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Folsomism vs. Activism
August 10, 2009 8:15 AM   Subscribe

Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern liberalism. An essay in the latest The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell. "Atticus Finch is faced with jurors who have one set of standards for white people like the Ewells and another set for black folk like Tom Robinson. His response is to adopt one set of standards for respectable whites like Boo Radley and another for white trash like Bob Ewell. A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism in Maycomb, Alabama."
posted by billysumday (188 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
What is Malcolm Gladwell Talking About? Critique of Gladwell's article by Isaac Chotiner of The New Republic.
posted by Kattullus at 8:20 AM on August 10, 2009 [8 favorites]


To Kill A Mockingbird is a great book (and better movie), but ultimately I think Twelve Angry Men is far more difficult, nuanced, and ambiguous.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:23 AM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


I read that too, and thought it was very thought-provoking. I last read this book in 7th or 8th grade, and certainly didn't remember much other than the depiction of an upstanding citizen in Atticus Finch. This essay made some compelling points - I especially thought the ruminations on class (basically, the 'poor white trash' characterization of the accuser's family) and gender (pointing out that Atticus Finch used a 'she asked for it' rape defense) rang of truth and are rarely noted.

It was interesting, too, to bring a closer examination the embedded assumptions of heroism and nobility in the story, precisely because this is such a sacred-cow American book. I'm sure these points are probably discussed academically, but in the wider culture, this is one of the most-assigned books in school English classes and is often a linchpin of the literature of race and discrimination. I remember reading it along with Black Boy and Elie Wiesel and things like that. It's also the single most-chosen book selected for The Big Read community one-book one-city programs nationwide. It's still widely read and I think Atticus Finch is still considered a model of maturity and broadmindedness - this is a great re-examination.
posted by Miko at 8:25 AM on August 10, 2009 [7 favorites]


Wow, I think that New Republic writer really failed to deliver a counterargument. Really failed.
posted by Miko at 8:28 AM on August 10, 2009 [5 favorites]


You also see this in a lot of...well, I guess they are retellings of TKaM. Although I can't think of any examples, sadly. "No, it isn't the black people/girls/robots who are inferior human beings. It is YOU!"

Worse, a lot of these other versions only grant a special exemption for a particular individual. A typical plot runs like this:

1) Female/minority/robot attempts to get ahead.
2) Stymied by sexism/racism/roboticism.
3) Performs extraordinary act (whether or not related to field of endeavor--for instance, it could be saving the CEO from drowning; implied blackmail of Dean; whatever)
4) Female/minority/robot, but *only* that individual, is now considered "one of the guys"/"a regular joe"/"a human being".
5) Success!
posted by DU at 8:33 AM on August 10, 2009 [9 favorites]


I'm going to have to reread the book (hurray!) because my take was always that Mayella had not been raped at all, but had been the seducer of Tom Robinson in a consensual encounter. The "punish the slut" attitude bothered me, but was easier to justify in a "it was the times" way and much more palatable than the "she was asking for it" rape defense.
posted by padraigin at 8:35 AM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Dunno. On the one hand, yes, there were limits on liberalism in the south and among southerners. On the other hand, well, duh. Being too liberal during Jim Crow would get you killed, white or not. Lynching mmmmmay have been a slightly more pressing issue at the time than class... stop murdering black men out of hand, and then we can work on understanding the concerns of poor rural whites and unraveling gender issues.

I think this essay tells us more about a plate of beans than about the novel.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:38 AM on August 10, 2009 [6 favorites]


my take was always that Mayella had not been raped at all, but had been the seducer of Tom Robinson in a consensual encounter.

It's pretty heavily implied that her father raped and beat her, not Tom.
posted by billysumday at 8:39 AM on August 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


Isn't Malcom Gladwell the same person who claimed that Asians are good at math because of rice farming? That assertion never quite made sense to me.
posted by exogenous at 8:45 AM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


I too remebered Mayella as willing, and that the rape charge stemmed from her family's insistence.
posted by biffa at 8:46 AM on August 10, 2009


Malcolm Gladwell is spectacularly full of shit.
posted by Optamystic at 8:46 AM on August 10, 2009 [9 favorites]


How on earth does this:

"We are back in the embrace of Folsomism. Finch wants his white, male jurors to do the right thing. But as a good Jim Crow liberal he dare not challenge the foundations of their privilege. Instead, Finch does what lawyers for black men did in those days. He encourages them to swap one of their prejudices for another."

Square with this:

"(Folsom) routinely commuted the death sentences of blacks convicted in what he believed were less than fair trials."

Communiting the death sentences of wrongly convicted blacks is an act of accomodation? What? What could possibly be a greater act of social justice than using the power of one's position to prevent a wrongful execution?

What a bizarre essay.
posted by The Straightener at 8:46 AM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Here comes my daily service to humanity:

Ya’ll come,” he would say to one and all...

No, he would not. Y'all is a contraction for you all.

/pet peeve
posted by nosila at 8:47 AM on August 10, 2009 [25 favorites]


I read this article in the New Yorker. I agree with Optamystic, the argument is crap.
posted by chocolatetiara at 8:50 AM on August 10, 2009


On the one hand, yes, there were limits on liberalism in the south and among southerners. On the other hand, well, duh. Being too liberal during Jim Crow would get you killed, white or not. Lynching mmmmmay have been a slightly more pressing issue at the time than class... stop murdering black men out of hand, and then we can work on understanding the concerns of poor rural whites and unraveling gender issues.

I think what Gladwell was trying to get at, and did so tangentially but not specifically, was whether or it was possible for the South to reform independently, or whether it was necessary for the Federal government to legislate a new standard of equality and force the South to dismantle its institutional racial hierarchy. Would Folsomism/Finchism ever have achieved equality, or would progressive Southerners endlessly concede to white privilege? Gladwell talks about how the Civil Rights Act washed away the Southern progressives and brought to power George Wallace and other segregationists - but was its passage a step back for racial equality in the South or was it a necessary and painful decision necessary for an ultimately more equitable society?
posted by billysumday at 8:51 AM on August 10, 2009 [7 favorites]


On the one hand, yes, there were limits on liberalism in the south and among southerners. On the other hand, well, duh. Being too liberal during Jim Crow would get you killed, white or not. Lynching mmmmmay have been a slightly more pressing issue at the time than class... stop murdering black men out of hand, and then we can work on understanding the concerns of poor rural whites and unraveling gender issues.

I think this essay tells us more about a plate of beans than about the novel.


It's tedious to bring up yet again the fungible, inseparable webs of race, class, and gender, but I'd encourage you to think of the history of racism in the "Solid South" as radically complex, and less, er, black-and-white: its long tradition of white plantation owners raping black female slaves, the rapist Sambo stereotype, and TKaM's scene in which Mayella is publicly shamed more because she desired a black man and less because she falsely accused him of rape. If you can't see the deeply sexualized phobias ingrained in the fabric American racism, then please stick to plates of beans.
posted by zoomorphic at 8:54 AM on August 10, 2009 [8 favorites]


Isn't Malcom Gladwell the same person who claimed that Asians are good at math because of rice farming? That assertion never quite made sense to me.

I don't think he was saying that. I think he was giving that as one of the reasons why Asians are more proficient at math. However, given the American student's notorious lack of math proficiency, I think it makes less sense to ask why others are better at math than it does to ask why we are so bad at it.

I think it actually comes back to the question of whether someone is blessed because of grace or good acts, and the fact that the Puritans came down on the side of grace, and how that shaped our cultural perception of 'effortless cool' where other cultures hold 'hard work' in higher esteem. I read a great article about it years ago, but can't find it right now for the life of me.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:54 AM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


What could possibly be a greater act of social justice than using the power of one's position to prevent a wrongful execution?

I think the idea is that if all legal and institutional power is concentrated solely in the hands of wealthy white men, perhaps a greater act of social justice would be to challenge the source and legitimacy of that authority. Folsomism (per Gladwell) is patricianism, paternalism. So a white Governor commuting the sentences of wrongly convicted blacks is nice and all, but the underlying problem of why innocent blacks were being wrongly convicted is still not being addressed.
posted by billysumday at 8:55 AM on August 10, 2009 [6 favorites]


That sounds like a really interesting article, Afroblanco, I'd like to read it if you dredge it up at some point.
posted by Mister_A at 8:56 AM on August 10, 2009


“Ya’ll come,” he would say to one and all...

No, he would not. Y'all is a contraction for you all.

I don't understand. Isn't he in fact using ya'll to mean you all in that sentence?
posted by creasy boy at 8:57 AM on August 10, 2009


[fictional character from the 1950s] and the limits of Southern liberalism.

I think I've read enough.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:59 AM on August 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


It's pretty heavily implied that her father raped and beat her, not Tom.

billysumday, that was always my interpretation as well.

On the other hand, I completely failed to grok who killed Mr. Ewell until I read the Cliff's Notes.
posted by orrnyereg at 9:00 AM on August 10, 2009


I dunno -- the first quote from the book on Harperlee.com (the person who would know what the book meant, right? She is apparently quite alive as of this date)

"But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal - there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States of the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal."

Says Finch. Kinda shoots that article right down.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:01 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Ya'll" is commonly still used to address a group or an individual, in the Deep South.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 9:02 AM on August 10, 2009


I don't understand. Isn't he in fact using ya'll to mean you all in that sentence?

He has run afoul of the Apsotrophe Police.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:03 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh I get it now, you're saying he put the apostrophe in the wrong place, it's y'all and not ya'll.
posted by creasy boy at 9:05 AM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


(pointing out that Atticus Finch used a 'she asked for it' rape defense) rang of truth and are rarely noted.

According to Tom Robinson's testimony in the book, Mayella Ewell literally did "ask" for sex. She asked him into the house to help her with something, and then tried to kiss him, telling him that no white man was interested in her and that "what her daddy did to her didn't count". Her father saw this through the window and screamed that he was going to kill her. Very messed up, of course, but it was reasonable and completely not sexist or classist or racist for Atticus Finch to use the defense that Mayella had made any sexual advances involved and that Tom had been framed.
posted by orange swan at 9:05 AM on August 10, 2009 [8 favorites]


nosila's objection is, I think, to the placement of the apostrophe. For what it's worth, I'd agree: one isn't contracting some word beginning with "Ya" and another word ending in "ll," one is eliding "You" to its initial consonant and tacking it in front of all. Thus: "Y'all".
posted by kavasa at 9:08 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Being publicly shamed for being infatuated with the wrong person is infinitely preferable to being murdered for being infatuated with the wrong person... and definitely a step up from going to prison for it. Which is sort of where the black guy fell on this spectrum.

