Sunday, July 16, 2017
Pretty maids all in a row
Watching The Handmaid's Tale, it is eerie just how such a dystopian society might come into being. I have alluded numerous times to a Third Awakening taking place where America goes through yet another religious revival. We tend to dismiss these religious zealots but as Margaret Atwood made painfully clear in her book it is no laughing matter. For some it is the equivalent of establishing Biblical law.
The Handmaid's Tale turns Christian fundamentalism into the equivalent of The American Taliban, a society in which women no longer have any rights whatsover, especially reproductive rights. We are told of an environmental holocaust where fertile females have become a prized commodity to be bought and sold like chattel on an open market. Atwood's America, or Gilead as she calls it, seems to have the upper hand as it has found a way to corner the market. It is at once a feminist and capitalist nightmare.
Atwood wrote the book long before Trump became a political force, foreseeing the time religion and anarchist capitalism would cross-pollinate to create a new type of capito-religious order, for lack of a better word. One could argue it was easy to imagine such events currently unfolding, as she wrote the book during the time of Reagan. He had welcomed Jerry Falwell into the White House, and opened the door to religious yahoos like Pat Robertson, who subsequently ran for President in 1988.
Her religious whack jobs didn't use democracy to ascend to power, but rather staged a military coup. Onward Christian soldiers! What we have today is an infiltration of the Congressional ranks and even the Vice-Presidency by a host of newly awakened religious fundamentalists who want to see nothing less than a new religious order in this country. A far more subtle revolution than what Atwood imagined.
What Atwood missed, and indeed the creators of this new television series. is that these Christian soldiers didn't need to take America by gun point. They are doing a perfectly good job of convincing mainstream Americans to tilt toward their Biblical view of things by pointing out all the failures in modern society. You get wonderfully articulate evangelical pastors like Joel Olstein and Congressmen like Ben Sasse who can make very compelling arguments to join their movement.
They preach of a prosperity theology where money is a form of salvation not the root of all evil. This is why they seem to have so few misgivings with Trump. Jerry Falwell's son defends our President to the hilt, as do many of the leading televangelists today.
But, the television series wisely avoids getting too explicit. It sticks pretty close to Atwood's puritan sense of a theocracy, based on 17th century inspirations, rather than the modern-day evangelical megachurch. The creators have to fill in a lot, as they have updated the story to the present day and have many hours to fill. This is the first of several foreseeable seasons given how popular the first season has been. Maybe it will shift over time, but for now this is Atwood's America.
In Atwood's interview with Emily Watson, she says that things can "un-happen" as easily as they happen, noting that history is not a straight line. She praises the resistance to Trump, noting the "handmaidens" protesting his pernicious Trumpcare. However, Atwood, also shows how resistance can easily be crushed in a society that enjoys its creature comforts. It only takes a few rounds being fired to scatter a crowd, as protesters generally disdain violence in America.
These religious fascist movements have lacked the critical mass to gain sufficient momentum, but one gets the sense that is changing. Who could have imagined Trump would get 62 million votes. Even still, he fell 3 million short of Hillary, which gives us hope that America is not willing to go completely over to the dark side.
Instead, we see states that have become dark holes, where the kind of religious order Atwood describes is being realized. We have seen it in states as far flung as Alabama, Kansas and Utah. where the church has been able to garner considerable influence in politics. We tend to treat these states as aberrations, but when Trump takes 30 states you have to start to worry what is going on here.
This is what makes the new television series so compelling, as we can easily imagine such a religious coup taking place, military or silent. The events occur over a very short period of time and before we know it the inhabitants of Boston find themselves plunged back into a society not much different than John Winthrop's shining City upon a Hill, which Reagan and subsequent conservative leaders have evoked on numerous occasions. As such, The Handmaid's Tale remains as relevant today as when it was first published in 1985.