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Killing a Mockingbird

Image Source Front cover art for the book To Kill a Mockingbird

“Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.'”That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.”‘Your father’s right,’ she said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.”

—Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

“Take me to a place without no name.”

– Michael Jackson, “A Place With No Name”

Harper Lee’s book To Kill A Mockingbird continues to get reproduced. It is read across the country in school. Now the book is going to Broadway. We should all breathe a sigh of relief that Hamilton no longer center stage. What was with that play anyways? Could anyone figure that out? Wasn’t American history class nauseating and unbelievable for more people? If there was a national poll on Hamilton one would guess it would do no better than the 1% who actually saw it.

Hamilton and To Kill A Mockingbird are the same story, more or less. It’s a fairy type of heroic rich white men in a history that produced none of these characters. To dull the sins of the present moment these stories are repeated. History is told inaccurately not for history’s sake, but for the sake of the present. If there were heroes in the past, why couldn’t there be heroes now?

To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t about a black guy (Tom Robinson) getting accused of rape. Tom isn’t even real. He’s not a character, he’s just a plot structure. Could anyone say anything about Tom besides his race? To be fair, none of the characters are complex, well-developed or interesting in any way, shape or form. And yet the book is clearly about one person: Atticus Finch. Unlike the helpless but angelic prisoner, Mr. Finch is a real person. And he’s annoying as hell.

It’s not unusual for a rich guy to have platitudes. It’s unusual for them all to come true. And Finch works for the book because he has strict rules. He is law and order. He is meant to civilize the white trash whose racism makes them subhuman to rich whites like Finch. It is here that the racism of the audience is displaced. What generally happens when the bourgeois make these very ‘black and white’ stories is that prejudice is only confirmed. Once prejudice is accepted it can never be controlled. Once humanity looses its complexity, all we can see is complexion.

It is dangerous to teach children this fairy tale of good and evil. What we teach them is that justice comes from the top. Now power no longer corrupts. Power does not oppress. Power, when in the right hands, saves. To those in power, power is always in the right hands.

And in a story like this the black guy is subhuman not by his actions, but by definition. He is a cripple. And his story runs parallel to a freakish subhuman boy (Boo Radley) down the street who is accepted by Finch. The lesson is that “the others” are not as they appear, whether they be black or deranged—without any distinction between the two.

Maybe Harper Lee is smarter than she appears. Maybe she was writing this book from the perspective of a 6 year old to prove just how fantastical such a story was. At the very least, it’s an ageist book, and one that doesn’t age well. Except for on Broadway apparently, where the audience is just as rich, old and white as they ever have been.

On a seemingly unrelated note a new documentary is out. “Leaving Neverland” documents pop star Michael Jackson’s sexual abusive relationships with two young boys. From Donald Trump to Harper Lee to HBO, America remains fascinated by the construct of rape by people of color.

Why not make a remake of To Kill A Mockingbird involving Michael? Have this play still told from the perspective of a young child. Would Michael still be defended? Would his admirers be any less problematic than his detractors? Could anything beyond fame or criminality be considered? How would Atticus’ children react to Michael? Would the children be relieved to find a father figure who wasn’t so condescending? Or would the idea of treating these young children ‘as adults’ go too far and stunt the real merits of childhood that Michael himself supposedly lost along the way?

If Michael couldn’t sing, would anyone take his case? And if Michael couldn’t sing, would anyone hear from those children? How quickly would the Finch children turn on Finch’s hackneyed advice and run into the arms of the magical Mr. Jackson? How would Jackson’s relationship with Mr. Finch’s children test Finch’s “anti-racist” crusade?

How would such a book effect the reader? Most of the readers of To Kill A Mockingbird are young children, young enough to be influenced by a figure like Jackson, or even by a figure like Finch. How would the children benefit from hearing “both sides” of the story? Both from the hallow and sanctimonious Finch and from the deep and morally ambiguous Jackson? Could this book have a “happy” ending, where Mr. Finch goes to jail? Or would even the idea of “happy” be too corrupted by Jackson’s own dishonesty in dealing with real happiness in his fantasy land.

And yet, was Jackson’s fantasy any more far-fetched than Finch’s? Weren’t both men buying into the world of innocence where the always guilty black man is merely used as a way to prove that even he can be innocent? Circa bizarro O.J. Simpson, who killed two people and is publicized not as a symbol of innocence, but as a symbol of fear of the black mob for White America.

