erik lundegaard

Does a Change of Heart Change the Status Quo? Thoughts on Atticus, Gladwell and Dickens

A good read in the wake of the Atticus Finch revelations in “To Set a Watchman” is Malcolm Gladwell's 2009 article, “The Courthouse Ring,” about progressive moderates like Big Jim Folsom, a two-term governor of Alabama in the early 1950s, and how such moderates vanished from the stage in the strident aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Gladwell suggests that Atticus Finch was similar to Folsom in that he didn't want to change the system; he just wanted to change people's hearts. 

He's not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law,” Gladwell writes. “He's Jim Folsom, looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds.”

Gladwell's reading of the pro-jurisprudence Atticus of “Mockingbird,” in other words, anticipates the anti-Brown Atticus of “Watchman.”

All well and good. But I don't know how much I agree with Gladwell's criticism of moderates in general. He extrapolates beyond Atticus and Folsom, and brings in George Orwell's classic criticism of Charles Dickens. Orwell suggested that Dickens disapproved of “Dickensian” conditions without suggesting (or even desiring?) a change in the status quo. It's really one of the classic arguments of the left: Is the problem corrupt men or a corrupt system? And if you change the hearts of corrupt men, can that change the heart of a corrupt system? 

Here's the quote I disagree with:

[Dickens] believed in the power of changing hearts, and that's what you believe in, Orwell says, if you “do not wish to endanger the status quo.” 

I think that goes too far. Ten years ago, the issue of gay marriage was such a boon to the far right that the GOP put gay-marriage bans on state ballots to get out the vote for major elections; to get out their kind of people. And it worked. Folks in Oregon and Michigan and Georgia and Ohio voted to ban gay marriage. Ten years later? The opposite. From 2005 to 2015, there was a 20-percentage-point progressive shift in how Americans felt about gay marriage. Why? I would suggest that enough gay people came out to enough people who loved them that those people had a change of heart. And that change of heart changed the status quo. And that's why we are where we are.

But the above discussion also points out the danger we're in post-Obergefell. Progressives won that battle, just as, generations earlier, they won the battles over Brown, and Loving, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Progressives won all of those battles but they lost the war to Nixon, and then Reagan, as the politics of resentment trumped the politics of inclusion. Social progress couldn't be turned back but economic progress could. As a result, in my lifetime, we've had social progress (Brown, et al.) but economic regress (a movement toward oligarchy). And if that happened again now? After Obergefell? I doubt the middle class could take it.

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Posted at 09:28 AM on Sat. Jul 18, 2015 in category Politics  
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