Cook: Is it a sin to question our heroes?

Cook: Is it a sin to question our heroes?

October 17th, 2011 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Do you remember that dog?

Swaying up the middle of the empty street like a New Year's Eve drunk, the bird dog was going mad with rabies. There were kids nearby, women on their front porch. The town had no Humane Society; someone had to do something.

Moments later, the old Ford pulls up and here he comes. Into the middle of the street, as cool as Chuck Yeager, he loosens his tie, eyes up the rifle sights and shoots the dog dead from what had to have been a quarter-mile.

It takes guts to do what he did. Like turning away a lynch mob at midnight, diffusing them like pinching out a candle. Or the noblest example of all: Defending an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman in the 1930s small Southern Jim Crow town.

Man, I love Atticus Finch.

At least ... I think I do.

"On what side was Harper Lee's Atticus Finch?" writes social critic Malcolm Gladwell in a 2009 essay in "The New Yorker."

Finch is the lawyer-hero of Lee's immortal "To Kill a Mockingbird," the Southern novel depicting racial injustice in small-town Maycomb, Ala. (a place where citizens most certainly never read copies of "The New Yorker"). Finch defends Tom Robinson against claims he raped Mayella Ewell, a white woman living in dire poverty with her abusive father.

"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," writes Gladwell, who points to Finch's reaction to the guilty verdict as evidence he's more interested in accommodation than real change.

"If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict. But he isn't."

In other words, if everyone behaved like Finch, Jim Crow racism would have never been defeated. Sure, white folks in Maycomb might feel differently about their black neighbors because of Finch's idealism and behavior, but that, Gladwell writes, is not enough to topple massive segregation.

Dr. Judy Cornett, professor of law at the University of Tennessee, disagrees.

"Atticus represents fighting for a principle, for an ideal," said Cornett, "and standing up for that ideal."

Cornett is a law professor at UT and hails from small-town Tennessee. One of her favorite courses is Law and Literature, which includes a section on Finch.

This Friday, Cornett comes to Chattanooga to present a continuing legal education seminar at the Walden Club on "The Ethics of Atticus Finch." Invited are members of the Chattanooga Bar Association and nonmember attorneys and legal staff in town.

"Many lawyers say they became lawyers partly because of their admiration of Atticus Finch," Cornett said. "Many of my students see Atticus as a hero."

Cornett, who has published papers on the subject, said Finch represents a different version of change. He's not the radical civil rights activist, but an ethical lawyer working from within the system.

"He does the right thing within the system. That is every lawyer's goal," she said. "[At the seminar] I'm going to compare his ethics to today's Tennessee rules of professional conduct."

Talking to Cornett was like speaking with any good teacher, and hours later, I was still thinking about parts of our conversation and the points she made.

And questions, like treed raccoons, were pacing on the limbs of my mind.

How much does my skin color affect the way I read "To Kill a Mockingbird"? If I were black, would I feel any differently about Finch? Is he a safe hero for me, as a white Southern male, to have?

After examining the ethics of Finch, what would it mean to discuss the ethics of Robinson? What if he, instead of Finch, was the central hero of the novel? What is the best way to challenge an unjust system?

"It is always good to be self-aware and self-critical when you choose someone as a hero," said Cornett. "You don't want to ever become complacent about any issue that matters to you. You want to be reminded of how you can do things better."

It may be a sin to do otherwise. And I think Finch and Robinson would agree.

David Cook can be reached at