Book Review: Go Set A Watchman

If you had spent your high school years in America, it’s safe to assume that you were assigned to read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. We were told by our 11th-grade English teachers that To Kill A Mockingbird is an American classic that captured the zeitgeist of pre-Civil-Right-era America and compelled its reader to never judge a man by the color of his skin. Atticus Finch, the father of the lead character, Scout, was portrayed as an honorable, dutiful lawyer who earned the admiration of general public. In fact, many lawyers claim that their career aspirations were nourished by the inspirational example of Atticus Finch. Atticus Finch has been lionized as the epitome of integrity, steadfast principles, and sense of humanity.

However, despite the acclaim bestowed on the character of Atticus Finch, his critics were few but certainly vocal. While his colleagues expressed their admiration for Atticus, law professor and legal ethicist Monroe Freedman questioned the fictional character’s status as a role model for the legal profession. Freedman argued that while Atticus was willing to defend a Black defendant against a racially-charged accusation, he still worked within the system of institutionalized racism and sexism. Freedman further argued that Atticus was dishonest, prejudiced, misogynistic and did nothing to challenge the status quo of 1930’s Maycomb, Alabama. For example, he ate at segregated restaurants, and regarded the local chapter of the KKK to be “a political organization more than anything else”. His male chauvinism was on full display when, during his closing arguments to the jury during trial, he dismissed then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt as a “distaff side of the executive branch in Washington”. Furthermore, while encouraging his son to pursue law, he did not extend that same motivation to his daughter, who was under the impression that she “will be some gentleman’s lady”.

Needless to say, Freedman’s views were met with furious backlash, with one legal scholar, Timothy Hall, retorting that “Monroe really wants is for Atticus to be working on the front lines for the NAACP in the 1930s, and, if he’s not, he’s disqualified from being any kind of hero; Monroe has this vision of lawyer as prophet. Atticus has a vision of lawyer not only as prophet but as parish priest”.

In 2011, a typed manuscript was found during an appraisal for Harper Lee’s assets in Monroeville, Lee’s hometown in Alabama. Upon the discovery, it was revealed that Harper Lee originally wrote this manuscript for her debut novel, which she had titled Go Set a Watchman. After being rejected for publication, Lee’s publisher suggested that she construct a new story based on the childhoods of the lead character. This new story would be published as the critically-acclaimed To Kill A Mockingbird. 

For over fifty years, before its discovery, the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, had been gathering dust in a safe-deposit box in Monroeville, concealed from the general public. However, Lee’s enthusiastic fans were priveledged to access this mysterious manuscript when it was published in 2015 by HarperCollins.

Go Set a Watchman follows a grown-up Scout, who had since shed her childhood pet name in favor of her official birth name, Jean-Louise Finch. Living in New York City, she returns to her hometown of Maycomb for a two-week visit. During the time of her visit, the groundbreaking Brown V Board of Education decision was passed by the US Supreme Court, declaring segregation illegal. This latest ruling is not viewed favorably by the townspeople of Maycomb. As the novel progresses, Jean-Louise starts to view her beloved hometown in a radically different light, discovering that her childhood was not as idyllic as she had originally perceived.

As a child, Jean-Louise had tremendously adored her father, Atticus. Unlike most parents, Atticus was not one who thought that his children should “be seen and not heard”. He had a very open relationship with them, treating them as his equals and encouraging them to speak their minds. Being a widower, Atticus was Jean-Louise’s sole parental influence. The way he conducted himself had inspired her values and sense of character

Jean-Louise had always pictured her father as a stalwart advocate for racial equality. She had admirably remembered him defending a Black defendant, as recalled in detail in Harper’s To Kill a Mockingbird. She remembered his pleas for empathy, stressing that “you can never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk in it”. That statement in itself had shaped Jean Louise’s entire ethos.

Unfortunately, Jean-Louise was forced to grapple with the unbearable truth. Her father was not the progressive icon she pictured him to be. To her horror, Jean-Louise discovered that not only did Atticus have prejudicial views, but that he was a member of the Citizen’s Council, a white supremacist organization that sought to counter racial integration and intimidate civil rights activists. Atticus’ rationalized his views by claiming that the Supreme Court decision was inherently unconstitutional, being a deliberate imposition of federal intervention into state jurisdiction. He furthermore opined that Blacks were not civilized enough, thus, they weren’t ready for full civil rights.

