Not as well-written, but far less reductive about racism. Photo: Getty
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Why Go Set a Watchman is a much better novel than To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee's newly released novel may not win another Pulitzer, but it's far more honest and mature about the complexity of racism in the South.

Go Set a Watchman turns out to be a hot mess of a book. The flashes of lyrical genius and ability to evoke the intensity of childhood play that come to fruition in To Kill a Mockingbird are in evidence, but so too are rather obscure discussions on constitutional law and the tenth amendment, an irritatingly pert main character, and a dull love interest. It’s nowhere near the novel Mockingbird is. It is much better than that.

In the days running up to Watchman’s release, Mockingbird fans – for there can be no other description, mere "readers" or "admirers" won't suffice – set aside difficult ethical discussions of whether the 89-year-old Harper Lee was capable of really consenting to the publication of what many believed amounted to a rough first draft of her work.

Instead fans took to twitter with their wishlist of what they hoped for in the sequel. Some hoped Scout and Dill would be married. Some hoped Jem and Scout spent Christmases together, filling Maycomb County with the happy chatter of their adorable precocious children. Some hoped Boo Radley was out and about, perhaps working in telesales. Curiously though, no one seemed to be hoping that Atticus was a fully paid-up member of the White Citizen’s Council, bending his arthritis-addled hands to the fight against integration, and explaining to Scout: “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people”.

Funny that no one saw that coming. Really, they should have. Because outside the white liberal fantasy that is To Kill a Mockingbird, the reality, the historical record shows us that (spoiler alert!) the vast majority of white Southerners were racist and didn’t want to sit next to black people in the theatre.

We did know that the so-called white trash Southerners, the KKK members, the Bob Ewells, the ignorant poor, didn’t want to sit next to black people. Mockingbird taught us that. What Watchman tells us, and tells us rather powerfully, is that racism is not confined to people who are so clearly not like us.

Some commentators on Watchman have suggested Atticus becomes racist as he gets older, as if some kind of dramatic ideological transformation has taken place in his worldview since Mockingbird.  It’s nonsense. He was racist in Mockingbird, but just politer about it. He thinks everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, and everyone should be able to access justice. He doesn’t want Tom Robinson to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit. He thinks Tom Robinson is a good man. But he doesn’t want to sit next to him in a theatre.

Racism is not, and never has been, a yes/no question. Many white Southerners who risked considerable personal danger to challenge some forms of racial injustice were perfectly comfortable with other forms. The Committee on Interracial Co-operation, founded in 1919 in Atlanta in response to a wave of racial violence across the South, wanted to improve communication between white and black people in the South. But they didn’t want to end segregation. The Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, founded in 1930, sought to protect people like Tom Robinson from the horrors of the lynch mob. But they didn’t want to end segregation.

Politeness in the South has always masked the kinder, gentler racism practised by middle-class whites. Shocked by the Supreme Court’s determination to force Southern states to abandon segregation, men like Atticus Finch – the “men of substance and character, responsible men, good men”, the men Jean Louise sees at the White Citizen’s Council  stop being polite.

The mistake made by so many fans of Mockingbird was to assume that a passion for justice and the rule of law went alongside a commitment to racial equality, and a determination to overcome prejudice. Sometimes, it didn’t. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton has said that Watchman, “reflects the reality of finding out that a lot of those we thought were on our side harboured some different personal feelings”.

This is what makes Watchman better than Mockingbird. It’s not better written, I doubt it’s going to win another Pulitzer, and since its release the list of actors queueing up to play Atticus in Mockingbird 2 got a lot shorter. But Watchman is a lot more honest. It doesn’t feed white America the comforting version of civil rights history where the bad guys are easily identifiable ignorant hicks, the good guys are heroic and noble white men with impeccable manners, and the black people are all subservient, respectful and endlessly patient.

Mockingbird is a child’s book, told by a child. Watchman is for grown-ups. It asks serious questions about what racism is. And it comes at a time when American desperately needs a grown-up conversation about race. 

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood