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Opinion

Bye, Tony Soprano. Welcome back, Atticus Finch.

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The last hero of this era was Atticus Finch. In "To Kill a Mockingbird," this gentle lawyer and widower with two children took on racism in 1930s Alabama. By defending a Negro (Tom Robinson) falsely accused of raping a white woman, he planted himself squarely against the prevailing social code and the state's legal system, isolating his family.

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Daunting as his quest is, Atticus explains to his children that an innocent man must be defended and he himself must "hold my head up." Along the way, he teaches them equanimity (don't resort to fistfights), empathy (walk in another's shoes), respect (it's a sin to kill a mockingbird). Yet the power of moral conscience notwithstanding, Atticus knows its vulnerabilities. He loses the case, Tom dies trying to escape, and our hero is spat on.

Still, "loser" though he is, he remains a winner to his children – and to our cultural imagination. The American Film Institute voted Atticus Finch as the No. 1 hero in 100 years of film.

Today, we need Atticus's example more than ever. Are not our financial collapse and national decline a moral collapse? To rescue ourselves, we need – desperately – the hero's qualities of intellect, equanimity, civic responsibility, and – vitally – moral conscience. We need to quit the snark and stigma against these qualities and the many people who live by them. (Columnist Maureen Dowd derided them as "virtuecrats.")

Leading the way upward is Obama, who closed his inaugural speech invoking George Washington on the two things needed in dark times: hope and virtue. The next day he forbade US torture, resetting our moral compass. In his first address to Congress he pressed his presidency's theme: responsibility. He now exhorts us to "our better history."

Even with heroic action, the odds of national recovery are long. But with Atticus Finch and Barack Obama, it'd be a nobler fight, not a suicidal one in which bad people continue to do bad things without opposition. Recall that the antiheroes who followed Atticus Finch – Michael Corleone ("The Godfather" trilogy), Travis Bickle ("Taxi Driver"), Gordon Gekko ("Wall Street"), Tony Soprano – all wreaked their havoc without a moral counterforce of equal weight pushing back.

Time to push back. Time to push "the edge" upward. Time to restore, not an idealized America, but America's ideals – by pitting Atticus Finch against Tony Soprano.

Carla Seaquist is a playwright. Her forthcoming book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, and the American Character."

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