May 20, 2017

Don't believe the hype

In the spring of 1988, while in grade 12, I traveled to Calgary for a high-school band competition. To pass the time en route, in addition to the homework assignments for the days I was away, I had a reading list for the grade 13 English literature course. I would be taking the course the following year, but my then-girlfriend was enrolled in it, and she gave me the list of books (and my teachers were happy to loan me copies).

The required reading included Brave New World, The Stone Angel, and Cannery Row; optional books included Nineteen Eighty-Four, likely one or two titles that I have since forgotten, and, notably, two novels by Margaret Atwood: The Edible Woman and The Handmaid's Tale. The curriculum had a distinctly dystopian edge for some reason. Over the course of the trip, I devoured them all. I distinctly recall reading The Handmaid's Tale in one or two sittings on the return trip somewhere between Calgary and Winnipeg; in my mind, the novel still evokes memories of sunny prairies, grain elevators, and wheat fields seen from a train window, in stark contrast to the novel's actual, bleaker subject matter.

In the near future, an environmental disaster has rendered the majority of women infertile, and a fundamentalist dictatorship called the Republic of Gilead has arisen and taken over most of the United States. Society has been divided into castes, and women are denied fundamental rights. Divorces have been nullified and any divorced and remarried woman is now considered an adulteress. Divorcees and other fertile women considered immoral are re-educated and assigned as "Handmaids"—concubines for male elite "Commanders" whose wives cannot bear children. A Handmaid is expected to bear children by having ceremonial intercourse with her Commander while lying between the knees of his wife.

The protagonist of The Handmaid's Tale is a Handmaid named Offred—literally, "of Fred," as Handmaids must take the name of their Commanders and are forbidden to use their own. We never learn what her real name is (though it is implied that it was June). The novel is Offred's memoir. She is essentially Fred's property, at least until such a time as she is assigned to another Commander. Though her subservience is required by law, she is despised by Serena Joy, Fred's wife. She must wear distinctiveness robes and a wimple that prevents others from seeing her face. She is not allowed to be outside unaccompanied. She may not meet with the Commander except during the monthly Ceremony in which he attempts to impregnate her; if she does not conceive, it is assumed that she is the infertile one. She cannot possess money, act autonomously, or even read or pursue other intellectual activities. Even her thoughts and facial expressions must be closely guarded lest she be seen and arrested by the Eyes, Gilead's secret police.

Apparently, dystopian novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, amongst others, have shown a sharp uptick in sales since the 2016 election of Donald Trump. And the coincidental debut of the Hulu ten-episode miniseries based on The Handmaid's Tale has also been hailed as timely. (The series was announced last April, and its planning would have been well in advance of Trump being a serious contender for the presidency.) While Atwood's analysis of her own work is fairly sensible, many on the Left have not been so circumspect. For example: "Now that Mike Pence is our vice president, the entire country will look more like Gilead," writes Sarah Jones in the New Republic. And Madeleine Davies, writes, on the feminist blog Jezebel:

The concept of The Handmaid's Tale is wildly disturbing, but hardly unfathomable as we enter an era of increasingly draconian abortion law and a far-right leaning federal government that—during the brief time that the Trump administration has been in office—has shown little regard for the constitution and human rights in general. In the world of The Handmaid's Tale, and the world we live in, it takes very little time for a governing body to strip you of your freedom, especially when you already belong to a discriminated class like women, people of color, and non-Christians.

Here's the thing. The Left has been predicting an imminent theocracy every time a Republican is elected to the White House. This has happened since at least the Nixon administration. It wasn't true in the height of the Reagan years when the novel was first published, and it still isn't true today. In my lifetime, I have observed that the Democratic presidents—Carter, Clinton, and Obama—have been more overtly pious than the Republicans, excepting perhaps George W. Bush. Though a self-identified Presbyterian, Donald Trump is arguably the person least interested in religion to have occupied the Oval Office. Seriously—the man seemingly thinks his status entitles him to grope women's privates. Do Leftists actually think he is going to spearhead a fundamentalist Christian dictatorship?

Atwood has said that everything she describes in The Handmaid's Tale has actually happened in history. I don't doubt it. But it's never happened all at once. The Republic of Gilead is a mashup of aberrant religious practices that has never occurred in any Christian society, and never will. It was the Christian worldview that laid the intellectual foundations for such Western liberal concepts as the free market, the rights of women, universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery, public education, and individual liberty—all conspicuously absent in Gilead. (To be fair, Atwood never specifically calls Gilead a Christian theocracy. In fact, in the novel, the sect is opposed by mainstream Christians who have mounted an armed resistance.)

Moreover, at the end of the third episode of the Hulu series, Offred's friend Ofglen is discovered to be a lesbian. This warrants the death sentence (her partner is hanged), but since Ofglen is still fertile, she is spared but punished with the removal of her clitoris. Now, there is a regime that executes homosexuals, priests, Christians and other dissenters, treats women like chattel and denies them equal access to education and other benefits of society, enforces a strict female dress code including face coverings, practices female genital mutilation, and longs for a universal theocracy. Of course, it's "Islamophobic" to point out that the Republic of Gilead looks more like the Taliban than Westboro Baptist Church.

The Left, it seems, has a uncanny inability to predict the future or to describe the world as it actually is, which calls into question the judgment of anyone who would take a Leftist pundit seriously.

All that said, if you take The Handmaid's Tale for what it is—a classic of dystopian science fiction—then be sure to check out the Hulu series. It is generally faithful to the novel, beautifully filmed, well-casted (particularly Elisabeth Moss [Mad Men] as Offred), and just all-round spectacular television. Enjoy it for what it is, but don’t buy into the hype about its prescient relevance for 2017.