Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Revisiting The Handmaid's Tale

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It's stunning to think that Margaret Atwood published her most famous piece of dystopian literature, "The Handmaid's Tale," over thirty years ago. I don't remember how old I was or what was happening in my life when I first read this book. I do remember how it made me feel, creeped out, frightened, but eventually, dismissive. I knew in my heart that the horrific happenings in the fictional world of Gilead could not happen here. Now? In 2017? I'm not so confident.

The Christian Right holds more sway than ever before in politics. An avowed racist is the Attorney General of the United States. Roe v. Wade is under assault, and women's healthcare issues were the first to fall in the new Republican proposed healthcare bill. In fact, the thirteen member committee formed by congress to address women's healthcare issues consists of thirteen old, white men. Nary a woman in the bunch. If this doesn't worry you, you are not paying attention.

At the very least you should reread or read for the first time, Ms. Atwood's prescient tale. While you're at it, stream the amazingly well executed video that is currently being shown in installments at www.hulu.com

The basic premise, for any of you who swim completely under the radar, is that we humans have made a real cock up of our stewardship of the earth. Radiation and pollution have poisoned our world. Many men are sterile and reproduction is on the wane. An unknown organization, purported to be middle eastern naturally, has overthrown the government and divided up the country into areas for living and for dying.

Women past child bearing years, look out ladies, who refuse to become matrons in the new world of Gilead, are sent to the outer reaches where they toil at toxic waste dumps as the environmental cleanup brigade. Of course, they and we know that it's basically a death sentence. The elite, the commanders and their wives, live in empty, lonely opulence, where they promote rigorous moral codes and host bible readings for their staff. The "marthas" are the lower class of kitchen worker, cooks, servants basically, and the "handmaids," are the fortunate few, chosen for their fertility. As long as they can reproduce they are safe.

In this world sex has been reduced to its cold basics. Procreation is the only goal, pleasure is prohibited, and if you manage to find it outside of the monthly ceremony in which the commander rapes the handmaid, the "eyes" are watching and they will know. Punishment runs the gamut from public shaming to castration to hanging.

But more sinister than the physical violence for transgressions (cattle prods play a prominent role in re-education), is the idea of mind control. Memories are erased through deprivation. Books, magazines, video, telephones are all verboten. Conversation among handmaids is not allowed for fear of subversive influences. There is a memorable scene where the commander tries to tempt his handmaid, Offred, with a contraband magazine. Even as she recalls browsing through this kind of flotsam, think "Glamour," in a doctor's office and breezily throwing it aside, Offred now salivates at the small chance of regaining normalcy if only for a few stolen minutes.

What's most terrifying though is how easily human beings seem to adapt to a new reality. What once was unthinkable, with the slow progression of time and the steady drumbeat of fake news, becomes status quo. The "go along to get along" mentality is inherent in our natures. People say, "why resist? Put your energy to better use. It will only be for a few years." But Margaret Atwood obviously disagrees and so must we.

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