O.J. still gets play for three reasons: 1. To prove that the criminal justice system is not racist. 2. To normalize, or even celebrate violence and murder, specifically the murder of a woman. 3. To get White America frightened of black people dancing on the streets in their supposed celebration of Mr. Simpson. Remember when Donald Trump said that Muslims danced for joy after 9/11? It’s like that. It’s actually not that original of a story if we think about why it is repeated.

Could Jackson’s own transition to whiter skin be linked with his own quest for innocence and nostalgia? Because black children are not allowed to be children he had to become a white person to become a child. Black children cannot be innocent in America. Jackson is always seen as magical, and therefore harmless. He becomes a problem only when he tries to be real through the very magic that was supposedly who he really was.

Finch becomes a fictional hero for the ruling class and a pain in the rear for children. Finch becomes the hero because he is fair, he is civilized. He does not see race. He does not see prejudice. All you people need to do is walk in someone else’s shoes and you will know too.

But Finch won’t walk in anyone else’s shoes. He walks in his own. And his fans do too. For they are him. They are not at fault. They watch and watch. They are smarter than the story. They watch just to prove their fantasy that nothing is wrong. As long as there are fair-minded old white guys running the show (same as it ever was). Jackson has fans because no one can walk in those shoes. It’s called the moon walk. And it can’t be done, not in the same way.

Jackson is the mockingbird, so many years later. He sings. It’s sad when he dies because he was a pretty bird. But was he? And was that all he was? Who knew this man besides those who really knew him? And by God Atticus Finch does not understand mockingbirds. He sees them as a case. He’s a sociologist. Who does all that looking and still has no prejudice?

What use is Finch if he looks all day, runs the whole town, and comes up with nothing at all to be prejudiced about? Keep the world the same? How is that going, Mr. Finch? And give this to Jackson, he wanted to change the world, and he did. Rock is dead. Pop rules the world. It has critics. But no one really cares about them. So Jackson runs the world, Finch has his town. Jackson is a story, Finch is just bored. And maybe the great shakers only make things worse, after all. But they have a story at least. And it is a real story.

It is different sides of production. Finch decides. He decides who is guilty, who is innocent. Finch chooses innocent this time. Because this is fiction. And because no one at the top is scared of more Atticus Finchs. The same people from the same families and the same neighborhoods cycle in and out of the criminal justice system.

We can call these people on trial guilty and we can call them innocent, but is either true? For isn’t Finch really running the show? Not in the sense of declaring who is guilty, who is innocent. But in the fact that he is choosing either. And the fact that those on trial are always the same. They may have done it. They may have not done it. But who cares? Crime is a social problem. We get lost in the details and motives of each criminal. As a group there will always be a certain percentage of each class that did a crime, and this percentage will vary among the classes in questions.

So each time one of the underclass is saved it’s a story but never more than that, and therefore not a story worth telling. And Jackson sings. And we debate. If he did it. And why not believe the victims? But why should that be the story, or even really a debate? With some good people and bad people in each class, everyone has the same choices. And a good choice in one situation is like a bad choice in another.

Now the world sings Michael Jackson anyways. And no one really cares about these stories, as long as his song pops, which it does. And this kills Atticus Finch. Finch needs to control the world. He needs heroes and he needs villains.

Finch has more power than he thinks. He controls all parts of the world. Not just the trial. Finch controls before and Finch controls after. No one is guilty, and certainly no one has clean hands. And so Michael, let’s skip the public trial. They could ruin anybody if they wanted, why you? Robert Kraft made the news too. But everyone knew he was a predator already. Was this news? The only news is that it was covered up for so long. This is all of ICE too. Where was Donald Trump when The New York Times broke the story about migrant women being held hostage and raped repeatedly?

It happens in message parlors. It happens in the Church. MeToo’s most lasting accomplishment has been democratizing the role of Atticus Finch. Now it is less shameful to be the one who shames. Now it is not only Finch who can say what is right and wrong. Now an immigrant in detention can say so too. Occasionally only though. And only when approved by the corporate press. Which is why we are yet to come to terms with the military’s role in all of these dynamics. Finch is an imperialist just as much as Jackson may be a product of it—in both good ways and bad.