More to the point, social justice cannot come without actual justice... and unfortunately, these things cannot be addressed at the same time in the same ways. Once it stops being a crime for a black man to have an affair with a white woman, then it comes to pass where people believe there's nothing wrong with a woman wanting an affair with a black man... but it will take time for this to sink in and take hold.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:08 AM on August 10, 2009


It's about where the apostrophe falls in the contraction and what letters it is supposed to replace.

Ya'll would be a contraction of two words, one starting with "ya" and the other ending with "ll". This is not correct.

In "y'all", the apostrophe takes the place of the "ou" in "you".
posted by hippybear at 9:14 AM on August 10, 2009


or, on non-preview, what kavasa said.
posted by hippybear at 9:15 AM on August 10, 2009


So a white Governor commuting the sentences of wrongly convicted blacks is nice and all, but the underlying problem of why innocent blacks were being wrongly convicted is still not being addressed.

Blacks are still being wrongly convicted in America all the time.
posted by The Straightener at 9:16 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Unless, perhaps, one is contracting "ya" and "all".
posted by Flunkie at 9:17 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Ya'll" is commonly still used to address a group or an individual, in the Deep South.

Oh God. Things wrong with that statement:

1. As nosilla astutely pointed out, "Y'all" is a contraction of "You all". "Ya'll" makes no sense.
2. "Y'all" is a still used to address a group in the Deep South. Not an individual. Why would you say "Hey Bob. You all come over here"? You wouldn't. We don't.
3. Your profile says you're from Texas, so . . . no. Just no.
posted by ND¢ at 9:19 AM on August 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


Finch, though partly based on Lee's father, is the ultimate strawman. Here we are, judging the action and inaction of a fictional character with regards to race and rape, set in a little Southern town seven decades back. The novel was set in the 1930s; exactly what kind of actions would we expect from someone back then, in a little town like that? Are we really to take him to task for not being politically correct according to the standards of New York, now? And in his role as a lawyer, which is hardly one where we can expect a friendly discourse, we expect friendly chat? Listen to this:
Given the situation, Finch designs his defense, Lubet says, "to exploit a virtual catalog of misconceptions and fallacies about rape, each one calculated to heighten mistrust of the female complainant."
Well, yeah. Mayella is to be mistrusted, and not just because the readers are fairly sure she's a liar. We feel sorry for her, but she's still looking for the next available victim. Everyone on the stand is to be mistrusted, because we're still working under "innocent until proven guilty," right? Or has that just been tossed aside, too?

Finch is taken to task, apparently, for not flying into a rage as he loses his case and Robinson is found guilty. And then for finding some rough justice in Ewell's death by excluding Boo from the official account of events, in a town where he knows no justice is available, he is judged as obstructing justice. That goes from merely misdirected to entirely wrong-headed. Most people today might consider the option of cooking up an accidental death, after the fact, for Ewell in those circumstanecs.

He's not a tireless campaigner for race relations; he's a lawyer in a little town. He's not saying "I have come to set you against one another" and to perform the miracle of transforming busted-up chiffarobes into homes in Habitat for Humanity.

Atticus Finch is not the Jesus The New Yorker is looking for.

I don't think this piece is about how Jim Crow liberalism and winning hearts and minds is a failing strategy; it's about the inability of Malcolm Gladwell to realize that societal shifts of any great magnitude are not instantaneous, and that holding fictitious characters of nearly a century past to a rigid code one could hardly expect from folks today is a trifle ridiculous.
posted by adipocere at 9:20 AM on August 10, 2009 [48 favorites]


A brief tangent, if I may:

A few years back, I had a colleague that was a real pill - passive/aggressive, manipulative, treacly sweet when it served her purposes and vicious as a rattlesnake when knifing someone in the back or when she was cornered in her lies. Over dinner one night with other colleagues, through a faux smile, she told me I reminded her of Boo Radley.

Without missing a beat, in unalloyed truth, I told her she reminded me of Nurse Ratched.

It will forever remain as one of those golden moments of dinner repartee in my life.

/tangent
posted by darkstar at 9:21 AM on August 10, 2009 [14 favorites]


"[Y'all"] is commonly still used to address a group or an individual, in the Deep South.

Since moving south of the Mason-Dixon line, I've grown comfortable with the former usage (e.g., to replace "you guys"), but not the latter.

on preview: what ND¢ said
posted by exogenous at 9:24 AM on August 10, 2009


Mmmmmmmm... hill of beans.
posted by elwoodwiles at 9:25 AM on August 10, 2009


'Twas shite on Arts & Letters Daily, 'tis shite now.
posted by Beardman at 9:25 AM on August 10, 2009


Can we stop with the SLMG stuff? He gets enough publicity as it is.
posted by tommasz at 9:33 AM on August 10, 2009


Y'all gather 'round from far and near,
Both city folk and rural,
And listen while I tell you this:
The pronoun y'all is plural.

If I should utter, "Y'all come down,
Or we-all shall be lonely,"
I mean at least a couple folks,
And not one person only.

If I should say to Hiram Jones,
"I think that y'all are lazy,"
Or "Will y'all let me use y'all's knife?"
He'd think that I was crazy.

Don't think I mean to criticize
Or that I'm full of gall,
But when we speak of one alone,
We all say "you," not "y'all."

-Anonymous
posted by katemonster at 9:34 AM on August 10, 2009 [27 favorites]


I wonder what Malcolm Gladwell would make of Sanctuary.
posted by thivaia at 9:34 AM on August 10, 2009


First of all, "To Kill a Mockingbird" has been so damn over-analyzed, that I initially overlooked this article. I could make arguments that it supports self-determination, nihilism, or sado-masochism (and I'm pretty sure that each of those has been done a dozen times throughout the entire university system).

But, I've heard "y'all" used to mean just one person. I've always understood it in a "royal we" sort of way. "How are y'all doin'?" I've also heard the term "all y'all" used to definitively indicate more than one person. This is in Tennessee.
posted by jabberjaw at 9:36 AM on August 10, 2009


But, I've heard "y'all" used to mean just one person. I've always understood it in a "royal we" sort of way. "How are y'all doin'?" I've also heard the term "all y'all" used to definitively indicate more than one person. This is in Tennessee.

I would say it's probably being used to mean more than one person and you don't realize it. "y'all" can mean something like "you and yours." Thus, if I see my friend and say "How are y'all doing?", it might mean "How are you and your wife doing?" Or maybe "How are you and your friends doing?" Or I might use y'all when talking to someone at a business. In that case "y'all" = "the multiple people representing this establishment."

Similarly, "all y'all" means "every one of you (plural)." Anytime someone who doesn't use "y'all" might say "all of you," then "all y'all" would be appropriate.

</tangent>
posted by stopgap at 9:43 AM on August 10, 2009 [12 favorites]


If only every MeFi thread had a Grammar Derail talk page.....
posted by Afroblanco at 9:45 AM on August 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


The y'all/ya'll thing galled me when I read the article last week. I can barely deal with that typo coming from folks back home who regularly make typographical mistakes, but from the goddamn New Yorker—well, bless their hearts, it makes them look careless because they can't claim ignorance.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:48 AM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


But, I've heard "y'all" used to mean just one person. I've always understood it in a "royal we" sort of way. "How are y'all doin'?" I've also heard the term "all y'all" used to definitively indicate more than one person. This is in Tennessee.

I've heard the same usages in Tennessee.
posted by blucevalo at 9:48 AM on August 10, 2009


I think it's usually a good measure of how interesting the putative topic really is. Everything must be weighed against beans.
posted by fleacircus at 9:49 AM on August 10, 2009


I don't think this piece is about how Jim Crow liberalism and winning hearts and minds is a failing strategy; it's about the inability of Malcolm Gladwell to realize that societal shifts of any great magnitude are not instantaneous, and that holding fictitious characters of nearly a century past to a rigid code one could hardly expect from folks today is a trifle ridiculous.

Hmm. Yes, it would be unreasonable to expect a 1930s small-town Alabama lawyer to demonstrate a 2009 perspective on racism. And I think Malcolm Gladwell has made some really silly criticisms of Atticus Finch — he doesn't care about the law because he didn't act angry at the guilty verdict?! Atticus Finch was a self-controlled, disciplined man who never took of his coat or loosened his tie until it was time to get ready for bed at night and practically never speaks sharply to anyone. Good grief, he may very well be VERY angry, but just not be the kind to show it.

I don't like Malcolm Gladwell's work in general. It's shoddy, third-rate, obvious truisms posing as legitimate analysis and social critique and I generally am left with the sense that I wasted my time by reading it. But this is almost a good piece. I think there's value in pointing out the flaws in old-style social liberalism as demonstrated by To Kill a Mockingbird, and even that Malcolm Gladwell did some solid research and drew some apt and clever parallels between his real life and fictional examples. Where he erred is in stretching too far to make his case and in failing to make it clear (or perhaps not even realizing) that interpreting a classic in a new light is not tantamount to a call to condemn it.
posted by orange swan at 9:52 AM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Being publicly shamed for being infatuated with the wrong person is infinitely preferable to being murdered for being infatuated with the wrong person... and definitely a step up from going to prison for it. Which is sort of where the black guy fell on this spectrum.

What are you arguing, exactly? I get the feeling you're suggesting that racism in the South was somehow separate or "worse" than its sexism because a woman didn't get sentenced and a man did, and that Tom's harsh sentence in the face of countervailing legal evidence had nothing to do with the fact that he was on trial for raping a white woman. Correct me if I'm wrong, and I'll let this thread unravel in a windfall of y'alls.
posted by zoomorphic at 9:55 AM on August 10, 2009


The article is pretty meh, but I'm very happy to see notes here on the correct usalge of y'all, because it bugs me consistantly when people get that wrong.

Can we be said to be overthinking a bowl of grits here? Because it's awesome.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 9:59 AM on August 10, 2009


2. "Y'all" is a still used to address a group in the Deep South. Not an individual. Why would you say "Hey Bob. You all come over here"? You wouldn't. We don't.

That dog won't hunt.

If I met you, individually, walking down the street, I might still say "We're fixinta cook out tonight. Why don't y'all come over?" You would correctly understand that the "y'all" in my statement refers to your household.

Or, conceivably, I might say instead "Why don't all y'all come over?" In which case I am telling you that I understand that you are in the midst of a family reunion and I am inviting your entire extended family, down to third cousins eight times removed, their dates, and any hound dogs as might desire to attend.

In this case, "Y'all come" is easily understood to refer not just to the listener but to his or her kin.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:59 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can barely deal with that typo coming from folks back home who regularly make typographical mistakes, but from the goddamn New Yorker—well, bless their hearts, it makes them look careless because they can't claim ignorance.

You're lucky they didn't spell it yäll.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:01 AM on August 10, 2009 [6 favorites]


"Y'all" is a still used to address a group in the Deep South. Not an individual. Why would you say "Hey Bob. You all come over here"? You wouldn't. We don't.

People Sometimes Say Dumb Things, Film @ 11

I have lived in (southern) Missouri. That's not exactly the Deep South, but it's on the edge. And lot of people who are from the Deep South have moved there. I had one teacher with an accent so thick I literally could not understand a single word she was saying for the first 6 weeks I lived there.

Many of these people say "y'all" to or about an individual. The "royal we" explanation is exactly right and usage varies by region. (I don't think I ever heard my Georgian, beautifully-accented teacher say y'all that way, but I'm pretty sure my Arkansan one did.)
posted by DU at 10:02 AM on August 10, 2009


I don't often care for Malcolm Gladwell, but this essay is good. To Kill A Mockingbird is a great story and an important book, but it is far from anti-racist.

I think that the book is very much a reflection of our society, and it therefore makes sense that Gladwell would draw the comparison to Folsom. It really demonstrates the feel-good, white liberal racism that continues to mark American society and the fact that it is such a beloved book only adds to that. It makes people feel good to read about a normal guy courageously saving the day against the Racist System.

But it's a morality tale that lifts up the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" dynamic and promotes an ideal society that is colorblind, assimilationist, and ultimately white-centered. The characters of color are one-dimensional and simple, as compared to their white counterparts, who, except for the poor ones, are complex. And it sure is a good thing that Atticus Finch - and other benevolent white people - can swoop right in there like a white knight and save Tom Robinson.

Finch wants his white, male jurors to do the right thing. But as a good Jim Crow liberal he dare not challenge the foundations of their privilege. Instead, Finch does what lawyers for black men did in those days. He encourages them to swap one of their prejudices for another.

This.
posted by lunit at 10:04 AM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


If anything could be used as a textbook illustration of the fallacy of anachronism, this Malcolm Gladwell piece would be it.
posted by blucevalo at 10:05 AM on August 10, 2009


2. "Y'all" is a still used to address a group in the Deep South. Not an individual. Why would you say "Hey Bob. You all come over here"? You wouldn't. We don't.

I'm in Texas and I hear y'all used as a singular pronoun all the time.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:08 AM on August 10, 2009


Yeah, and?
posted by Liver at 10:09 AM on August 10, 2009


Another odd piece by Malcolm Gladwell, with a very odd conclusion:

A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism in Maycomb, Alabama.

Many readers of To Kill a Mockingbird would say that it is a great book precisely because it is grounded in a particular time and place. But that won't do for Gladwell, who seems to believe that the purpose of a novel is to 'instruct' you in the universal laws of 'the world'.

I look forward to Gladwell's essays on War and Peace ('A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the aristocratic conventions of nineteenth-century Russia') and Ulysses ('A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about a day in the life of Leopold Bloom').
posted by verstegan at 10:11 AM on August 10, 2009 [13 favorites]


Yes, it would be unreasonable to expect a 1930s small-town Alabama lawyer to demonstrate a 2009 white perspective on racism.

FTFY - I'm pretty sure Not Being Racist was an attitude most black people had in the 1930s, too.

And while that's certainly true, it would not necessarily be unreasonable to expect a 1960s author writing about race to not resort to racial stereotypes. It's important to consider cultural context when you talk about literature, but when will it be reasonable to hold our "classic" literature accountable for its racism? To Kill A Mockingbird is still taught in schools without much critical depth.
posted by lunit at 10:12 AM on August 10, 2009


I've lived in Tennessee all my life. Y'all is second person plural, period, end of story. If someone asks an individual "How are y'all doin'?", he is asking "How are you and your family doing?" The only time I've heard anyone use y'all in the singular is in movies written by non-Southerners.
posted by vibrotronica at 10:14 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Ya'll" is commonly still used to address a group or an individual, in the Deep South.

No, it doesn't. It is plural, only, always. Only ignorant Yankees use it otherwise when sloppily feigning a "Southern" accent.

But, I've heard "y'all" used to mean just one person. I've always understood it in a "royal we" sort of way. "How are y'all doin'?" I've also heard the term "all y'all" used to definitively indicate more than one person. This is in Tennessee.

I've heard the same usages in Tennessee.


"How y'all doin'" is a question about the individual and his/her family. "All y'all" refers to all of you, excluding none of the group whereas a simple y'all could refer to a few individuals within the group. "Fuck all y'all" means fuck every one of you not just the couple of people currently pissing the speaker off. Also, this Tennessee you speak of is a) not the Deep South and b) full of Michiganders who came down following the auto industry and now try to feign a southern persona, so fuck all y'all.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:15 AM on August 10, 2009 [8 favorites]


Always good to read about To Kill a Mockingbird.

I very recently made a comment that referred to Tom Robinson.
posted by flarbuse at 10:15 AM on August 10, 2009


Yeah, and?

Y'and a few limits would do liberalism a lot of good.
posted by Hovercraft Eel at 10:18 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hmmm. Where was I the last time I heard of Atticus Finch representing the limits of paternalistic Southern liberalism? Oh yeah, in 7th grade English class.

Big Jim Folsom's grand-daughter is named "Bama". She's a sweetheart. We were on a swim team together when I was in middle school. She's now a doctor and advocate for autism research. We drove her to distraction teasing her about the time her drunk grand-daddy pissed on the White House lawn during a governors' conference.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:23 AM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


I've lived in the South for 20+ yrs. I've heard "y'all" as a singular plenty of times. Get over it.
posted by grubi at 10:24 AM on August 10, 2009 [5 favorites]


Getting pretty sick of y'all.
posted by Mister_A at 10:26 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure Not Being Racist was an attitude most black people had in the 1930s, too.

Again, there is a lot more to racism than black and white. If Not Being Racist was such a feature of most black people in the 30's, why did they sell so much skin bleach and hair straightener in those days? Ever heard of Kongolene? It was a lye based substance used by black women to make their hair more like white women's hair. You've go to hate yourself pretty badly to willingly put lye on your head.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:34 AM on August 10, 2009


Many readers of To Kill a Mockingbird would say that it is a great book precisely because it is grounded in a particular time and place.

exactly - if atticus had acted in the way gladwell wanted him to, the story wouldn't have been believable - it's the limitations on his willingness to defy the town's social order that make it a complex and great book
posted by pyramid termite at 10:36 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wikipedia's entry on y'all

H.L. Mencken presented the argument over whether y'all or you-all cannot have a primarily singular reference, saying that the idea that it cannot
...is a cardinal article of faith in the South. ... Nevertheless, it has been questioned very often, and with a considerable showing of evidence. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, to be sure, you-all indicates a plural, implicit if not explicit, and thus means, when addressed to a single person, 'you and your folks' or the like, but the hundredth time it is impossible to discover any such extension of meaning.

posted by DU at 10:37 AM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Many readers of To Kill a Mockingbird would say that it is a great book precisely because it is grounded in a particular time and place. But that won't do for Gladwell, who seems to believe that the purpose of a novel is to 'instruct' you in the universal laws of 'the world'.

I don't think this piece is about how Jim Crow liberalism and winning hearts and minds is a failing strategy; it's about the inability of Malcolm Gladwell to realize that societal shifts of any great magnitude are not instantaneous, and that holding fictitious characters of nearly a century past to a rigid code one could hardly expect from folks today is a trifle ridiculous.


I wouldn't disagree with the points made about fictional characters and authorial intent. But I think you're missing most of the point of the Gladwell essay if you're focused on that. It's not the book itself that he's critiquing, but our continued willingness to hold Atticus Finch up as an ideal of honor and individual courage, when he was not. His actions were entirely situational and, as others have noted, calculated to challenge specific symptoms of racism without challenging the social construct it took place in. His actions make sense in the world of the book - but should we still be looking only at his actions, and only at him as an ideal of honor, when we read and teach this book? Do the lessons about racism, classism, and sex in the book still apply to our contemporary world? Is Atticus Finch the example we'd like people to follow in their legal or personal dealings with racially charged disputes?

The difficulty isn't that the book does/does not accurately depict racial and class politics of its time. It's that we still have the urge to see (and teach) Finch as a hero, and not see and teach him as a person in a specific context - the Jim Crow, institutionally segregated, violent and largely pre-industrialized South. If we are looking for an ideal of virtue in literature, Gladwell is arguing, Finch is not it. He's a situational ethicist, trading one set of evils for another to advance a specific agenda. Is it wrong that people like him did that? Not necessarily. Is it a proof that racism wasn't in action in his society? Not at all - the story is not one of direct challenge to institutional racism and embedded prejudice in the justice system.

I do see a problem with the idea that it would be anachronistic to depict such a direct challenge to the system. That's because it is incorrect. Opposition to institutionalized racism and social segregation was taking place at that time, in a big way, with both black and white activists at the fore. The NAACP and the American Communist Party, among many other groups, waged direct anti-racism and anti-lynching campaigns that challenged legal segregation and legal bias. They filed cases arguing that blacks and whites should have equal access to WPA programs. They counter-protested the Ku Klux Klan and fought the establishment of sundown statutes.

So, in a way, when we defend Atticus Finch by saying "gee, what else could we have done?" we accept the idea that his time and place were total determinants of the range of his action. They weren't. He was willing to act in a specific, constrained way to challenge isolated incidence of racial injustice - just as Folsom was, which is why Gladwell's analogy is apt. Defending one black defendant is not the same as overturning the criteria for convictions in rape cases. Pardoning individual blacks who may have been wrongly convicted is not the same as addressing systemic bias in the application of the death penalty. That's Gladwell's point, and he's right that it's really not often addressed in the public conversation about this book, which seeks to hold Finch up as a moral example. Gladwell is suggesting that his moral example is good, but ultimately, it was not Atticus Finch, or Folsom, solutions that eventually brought increased racial justice to America. It took more direct, more courageous, and more radical action than either of those characters, or any of their corollaries real or fictional, evinced.
posted by Miko at 10:40 AM on August 10, 2009 [39 favorites]


Big Jim Folsom's grand-daughter is named "Bama". She's a sweetheart. We were on a swim team together when I was in middle school.

