Are We Living in the Early Years of "The Handmaid's Tale"?
Updated: Aug 15
Margaret Atwood’s America might be a wake up call to resist our “new normal”
As a lawyer, I’ve been trained to spot problems and point out all the ways that things can possibly go wrong. I ask a lot of questions, which tends to make people think (and also make them uncomfortable). I’m not always fun at parties.
I guess I’m what you’d call a squeaky wheel.
Squeaky wheels get a bad rap, but they actually serve a valuable purpose in society: they let us know when the cart we’re riding in is in trouble. Ignore the squeaky wheel for too long, and our cart might break down. When that happens, everyone will wonder why no one told them the cart had problems. They’ll forget about the squeaks they heard along the way.
One thing that lawyers and squeaky wheels are extremely sensitive to is the so-called “slippery slope,” the possibility that a temporary or limited restriction of rights now could lead to further restrictions in the future. Slippery slopes are deceptive. When we're on them, we barely notice we’re moving at first, and by the time we realize how far we’ve gone, we’re going too fast to stop. Slippery slopes are also unforgiving. Once we head down them, it’s damn hard to turn back. And when we find ourselves at the bottom, dazed and incapacitated, we always wonder why we didn’t put on the brakes sooner.
We’ve been down these slopes before. The inconveniences we endured to fight the war on terror after 9/11 have gradually turned America into a quasi-police state, faster each year. Getting on a plane used to be fun and exciting; now it feels like inmate processing at a county jail. Privacy has become a thing of the past; the surveillance state tracks and monitors us like packages in the supply chain.
Over the past twenty years, we’ve relinquished civil liberties that would horrify our freedom-loving ancestors — from the Founding Fathers to Martin Luther King, Jr. — and we’ve allowed it to happen in the name of safety and security.
While all of this has been happening, Republican and Democrats have cycled in and out of the White House and traded leadership roles in Congress. Yet none of them have helped us recover what we’ve lost. Because that’s the way slippery slopes work. That’s why we need to think long and hard when we find ourselves on them.
Which brings us to The Handmaid’s Tale.
If you haven’t read Margaret’s Atwood’s book or seen the series on Hulu (head's up: this isn’t “entertainment” you can binge over a weekend, so take it in small bites), I encourage you to start now. I believe a version of Atwood’s America could await us in the not-so-distant future if we don’t slam on the brakes as we head down the steepest slope in American history.
Handmaid’s envisions an alternate reality in a U.S. that’s gone completely off the rails. A patriarchal, military, theonomic dictatorship called Gilead has overthrown the government and suspended the constitution. Newspapers and television networks are openly censored. Citizens who resist are imprisoned or publicly executed.
The biggest change is the severe limitation of women’s rights: they aren’t allowed to read, write, work, own property, or handle money. They’re even deprived of control over their bodies. A group known as “handmaids” are forcibly assigned to produce children because a global infertility crisis has thrust a fearful society into survival mode. Because in Gilead, the continuity of the species — not a war on terror — is what justifies the vicious deprivation of human rights.
It’s a dystopian world where people are hunted down and killed for attempting escape and beaten into submission for the slightest display of disobedience. The state can literally do whatever it wants, and people bow their heads and comply — or snitch on those who don’t.
But here’s the kicker: this world doesn’t exist decades from now; it’s set in 2005.
When I started watching the series, one question stuck in my mind: how could this possibly happen in contemporary America? It was an intriguing premise, but it seemed so far-fetched. In the second season, we finally get answers. Chillingly surreal flashbacks lay out the events leading to a totalitarian America. That’s when I realized Atwood’s vision isn’t as outlandish as it first appears. That’s when I understood how quickly civilized society can slip into the abyss.
Most Americans are familiar with the horrors of Nazi Germany and how economically desperate people fell under the spell of a charismatic sociopath, but we never allow ourselves to imagine that anything like that could happen here. It’s unthinkable that a country blessed with checks and balances and freedom of the press could devolve into authoritarianism. And now that Donald Trump has been expelled from the White House, the single greatest threat to democracy is officially in our rearview mirror. Right?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Handmaid’s deftly illustrates how democracy can crumble without a fuss. Why? Because in fundamental ways, human beings haven’t changed a whole lot in the past few thousand years. When we find ourselves on a slippery slope, most of us refuse to speak up or take action until it’s too late.
