Going to Hell with a Handbasket: Re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale, November 2004
Issue #72, February 2005
I am sitting in the corner of the library café checking e-mail. Last night I fell asleep thinking Kerry would take Ohio. Now it's November 3rd, early afternoon. E-mail to sift through; it seems every listserv to which I subscribe now have a similar thread. Subject headers read: RE: RE: Why?!?! or RE: RE: RE: What Happened?!?! Most Mount Holyoke students passing by seem somber and listless. A few students from my present and past classes stop by to commiserate or ask, "Why?!?!" or "What Happened?!?!," knowing full-well that no one's going to give a satisfying answer.
I open an e-mail from an activist listserv. Someone writes, "just to lighten things up on a shitty day, check this out:" I click on the attached file. That's where I first see it:
At first glance, I get a chill. I don't feel particularly lightened up. I swing my laptop over for my students to see. One says, "Shit. That's it, that's exactly it." She laughs, disgustedly. She's from Tennessee, I think. "Yeah, that's exactly it, friggin' Jesusland."
I'm not laughing. The map has me disconcerted. I see maps in my mind's eye sometimes. I know I have seen this before. Somehow, I know this one.
A Civil War map obviously comes to mind. We're discussing how the election seems to play out the "Culture Wars." But, we're thinking: "Weren't we, the left, weren't U.S. liberals, weren't educated women supposed to win this battle? We're progressives! Education! Optimism! This is part and parcel of our progressivist package, isn't it?"
That's when another woman comes along and says something about the Supreme Court. The conversation turns to Roe v. Wade. I realize then how I know the Jesusland map: it's "The Republic of Gilead" as I picture it in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.
North and South
A few students have heard of The Handmaid's Tale; none have read it. I tell them about it, as the ideas come flooding back to me. It's a dystopian novel, set in the futuristic Republic of Gilead. Using Islamic fanatics as an excuse, conservative Christians have taken over the United States, have established a fascist theocracy, and are now in a continual state of war with dissidents and with other countries. Most people in Gilead are infertile because of worsening pollution and weapons failures. The few fertile women are taken to camps and trained to be Handmaids, birth-mothers for the upper-class. Infertile lower-class women are sent either to clean up toxic waste or to become house servants for the elite. No women in the Republic are permitted to be openly sexual. Officially, sex is for reproduction only. The Gilead government declares this to be an improvement on traditional sexual politics where women were seen as sexualized objects. The main character in the novel is a Handmaid, Offred, who has been given to Fred Woodruff, a Commander in the Gilead Army. She is expected to bear his child. In the end, we learn that Offred is able to escape from the Commander's household, via the "Underground Femaleroad" towards some place in the "Free North"...
As I told my students about The Handmaid's Tale, they could see why the "Jesusland" map hit me hard - The Republic of Gilead was the Red States, the "Free North" was the Blue. Margaret Atwood's vision seemed frighteningly prescient. On November 3rd, that feeling like the American downhill slide was supposed to have been halted or at least slowed by Bush being defeated. Now I was feeling like, "dystopia, here we come".
Later that afternoon, I located the book on the library shelves upstairs, and I lost myself in re-reading the novel. I'd recalled a few things inaccurately in summarizing the story, but, wow, even more details were ringing true as I read.
I had forgotten that Atwood had placed her tale squarely in the "most opinionated zip code" (02138) in United States. She'd purposefully chosen Cambridge, Mass. as the backdrop to play off the locality and some of the puritanical, close-minded ideals upon which early America had been founded. So, no, the "Jesusland-U.S. of Canada" map was not a perfect fit with Atwood's vision. Her Gilead was based on a coup of the entire United States, so essentially all of the country was a Red State in her story. But then, of course, didn't it feel like the Red States had taken over on November 3rd, 2004? Maybe reading this novel was a way to read our current situation...
A Conservative Coup and a Passive Public
We learn about Atwood's Republic of Gilead through historical flashbacks. The United States was taken over by a coup. The president and Congress were machine-gunned down and the army declared a state of emergency. The entire situation is blamed on Islamic extremists, but this is just an excuse for the far right to take power and suspend the Constitution. In shock, people stay at home and watch a state of continual war on their televisions. Over time, news programming is increasingly censored and everyone has to carry an Identipass, for their own safety.
Again, not a perfect fit, but there are parallels. The George W. Bush regime came to power by what many consider a coup, albeit a judicial coup. The regime has since solidified its hold on power by blaming Islamic extremists. And, while I refuse to get into conspiracy theories about the attack on World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I have no qualms with accusing the Bush government of using Islamic extremism as an excuse to try to suspend parts of the Constitution.