I've got one up on the Alabama-white-paternalism+middle-school-irony food chain. I read TKaM in middle school in class with the Bear's granddaughter. We did not tease her about anything, rather viewed her as one would view the bloodline of a the Divine on earth.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:43 AM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


That essay was crap. But in general, I can't stand Malcolm Gladwell's writing. He often depicts his own ideas and theories as facts rather than opinions, and he often uses correlative data to make causative arguments.
posted by emd3737 at 10:45 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


My problem with the "it's racist" interpretation of To Kill a Mockingbird is that it requires the book to be something it clearly isn't. To Kill a Mockingbird is a tragedy. Tom Robinson gets a guilty sentence. Atticus fails. That's not presented as an "oh well that's life" moment but as a deeply horrible occurrence. For an "it's racist" interpretation to make any kind of sense the ending would have either to be "White Knight Atticus Finch saves the day" and Tom Robinson would get acquitted or that Tom Robinson would get sentenced to jail and Atticus and Scooter would be all whatevs. But they're not, they're horrified and depressed about it. That's where the power of the book comes from.

It would make a lot more sense to me if To Kill a Mockingbird were to be read as a critique of paternalistic Southern liberalism.
posted by Kattullus at 10:47 AM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Well put, Miko.

That essay was crap.

Be careful, emd3737, somebody might turn you into a MetaTalk thread. Suggestion.
posted by billysumday at 10:49 AM on August 10, 2009


I married into a rural Alabama family, and they only rarely use "y'all," since they saw that as improper English spoken by the poor, uneducated whites of the area.

But they still talk Southern. My wife went to an Ivy League school and had lost most of her Southern accent by the time I'd met her. The fall after we were married, she was watching an Auburn football game (her family is an Auburn family) while I was working on something in the kitchen. All a sudden, there's this noise from the room -- this woman in this Bama accent yelling at the TV:

"GIT THAT BOY!!! GIT'IM GIT'IM GIT'IM!!!"

And I go running in the other room, and here's this woman I thought I'd married hooting and hollering at Auburn for not tackling the other team's ball carrier.

"WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?" I say.

"What?"

"The whole GIT'IM thing?"

She looks at me and says, with this total Northern matter-of-factness, "Well, it's just something we say down South."

You can take someone out of the South. You can move them to the most cosmopolitan cities, give them the most meet and right education, employ them with companies with a global perspective, and give them domiciles in the most liberal, tolerant, and international neighborhoods, but if their football team's defense can't tackle the running back, they're going to yell "GIT'IM" and there's nothing you can do about it.
posted by dw at 10:50 AM on August 10, 2009 [17 favorites]


So, on "y'all" being singular? It's a Texas thing.
posted by dw at 10:51 AM on August 10, 2009


RE y'all:

I grew up in a rural, farming family in Georgia. I debate this point with my Dad all the time. He emphatically insists that y'all can only be used to refer explicitly to two or more people. It irritates him mightily when he hears it used otherwise. He's welcome to the view, but he's not entirely correct.

From my own experience as a native Southerner - and as a formally trained, published sociolinguist with significant fieldwork researching vernacular usage - I can state emphatically that y'all is not, in practice, limited to the second-person-plural in the South.

As others have mentioned above, it can be used to refer also to the implicit inclusion of friends, household or kin, even when they are not present. I have also observed it used in a formulaic greeting "How y'all doing?" or parting "Y'all come back soon!" when the plural isn't necessarily implied, but the cultural value of Southern conviviality and inclusiveness defines the larger context of the pragmatics of the greeting/parting or to emphasize the shared ethnolinguistic identity of the interlocutors.

In other words, language is a beautiful, flexible and complex thing. Even in the South.

/linguistics derail
posted by darkstar at 10:52 AM on August 10, 2009 [11 favorites]


Just favoriting Miko, here. Yes, Gladwell is overexposed, I often find him cloying, but I think this is a nice piece of criticism...not literary criticism, but social criticism. I don't think he's challenging any of the beauty or craft of the book, but our unquestioning acceptance of Finch as a heroic fighter of racism.
posted by emjaybee at 10:54 AM on August 10, 2009


A long time ago, I worked at the Pentagon answering telephones for one of the better-known Army generals. As a result, I had a unique opportunity to see what the 'in' crowd did, what they read, and how they interacted.

One of the interesting things was that at that time, you couldn't really carry on a conversation with an officer over say, O-3 (that's a lieutenant in the Navy, a captain in The Lesser Services) unless you had read the latest Tom Clancy book. You didn't necessarily have to like Clancy; you just had to have read him. This was not due to any particular talent of Mr. Clancy's (though he's a remarkable self-promoter and pretty exhaustively familiar with the weapons of war for a retired insurance salesman); he just happened to be writing contemporary war novels when we became involved in a contemporary war.

Mister Gladwell strikes me as the Tom Clancy of the middle-to-upper corporate management set: it is not necessary to like or even believe him; you just need to have read him to have any street cred. As before, this is not due to any particular talent of Mr. Gladwell's; he just happens to be writing about how to be a business samurai when everyone wants to get their own sword.
posted by Pragmatica at 10:59 AM on August 10, 2009 [11 favorites]


Whoops! My previous comment was of the unhelpful and snarky type. I didn't like the essay, but I am biased because I dislike most of Gladwell's writing. I did recently re-read TKAM and watched the movie, and Gladwell is right in that Finch himself is no ideal hero. It's still a great story, though.
posted by emd3737 at 11:04 AM on August 10, 2009


It has become really trendy to harsh on Gladwell, which is funny, because when I started on MeFi he was totally the rage and everyone thought he was a genius.
posted by Miko at 11:06 AM on August 10, 2009 [5 favorites]


Oh, god. I just came back to visit this thread, which I apparently derailed. Sorry, y'all.
posted by nosila at 11:07 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


...and my last comment too sounds unnecessarily snarky on reread. No offense to anyone who likes/dislikes Gladwell...it's just interesting to watch a writer's star rise and fall in the course of five-six years like that. It had been on my mind from other threads.
posted by Miko at 11:09 AM on August 10, 2009


Gladwell makes an accurate point, but I'm not convinced that it's quite the take-down he may believe it to be.

As he says at the end, the book tells us about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism in a particular time and place, and he implies that this does not constitute the "telling us about the world" which we've apparently come to believe is at least integral to the value of the novel. But this does tell us about the world, that's exactly what it does. The fact that Atticus Finch's tactics or sensibilities, or moral universe, may seem outdated and hopelessly insufficient does not make the narrative less faithful.

There's certainly nothing wrong with discussing the short-comings of Folsomism incarnated in the book; in fact, I think, part of the value of the story lies in its fidelity in depicting the world as Harper Lee saw it. No, it's not an unqualified victory of justice over racism. It's not a strident call for a re-ordering of the social cosmology. It's not a fantasy and it's not a lesson.
posted by clockzero at 11:10 AM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Right, but adding to that, I think the take-down Gladwell's trying to ration out is not a take-down of the book, but of the prevalence of readings of the book that don't include those observations.
posted by Miko at 11:14 AM on August 10, 2009


So to summarize, if some of y'all came down to New Orleans and were asked on the street "Where y'at?" your heads would explode.
posted by gordie at 11:15 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


It has become really trendy to harsh on Gladwell

True, in the same way it's been trendy to crush on Gladwell in the past few years. I own each of his books, and he only really lost me with the last one. As I read his work, I find myself wondering more and more if he is not simply a victim of his own hype (and believe it or not, I don't mean that unkindly). He's made a name for himself pointing out things that other people don't notice, and it seems as though he's come down to pointing out things that may or may not actually be there in order to keep riding the wave, as it were.

Or maybe it's just that I feel he's a bit too condescending. Either way, you're probably right- the article, after all, isn't about Gladwell.

As it happens, I disagree with him about Mr. Finch (surprise, surprise). It's all well and good to go activist and whatnot, but there's a lot to be said for dealing with the Man in the Mirror first.
posted by Pragmatica at 11:17 AM on August 10, 2009


he's come down to pointing out things that may or may not actually be there

Yeah, a viable charge.
posted by Miko at 11:23 AM on August 10, 2009


I think you're being overly-generous, Miko. He talks largely about the book itself and doesn't really address how it's taught. It would be a much stronger argument if that were what he's saying, and that's really the valuable point here, but I think Gladwell himself rather missed it and ends up faulting the book itself for putative disappointment.
posted by clockzero at 11:23 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


His response is to adopt one set of standards for respectable whites like Boo Radley and another for white trash like Bob Ewell. A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism in Maycomb, Alabama.

Is that a limitation or just common sense? Shouldn't one discriminate against a family in which the father rapes the daughter (Maybe multiple daughters?) and in which one of the daughters seduces a black man and then falsely accuses him of rape?

Would you want to live next door to them?

This is not to equate all poor white people with poor white trash at all. But isn't it the poor white trash who continue to hate all minorities, to hate all immigrants, to fund and populate evangelical churches and claim that this is a Christian nation, etc. Why shouldn't I discriminate against them?
posted by cjets at 11:28 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


It has become really trendy to harsh on Gladwell

Yeah, it's amazing how once something becomes trendy, it becomes even more trendy to hate it.

I think Gladwell can be frustrating because he has this annoying tendency to torture his evidence. Like he plans out his book in advance, and he's like "I'm going to make X point, and I'm going to use A, B, and C for my supporting evidence." Then he goes off and does his research, eventually finding out that although A and B support his thesis, C only kinda supports his thesis. But instead of discarding C, he puts some spin on it and tries to shoehorn it in. It gives off the impression that even though C doesn't support his thesis, he doesn't want all that research to have been for nothing.

I still like his books though, because they put interesting ideas into my head that wouldn't be there otherwise. I don't accept everything he says as gospel; I have my own rational mind that can think critically about new ideas. I don't try to see him as some sort of objective god of reasoning, so perhaps that's why I don't get the trendy hatefest.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:29 AM on August 10, 2009


Yeah, I see your point, clockzero. I am probably taking it as implicit, but what pointed me in that direction was how he brings in the scholar Lubet's ideas about the character, and how the whole piece draws on the book's evidence to recontextualize the character. He doesn't directly address the teaching and reading of the book, you're right. But I am taking the effort at contextualizing the character by comparing him to a real figure and showing the narrowness of his chosen battle as an effort to ask readers to reconsider this - to change the reader's estimation from "a book that we thought instructed us about the world," which is certainly the way it was taught to me, to a book "about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism." In that sense, I think he's closely examining Harper Lee's writing so that we can see it again and ask ourselves as readers "given this narrative, where is the element of heroism located?"
posted by Miko at 11:33 AM on August 10, 2009


Gladwell is still capable of writing great articles (I really loved his article about playing by the rules as written vs. playing by the unwritten rules) but he's, ironically, become a victim of overconfidence. The man needs an editor who'll yell at him.

clockzero: No, it's not an unqualified victory of justice over racism.

