ON JANUARY 16, 2017, to ready its readers for the shock of the Trump inauguration, the New York Times published Michiko Kakutani’s portrait of Barack Obama. The “reader-in-chief,” Obama was the sainted apotheosis of the PMC elite. He did not enjoy inherited wealth; he was a man of the people, found and promoted by the meritocracy. He was liberalism’s dream come true. If we believed in him, then we could believe that social mobility was a “solution” to racism and inequality.
When Obama’s heir apparent, Hillary Clinton, lost the 2016 election to Donald Trump, Times readers needed solace. The Times delivered. “Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped in his life, convictions and outlook on the world by reading and writing as Barack Obama.” In Obama’s own words, reading allowed him to “slow down” and put himself in “someone else’s shoes.”1 Obama was paraphrasing Atticus Finch, hero of To Kill a Mockingbird. In Harper Lee’s award-winning novel about a lynching in Maycomb, Alabama, that took place during the Depression, Atticus teaches his daughter Jean Louise/Scout and readers a critical lesson about literature and empathy: “You never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” For Obama, as for most liberal readers, that metaphorical walk takes place through the act of reading. At the end of the Obama presidency, we were bombarded with studies about how reading literature expanded our capacity for understanding the experiences of others. Atticus and Obama showed us that individual acts of empathy and private self-cultivation would produce justice and understanding in a world torn apart by racism and violence. For liberals, this narrative was reassuring: Atticus was not just genteel and antiracist but he was the most virtuous member of his community and a member of the PMC. As a country lawyer, Atticus also became the ethical center of a barbaric and racist world.
In 2010, on the fiftieth anniversary of the novel’s publication, NPR celebrated Harper Lee’s fiction with a frothy article in praise of the book: one of the interviewees made sure to emphasize that Oprah Winfrey called To Kill a Mockingbird “our national novel.”2 In the 1970s, To Kill a Mockingbird was an embarrassing curiosity of Cold War propaganda, but in the Obama administration’s Common Core curriculum for ninth-grade language arts, To Kill a Mockingbird once again occupied pride of place in the canon and tradition of post–World War II American literature. The Obama administration wanted to revive the early 1960s era of high liberalism, but in style only. Although Obama had the opportunity, especially in his first term, to invest new federal funds into public education, his administration was reluctant to match the mobilization that took place in 1959, when the USSR’s launch of Sputnik forced Americans to match Soviet investment in both science (STEM) research and the humanities. Obama’s Common Core curriculum was allegedly a smarter set of federal standards imposed by a well-educated president to reform the dumbed-down, standardized test–oriented federal education reform instituted by his predecessor, George W. Bush, in the form of No Child Left Behind. Obama’s educational reforms, however, did not spur a massive reinvestment in public schools and public universities.
As both Diane Ravitch and Megan Kilpatrick have argued, educational reform is a euphemism for an ongoing war against unionized workers and the lower ranks of white-collar professionals.3 Fomenting public panic about the state of American schools, educational reformers, supported by for-profit corporations and not-for-profit private foundations, set out to create new assessment regimes to reward and punish teachers with merit pay and austerity budgets. For the past four decades, politicians have been trotting out the “schools are failing our children” as high neoliberal strategy in their antiworker rhetoric, attacking unionized public school teachers by undermining job security and their creative and intellectual autonomy in their classrooms. Improvement of educational outcomes for students is directly related to teacher compensation, smaller class sizes, and adequate funding, but under the Clinton, G. Bush, G. W. Bush, and Obama administrations, education reform has been designed to punish teachers for poor student performance. It is no accident that school teachers’ union strikes from Chicago to West Virginia were the first signs that workers were not going to put up with austerity policies any longer. In recent years, teachers’ strikes and their organized advocacy for their communities and their students provided some small signs of hope in labor action during times of ideological chaos.4 Let’s not forget that in the 1980s, Bill Clinton made national waves by courageously “standing up” to teachers’ unions, which became a part of the centrist politicians’ playbook to curry favor with conservtives. As governor of Arkansas, Clinton listened to think tank elites and proposed raising educational standards without raising school budgets. To improve Arkansas’s educational attainment ranking at forty-eighth out of fifty states, Clinton imposed a standards test on teachers. In return for passing the required teacher testing as law, Clinton pushed through a slight tax increase.5 The Heritage Foundation had found that Arkansas citizens’ lawsuits to maintain per-student funding levels at $5,400 was a sign of public profligacy that needed to be tamed.6 Bill Clinton agreed. Inciting moral panic about the state of public education has been a political expedient for liberals and conservatives alike. Bill Clinton’s unique style was able to combine post-1968 institutionalized identity politics with a fervor for austerity and budget cutting that made the wealthiest Democratic Party donors as happy as their Republican counterparts.
