich look of your blog. And one comment on To Kill a Mockingbird. Unfortunately I think I believe a literary critic who believes that Harper Lee's book is much more the result of Capote's friends who heavily edited the book. Still a good read, though.

Croft said...

Great post Steve! Nothing gets my blood stirring more than a discussion of Law and Justice. although I actually think there may be no relationship between those two concepts.... You read of the dozens (hundreds?) of people who have spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit and then you also see the people who you know are guilty of heinous crimes go free. This may represent "Law" but certainly not "Justice".

How does a former jury member feel when, after thirty years he discovers he destroyed the life of an innocent man? Is society really benefited by sweeping the odd innocent into the dust bin along with some of the guilty or does the conviction of even one innocent person destroy the entire concept of "Justice"?

Can we consider the execution of even one innocent person (and we all know in our hearts this has happened) to be justified to preserve our right to murder others who we think for the moment to be guilty? If we allow this to happen can we actually consider ourselves to be a "civilized" society?

I am opposed to the death penalty under any and all circumstances. Period. But on the other hand I would love to see them tattoo a picture of Joran van der Sloot's victim on his chest and put him out in general population in the worst Peruvian prison they can find. See how long his attitude and manipulative abilities get him there. Does this make me a hypocrite? Or if it that I simply consider myself to be a better judge and jury...?

"Presumed Innocent" is actually laying on my bedside table ready to be started. I am looking forward to opening it.

Croft said...

I like the new look of the Blog BTW.

Steve Cotton said...

ANM -- Virtue a its own reward, I guess.

AMM -- 12.

Adrienne -- And the best connections of all -- neighbors and friends. Especially, neighbors who are also friends.

Rick -- When I was sworn in as a member of the bar, the chief justice of our supreme court addressed us telling us that to be hated in the pursuit of justice was the highest form of public flattery. I suspect he was hearing something other than the contempt I heard heaped on lawyers.

Laurie -- One theory for Harper Lee's failure to produce any other novels is that she did not write the first. Truman Capote being the most obvious ghost -- since he appears as a young boy in the novel.

Croft -- Enjoy the book. It was my introduction to Scot Turow. I have been enjoying his work ever since. And thanks for the compliment on the new look.

American Mommy in Mexico said...

I was wondering your age as I was thinking about when Oldest Son should receive a copy ...

Steve Cotton said...

AMM -- Knowing his love for reading and his set of mind, I have no doubt that he would enjoy the book. The narrative should capture his attention. I would be very interested in hearing his reaction.