So it’s not random. It’s not captivating. It’s pervasive and sad and cruel. Jackson can’t and shouldn’t escape that evil. Still, pop rules the world. Micheal built that. That cannot be taken away.

There’s power in pop too. For everyone, if they want. It’s pop after all. And it’s not that trivial. It’s just life. And if pop is trivial, so is life. Golf needs a set of clubs, soccer only needs a ball. Rock needs a guitar, pop only needs a microphone, This is life.

Atticus wants power. Michael wants something else. And maybe power too. Atticus get off from hearing the sound of his own voice. Michael looked at the man in the mirror. Not for pleasure. But to really look.

To the contrary, the entire point of To Kill A Mockingbird is to congratulate the reader. It is not to make the reader think. It’s CNN. You decide. You make it fair. You make it right. None of it is true. And maybe even the reader is doing the best they can. If that’s the case why congratulate one’s self?

Jackson was pop before pop. You didn’t have to feel anything. You were here, he was here. And that was enough. And then Madonna. And then Rihanna. And then Drake. The top star now always projects less feeling. Finch drives the wedge of ambition. His children admire it but would they rather have a father? Finch wants you to feel. He strikes the right chords but doesn’t know what music is. Jackson just is. And that gives more than Finch ever could.

The larger quibble is that this book is still read very widely in school and is seen as the way to explain morality to children. To Kill A Mockingbird can only do so much damage to the Broadway crowd because there is only so much damage left to be done. As for our young people who continue to get more and more progressive, let’s give them better reading material.

Finch treated adults like children because his heart was too small. Jackson treated children like adults because his heart was too big. And in both cases power corrupts, while consequences are evasive. And justice has nothing to do with what these men could get away and with what their victims couldn’t. It was only class. Both will be seen as heroes and now almost by accident both will have to face the spotlight. Jackson entraps because he makes you feel alive. Finch entraps because he makes you feel powerless.

Wesley Morris of The New York Times argues that we haven’t been able to see the truth about Jackson before the new documentary because he was too magical for us to see through him. And yet, wasn’t it just the opposite? Jackson was so real that no one cared. No matter how convincing the documentary may be there are a lot of people who simply won’t care because Jackson gave so much to them in a real way. Jackson himself may have lived in a fantasy land but the star is always more distant from reality than their fans are. The star is the star because they can act as the link between the reality we all feel and the fantasy the star lives in. This fantasy is no more the star’s than it is ours. It is a fantasy that is both false because of its corporate distribution and true because of no one can truly exit the expectations of the bourgeois besides the bourgeois themselves.

The shift from rock to pop as the dominant music medium is in line with Karl Marx’s technological determinism. The shift from communal instrumentation to individual electronic sound expresses both the technological advances of capitalism and its alienating effects. Michael Jackson and Prince thriving at similar times points to a split, and perhaps the reason people always ask which one you prefer: Prince or MJ? What that question might be asking is do you prefer music before these two musicians or music after?

Prince was an instrumental pop artist, and maybe even closer to rock, if not closest to funk. Instrumentally speaking, Prince and the music that preceded him were quite material. They relied on material instruments for sound. The contradiction is that lyrically the focus was largely immaterial. Art that precedes the present age asked about broad immaterial concepts: love, God, purpose, etc.

Fast forward to Michael Jackson and modern day pop. No instruments in sight. Many of the pop stars can’t even sing. This isn’t meant as a diss. They are every bit as talented—they just use different skillsets which shouldn’t just be limited to the arena of music. Music itself is more or less a mathematical equation and in many ways the pop stars today have mastered the equation in ways older musicians never did. It’s like playing chess. A beginner will see the game as full of endless possibilities and will improvise at every turn. And yet as they improve they will find that the best move is both mathematical and formulaic.

As a result, pop music today is less about music than it ever has been. The formula of making a catchy song with a trendy character behind it has been mastered. Dominant singular stars then distinguish themselves in much the same way Jackson did. Lyrically the focus is material. There is no way to make any sort of formula out of the material world as a whole. The ridiculous skill of recognizing and remembering faces should prove this before we even get to the other material focuses of today’s music: sex, money and work. What pop stars now aim to do is capture the material reality of today’s precarious world which has lost the philosophical depth of pre-Prince precisely because we have transcended it materially as a whole and remain too insecure materially on an individual level to even contemplate these broader questions. Jackson’s focus on dance, fashion and vocal play all set the stage for the modern artist to branch out from a sound that no longer relies on instruments in the same way.