In 2011, Harvard Business Review called for federal curriculum reform that would encourage creativity, complexity, curiosity, and collaboration.7 Shortly thereafter, then president Obama hired Yale literature major David Coleman, an assessment “expert” with an “interest” in underserved populations, to oversee the reinvigoration of the language arts requirements in the Common Core. Obama and Coleman were interested, like all educational reformers, in “raising standards.” Their way of doing it? Through a program branded Race to the Top (RTT), which included the usual assessment (testing) of students and concomitant budgetary rewards and punishments for schools and teachers. Whatever the effectiveness of Common Core and RTT in raising educational attainment standards, the Obama administration left 19.3 percent of American children under the age of five living in extreme poverty.8 Coleman left his government position to become grand master of the meritocracy, or CEO of the College Board, the highly profitable “nonprofit” organization that oversees the SATs, GREs, and MCATs and all the multiple-choice exams that are meant to predict future academic success of test takers by sorting them into ordinary and extraordinary students.
Coleman, like every other Obama appointee, brought a brilliant pedigree to the administration. Like every literature and English major at Yale (including the author of this book and past and future National Security Agency/Central Intelligence Agency agents, such as super-spy James Jesus Angleton), Coleman was indoctrinated with the idea that close reading is the highest form of human intellectual activity.9 The Yale literature departments produced and promoted the Cold War based, New Criticism fetish of untangling complex texts: its fundamental methodology relied on the denial of context, whether social, historical, or political. Only under the myopic scrutiny of a good, close reading would an obdurate, clam-like text give up its iridescent pearl of gorgeous meaning. Yale and New Critics hated vulgarity and simplification in any form. Under Coleman, Common Core was shaped by the demands of close reading. When Common Core instituted a new federal test for language arts, the formidable DBQ, document-based questions, bore all the hallmarks of Yale-brewed “close readings.” The problem was that DBQ were not questions at all. In the case of To Kill a Mockingbird, students were expected to provide document-based evidence for a carefully pre-prepared thesis. (My son was told to show how the novel argues for the importance of “taking a stand.”)
So the answer would be that Atticus Finch appears as the one person in Maycomb capable of standing up to racists and rabid dogs: he is the bringer of a civilizing violence meant to protect and seal the community of the righteous. Lee’s novel is filled with hatred of the angry, defiant, pleasure-seeking poor white people represented by the awful Ewells. Burris Ewell, the youngest son of that accursed family, arrives at school covered in lice. Burris’s sister Mayella also has serious personal hygiene issues and is sexually needy and dishonest; the father of this accursed clan, Bob Ewell, cannot control his impulses for sex, revenge, or violence. Not surprisingly, the Ewells also live on public assistance. Bob assaults his daughter and frames African American Tom Robinson for the crime. Mayella perjures herself in court and accuses Robinson, a man she desired, of the violence inflicted upon her by her father. Atticus successfully defends Robinson in court, but Robinson is convicted despite the exculpating evidence. After his conviction, a mob lynches him while he tries to escape imprisonment. At the end of the novel, Bob Ewell is still angry about Finch’s defense of the innocent man, so he tries to kill the two younger Finches. During his attempt at double homicide, he is conveniently murdered by town shut-in Boo Radley.
In the opening scene of the novel, the Cunninghams, poor, noble farmers and foils to the yucky Ewells, pay Atticus’s legal fees in hickory nuts. When Scout asks Atticus if the Finches are poor, Atticus tells Scout that the Finches are poor, but not as poor as the Cunninghams. Atticus explains to Scout that the “proud” Cunninghams, whose farm is mortgaged to the hilt, will not take public assistance. The Cunninghams are virtuous poor people. The Ewells are bad poor people: they take public help. With more than half of American children having experienced public assistance at some point or another in their short lives, it seems sadistic to make them read a novel about a noble, virtuous lawyer and the evil public assistance–abusing poor people trying to kill his family. If poor ninth graders pay attention in their language arts classes, they must feel humiliated by their family’s willingness to take what the worthy poor of Harper Lee’s novel refuse.10
It is clear that the ideological message of To Kill a Mockingbird underwrote Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform. Just as Clinton attacked teachers when he was governor of Arkansas, he attacked welfare and welfare recipients as president. In creating more punishing systems of social support, Clinton, like Harper Lee, promoted the idea that welfare creates dependency and corruption in the poor. Like Lee, he promoted the idea of the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. When Bill Clinton transformed welfare into TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, his policy makers turned poor children into the “good” deserving poor and their parents into lazy shirkers who deserved punishment and austerity.11 Neoliberal policies argue that social safety nets do not catch people falling down; they trap people from rising up. For Lee’s novelistic support of such views of the poor, she received a Pulitzer Prize, a National Medal of Freedom (from President George W. Bush), and a National Medal of Arts (from President Barack Obama).