In response to her father’s controversial remarks, Jean-Louise stood aghast and flabbergasted. The man she revered as a hero–a crusader for justice and equality, was no different from any other bigot in 1950’s Alabama.

Go Set A Watchman could not have been released in a more fitting time. The 2010’s has become the decade when everyone became “woke”. We’re become all too aware of the inconvenient truths buried underneath the rug. We’ve learned that Christopher Columbus, celebrated in that charming rhyme “In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, was a unabashed psychopath who kidnapped Taino tribesmen, brought them to Spain and sold them into slavery.  We’ve learned that Thomas Edison was a selfish business tycoon who forced film producers out of Menlo Park. We’ve learned that Mohandas Gandhi was a racist who frequently struck his wife. We’ve even learned that Bill Cosby, long beloved as “America’s Dad”, was secretly a serial rapist.

We’ve become disillusioned by the horrific actions of our long-venerated heroes. It seems that we have no one to admire. No one whose example we can emulate. We’ve left disenchanted, distraught, betrayed and more cynical than ever before.

Undoubted, this was exactly how Jean-Louise felt when she learned the truth about her father and his views. However, by the conclusion of the novel, Jean-Louise is not left with a disdainful outlook on her family, her town or the world at large. In fact, interestingly enough, the story ends on a positive note. By acknowledging her father’s sordid views, Jean-Louise forces herself to reexamine her relationship with her father. As a child, she has looked to her father as a saint. However, since discovering his views on race, Jean-Louise is able to perceive him as he always was: a man. A man tarnished with insecurities and many, many faults. But a man, nonetheless.

By acknowledging her father as just a man, Jean-Louise was able to make the final leap towards adulthood. She was no longer a naive child, living within the shadows of her admirable father. She was her own person. An independent woman who held views that contradicted her father’s.

Go Set A Watchman proposes that disillusionment enables one to carve out a path towards individuality. When we start acknowledging our “heroes” to be flawed humans, we liberate ourselves from the that web of hagiographic obsequiousness. We grow in touch with our own principles and our own values, allowing us to cultivate our own sense of self.

 

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Making Much Apu About Nothing

In 1987, a cartoonist named Matt Groening, famed for his Life in Hell comic strips, pitched a series of short sketches for a TV variety program called Tracey Ullman Show, which aired on a recently-launched television network called FOX. The shorts revolved around a dysfunctional family that loosely mirrored Groening’s own family. While the character dynamics stood in contrast to the hypermoralizing, “family-values” norms of 1980’s sitcoms, the shorts became a huge hit with audiences. A couple of years later, the sketches were developed into a half-hour prime time TV program that garnered high ratings within months of its debut on December 16th, 1989.

That TV program was called The Simpsons. Not only was this cartoon instrumental in  propelling its parent channel, Fox, onto a competitive standing with more seasoned television networks like NBC, ABC and CBS, The Simpsons became a household brand for American family, acquiring the distinction as “classic Americana”. After over twenty-eight years, The Simpsons continues to air new episodes and Fox has no intentions of cancelling the show anytime soon.

The golden years of the series was during the 1990’s, when its writers were bursting with novel ideas and making incredible strides in screenwriting. The Simpsons had gracefully combined cartoonish gags, absurdist humor, intellectual wit, and sociopolitical commentary into a entertaining blend palatable for a wide audience. Although, since the mid-2000s, the writing has become derivative, bland and indulgently self-referential, The Simpsons will always occupy an auspicious place in the pop culture pantheon.

Recently, however, many critics have accused The Simpsons of projecting harmful stereotypes through its character caricatures. This leads into the controversy surrounding Apu. If you’re a fan of The Simpsons like I am, you’d recognize Apu as the Indian convenience store clerk famed for his catchphrase “Thank you, come again!”. He is an immigrant who becomes naturalized as an American citizen. Once an eligible, swinging bachelor in his single days, Apu is married to Manjula and has octopluts with her. Despite the perpetual risks of getting shot on the job, Apu enjoys his job and, despite holding a doctoral degree, continues to work as a convenience store clerk simply because he’s made so many friends and had grown to love his customers.