In shock, we sit and watch our televisions which are increasingly... censored? Auto-censored? Tuned to Fox News declaring Ohio hours before the rest of the networks? And for the most part, we passively accept new forms of national security. Our leaders are doing their job, keeping us safe in a time of continual war. Soon will everyone have to carry an Identipass?
In Gilead, the elite change the vocabulary. Feminists are described as subhuman, as "Unwoman." Blacks are called "Sons of Ham;" Jews, "Sons of Jacob." Domestic servants become "Marthas" in reference to a domestic role in the New Testament. Local police become "Guardians of the Faith" and soldiers are "Angels." Offred is sent with her basket to do the household shopping at "Loaves & Fishes" and "Milk & Honey." Gilead uses religious terms to provide the populace with constant reminders that the State is not oppressive but instead acts on the authority of the Bible.
People will endure oppression willingly, Atwood is telling us, as long as they receive or retain some slight amount of power or freedom. At one point in The Handmaid's Tale, when Offred tries to dredge up past memories, before the conservative coup, she recalls her mother, a feminist, talking about how women had survived through difficult times: "Humanity is so adaptable," she would say, "Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations."
Always at War and Keeping Us Safe
The far-away war we've been experiencing since March 2003 appears to be an on-going project; something that allowed Bush supporters to say things during the campaign like, "There's a war on, we can't be changing horses midstream!" As the War on Iraq enters its third year this spring, will we settle into a permanent state of there's-a-war-on? Will we accept a continuing curtailment of civil liberties because there's-a-war-on? Will we accept our country's violations of human rights because there's-a-war-on? Will we continue to seek God's blessing in the name of there's-a-war-on?
In the Republic of Gilead, Offred seems to settle into an acceptance of on-going war. At one point, she meets Ofglen, another Handmaid with whom she is assigned to go shopping. Ofglen greets her with an accepted orthodox greeting before entering into another accepted conversation, saying that she's heard the war is going well. "Praise be," responds Offred. "They've defeated more of the rebels, since yesterday." "Praise be," replies Offred.
As the pair walk along, handbaskets in hand, they pass checkpoints overseen by Guardians of the Faith, low-level soldiers who have been known to be the most dangerous to women because of their overzealousness. Some Guardians of the Faith killed a woman just a week before when she took too long, fumbling to find her Identipass. Offred learned about this incident when she overheard two Marthas in her household speak about it. One was angry, but the other accepting. "Doing their job," she said, "keeping us safe."
In the Republic of Gilead, pollution has made large tracts of land too poisonous to live in for any length of time. These are the Colonies, the places where one is sent for punishment for crimes against the State. Offred, who we learn once tried to escape Gilead, could be sent there if she is found to be infertile. The Colonies are dreaded places, places for the undesirables to live out short lives.
In today's United States we obviously don't have anything as extreme, but it does bring to mind how the American elite have access to the healthier living places and the poorest are much more likely to live near or in more highly polluted areas. As the U.S. becomes more and more stratified, the human right to live in a toxin-free, healthy environment looks increasingly like a privilege. With four more years of the Bush administration, anything resembling the discipline of the Kyoto Accords looks more and more distant from our reality. We have to wonder. Will the MTBE-ing of the groundwater and the Love Canals-to-be make the poor even poorer in health? Will the brownfields of today become Gilead's toxic Colonies?
Values, the media tell us, were the hinge of the 2004 elections! Gays and lesbians wanting to get married, that's what lost the vote for the Democrats. Eleven states held referendums that asked their legislators to make gay marriage illegal. People who did not accept their God-given sexuality, their God-given gender roles - that's what made the States go Red! Abortion and a woman's right to choose was obviously a voting issue that, so the media tell us, came down to values. We're told that Values, Christian values, had been forgotten and maybe this was a wake-up call to the rest of the country, to the rest of the world, that Christian values were the "bedrock of our democracy." And, the separation of Church and State (once considered another "bedrock") was not quite as important - perhaps we've needed to have our government intervene and help instill some Values!
In the Republic of Gilead, Offred lives in a fascist theocracy where the church is the state and the state is the church. Gays and lesbians can be killed for committing homosexual acts. Along one of her walks, Offred sees two men hung in a public square, signs around their necks proclaim: "Gender Treachery." Not unlike how some Red State rednecks found Matthew Shepherd's sexuality offensive to their idea of masculinity and the male order, in the Republic of Gilead homosexuality is an affront to the State God and the patriarchal order of the society. Homosexuality is also sex for something other than procreation, another affront to human dignity according to the church-state.
For reasons of this all-important procreation, in a time when the Gilead population is decreasing, women are valued first and foremost as wombs. In one scene in The Handmaid's Tale, Offred is bathing and realizes how her nakedness seems strange to her. Once she revealed her breasts and buttocks in swimsuits, now she has them always covered. We see how Offred's view of her body has changed and more generally how women think of themselves differently in this new state. Offred had once thought of her body as an instrument for living, providing her transportation and giving her pleasure, but now she feels like she is a "cloud, congealed around her central object." When she menstruates, she feels hateful towards herself, menstruation means failure at her central purpose in life, procreation.
