Atticus Finch is a fictional character but a man of great virtue none the less. He was a widower and a lawyer raising two children in a fictional deep south community called Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression. His story is told in the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.
Atticus was quiet, compassionate, and level. He parented with authority but never with a heavy hand. He had respect for his children and and everyone he came in contact with both socially and professionally. It was this commitment to ethical behavior that resulted in a request that he defend Tom Robinson, an African-American, who was accused of the rape of Mayella Ewell.
Atticus, despite intense societal pressure, did his best to prove the innocence of Tom Robinson. When Tom was found guilty Atticus remained resilient, hoping that the appeal would bring justice. Tom’s death at the hand of prison guards placed yet another burden on Atticus. He had to go and tell the Robinsons that Tom was gone.
Bob Ewell, Mayella’s father, was an alcoholic. By spending his government relief checks on alcohol he is forced to hunt wild game illegally to feed his family. He confronts Attticus as he is leaving the Robinson’s home. He then spits in his face.
Now for most people such an intimate and personal assault would provoke the strongest of responses. But Atticus, measured as always, slowly took control of his rage, wiped his face, and left. Later in the book when Ewell tries to harm Atticus’ son Jem, and is killed by the mentally disabled Boo Radley, Atticus is still compassionate and moral enough to want to do the right thing. It is only the insistence of the sheriff that the case was closed by him vehemently stating that Bob Ewell fell on his knife.
Today such restraint and ethical behavior is hard to find. Road rage causes people to curse and drive recklessly. Parents at recreational sporting events yell at volunteer referees and coaches, and sometimes they physically confront them. And our media is now separated into camps with them not just championing opposing views but also feeling the need to disparage the opponent in the process.
We have become a society where we feel to get what you want you must demean your opponent or competition. My mentally disabled sons reside in a care facility that is dependent on Medicaid funds. As a parent and board member I fear for the future of a place that has done so much for them. But my hope is that over time we will become less dependent on those funds and find alternative means to sustain ourselves. But what I have seen is that with budget cuts looming many organizations have taken to attacking one another as they lobby for their cause. And this confrontational and harsh tactic is being used in lieu of stating why they are viable and worth supporting.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in politics. When I was in retail banking I kept my politics to myself as I was of the thought that I had to provide service to both Democrats and Republicans. I also was one that often voted across party lines and felt like I supported the most qualified candidate based on their credentials, not their party affiliation. But lately I have become more vocal in my opinion, a right I feel I and all Americans have.The result has been a learning experience for me and an awakening as to how emotional, and intimate, the process has become.
Now I have friends that fall into an array of ethnic groups and socio-economic categories. I have done charitable work for children at risk and also served in leadership positions in numerous non-profit and civic organizations. I felt I was a citizen of the 21st century. Until I decided to not support the re-election of our President. Then I realized that whatever assessment of fairness I set for myself, if I was not in the camp of those who supported Barack Obama I wasn’t to be debated, I was to be questioned and dealt with. Sadly I think the same goes for those who don’t support Mitt Romney.
Four years ago I read the book “Game Change”. It discussed the 2008 election and suggested that the recruitment of Barack Obama by powerful Democrats was a calculated step to keep Hillary Clinton, and her husband, out of the White House. That concept interested me because at that time Obama was in fact the Junior Senator from Illinois and prior to that he served in the Illinois State Legislature. I knew Mr. Obama was intelligent. He had attended an elite private school in Hawaii and later Harvard. You don’t make law review without being smart and I had no doubt he was a loving husband and father. What I questioned was whether or not he was qualified to lead the most powerful nation on earth that was reeling from an economic crisis of epic proportions.
I wasn’t a big fan of John McCain, even less when he selected Sarah Palin as his running mate. It was almost a coin flip for me but in the end I chose the more experienced McCain with the hope that Palin would never actually ascend to the Presidency. When Obama won he said in his acceptance speech that for those that did not vote for him he would be their President too. I sat there in front of my television and saw the joy in so many faces. People who for so long felt like they never had a voice and now they did. Europe as well was awash in happiness over this historic election. I wasn’t angry that my candidate had lost, as in fact I wasn’t that enamored with him in the first place. I decided to hope along with so many others, that President Obama would be the beacon of light so many had prayed and waited for. But four years later that light is flickering. Our President is more rock star than diplomat, more regal than presidential, and lately has exhibited hubris instead of humility.
No educated person would ever suggest that our national debt could be eradicated in four years. But to have it ascend to greater heights to me is unacceptable. Previous Presidents conducted numerous interviews with the legitimate press and spoke often to crowds without prepared notes. This President prefers to meet with talk show hosts and celebrities, hold staged meetings with carefully scripted remarks via teleprompter, and often chides reporters if they do press him on issues. To me it is all sizzle and no steak.
With the onset of Twitter and Facebook everyone can now engage in the debate. I questioned a reporter on Twitter about his support of a speech Mr. Obama made to a group of ministers a few years ago about Hurricane Katrina and the relief effort for New Orleans. The speech to me was an attempt to get these ministers to accept the concept that New Orleans was treated differently than other disaster areas because those most at risk were from low to moderate income families and African-American. Obama also had delivered his remarks in a style more befitting a preacher than an elected official. If Mitt Romney was to be held accountable for his remarks regarding the 47%, which he should have been,then certainly Mr. Obama should be held equally accountable for his remarks regarding Katrina.
The journalist I was engaging was one I have a high regard for and read regularly. But as we exchanged tweets I could sense that the tone of the debate was becoming harsh. I didn’t want to offend my counterpart so I went to great lengths to be civil and find common ground. We eventually closed amicably but it certainly could have gotten out of control if both he and I hadn’t eventually exercised some restraint.
During the most recent Romney-Obama debate I found myself tweeting and posting on Facebook, gleeful in the poor performance of our sitting President. The next day I felt actual anger that, after having a night for his staff to prepare, Obama gave a carefully scripted speech answering all the questions he could not answer the night before. Then the tweets from both sides started to come. Finger pointing, accusatory, defiling, and ugly. And in the case of Obama, also pleading for money. It was then that I realized that I was ashamed of how I had behaved and disheartened that common civility and national pride has been replaced by a will to win at all costs. That party dominance is now more important than the welfare of the country and it’s citizens.
This system discourages people of substance from running for office, unless you want your life scrutinized, your every move watched, your every utterance critiqued. Politics is more than ever a place for those who want power and influence, and they will say or spend whatever is necessary to get it, and once gotten, keep it.
We need men and women elected to public office to be more like Atticus Finch. People who are guided by observing simple acts of decency and kindness. People who will do what is right, rather than what is in their best interest. People who can win and lose with dignity. People who can disagree without being disagreeable. People who will speak the truth no matter how uncomfortable it might be to do so. If we can’t judge our elected officials on performance rather than on their party affiliation we will suffer more than economic hardship. Unfortunately Atticus Finch is not a real person. And we need him right now.