The novel predicted the triumphs of the post-1968 PMC: the moral rectitude of the virtuous lawyer and his high-spirited daughter renders the solution to racism attractive to the establishment—work on individual capacities for empathy and walking in another human being’s shoes; read books; have righteous feelings. To Kill a Mockingbird was an extraordinarily effective piece of Cold War anti-Communist propaganda: based on a liberal fantasy that antiracism is about good white people defending helpless black people against bad (poor) white people, it created an image of American liberalism that was a powerful tool for winning hearts and minds at home and around the world.
In July 2015, HarperCollins published Go Set a Watchman, a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. Reviewers were disappointed with Watchman, not only in the quality of its writing but also because it revealed that Atticus was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. In the novel, he confesses his affiliation to the grown-up Scout, who now lives in New York City and is home in Alabama on vacation. Although the New York Times and Kakutani worried about the bitter disappointment that Lee’s fans would experience after discovering that Atticus Finch was a racist, the second novel is proof that Lee was actually an ambivalent propagandist.12 Historical accounts and archival evidence have long confirmed that Klan membership and lynch mobs were made up of educated, wealthy white people who were upstanding citizens of their communities. Many of them, like Atticus, were educated professionals.13
If Lee was trying to correct the false, elitist image of racism promoted by To Kill a Mockingbird, Kakutani is oblivious to the writer’s attempt at historical self-correction. In fact, Kakutani’s 2016 portrait of Obama the reader and the thoughtful man is pure ideology. Obama’s bookish empathy had distinct limitations. He deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president before him. The post-2008 bank bailout saved bankers but threw millions of Americans out of their homes as they defaulted on usurious mortgages. Obama governed for Wall Street interests, his hand guided by PMC elites, and not for the working classes and those who were victims of banking chicanery and malfeasance. Was it possible that Obama empathized more with Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, than with ordinary African American families who lost their homes and livelihoods because of the financial crisis?
In a country that imagined itself uniquely capable of leveling all playing fields and creating equality of opportunity for an astounding array of people of all genders, races, sexualities, gender identifications, and so on, American institutions are increasingly adept at distributing rewards for intelligence and hard work to the few—the suffering and exclusion of the many be damned. In fact, since the 1970s, PMC elites have come to enjoy astounding levels of economic and psychic stability, something to which working-class, non-college-educated people can lay only the feeblest of claims. Furthermore, as Ann Case and Angus Deaton show, a dramatic decline in life expectancy and well-being among middle-aged, non-Hispanic working-class whites without high school degrees has taken on the characteristics of a massive public health epidemic.14 Unfortunately, deaths of despair is a term with which we have all become much too familiar. Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has proved itself much more lethal in working-class communities of color: PMC workers who can stay home to do their work can enjoy an added health advantage in the age of the pandemic.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the labor of others allowed for European bourgeois elites to use their leisure time to cultivate sensibility and sensitivity in an allegedly disinterested manner, a select group of men and women of leisure came to imagine new forms of sociability and intersubjectivity. Today’s capitalists and PMC elites are also into self-cultivation, but their anxiety about their “privilege” makes them work very hard to humiliate others and project themselves tirelessly as a cultural and political vanguard, doing things to themselves of which ordinary people are incapable. PMC elites are always experimenting with themselves: from returning to the “land” under the aegis of new communalism to keto diets, only drinking sewage-laden raw water, and intermittent fasting, their self-indulgence is always a kind of sanctimonious austerity. In terms of etiquette and new forms of mutual address, PMC elites have pioneered a language of liberal tolerance that the working classes have not mastered. PMC elites, consciously or unconsciously, want to humiliate their adversaries by attributing to them a desperate lack of intelligence, empathy, and virtue.
When Kakutani interviewed Obama and he paraphrased Atticus Finch on how not to be a racist, the PMC elite was deifying a mode of reading that was meant to build a set of weak but socially legible links between people in closed-off, insular worlds of sensibilities and sensitivities. Obama, Kakutani, and the early Harper Lee play important roles in inculcating us with the values of American pluralism, here seen as a top-down lesson in the incorporation of professionalized, liberal protocols of self-improvement. Other people, other experiences, only exist to the extent that they can expand our capacity for empathy and feeling. Obama and Kakutani were teaching us all a lesson about how to deal with our cultural inheritance: their PMC didacticism offers lessons we should refuse to learn. Let us read Atticus Finch as a political project and the novel in which he exists as a piece of well-crafted, anti–welfare state, antisocialist propaganda. Reading matters deeply, but not in the way Obama and Kakutani want it to.