In fact it's everything but. Atticus loses the case.

Shameful disclosure: It's been a long time since I read the book, as evidenced by the fact that in my comment above I called Scout Scooter. Ooph...
posted by Kattullus at 11:34 AM on August 10, 2009


Atticus and Scooter would be all whatevs

Atticus and Scout. I love the Muppets and I love To Kill a Mockingbird, but let's keep them separated.
posted by orange swan at 11:40 AM on August 10, 2009


Arghhh, missed that you'd corrected yourself, Kattallus.

And yes, one of the worst things that can happen to a writer is to become so much in demand that he or she can get away with not being edited.
posted by orange swan at 11:42 AM on August 10, 2009


Don't worry, Kattulus; nobody noticed when I said "from the 1950s" despite the book's 1960 publication date.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:43 AM on August 10, 2009


I thought the essay was an interesting if flawed look at the character.
posted by graventy at 11:46 AM on August 10, 2009


No offense to anyone who likes/dislikes Gladwell...it's just interesting to watch a writer's star rise and fall in the course of five-six years like that. It had been on my mind from other threads.
posted by Miko


I stopped freelance writing maybe 3 years ago, but towards the end I figured out that saying something like "I plan on channeling Malcolm Gladwell here" in a pitch just about always sold it. Which I was fine with at the time, but am really bothered by, looking back.
posted by COBRA! at 11:47 AM on August 10, 2009


What an awful essay. How dare Harper Lee stygmatize a father who rapes his daughter as "white trash." What?

This belongs right up there with the essay aboutBonnie and Clyde as an allegory for modern liberalism nonsense posted last week.
posted by tkchrist at 11:57 AM on August 10, 2009


I guess there's clear evidence of the singular y'all in Texas, but I've lived all over the state, and I only know one person who used it, and his use always stood out to me as wrong. I assumed he came from elsewhere and didn't understand that it was plural. As a native Texan who has Texan English as his first language, I would never use y'all to mean just one person. And I still say things like "use'ta'could."

Apparently I missed out on this usage. Now I want someone to map out exactly where the singular y'all is strong.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:02 PM on August 10, 2009


"GIT THAT BOY!!! GIT'IM GIT'IM GIT'IM!!!"

i happened to be in Knoxville one Saturday in fall a few years back, in a cozy little room with about 100,000 people in orange and a handfull of us in red. The score was something like 7000-3 (it was hard to keep up after the bourbon and the whop-ass we brought up from Tuscaloosa).

After yet another sad kick by the Vols, a young Crimson-clad lad broke free from the pack to return the ball all the way to the home team's inzone. He was fast and large, and alone save for the puny, emaciated eastern european exchange student pulled from the soccer team to perform the occasional Tennessee toe-punt. The stadium fell absolutely silent knowing the inevitable as the unstoppable force met this quite movable object, except for one guy, way down in front in a full-body day-glow jump-suit who stood up on his chair and in a voice heard over the whole place shouted "STICK HIM IN THE BUTT!!"

Rather than the expected "awwww" when the Tide player blew over the slav like a Soviet tank the crowd erupted in laughter.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:12 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Pardoning individual blacks who may have been wrongly convicted is not the same as addressing systemic bias in the application of the death penalty.

When did we overcome this bias? Can someone tell me exactly when the era of racially colorblind justice began, and who was responsible for it?
posted by The Straightener at 12:34 PM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Pollomacho: . . . inzone . . .

Aww, your accent is showing.
posted by stopgap at 12:36 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


"inzone"?
posted by Sys Rq at 12:37 PM on August 10, 2009


The Straightener, I think you're being deliberately obtuse here. Affirmative action and the Civil Rights Act addressed and continues to addresses systemic racial bias in our society. That doesn't mean those policies have fixed everything, it simply means that policies which tackle systemic bias head on is preferable to relying on some nice and courteous white man to grant rights to a few fortunate blacks. Everyone else seems to get that that is what Gladwell is saying, and Miko addressed it well in her post.
posted by billysumday at 12:40 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow, I didn't even notice I did that. Is there such a thing as a freudian typing slip?
posted by Pollomacho at 12:40 PM on August 10, 2009


All y'all are in my inzone.
posted by rainbaby at 12:41 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Straightener, I think you're being deliberately obtuse here.

Obviously.

That doesn't mean those policies have fixed everything...

That's clear to anyone who works in the criminal justice system.

...it simply means that policies which tackle systemic bias head on is preferable to relying on some nice and courteous white man to grant rights to a few fortunate blacks.

That's great, thank God Gladwell was able to take a break from his busy schedule of direction action social justice work to write this article.
posted by The Straightener at 12:59 PM on August 10, 2009


There is a comparison here. On the one hand, a benevolent but all-powerful white ruler who gets to decide which darkies are to be hanged and which are free to go depending on the ruler's daily whims or fluctuating morality. On the other hand, improvements to the legal system with certain protections for all people, changes to an imperfect system, acknowledgment of institutional bias. Gladwell throws his lot in with the latter while you say "what's wrong with the former?"
posted by billysumday at 1:06 PM on August 10, 2009


I had a friend who told me years ago that she hated TKAM because of the way Atticus went after the rape victim's credibility. So I went back and re-read it and saw what she meant. Gladwell has it right, there's a lot of evidence against the accused and the only things Finch raises in defense is a theory so pathetically stupid that it could be undermined by pointing out the existence of a backhand, something most grade-school readers should be able to figure out. But we didn't. Because the book is manipulative and we are told that the accused is innocent, the woman is lying, that Finch is on the side of justice, etc. As such, this whole right-side right-hand defense seems like a winner to the kids who read it, thinking that surely this will stand for justice, etc.

Lacking any real defenses, Finch impugns the victim's reputation and smears by implication (the eugenics overtones I do remember being appalled by at the time). She's poor white trash, she has too many kids, etc. Today, we would be appalled by a defense attorney that went down this route.

Perhaps this is why Truman Capote let Harper Lee put her name on it - he was too embarrassed by the hamfisted heavy-handedness, combined with the classist undertones. I kid.
posted by allen.spaulding at 1:11 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm sorry, Billy, I think I've lost you and will stop because it's not important. However, it is important for me to point out that not only do I not think what you say I think, I wouldn't use the word "darkies" in any context, whatsoever.
posted by The Straightener at 1:17 PM on August 10, 2009


Is it not possible that Gladwell went from cool to trashed because he ran out of ideas or at least started producing shoddier work. My sense has been that he's stretched the rubber band real thin and keeps stretching it, feels a need to say Fresh Things without as much regard as he might have for depth, substance and thoughts that hold water.
posted by ambient2 at 1:19 PM on August 10, 2009


The Straightener - That's great, thank God Gladwell was able to take a break from his busy schedule of direction action social justice work to write this article.

Did the man run over your dog or something? All the people in here piling on the Gladwell hatred, I'm just curious - if this piece had been bylined "Glen Malwell", how many of you would still be here posting these responses?
posted by crayz at 1:23 PM on August 10, 2009


That's great, thank God Gladwell was able to take a break from his busy schedule of direction action social justice work to write this article.

Yes, because people reading it just might be prodded rethink some of their assumptions about what anti-racism looks like, and do a better job on their future activism.

It's hard for me to see a downside to someone writing about this. What's the alternative for a writer: not writing about the topic? Is that better?
posted by Miko at 1:23 PM on August 10, 2009


However, it is important for me to point out that not only do I not think what you say I think, I wouldn't use the word "darkies" in any context, whatsoever.

?? You just did, friend.

Anyway, I was just trying to rebut the comments you've made in this thread which seemed particularly dismissive of legislation recognizing institutional racial bias.
posted by billysumday at 1:23 PM on August 10, 2009


Perhaps this is why Truman Capote let Harper Lee put her name on it

've heard this theory time and again, but let me put in the 2 cents I got from her cousin and fellow Monroevillian, the father of one of my childhood friends: She and Truman went to the same schools growing up, had the same teachers. They hung out in the same homes. They opened presents together every holiday. They shared baths and pets and walks and swimming holes and ball games and every other experience that kids have growing up. Naturally they would have very, very similar perspectives, voices, and styles. He just happened to be a little better at putting it all together.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:27 PM on August 10, 2009


All the people in here piling on the Gladwell hatred, I'm just curious - if this piece had been bylined "Glen Malwell", how many of you would still be here posting these responses?

Obviously, I wouldn't have mentioned Gladwell. I'd still have disagreed. If the article was written by someone from whom I've noticed a trend of pontification, I'd have said much the same things.

I agree it's become trendy to be down on Gladwell. Mind you, that doesn't keep me from wrinkling my nose when I smell bullshit.
posted by Pragmatica at 1:33 PM on August 10, 2009


"Y'all" is a still used to address a group in the Deep South. Not an individual. Why would you say "Hey Bob. You all come over here"? You wouldn't. We don't.

In my experience, y'all is used when speaking to an individual if you are addressing that person as a representative of a group, but not when addressing them as a separate person.
posted by dilettante at 1:39 PM on August 10, 2009


Here is where the criticism of Finch begins, because the hearts-and-minds approach is about accommodation, not reform. At one point, Scout asks him if it is O.K. to hate Hitler. Finch answers, firmly, that it is not O.K. to hate anyone. Really? Not even Hitler?

Yes, really. Hatred is an emotional reaction to someone or something per se, and is fundamentally different than tolerating someone's actions or sanctioning someone's behavior. Hatred of Hitler is ultimately where hatred of Germans generally starts, because hatred is self-propagating. If you need an example of that, well...
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 1:41 PM on August 10, 2009


> Or we-all shall be lonely

us'ns
posted by jfuller at 1:41 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


So, on "y'all" being singular? It's a Texas thing.

Texas, hell. They won't be readmitted to the real south until they learn what animal goes on top of the fire.

It's been a long time since I read the book, as evidenced by the fact that in my comment above I called Scout Scooter.

You should have claimed in your defense that in the Icelandic translations she's Scooter.

Scooter Atticusdottir, fourth in this year's The World's Worst Name contest.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:47 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can't argue that Gladwell doesn't have a point here (although, as always, it's a much smaller one than he seems to think).

What I don't understand is how this article is at all timely or relevant.
This would make a kick-ass term paper for a 200s level Modern American Lit class 30 years ago. But an article in a 2009 issue of the New Yorker? Not so much..
posted by jeisme at 1:49 PM on August 10, 2009


You should have claimed in your defense that in the Icelandic translations she's Scooter.

In the Icelandic translation, instead of wearing a ham costume, she's dressed as a swan.
posted by dw at 1:49 PM on August 10, 2009


Gladwell's arguments aren't new. He refers to one law review article, but there are dozens stretching back decades. I was nearly expelled from a book club for raising this debate, because people aren't willing to question the goodness of Atticus Finch.