The Republic of Gilead is a patriarchal society, casting women as either virgin or whore, with no in-between type. In Gilead, the virginal women are those whose sexual lives are tightly restricted. These women are the sexless wives and daughters, the nearly invisible Marthas, and the holy Handmaids capable of procreation. Patriarchal hypocrisy, however, must have its whores of course, and so, in Gilead, we are introduced to Jezebel's, a men's club named for a depraved Old Testament queen who symbolizes the prototypical evil woman in a Judeo-Christian imagining. Powerful men who preach and force into practice a strict sexual morality by day, spend evenings with prostitutes. The State Church of Gilead has an ideology based on a mixture of fundamentalist readings and certain warpings from the Old Testament and it - supposedly - wholly rejects modern science. However, when Offred's "owner," the Commander, takes her to Jezebel's, he rationalizes its existence, conveniently using modern sociobiology to override fundamentalist Christianity, saying that men naturally need multiple sexual partners: "You can't cheat Nature," he says, "Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it's part of the procreational strategy. It's Nature's Plan."
God as Choice Resource
Not unlike today, in Gilead, we see leaders pick and choose from whatever belief system, religious or otherwise, to validate contradictory ideas or behaviors. God, for the conservative elite in today's United States, is a concept that can be used to keep people in line. God is a drumbeat that can keep a large part of the faithful population in lockstep with a whole range of ideologies, a transference from Christian values that have at least some basis in the Bible (sexual mores, for example), to modern industrialist values - if we know that God blesses America, we know that He must also be blessing the American way of life. He blesses free-market deregulations, undermining of national labor relations boards, and roll-backs of the civil rights laws in the courts and legislature. He blesses SUVs, drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, and wars on Middle Eastern countries. God's blessing is our resource that allows us to destine our manifest to when and where we want.
In Offred's world, she must attend "Prayvaganzas," a word that combines "pray" with "extravaganza." These celebrate anything from mass weddings to military victories, but their most important overall function is to emphasize the new order where prayer serves a public State function. Church and state are not separate, but comprise one entity where Prayer is not meant to be a private matter, but instead a public spectacle to be performed with shared patriotic fervor. A banner hangs over the district Prayvaganza that Offred is obliged to attend: "God is a National Resource."
Re-reading The Handmaid's Tale in 2005
Since re-reading The Handmaid's Tale that afternoon of November 3rd, I don't think I've gotten any more comfortable with the idea of four more years of George W. Bush. I try not to preach my political beliefs too much in the classroom and I try to give my Christian conservative students space to air their views. And, I have been criticized for it by many of my feminist-minded Mount Holyoke students who argue that the United States is conservative and reactionary: can't they have one place where progressive politics and feminist thought holds sway?
Some of us have discussed the book further during my informal office hours in the library café. Yes, the Jesusland-U.S. of Canada is not an exact fit, but, wow, the other stuff is scary. I tell my students that Margaret Atwood wrote the novel in a frightening time for many of us - about five or six years into the Reagan-led conservative revolution. We were scared of the Reagan administration's arrogance and belligerence towards international law and its prolonging of the Cold War through a furthering of the arms race. I remember reading the novel at about the same time that Iran-Contra was breaking and the stories of the 1979 October Surprise were beginning to circulate. I had had the wan hope that maybe these scandals could bring down Reagan and his cronies. And of course, far from being vilified, Reagan is somehow credited with ending the Cold War earlier, not later, and his presidency is remembered gloriously in the mainstream press.
Now, as we talk some two decades later, many of my Mount Holyoke students were born during Reagan's second term, after The Handmaid's Tale had been published. I'm telling them that, frankly, this time is scarier, that we're further down the path of conservative ideals and with fewer balances and checks upon the far right's revolutionary goals. And, now, as I've been re-vamping my teaching plans for my Spring 2005 semester courses, my temptation is to somehow work up a justification to include the novel in my social sciences-type syllabi. The anthropology of dystopian communities, here and then? The sociology of theocracy, where we'd read the current Time along with The Handmaid's Tale?
In Atwood's Republic of Gilead, the elite created an official vocabulary that ignored and warped reality in order to serve the needs of the new elite of the society. Warping reality today, as 2004 is becoming 2005, George W. Bush has been chosen as Time's Person of the Year - based "on his faith in the power of leadership" and "for reframing reality to match his design."
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
D. Wallace teaches at Mt Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. and asks readers to not let the bastards get them down.
The Assumption (2004), Rosemary O'Gorman. Reproduced by permission of the artist.