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Pat MurphyAs July dwindles down into August, here are a few personal reflections on three of the month’s big stories – Greece, Iran, and the brouhaha about Atticus Finch.

It was obvious from the get-go that Greece was placing all its chips on the belief that the Northern Europeans, particularly the Germans, would ultimately agree to anything in order to prevent it exiting the euro. So if they went to the brink, the Germans would cave.

And given that Athens had very few cards in its hand, it wasn’t an illogical strategy. But the method of execution was decidedly weird.

If your arsenal is empty, why would you go out of your way to insult and alienate the people whose financial assistance you desperately need? Bluffing in a high-stakes negotiation is one thing, but gratuitously burning your relationship bridges is entirely another. It’s almost as if the Greeks opted for the ethos of the protest demonstration, replete with its emphasis on the thrill of the adrenalin rush and the emotional gratification to be mined from theatrically expressed outrage. Angela Merkel, however, wasn’t impressed.

As for the Iranian deal, I can readily see both sides of the argument. Realistically, it may be the best of an unappetizing set of options. And it’s always possible that it’ll buy some time during which the nature of the Tehran regime changes. Still, even the most optimistic scenario implies no more than a 10 to 15 year deferral in Iran’s ability to acquire a nuclear arsenal.

The real bottom line, I think, is America’s recognition of the limitations on its power and influence. With respect to the Middle East, Pax Americana is edging towards the exit door.

Lots of folks will cheer this development. Personally, I know several who can chill a dinner table with a rant on the question of who appointed America as the world’s policeman.

Then again, there’s the old caution about being careful of what you wish for. With American power in retreat and Shia Tehran potentially going nuclear, can anyone doubt that Sunni Riyadh will be far behind? And does that make you feel warm and comfy? Really?

Turning to Atticus Finch, I have no vested emotional interest in the character. Oh, I did see the To Kill a Mockingbird movie, but I didn’t read the book and have no interest in the newly discovered sequel. Although self-evidently heroic, Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus was a tad too saintly to move me.

But many people did find the character inspirational, and are thus shocked and betrayed to discover that the Atticus Finch in the sequel is, as a friend of mine puts it, a bigot! Some 20 years on from bravely defending the unjustly accused black man in 1930s Alabama, Atticus is an opponent of 1950s federal desegregation laws.

Although moral complexity abounds in the real world, this angst over Atticus suggests that it’s a difficult concept for many people. Historically, though, it’s feasible that an aware and intelligent white man growing-up in the Deep South during the first-half of the 20th century could believe that blacks should be treated fairly by the justice system – in the sense of not being convicted for crimes they didn’t commit – while simultaneously upholding racial segregation. Real people are multi-dimensional, and also prone to being influenced by their specific socio-political milieu.

For instance, take J. William Fulbright and Sam Ervin, two Southern Democratic senators who became liberal icons, one for his opposition to the Vietnam War and the other for his Watergate pursuit of Richard Nixon. But sanctified heroics notwithstanding, both men were consistent segregationists. Among other things, they opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Of course, apologists will be tempted to suggest that these segregationist positions were merely situational, a reflection of the need to pander to the prejudices of one’s political base. If so, whether such expedience constitutes a mitigating factor poses an interesting question. Sincerely holding reprehensible views is one thing, but just pretending for political gain is quite another. Different people will make different choices as to which they prefer.

Mind you, it’s a dilemma that’s forever with us. In 2008, Barack Obama professed to be an opponent of same-sex marriage, only to mysteriously evolve over the next four years. Swallowing that one requires more than a single grain of salt.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

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Atticus Finch

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