Blog Interruption: To Kill A Mockingbird

I interrupt my blog scheduled for today for good reason. Yesterday, I saw the excellent Theatre Calgary production of To Kill a Mockingbird. The play, based on the book by Harper Lee, recounts a seminal year in the childhood of Jean Louise (Scout) Finch in the backdrop of a rape trial of a Black man in the deep American South of the 1930s. Scout's father, Atticus Finch, is the lawyer, representing the accused.

The case has already been decided by the townspeople many years before the trial even starts; the victim is a White woman. The audience knows this and knows the inevitable will happen; an innocent man will be convicted and put to death because of the colour of his skin. We know this and yet we hope. As Jean Louise, her brother Jem, and her friend, Dill, hope, so we too hope. But like a train wreck waiting to happen, it happens and the shock of the inevitable is still crushing no matter how we try to cushion ourselves from it.

This play/book is an important reminder of the frailty of human kind and the impact which justice and injustice has on it. Indeed, one cannot help but feel, after reading the book or watching the play or movie, that equality and justice is the paramount goal for which we all strive, even if it takes us a long time to get there.

In order to get there, according to Atticus Finch, we must have empathy for others, live in another man's shoes so to speak, see the world through another woman's eyes; the disenfranchised, the vulnerable, and yes, even the prejudiced. Only then can we truly recognize each other and make steps, even baby steps, toward a free and just society.

Thank you Harper Lee for this reminder.

For more on literature, law, and miscarriages of justice see my October 18 blog on Julian Barnes, Sherlock Holmes, and A Miscarriage of Justice. For more on the backdrop to the case dramatized in To Kill A Mockingbird, read about the Scottsboro case here.  On the banning of this book in schools read the 2009 Toronto Star article here. Finally, read the book, go to the play, or watch the movie!

Tomorrow, I will reconnect with the Supreme Court of Canada and the case they should and, possibly, will take.

Law, Literature, and "Inherit The Wind"

When I lecture, I like to take a Brain Break or a moment to reflect on a particular issue being discussed. Usually, this takes the form of big idea questions, or a fact situation, or even a decision-making exercise, which the class then tackles in smaller discussion groups. So let's take a Brain Break, on this October Wednesday, through a segue from human rights to literature, and discuss Inherit The Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (no, not the Civil War Lee who died in 1870 on this day - is this irony?).

Inherit The Wind is a dramatisation of the infamous Scopes "Monkey Trial" where the theory of evolution expounded by Darwin was "on trial" as a result of a high school biology teacher's decision to teach the theory rather than the accepted idea of biblical creationism. Clarence Darrow, one of the great trial lawyers of the era, represented the teacher and turned the trial into a reflective examination of society's tolerance for differing and controversial view-points.

In the movie version, Clarence Darrow is brilliantly played by Spencer Tracy with Frederick March as his nemesis prosecutor Matthew Brady. Completing the triumvirate, is Harry Morgan (aka Col. Sherman T. Potter - another civil war reference?) as the presiding Judge. The play is indeed, even on a surface reading, an engaging repartee between two conflicting ideals: one of freedom of expression thought, and belief and the other, freedom of religion and sacred thought. Aha, we are back to expression! A fundamental freedom at the core of our most deeply held beliefs and so many times, opposing other fundamental Charter values, such as religion and equality.

On a deeper reading, Inherit The Wind is a treasure. Written by the authors during the period of oppressive McCarthyism, the book does not just harken back to a tumoltous time of civil rights, but brings us back to the present as our Supreme Court of Canada hears argument on the Whatcott case.

Follow the SCC on Twitter as the arguments come down at #SCC or #Whatcott to formulate your own connections between the past and present.