You can read the one article Gladwell referred to here.
posted by robcorr at 2:06 PM on August 10, 2009


I was under the impression that the class issues in the book was as central to the story as the racism. Scout isn't just wrestling with the stereotypes related to the colour of a person's skin, but the class issues. She was upper class and fighting her gender's expectations in the face of prodding from her aunt and housekeeper. Part of what Scout was learning was the limits and the strengths of the social place she was going to occupy.

Boo Radley was supposed to be a casualty of the strictures of class, because when he got up to youthful hijinks instead of sending him off to reform school (described as a good vocational education) like lower class boys his father confined him to the house, driving him insane.

There's a lot of other important little details about the class/race issue in the book, like Scout's discovery of the white man with a black wife. The only way the town can accept it is by believing he's an alcoholic and saving face leads the man to fake it with coke in a brown paper sack. We’re not supposed to dismiss Mayella as white trash, she’s a victim who latched onto the only love someone showed her. The trial was her father’s attempt to exploit the drama to get some sympathy, sacrificing his much abused daughter (who as a rape victim in this context was pretty much screwed socially even if Tom was found guilty) and Tom’s life to play martyr.
posted by Phalene at 2:25 PM on August 10, 2009 [6 favorites]


Today, we would be appalled by a defense attorney that went down this route.

No, today, it would still be the major defense strategy in any case like this. The only difference is that today the defense attorney has it leaked to Yahoo Sports.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 2:27 PM on August 10, 2009


ROU_Xenophobe: Scooter Atticusdottir, fourth in this year's The World's Worst Name contest.

Well, in Icelandic it would be Hlaupahjól Attikusardóttir, which would come in first.
posted by Kattullus at 2:38 PM on August 10, 2009


What's wrong with Atticus Finch's message that you can't judge somebody until you walk in their shoes? I think Gladwell's only legitimate criticism is that Finch fails to do so in the case of Mayella, reducing her to a stereotype rather than trying to understand her cultural context. But he wasn't her defense lawyer, so it's not obvious what he should have done in that situation. In terms of the categorical imperative, wouldn't peace and justice be just as well served if everybody followed Finch's advice? Maybe even more so than if everybody fought to change laws at the base of systemic racism? Because ultimately, aren't the systems in place, at root, problems of individual interactions? Just because you force integration at the political level, it's obvious that you can't change it at the individual one. Individual actions, e.g. the dignity with which Finch treats most people (and, due to his work obligations, unfortunately fails to do with Mayella) are the only real solution to the problem. That question seems to be over Gladwell's head, though. He's not a historian.

Let me put this another way: if you could change everybody on earth in one fundamental way, which would be better? To force everyone to work towards changing the laws at the base of our system of injustice, or to force everyone to treat each other with dignity and respect? Which is more likely to cure all of our social problems? I'd rather live in a country filled with Finch's than Chomsky's and Coulter's.
posted by one_bean at 2:40 PM on August 10, 2009 [7 favorites]


"Y'all" is a still used to address a group in the Deep South. Not an individual. Why would you say "Hey Bob. You all come over here"? You wouldn't. We don't.

I'm in Texas and I hear y'all used as a singular pronoun all the time.


I worked with an American chap for a while, and he thought it was cute that Aussies used "us" as a singular pronoun. eg. "give us a call" = "give me a call."

I had never realised, but he was indeed correct. I felt much shame.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 2:40 PM on August 10, 2009


So to summarize, if some of y'all came down to New Orleans and were asked on the street "Where y'at?" your heads would explode.

We would all start saying "Where y'all'at" I guess.
posted by nola at 2:41 PM on August 10, 2009


Y'all is often used as a singular in a "flirty" way. Can't explain it exactly. Maybe plausible deniability. Seems common in Gone with the Wind genre movies. "When are y'all coming over?" That's the only specific example I can think of but , properly or not, using it as a singular is not uncommon in areas of Mississippi and Louisiana.
posted by Carbolic at 2:43 PM on August 10, 2009


"Y'at" is "you at" not "y'all at" just ask a Yat!
posted by Carbolic at 2:46 PM on August 10, 2009


> I have also observed it used in a formulaic greeting "How y'all doing?" or parting "Y'all come
> back soon!" when the plural isn't necessarily implied, but the cultural value of Southern
> conviviality and inclusiveness defines the larger context of the pragmatics of the
> greeting/parting or to emphasize the shared ethnolinguistic identity of the interlocutors.

There is an even larger context, in which all the Southernisms to which we cling are fatally (from the point of view of an ethnologist out collecting samples) contaminated by awareness. Even the most authentic and unselfconscious deep-South native can sometimes be caught out, or will catch himself, playing a Southerner talking Southern in addition to simply being Southern.
posted by jfuller at 3:02 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, I would not say that "his time and place were total determinants of the range of his action." I can conceive of many, many actions Finch certainly could take. Better actions. Finer actions. Go ahead and list them. Then think about it, they are probably actions that a man with a couple of kids would stop and muse upon, then mumble, "There's a good chance that could get me kill't." Gladwell seems to think that folks make more of Finch than any fuss I could recollect.

This is why Finch is not Jesus. He's not going to die to save everyone. He's not a big message guy who will change the world, or a larger-than-life character. Think small and targic, not big and heroic. He's a guy in a little town where the lines are clearly drawn, who at the end of the day still needs to buy groceries and make sure his kids are safe, something we are reminded of at the end of the book, as Boo Radley is the one who saves them, not Finch.

I never saw Finch as a hero, nor was he presented that way to me in my class, or, for that matter, in any of the classes I've taken by proxy tutoring one child or another. Rather, I see him "only" as a father who knew where he was and, rather than blow everything for Righteousness (whatever that might be), he just tried to improve things a skosh, where and when he had the opportunity. Moral examples do not have to save the day or die for some noble deed where a statue will get built for them when the world recognizes their grand gesture. Moral examples can also be the people who, if we had enough of them, might make the world a little better. It's a more humble scope, but Finch fits in it well enough.

Lee wrote Atticus not as a savior, but as a man whose occasional moral graynesses amongst a steady, gentle pressure towards good causes seed a thousand little kindnesses which may take decades to bloom; that's good enough for me.
posted by adipocere at 3:06 PM on August 10, 2009 [14 favorites]


"Y'at" is "you at" not "y'all at" just ask a Yat!

And it's a question into your well-being, not your location. Took me an embarrassing year or so of "um, right here?" before I figured that one out.
posted by gordie at 4:38 PM on August 10, 2009


I usually don't read Gladwell anymore, prone as he is to gross oversimplification. so he found some connection to Jim Crow liberalism in a novel that was set in that period (duh!) and concludes that the novel tells us nothing about the world? What a grandiose dickhead.

I don't have a great love of TKAM, but I think it can be read many different ways. Sure, the novel supports simplistic interpretations - that is certainly part of the reason for its endurance. That doesn't mean everybody reads it that way.
posted by borges at 4:56 PM on August 10, 2009


Just because you force integration at the political level, it's obvious that you can't change it at the individual one.

But there's a really good historical argument that it does. It took forced integration at the political/legal level to make the personal range of choices wider. The Civil Rights Act desegregating public accomodations actually did, gradually, change what the majority of people felt, as individuals. The world didn't end, and it took political action on behalf of the human dignity folks were wishing for in order to force change among individuals who feared it would.

Now, if you could make it so that individuals actually treated one another with respect and dignity, then no, we might not need such laws or such direct, "righteous" actions. But we don't have the power to wave a wand and make everyone act that way. It doesn't happen all by itself, and it's not sufficient to let a few individuals do a few small things and call the world a better place because of it. That theory was actually what Jim Crow was made of - and it was insufficient to create equality under the law. Would it be great if it worked? Sure. But it's magical thinking to expect that that everyone will suddenly and simultaneously develop a personally disinterested enlightenment completely unrelated to their own worldview and life experience that would end all discrimination.

In short, legal action on equality is important so that we don't have to depend on the unforced and universal goodwill of others. That sand is way too shifty. With legal equality, it doesn't have to matter to me if you're enlightened or not. I'm still entitled to the same treatment under the law as you are. It protects people from the vicissitudes of humans and their malleable and primarily self-interested views.
posted by Miko at 5:08 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


All the people in here piling on the Gladwell hatred, I'm just curious - if this piece had been bylined "Glen Malwell", how many of you would still be here posting these responses?

If this piece had been bylined Glen Malwell, would it have gotten published in the New Yorker? I admit to a sneaking suspicion that the answer is yes, but that's mostly because as written it does play to regional prejudices about whose racism is worse and whose liberalism is better.

On the infinitely more important subject of the plurality of y'all, I don't know what part of Texas these single-person-y'all people come from, but it's not anywhere on the eastern side. My relatives and in-laws come from all over eastern and central Texas and none of them use y'all improperly.
posted by immlass at 5:13 PM on August 10, 2009


So, what Gladwell's saying is that Finch represents a kind of nobility that was not the kind that would one day advance the cause of civil rights. To some degree, the character is being condemned for representing an outdated form of parochial liberalism. I disagree with both points.

One problem is that Gladwell is looking purely at the civil rights movement, and the fate of liberals like Atticus and Folsom in the South. He is forgetting, however, that for the civil rights movement to succeed, it had to earn the sympathy of the general public. This subsequently allowed national politicians like JFK to sign groundbreaking legislation without fear of losing office. The general public consists of people who bought tickets for To Kill A Mockingbird, a big hit that won three Oscars. These are the people who had to be moved in order for the civil rights movement to succeed, and that was the kind of liberalism that moved them.

The other problem is that Gladwell is looking at the character of Atticus Finch through too narrow a lens. Did he represent the spirit that led the civil rights movement in the US? No, he did not. But was he an admirable character? Of course! There's more than one way to be a good person. The general viewing public probably has a lot more to gain from a character like that than, say, a character who is an exemplary revolutionary. And bringing this back to my first point, as an example for the general public, the character of Atticus Finch would have more impact on racism, too.
posted by Edgewise at 5:14 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


I don't know this Malcolm Gladwell person, but I do know this is a pretty weak essay. He doesn't seem to get the book, or he only read it once with a terrible teacher doing the lesson work to accompany it.
This book isn't about how to stop racism, it was not a political screed about how race relations should or should not be addressed with governmental policy. It was book about life. Life in a small town. It's about people. A world seen thru the eyes of a child learning about the world around her.
Yes Atticus is a hero, as much as any dad is a hero to their child at some point. He is not a superman or messiah, nor is he meant to be. He is a good man, who does the best he can with the resources he has. He raises his his children to the best of his ability trying to pass on his values to them. He treats everyone with respect and tries to get others to do the same.
posted by MrBobaFett at 5:33 PM on August 10, 2009


MetaFilter: interesting, if flawed.
posted by shoesfullofdust at 5:50 PM on August 10, 2009


I agree Adipocere, and indeed, I feel that even if Lee does hold Atticus up as a hero, is that such a bad thing?