As a child, I’ve loved Apu. In fact, the character had helped me reconcile my Indian heritage with my American upbringing. In The Simpsons, Apu is shown to be an immigrant who not only values his adopted country, but knows more about American history than most Springfeldeans (granted, given the collective IQ of Springfeld, its not a high bar). He enthusiastically participates in community events, once served as a member of the Volunteer Fire Department, and was briefly a member of the barbershop quartet, The Be Sharps, with Homer, Barney, and Seymour Skinner.  Nevertheless, Apu remains steadfastly attached to his Indian heritage. He proudly displays the Ganesh statue on the check-out counter of the Kwik-e-Mart, adheres to a strict vegan diet in accordance to his Hindu faith, and continuously keeps his promise to his parents to “never forget who [he] is”. Apu represents that ideal balance between integration in the new world and loyalty to old-world traditions.

In November of last year, comedian Hari Kondabolu released his documentary The Problem with Apu, which was a 45-minute diatribe against the character of Apu, featuring input from A-list Indian-American celebrities including Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi and even the former surgeon-general Vivek Murthy. The Problem with Apu was a manipulative bitchfest that paints The Simpsons writers as out-of-touch and prejudicial, asserting that Apu, as a crude, one-dimensional character voiced by a White actor, has traumatized second-generation Indian-Americans. During his appearances on The View and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Hari Kondabolu insisted that he had no problem with Apu and his documentary was merely about lack of Indian representation in American pop culture during the “pre-Aziz-Ansari-and-Mindy-Kaling days”.

Now, I will acknowledge that before the mid-2000s, the only representations Indian-Americans had in Hollywood and American television were orientalized caricatures like Sabu, Hadji from Johnny Quest, and Amrish Puri’s character in Temple of Doom. However, I would argue that in comparison to those characters, Apu was actually fairly fleshed-out and well-developed. Granted, his thick (inaccurate) Indian accent and his typical Indian-uncle mannerisms come across as cartoonish. However, Apu’s stereotypical depiction is no different than Luigi, Fat Tony or Groundskeeper Willie. And unlike those characters, I would also argue that Apu’s positive attributes-his intelligence, his work ethic, his devotion to his family (despite one instance of infidelity) and his determination-outweigh his stereotypical traits.

A potentially nuanced and in-depth conversation over minority representation in media was completely overshadowed by Kondabolu’s seemingly personal grudge towards Hank Azaria, the voice actor for Apu, and his obsessive quest to get him to appear in the documentary.  When Hank Azaria responds to Kondabolu’s request, through an email, by declining to appear, citing his fears that his responses will be misrepresented. At which point, Kondabolu poignantly turns to the camera and berates Azaria of being hypocritical because, according to Kondabolu, as a White actor voicing an Indian character, Azaria is guilty of misrepresenting Indians. Of course, from the way Hari Kondabolu has framed this entire topic in his documentary, I can’t say I blame Azaria.

Kondabolu’s documentary came across as petty and self-indulgent. Kondabolu purports himself to speak on behalf on all second-generation Indian-Americans. He managed to recruit the Justice League of Indian-American celebrities and yet neglects to seek the opinions of ordinary Indian immigrants, including the thousands of hard-working convenience store clerks scattered throughout the country. If I could be honest and blunt, this documentary seems to be nothing more than a pedestal to bolster Kondabolu’s career. And while he fancies himself to be a voice for marginalized communities, Kondabolu has no problem launching shaming campaigns targeting figures like Bobby Jindal and Ajit Pai due to their respective politics, accusing them of being whitewashed and race traitors. In December of 2017, in light of Ajit Pai’s decision to revoke FCC net neutrality regulations, Kondabolu accused Ajit Pai of being servile to his White corporate masters and admonished him for disrespecting his Indian roots. However, Pai has been known to be extremely prideful of his Konkani Indian roots and Hindu heritage. Whatever you think of Pai’s politics (and believe me, I have no respect for his views or political ambitions), it’s extremely egregious to accuse him of being whitewashed. And Hari Kondabolu continues to yelp about “misrepresentation”. Talk about hypocrisy!