The adage goes that fact is stranger than fiction and this has come alive for me, following the results of the recent American elections. Was the catastrophe of 9/11 being followed by another on 11/9? Coincidentally, I was reading Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird during election fever, and time and again, the similarity of Trump and his supporters mirroring the characters of the United States in the 1930s made me wonder about the convergence of truth and fiction. There are many instances of fiction throwing a light on reality. George Orwell was uncanny with his predictions in his allegorical novel 1984 where the State becomes the “Big Brother” that is watching. In their deep understanding of human nature and its foibles, writers appear like soothsayers.
This election again made me ponder about whether we get the leader we deserve. After all the vitriol spilled by the President-elect, how could people have voted for him? CNN commentator Van Jones pronounced it a “Whitelash,” against the presence of a black President for eight years in the “White” House. For the first time in my life, I felt the compulsion to question the naming of the dwelling of the President of the United States of America.
Harper Lee wrote her award-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird through the questioning gaze of nine year-old Scott Finch whose father, an attorney, Atticus, is called upon by the State to defend an African American Tom Robinson accused of rape. Both Scott and her brother Jem first have to deal with the censure of their small town, Maycomb, whose residents seem to hold it against Atticus for taking on the case. After hearing his father’s defending arguments in court, Jem is certain that Tom will be acquitted but it turns out otherwise. After the verdict Atticus is not able to satisfactorily explain Tom’s indictment, because of his race, to his children. My thoughts went to these children in the novel when CNN commentator Van Jones spoke about how American parents would struggle to explain to their children about how a bully, a racist and a misogynist had just been elected to the Presidency.
Last year when visiting New York, my hosts kept warning me about inadvertently naming races or saying anything that could offend anyone. I wonder now about how America, so politically correct in its speech, could be so incorrect in its choice of President. Could it really be that with race, nothing has changed from Harper Lee’s depiction of the America of the last century? Or perhaps, it is a lot worse. During Lee’s time of writing the novel, the prejudice was totally focused on divisions along racial lines. In today’s America, after hearing Trump’s railings against Hillary Clinton and his attitudes towards women, one can add sexism to the issue of race as a deciding factor in this election. It seems that it is easier for an African American man to make it to the White House than a woman.
At school, Scott Finch hears her teacher Miss Gates critique Hitler for his actions against the Jews. When she asks why the government cannot stop him, she is told, “Hitler is the government!” Miss Gates then goes on to make the difference between Germany’s dictatorship and the American system of democracy: “Over here, we don’t believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced!”
When Scott returns home that evening, she asks for details on Hitler. Atticus calls him a “maniac,” but when the little girl asks if it is okay to hate him, her father’s firm reply is, “It’s not okay to hate anybody.” Puzzled, she now seeks out her brother Jem and tells him about how affected her teacher was about Hitler’s actions. “It’s not right to persecute anybody, is it… have mean thoughts about anybody even, is it?” At Jem’s querying, Scott adds that after Tom Robinson’s trial, she heard the same Miss Gates comment, “It’s time somebody taught ‘em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they can do is marry us.” Jem is thrown by Scott’s next observation, “How can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home?”
Atticus’s pleads with the jury thus, “I’m no idealist to believe in the integrity of our courts and the jury system—that is no ideal to me; it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you, sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.”
The plea of liberals and idealists to the American people would echo the above sentiments with regard to the next election. A country is no better than each citizen and it is up to each one to vote honestly and without prejudice.
Melanie Kumar is a Bangalore-based writer and literary fiction reviewer who has been freelancing for more than 15 years now. She holds degrees in English and mass communications.