These people in the novel - Boo, Atticus, Scout, are not heroes in the template of a Mandela or Ghandi, but less heroic shouldn't equate with not heroic.

As moral beings tangled up in a skein of social, cultural, familial pressures etc, we all make many small choices for better or for worse every day. Choices that can be only made in the context of those pressures; with those pressure shaping, giving precendence or even mitigating the most moral decision.

Charters like Atticus provide a role model that is more comparable with life as we know it - as we live it. Does this render them relativist at times, inconsistent or less moral? Certainly. But I can't help feel this only mirrors the conduct of ourselves as human beings.

By presenting someone who is prepared to fight - however lightly - for what they believe in, even if they don't sacrifice themselves or others on a pyre of their principles, even if they pull back in the face or their own melange of pressure, I feel that we are seeing an equally valid symbol or guide for living moral worth.

More importantly, I think we are seeing a more realistic template for living. One that we can strive to emulate ourselves - and surely that template in itself is challenging enough more most of us, without need of searching for further perfection?
posted by smoke at 5:51 PM on August 10, 2009


Well I hope Gladwell will remember
a southern man don't need him around
anyhow...
posted by spock at 5:54 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Personally, I always got along with Atticus. Nice guy.
posted by boo_radley at 6:35 PM on August 10, 2009 [5 favorites]


Tired, tired, tired, tired, tired of the New Yorker and almost everyone I know in this city bad-mouthing southern racism as a way to feel smug about themselves when there is racism lived out, lived in, on every street corner in this city everyday. Just plain tired of it.

I'm all for recognizing that systemic changes are a more immediate and lasting way to address racism, but lambasting figures like Atticus Finch undermines the very populace that has historically voted to make those changes. Sure such "quiet liberals" weren't lining up at the marches or picket lines, but they voted. And their votes helped do away with Jim Crow.

It may be hard to believe, but there are still Atticus Finch-like figures living in the south. They may be old now, like my grandparents, and yes they are still paternalistic sometimes, but they voted for Obama, and they are building Habitat Houses, and they are doing the every-day, banal work of living in a southern community where relationships between individuals can still transcend politics.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 6:43 PM on August 10, 2009 [8 favorites]


I'm going to be a modern jackass: I haven't read the book.

But if TKIM is, as Kattullus says, a tragedy, then Finch can't challenge Jim Crow on a basic level like a Communist or a member of NAACP would. That would be like Phaedra denouncing the gods who put her in her impossible situation as false: she can't, she's the granddaughter of the Sun.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:42 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here comes my daily service to humanity:

“Ya’ll come,” he would say to one and all...

No, he would not. Y'all is a contraction for you all.

/pet peeve


No, ya'll is a contraction of "ya" and "all". If you're going to transliterate regionalism, you may as well do it accurately. Or, rather, ya may's well do it acc'rately.

If you aren't transliterating it, but rather writing it "properly", then you should just write it "you all".

(I say this as somebody who says "ya'll", and spells it that way.)
posted by Netzapper at 7:49 PM on August 10, 2009


But it's magical thinking to expect that that everyone will suddenly and simultaneously develop a personally disinterested enlightenment completely unrelated to their own worldview and life experience that would end all discrimination.

But to expect that very same thing just because you changed the law is realistic? I won't continue to pretend I know that one or the other is true, but I also don't think this is a settled question. I do believe that teaching children to treat each other with respect, and hoping to serve as an example of the same, is a worthwhile thing. And that y'all's discussion here was better than Gladwell's ham-handed attempt at historical analysis.
posted by one_bean at 8:00 PM on August 10, 2009


Tired, tired, tired, tired, tired of the New Yorker and almost everyone I know in this city bad-mouthing southern racism as a way to feel smug about themselves when there is racism lived out, lived in, on every street corner in this city everyday. Just plain tired of it.

Ignoring the rest of your post, this has always been a pet peeve of mine. Yes, there is racism in the North. Do you know who is the most likely to take it seriously? Northern anti-racists. Yes, Southerners know of racism in the North. This is almost never used to attack racism everywhere, but to fend off critiques of the very real and very different problem of Southern racism. Of course there's racism in the North. Nobody ever denies this; it's just a ridiculous set up to begin with. So unless you're Morris Dees, pointing out racism up North in this manner is a terrible sleight to the very real problems that still exist manifest throughout the South.
posted by allen.spaulding at 8:51 PM on August 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'd rather live in a country filled with Finch's than Chomsky's and Coulter's.

If we lived in a country with all Finchs and no Chomskys there would still be slavery. As for the Coulters, the less said the better.
posted by afu at 8:55 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


If we lived in a country with all Finchs and no Chomskys there would still be slavery.

No, if we lived in a country with all Finchs there never would have been slavery to begin with. Think about it.
posted by one_bean at 8:58 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


No, if we lived in a country with all Finchs there never would have been slavery to begin with.

America wasn't born with a blank slate. There was slavery before the Constitution and our respect for rule of law. There was slavery until some people decided to stop it, recognizing the Constitution for what it was: a covenant with death and an agreement with hell. Those who played nice, like Atticus Finch well, they kept slavery alive. Sometimes you need to find your inner William Lloyd Garrison.
posted by allen.spaulding at 9:05 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ignoring the rest of your post, this has always been a pet peeve of mine. Yes, there is racism in the North. Do you know who is the most likely to take it seriously? Northern anti-racists. Yes, Southerners know of racism in the North. This is almost never used to attack racism everywhere, but to fend off critiques of the very real and very different problem of Southern racism. Of course there's racism in the North. Nobody ever denies this; it's just a ridiculous set up to begin with. So unless you're Morris Dees, pointing out racism up North in this manner is a terrible sleight to the very real problems that still exist manifest throughout the South.

Point taken, and I did not mean to imply that there isn't real racism left in the South, but that it is pandemic, everywhere, in every region of this country, though it sometimes feels (and granted, not a scientific assessment, mind you) as though the South gets criticized for its problems more than the rest of the country. Honestly, when I was growing up in the South, I thought that the North really was this bastion of tolerance. I'm not making this up. I was really hungry for some kind of ideal place, seeing as how awful the South's history is (which is what I knew in spades, at the time). Naivete falls hard.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 9:07 PM on August 10, 2009


as though the South gets criticized for its problems more than the rest of the country.

I think this is demonstrably true and is the source of a lot of resentment and the "but but the North" response that I criticized. The South ought to get more criticsim, but the North (and really, we're mostly talking the North-East and the Upper-Midwest here, not really West Virginia) is far from perfect. And any idealization of race relations in the North will be painfully discarded. I grew up in the North and there's little question that the South was used as a bogeyman in the same way "the past" is. Racism is a problem for another people or for another time. It's unfortunate and that teaching needs to change too. Yet I still get riled when I see people responding to criticism of the South this way. I now see that you weren't quite walking that line, so I'm sorry if I came across to strongly.
posted by allen.spaulding at 9:18 PM on August 10, 2009


I think I read, like, part of the book in school. It was very boring. The whole concept of the book seemed really boring to me.

On the other hand a country full of Chomskys sounds pretty interesting. The guy made major contributions to linguistics and computer science.
posted by delmoi at 9:19 PM on August 10, 2009


That's ok, Gladwell doesn't seem to have read the book either.
posted by borges at 9:27 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I knew a kid in school who thought the book was called "Tequila Mockingbird". If this is not already a cocktail, I feel that someone needs to invent it.
posted by dephlogisticated at 10:21 PM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


In the Icelandic translation, instead of wearing a ham costume, she's dressed as a swan.

in the icelandic translation, it's called "to kill a penguin"*

*yeah, i know there's no damn penguins in iceland - sue me
posted by pyramid termite at 10:48 PM on August 10, 2009


The Icelandic version is called To Kill a Puffin.*

Actually, it's never been translated. In the Scandinavian languages though the title has usually been translated as "Don't Kill a Songbird" which seems to me to spectacularly miss the point.


What? They're tasty!
posted by Kattullus at 4:08 AM on August 11, 2009


Those who played nice, like Atticus Finch well, they kept slavery alive.

This is not really true. I had the luxury (or misfortune, more accurately) of moving to the deep south at a young age with northern, liberal, former civil rights worker parents. Because of that I had a pretty intetresting perch with which to view the goings-on of a town not far from and much like Monroeville, the real life Maycomb. I was raised in it and able to view it from the inside, but I wasn't really part of it, I was always an outsider (though forgiven and invited as I was the priest's son).

In a town with a 50-50 racial make-up, we had three political forces in town. The first was the old-line white establishment, the "Wheels" (big-wheels). The Wheels went to one of the big four churches on the corners of Main and Church street - the Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, and First Baptist. After church they drove directly from the parking lots off church street to the country club where they began to drink.

Next was the new black establishment. These folks were secondary or terciary players in the civil rights movement who made names for themselves (locally mostly). They had money and power derived from this status. They had important friends in Washington and they were skimming off the top just like the white-establishment.

Last was the coalition. These were the university educated elites and yankee come-to's of the town bent on reform. They were black and white. They had wine and cheese parties and listened to public radio. They started non-profits that offered literacy classes. These were the Atticus Finches of the town. They wanted peace and tolerance and functioning rule of law and government. They rarely had victories.

The first two groups had a vested interest in keeping things tense, divided, and angry. This was where they derived their power. When one side or the other did something racist or corrupt or vile, as they were apt to do, the other side pointed and declared, "Look! Look how racist/corrupt/vile the other side is!" And everyone looked, and everyone saw how racist/corrupt/vile the other side was and loathed them. When it came to election time they remembered their hatred and fear and they voted for the opposite side of the establishment. Then that side would do something horrible, as machine politicians with nothing but self interest are always going to do, and the pendulum of hate would swing back - though there was a cog in the wheel - the coalition.

