We need to talk about Tom Robinson

By Staff Writer Samantha Wahl.

Some staff writers at The Washington Examiner really like To Kill A Mockingbird. And some of those same staff writers, it seems, really dislike “liberals”. Those two sentences aren’t necessarily connected, they’re just two things you need to understand before I start this article.

With headlines like “Another booming quarter, and even Democrats can’t complain about the economy”, “Democrats move the goalposts on FBI investigation”, it’s clear that folks at the Examiner have some very specific views concerning America’s favorite blue donkeys. And with two articles that hold To Kill A Mockingbird up as an American classic that today’s “political correctness” generation, “unprepared to encounter ‘harmful’ viewpoints”*, simply cannot appreciate the greatness of anymore.

In the article I want to focus on, entitled “Atticus Finch: American literature’s most celebrated rape apologist”, Ashe Schow sarcastically details the ways in which “Atticus

Finch is a monster” for representing an “alleged rapist”, Tom Robinson.
The piece harps sarcastically on Finch for interrogating Mayella Ewell and her family on the stand. Finch’s point that Robinson’s left hand was deformed, and therefore couldn’t have been used to punch Mayella on the right side of her face, as she’d alleged had happened? The author’s commentary is this: “Should a detail like this one take away from the anguish that rape victims suffer?… So what if Robinson couldn’t have hit Ewell’s right eye with his deformed left fist? The facts of the case don’t matter as much as the narrative, which is that Robinson raped Ewell and there is a rape epidemic.”

The article carries on that way, with a smug, “take that, liberals” kind of tone.
But there’s (at the very least) one problem here: the mindset the author is satirizing doesn’t exist. And believe me, I looked around for it, because I was supposed to write an editorial about it. Couldn’t find it anywhere. Although there have been concerns raised about whether Finch’s derision for Mayella and the other Ewells, who are poor and uneducated, could be damaging for impressionable children from lower-income families, this grand feminist tirade that Ashe Schow alludes to doesn’t seem to have ever existed.
The source she cites at the beginning of her editorial is a tweet from Glenn Reynolds, a conservative law professor and political blogger, which reads: “So as I understand it, Atticus Finch is now the bad guy in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” because he doubted a story about rape.”

I really have no idea how he “came to understand” that, because no one seems to have ever said it. He doesn’t continue the thread to list a source, and as far as I can find, no one has said anything resembling that, either in 2014 when he tweeted it or now. This is what we English nerds like to call a “straw man argument”.

If anyone has ever said that Atticus Finch is a villain for doubting a story about rape, I will gladly meet them for coffee and argue about it, because that is a superficial and plainly incorrect analysis of that character. But, 404 error! That viewpoint doesn’t exist!

It’s true that our society has a problem believing women who have been sexually assaulted, but a major plot point of Mockingbird is that Mayella wasn’t assaulted! She fabricated allegations against Tom because he rejected her advances and she wanted to save face. And she did it because, as a white woman accusing a black man of sexual assault in the South in the thirties, she knew people would believe her. I’m honestly surprised the Examiner glosses over that, because it’s a rare instance of a woman lying about rape in order to ruin a man’s life, which is something conservatives seem to think happens often. But you know, on second thought, maybe it’s not surprising that the far-right crowd isn’t tripping over itself to defend a man like Tom Robinson.

The kind of victim that TKAM is sympathizing with is the oppressed and beaten down black man, the Emmitt Till figure, not the modern day rapist. Tom Robinson is not Brett Kavanaugh. Tom Robinson is not Brock Turner. The same people who flock to Turner, to Kavanaugh, here use Robinson as a means to a punchline.

I am an ardent feminist, and I will always vouch for fair and humane treatment of assault victims. But Mayella Ewell is not the assault victim in To Kill A Mockingbird. Tom Robinson is. Robinson suffers sexual harassment by Mayella, who is his employer (if only under the pretense of chopping up chiffarobes and doing odd jobs) and is then tried for rape on the assumption that he must have wanted her. The victim-blaming in Robinson’s case is tragically extreme. But we don’t get an angry column about that, do we? Strange, how that works. At least we have one now.

And a note to newspapers looking to mock liberal views: go ahead. Totally your prerogative. But would you please limit yourself to mocking views we actually hold?
*Quotes from this editorial were not taken from Snowe’s article; they’re from “High school cancels stage production of ‘America’s best-loved novel’, To Kill A Mockingbird”, written by Will Flanders for the Washington Examiner. It was published online on October 25 of 2018.



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