Referencing the iconic novel Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” is gaining some momentum among conservatives attempting to put their defense of Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh in larger cultural context. But the analogy appears not to fully grasp race, class and privilege in the current political climate and therefore breaks down pretty quickly.
Some commentators have called this our Atticus Finch moment, recalling the famous novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. We all remember that Atticus Finch was a lawyer who did not believe that a mere accusation was synonymous with guilt. 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.
A quick recap of the points relevant to the analogy: Finch, in the novel, is an attorney in 1930s Alabama. He’s defending Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Finch establishes that Robinson’s accusers are lying, but the jury convicts him anyway.
Here’s how the National Review’s Rich Lowry knits the Kavanaugh situation with the Robinson trial:
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. He did it despite considerable social pressure to simply believe the accuser.
. . .
“To Kill a Mockingbird” stands firmly for the proposition that an accusation can be false, that unpopular defendants presumed guilty must and should be defended, and that it is admirable and brave to withstand the crowd — at times in the story, literally the lynch mob — when it wants to cast aside the normal protections of justice.
Cornyn and Lowry are right that both Finch and many of the Republicans defending Kavanaugh are believing the accused opposed to “believing women,” which is taboo among many, particularly those on the left, in the #MeToo movement.
But the impetus for many Republicans for Republicans not to believe Kavanaugh’s accusers vary quite a bit from Finch’s. Finch did not believe that his client, a black man who worked in the cotton fields of rural Alabama, raped Mayella Ewell, the impoverished daughter of the town drunk, because the allegations were at least in part embraced due to the racist ideology of Ewell’s father, Bob, and the majority of the white residents in fictional town of Maycomb, Ala.
Republican supporters of Kavanaugh do not believe the allegations because they are assuming the worst about Democratic lawmakers' motivations, and because there is no definitive evidence of the decades-old allegations.
Some on the right have made the argument that it is Kavanaugh’s Republican background and upper-class upbringing — he was raised in suburban Washington and attended elite schools — has made him the target of his critics. They claim that to the left, the judge is nothing more than a former Ivy League frat boy and prep school graduate born into privilege. But many of those critical of Kavanaugh share his same pedigree, including his first accuser and many of the Democratic lawmakers he lashed out at during his most recent hearing. That was not the case with the poor, black and disabled Robinson when he went before the jury. And comparing Kavanaugh’s class identity to Robinson’s racial identity greatly ignores the power dynamics of what it meant to be poor and black in Depression-era Alabama and what it means to be white and wealthy in the nation’s capital.
Or perhaps their point is that as a conservative, and specifically a pro-Trump conservative, Kavanaugh is a part of a persecuted group that is being increasingly maligned in American society. While it is true that many on the left don’t like Kavanaugh because they feel he is more in line with conservatives and Trump himself than many would like a Supreme Court justice to be, the idea that his accusers are lobbing false, grotesque sexual assault allegations against him simply because of his political identity is unfounded.
But as odd as this argument will be to some on the left — particularly those who know what it’s like to be falsely accused of violent crimes in part because of their race — there are plenty of indications that many conservatives are viewing this issues similarly to Cornyn.
For them Kavanaugh — and men and boys like him — are to be defended and protected against an unjust mob who hate the judge simply because of who he is. When it comes to politics, like most things, perception is often reality. But lawmakers who increasingly compare defending affluent men in power at risk of losing a dream job to defending members of historically disadvantaged groups fearing for their life risk being perceived as madly out of touch.