In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, dramatic action revolves around Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell, in a small Alabama town in the 1930s. Atticus Finch is his court-appointed lawyer, and after he gets the case, his daughter, Scout, the narrator, must contend with the disdain and ostracism of their neighbors.
Atticus, too, stands against the weight of public opinion, even stopping a mob of men eager to dispense vigilante justice. During the trial, Atticus proves the accusers are lying, with Ewell’s father the likely culprit. Despite this, a jury convicts Robinson, who is shot and killed while trying to escape prison.
To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. Two years later, the character of Atticus Finch was immortalized by actor Gregory Peck in the film directed by Robert Mulligan. That performance, of a righteous man standing against a dangerous, prejudiced mob, has inspired some conservatives as they defend Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh from allegations of sexual assault and misconduct.
National Review editor Rich Lowry uses the example of the fictional Finch to condemn an approach he believes does fatal damage to ideals of fairness and due process. “Atticus Finch didn’t #BelieveAllWomen. He didn’t take an accusation at face value. He defended an alleged rapist, vigorously and unremittingly, making use of every opportunity provided to him by the norms of the Anglo-American system of justice,” wrote Lowry, erroneously stating or deliberately mischaracterizing the view that society shouldn’t dismiss women’s experiences of sexual abuse and violence.
On Thursday, Republican Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn referenced that column in a speech on the Senate floor. “We all remember that Atticus Finch was a lawyer who did not believe that a mere accusation was synonymous with guilt,” he said. “He represented an unpopular person who many people presumed was guilty of a heinous crime because of his race, and his race alone. We could learn from Atticus Finch now, during this time when there has been such a vicious and unrelenting attack on the integrity and good name of this nominee.”
And writing commentary for CBS News, columnist Michael Graham warns liberal Kavanaugh critics that they are “the emotional mob Atticus Finch must face down.”
It’s easy to see the appeal of the Atticus analogy. It casts the Atticus surrogate as a resolute defender of American justice, of its ideals and values. Yes, Atticus Finch is a literary creation, but he stands for something real and enduring. He represents the best of our republican traditions.
By necessarily casting Brett Kavanaugh in the role of the unfairly and unjustly accused Tom Robinson, however, the comparison falls apart. Kavanaugh is unpopular, but he does not belong to a disfavored group. He is not disadvantaged by class or burdened with the weight of caste. He has lived a life of wealth and privilege, moving in and between elite spaces with little apparent friction. For five years he worked with the president of the United States. For 12 years he’s been one of the most powerful judges in the country. Robinson did not have the power to call defenders other than his court-appointed attorney; Kavanaugh is backed by nearly half of the Senate as well as a sitting American president, who has attacked his nominee’s accuser with the full force of the bully pulpit. Atticus Finch risked everything defending Tom Robinson; Kavanaugh’s defenders risk nothing. Robinson, a stand-in for the thousands murdered under Jim Crow, was fighting for his life. If Kavanaugh isn’t confirmed—if enough Republicans decide he’s too damaged to sit on the Supreme Court—he’ll return to his life of power and privilege as a federal appeals court judge.
This alone is an indictment of the analogy. But its failure is deeper than just the incongruence between conservatives and Finch or Kavanaugh and Robinson. During the Jim Crow era, allegations of rape and sexual assault against black men weren’t good-faith efforts to uncover abuse against women. They were pretexts for mob violence and brutal, public executions, meant to punish black Americans for stepping outside the boundaries set by white society. In her influential 1892 report Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett made this point clear. Cataloging this violence, she concludes that “to palliate this record (which grows worse as the Afro-American becomes intelligent) and excuse some of the most heinous crimes that ever stained the history of a country, the South is shielding itself behind the plausible screen of defending the honor of its women.”
The accusers in To Kill a Mockingbird, like those in the actual Jim Crow South, weren’t concerned with sexual violence as much as they held a libidinal desire to harm and kill black people. In real-life Depression-era Alabama, nine black Americans were lynched between 1929 and 1939; two of the victims were accused of “rape.”
That charade of justice stands in stark contrast to the #MeToo movement, a sincere effort to uncover sexual abuse, build solidarity for survivors, and hold abusers accountable. The process of allegations, investigations, and—when appropriate—criminal action is on the opposite side of the lynch mob, which tortured, mutilated, and murdered on the basis of whispers and rumors. The testimony of Christine Blasey Ford—measured, meticulous, and forthright, with no proven falsehoods—is a far cry from the breathless accusations used to justify anti-black terrorism, as is her unheeded call for a full investigation of her allegations.
To make the analogy to Atticus Finch in the context of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court is to ignore the real pain and real suffering of actual people killed after knowingly false accusations, while obliterating vast worlds of history and context. It’s not just a bad argument. It’s an immoral one, made for cheap partisan thrills. And conservatives who make it have revealed their politics of aggrieved privilege, where the presumably “real” victims of society are those asked to account for any potential misdeeds before ascending to ever-higher planes of power.
If you want to make the Atticus Finch analogy, you must understand the actual dynamic of the story in question. You can claim the mantle of Lee’s hero if you are standing in defense of the marginalized, giving voice to claims of innocence, or victimhood, that are otherwise ignored, dismissed, or ridiculed. You can claim Atticus if you fight for the powerless, for those who might truly lose everything from speaking out, who feel the weight of society against them.
Looking at our society and the ubiquity of sexual violence—looking at the extent to which women are presumptively challenged and men presumptively exonerated—there are opportunities to deploy the Atticus Finch analogy for those who want to use it. It’s not in defense of Brett Kavanaugh.