The coalition didn't point at one side or the other, it pointed at the whole damn system for what it was. The coalition said there was a better way. The coalition tried to remind people of what one side or the other had done the last time they'd had power. It didn't work. The coalition's only saving grace was the lust for power and corruption of the establishment politicians. When they'd been caught with their pants down (often literally) guess where they came running? Ah yes, the coalition. You see the coalition did have a good, solid 20% of the electorate and the establishment had 30% that voted for their side come hell or high water. The other 20% were the swing votes who were either moved to motivation by the hate-mongers or stayed home because they wouldn't vote for a white/black candidate and the black/white guy was a crook. So a politician caught in a jam could run to the coalition. They'd start talking reform and cleaning up city hall and everybody getting along and pretty soon they'd cozy up to coalition members, even drop a few on their ticket. Pretty soon the coalition would start to think that they really had a shot at changing things and voila, they'd endorse the incumbent sleeze.

It doesn't take much for you to guess what would transpire next. Of course the reforms never came. The few coalition members that would remain on the ticket were soon either taking good jobs in the big city or becoming loyal members of the establishment. Before long even they were lying about murders to keep the status quo.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:04 AM on August 11, 2009


No, Netzapper, no. It is the you/ya that loses letters, not the all. Here are some other commonly used words from the Deeeeep South that do it that way:

y'don't/y'do
y'must
y'can't/y'can
y'know


And that last one is probably the one I hear the most (often in the mega-word y'knodameen1). When we get lazy in our speech (and that's what it is, I'm not being pejorative), we will drop an easy vowel sound in a word that gets used a lot. I'm a tru-blue, hardcore, proud-to-the-teeth2 Northerner, but I drop the vowel sound in you a lot, and I have no Southern accent whatsoever. The word "I" even disappears from time to time.

You becoming y' is normal English when y'think about it. Y'start to listen to the way y'talk and y'realize it's not a big deal.3






1 Some standup comic from the eighties or ninteies had a bit where he'd show a sign of a well-known Southern word and the audience would be stumped until he put it in context. Nodamine looks like the name of a pharmaceutical until it follows a short description: "Y'all's mama makes a dang fine cornbread; nodamine?"

2 Did I just make that last phrase up? Or have I been living here too long?

3 Now here's a fun way of testing your hypothesis versus mine. Take sounds away from the y-words I used in those two sentences: "Ya'art to listen to the way y'alk and y'ealize..."

posted by grubi at 6:00 AM on August 11, 2009


y'don't/y'do
y'must
y'can't/y'can
y'know


i've never heard these before. How would you even pronounce consonant'consonant with no vowel between? You can't completely drop the vowel sound between consonants there, maybe just mash it down a bit. Perhaps you mean:

ya'don't/ya'do
ya'cain't
ya'know

Also, Florida is the North with humidity.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:25 AM on August 11, 2009


Perhaps you mean:

No, actually, that's not what I mean. Ya know and y'know are two different ways of saying the same thing.

How would you even pronounce consonant'consonant with no vowel between?

Yes, right. Of course. Too bad we have no words like can't, won't, shouldn't to back up my point. You got me there.

Also: would, pronounce, consonant, and between have two consonants (or more) together in the same word. And those are from your sentence.

Florida is the North with humidity.

Sounds like someone who hasn't been to much of Florida.
posted by grubi at 7:40 AM on August 11, 2009


No but seriously: how would you pronounce the words y'don't/y'do, y'must, y'can't/y'can, y'know without interjecting some vowel sound? I mean, obviously Pollomacho was wrong to characterize the problem as consonant/consonant, but I see a problem here too.
posted by creasy boy at 8:52 AM on August 11, 2009


Well, I make the "y" sound and then I move the tip of my tongue up against the top part of my mouth, making the "n" sound.
posted by Kattullus at 8:56 AM on August 11, 2009


You don't automatically make a u on the way from the y to the n? Or at least a schwa? It seems to me that I do.
posted by creasy boy at 9:06 AM on August 11, 2009


Okay... now I've been sitting at my desk for a good five minutes making variations of that noise and I think I can say with some certainty that I don't make a schwa sound when I do. That said, I'm not a native speaker so I may be an edge case.
posted by Kattullus at 9:26 AM on August 11, 2009


Did I just make that last phrase up? Or have I been living here too long?

I think part of being Southern is being able to make up a colloquial-sounding phrase that has no inherent meaning, yet everybody knows that it means.

This has been a fun derail
posted by This Guy at 9:30 AM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Maybe I'm too Northern, but I hear a difference between y' and ya.
posted by grubi at 9:59 AM on August 11, 2009


But to expect that very same thing just because you changed the law is realistic?

I think if you listen to people who are members of minorities and have lived in both pre-Civil Rights Act and post-Civil Rights Act America, they will acknowledge that the end of legal discrimination in public accommodations has made an enormous difference in their personal lives and opportunities, and I think that the overall tenor of conversations about race in America have changed dramatically since midcentury, due largely to the legal actions undertaken by civil rights workers. So, yes, I do think that changing the law changes people's behaviors and changes their sense about which values should be established in our institutions and which are deemed unsupportable by our Constitution.
posted by Miko at 10:12 AM on August 11, 2009


Voting Rights Act, too. Huge changes.
posted by Miko at 10:24 AM on August 11, 2009


Also, Florida is the North with humidity.

Have you been to North Florida? My family's Kerry-Edwards signs were repeatedly taken down by the neighbors. Our town made the national news because The Vagina Monologues got billed as The Hoohah Monologues. Confederate flags adorn pick-up trucks and indecipherable accents abound. I'd say it's the South.
posted by Devika at 11:38 AM on August 11, 2009


Devika: amen.

I live in Tallahassee myself and our town's tourism slogan used to be "Florida with a Southern Accent." We may be a liberal outpost in North Florida, but there's plenty o' 'neckery goin' on 'round hyah.
posted by grubi at 12:09 PM on August 11, 2009


Confederate flags adorn pick-up trucks and indecipherable accents abound.

Just switch y'all for y'unz and this describes central Pennsylvania. No one would argue that that's the South would they?
posted by Pollomacho at 12:58 PM on August 11, 2009


They might argue it was Pennsyltucky.
posted by exogenous at 1:03 PM on August 11, 2009


The south is anywhere you order Ice Tea and they don't ask you "sweet or unsweet?" they just bring you Sweet Tea.
posted by nola at 1:59 PM on August 11, 2009


The Birthers and Jim Crow 2.0

With the birthers and the reparations conspiracy theories and the Nazi imagery at health care meetings, someone’s gotta explain why all these white folks are wilding out. We need an articulate, impassioned race man to clarify things. But not Al Sharpton; I say pass the mic to Jim Webb.

Remember way back when Webb, a Democratic senator from Virginia and the voice of Appalachia’s neglected white yeoman, was sniffing around a veep nod? In the midst of that media moment, he hit on an idea we’d do well to dwell upon. “Black America and Scots-Irish America are like tortured siblings,” Webb patiently explained to Pat Buchanan in a May 2008 Morning Joe appearance on MSNBC. “There’s a saying in the Appalachian mountains. … ‘If you're poor and white, you’re out of sight.’”

...

Most commentators try to make sense of it by harking back to Nixon and the GOP’s “Southern strategy,” when it consolidated regional power by stoking reactionary fear of the civil rights movement. That’s true as far as it goes. But years earlier Martin Luther King described it more broadly. “The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow,” he explained, summing up the region’s history in a sentence. “And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man.”

The white aristocracy is still serving that gamy old bird. All that’s changed is the waiter.

...

The ugly mobs of GOP operatives-turned-grass-roots activists at this summer’s town hall meetings are only incidentally fighting health care reform. Their real purpose is to show how frustrated whites can direct their anger at Democrats. Feeling poor, white and out of sight? It’s because that black guy’s trying to reshape America without you. Get him!


posted by caddis at 2:43 PM on August 11, 2009


So, yes, I do think that changing the law changes people's behaviors and changes their sense about which values should be established in our institutions and which are deemed unsupportable by our Constitution.

Fair enough. But there still seems to be a sizable minority of people who believe those values (i.e. racism) are tenable. In that case, maybe a little Atticus Finch could help them? I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. It would be silly to think of Finch as some proto-civil rights warrior (and it seems like kind of a straw man from Gladwell), but he is nevertheless, a role model to his children, and his guiding philosophy is, I think, generally a good one. I feel like I'm fighting a rear guard retreat, here, so maybe I'll leave it at that.
posted by one_bean at 2:58 PM on August 11, 2009


The south is anywhere you order Ice Tea and they don't ask you "sweet or unsweet?" they just bring you Sweet Tea.

Every restaurant I've ever been in in Alabama asks you that question, and Milo's comes in both sweet and unsweet (and now "no calorie" sweetened with Splenda).

So your South is pretty much that one diner in Childersburg that doesn't have unsweet.
posted by dw at 3:33 PM on August 11, 2009


What is the world coming to?
posted by nola at 4:14 PM on August 11, 2009


What is the world coming to?

Ruin. It's been 15 years since I've been served green onions as an appetizer.

Oh, gotta run -- my hand-basket is here.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:12 PM on August 11, 2009


No, no, nola, it's okay, don't worry. They don't actually expect you to drink the "unsweet" without sweetener. It's so you can sweeten it just right.

Of course, for many folks, that means they ought to order the sweet and then add more, bless their hearts.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:46 PM on August 11, 2009


The finest establishments serve unsweet and have simple syrup on the table.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:08 AM on August 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


But there still seems to be a sizable minority of people who believe those values (i.e. racism) are tenable. In that case, maybe a little Atticus Finch could help them?

Okay - what would that look like? From where I sit, most are not particularly open to 'a little Atticus Finch,' instead accusing people who act like Atticus Finch of being naive, foolish, soft-headed, and Socialist.
posted by Miko at 6:47 AM on August 12, 2009


The finest establishments serve unsweet and have simple syrup on the table.

THANK you. The lazy malcontents that serve unsweetened iced tea and then expect you to use granulated sugar to sweeten it really must harbor some deep resentment of their customers. All you get is a little pile of sugar grains swirling at the bottom of the icy glass. So you have to keep stirring and then use a straw to draw the tea from the microzone of sweetness around the crystals.

Ten minutes later, when you've finally got the crystals to dissolve to some appreciable extent, having drunk half of the glass already in this unsatisfactory way, the server then refills your glass, ruining the whole equilibrium you've worked to establish.

If you're not going to prepare sweetened tea the way God intended, i.e., by dissolving the sugar in it while it's still hot and before you ice it down, then at least give me a solution of simple syrup that's readily miscible, so I don't have to run my own experiment to test the temperature dependence on the solubility product of sucrose at my dinner table.

/bah!
posted by darkstar at 8:31 AM on August 12, 2009


use a straw the tea from the microzone of sweetness...

Surely, this is scientifically known as the sucrocline?
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:28 AM on August 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


sucrocline: werd!
posted by darkstar at 10:35 AM on August 12, 2009


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