To Kill A Mockingbird is bad in part because it isn’t funny. There’s no room for laughter. You are suffocated the entire time. As far as racist classics go, at least give Heart of Darkness this: it’s supposed to be a comedy. Granted, there are no moments at which you would actually laugh. The Oscar winner Green Book is the same way. It’s supposed to be funny at least. Even though it isn’t. The Oscars have worse taste than the Russians when it comes to picking American winners (kidding, lefties).

Why would a movie like Green Book which is completely reductive and uninteresting beat out another Spike Lee classic, a legit good Hollywood  movie like A Star Is Born and an artistic success in Roma? Because Green Book makes the audience feel good. Because it tells the audience not that racism is dead, but that the bourgeois audience is part of the solution, not the problem.

A side note on A Star Is Born, which is a very good film. The film is more serious than it claims to be. However, the total takedown of pop music is so pretentious. Bradley Cooper kills himself because pop music is supposedly so “meaningless” that he just can’t take it. Lady Gaga still made one of the best pop albums of all time (The Fame) no matter what she thinks. The reason the movie holds up is because the real Gaga is still there, even if she tries to become more conceited than she’s capable of.

Art only means as much as the enjoyment it can provide the viewer. The liberal entertainment complex is highly linked with the military industrial complex and cultural imperialism in general. The purpose of this structure is to tell the viewer how to feel, not for the viewer to enjoy the product. While most art only practically functions as relief from the mechanisms of capitalist labor and alienation, critics like to judge art on whether the art means anything. This is interesting to be sure. Although it’s a very meta approach that implies that art has no value in and of itself.

This is the criticism of pop music and popular culture in general. The greatest philosopher ever may have been Karl Marx. This was not because he found anything that had meaning, truth, or enjoyment but because he was able to identify exactly what was preventing people from becoming the very philosophers that had enough time, money and relief from stress that could identify such philosophical implications in a way that was more than simply a product of their present condition. Hence, there is more truth in the anti-philosophy materialism of today’s pop than most any philosophy simply because now more than ever it is the material, not the natural world, that is present in our lives. There also must be truth that if there is such thing as a ‘natural’ state for humans (slowly adjusted by evolution), then the present times that are so overtaken by technology and individualism and so distant from nature and community that these times must be inherently alienating. The irony of pop music then is that it can speak to alienation precisely because it is the popular expression of it.

So, America, Michael Jackson should not be our mockingbird. He does not need us to save him. He is not a bird, he is a man. He is not a singer, he is a human. He is real precisely for the reasons To Kill A Mockingbird is not. He wanted to feel, he wanted to change, he wanted to inspire, and sometimes, he wanted to hurt. To Kill A Mockingbird should never go near a child again because it means nothing beyond a reproduction of its own mythos.

Jumping to Michael Jackson’s defense seems misplaced. Proving him to be innocent means nothing. Just as proving Tom Robinson innocent means nothing. Nor should the innocence be so certain. Jackson was many things. Not just a mockingbird. Pop can save lives and pop can ruin lives. It never has been the powerless cripple that Harper Lee imagines seeing in Tom Robinson, Boo Radley and the mockingbird itself.

Michael Jackson is not Tom Robinson with a voice, he is Atticus Finch with a soul. He, like Finch, can weave a fantasy tale and evade the consequences. Anyone with power and money can. What separates Jackson is that he actually had a story to tell. When most kids listen to Michael Jackson, it’s not required reading. For a few children though, Jackson was required.

If the layered world Michael Jackson created meant more than the sentimental magical world of Atticus Finch, we should avoid the sentimentality of seeing Jackson as a helpless mockingbird. Instead let us assert that he was a full human. An accurate depiction of humanity’s history would tell us that while this isn’t a compliment, it is the truth. Jackson will outlast Finch simply because there was some truth there. Truth is not found in the books that rich people require children to read, nor it is in the verdicts of rich lawyers who decide who is good and bad. Truth lies in pop. It lies in the music that captivates the masses, whether that be to our promise, or to our peril.

More articles by:

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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