One of the first flashbacks in the second season features the narrator, June (a future handmaid) in her Boston office, where she works as an editor. One day her boss abruptly informs the staff that by order of the “new” government, the company can no longer employ women. Alarmed, June and her female co-workers are sent home. Later that day, they discover that their bank accounts have been closed and their credit cards shut off.
In another flashback, Emily, a gay college professor, is removed from the teaching staff as a “cautionary” measure. A male colleague advises her to lay low and keep her relationship under wraps in the hopes that things will get back to “normal” soon. A few days later, she sees the body of a gay colleague dangling from a bridge. Emily tries to flee the country with her wife (a Canadian citizen), but Gilead doesn’t recognize their marriage certificate. Her family narrowly escapes across the border, but she's sent to a labor camp.
While these events unfold quickly, they don’t happen overnight. Along the way people become increasingly distressed, yet for a variety of reasons do nothing: because they’re told the new laws are temporary; because those who aren’t deprived of rights (men, heterosexuals, and Christians) don’t have a problem with the “new” America; because some are willing to do whatever it takes to “protect” the future of humanity; because most are too frightened to speak up.
That’s all it took for America to go off the rails.
It’s tempting to think Atwood’s bizarro reality might only play out if neo-Nazis wrangled control of the U.S. government. It’s easy to believe Handmaid’s has no bearing on the America we live in now. President Biden isn’t a religious fanatic; he defends the rights of women and gays. We still have elections. People aren’t being sentenced to hard labor.
But it should be clear to anyone paying attention the last few years that authoritarianism has no political allegiance. A police state, by any other name, is still a police state. Whether it’s under the fist of fanatical religious zealots or “wokesters” gleefully cancelling anyone they think is racist or sexist, a self-righteous few will make life hell for anyone who doesn't play by their rules.
While America today isn’t the mirror image of Gilead, eerie similarities are starting to emerge. For the past two decades, we’ve been hemorrhaging freedoms like an old car leaks oil, but since the pandemic erupted, the assault on freedom has kicked into overdrive. We’re gathering speed on this slippery slope, but most of us aren’t speaking up.
We're not putting on the brakes.
It’s no secret that a handful of corporations own 90% of traditional and social media. Since the 2016 election, corporate-owned media have openly silenced or de-platformed anyone who disagrees with information that isn’t “widely accepted” as fact. What’s even more unsettling is that many Americans have de-sensitized themselves to censorship that’s become our new normal, ignoring or rationalizing it because they believe the people being muzzled are racists, sexists, or domestic terrorists.
In an effort to control “misinformation” and keep us “safe,” reputable doctors and scientists have been silenced for presenting studies on alternative treatments, herd immunity, adverse effects of vaccination, and other data that runs counter to the position embraced by the majority of the scientific community. In the “new” America, the search for scientific truth has become selective.
Yet most Americans don’t seem to be alarmed by this. There’s no outrage. People aren’t taking to the streets to defend their right to think and speak freely.
They either don’t know or have forgotten that the First Amendment isn’t a gift reserved for people who agree with the majority; it’s the backbone of a forward-thinking society. They don’t understand that we can’t properly address any public health crisis if we suppress information that doesn’t conform to the dominant narrative. They don’t stop to consider that if the scientific majority had succeeded in silencing Galileo and Einstein, we might still believe that the earth is the center of the universe or that time and space are fixed.
The dogged suppression of free speech has other implications, too. If a government can tell us what we can and can’t believe about a novel coronavirus, what else can it tell us to think? Can it compel us to believe that we should (or shouldn’t) worship God? Or what to think about our relationship with property and whether we even have the right to own it? Would those who dare to think “different” be labeled dangerous (like disobedients in Gilead)? Keep in mind, this isn’t a huge stretch from what’s happening now; dissenting voices are already being branded as purveyors of “fake news” and threats to public safety.
Post-pandemic America bears another unsettling resemblance to Handmaid’s. While women in Gilead were deprived of the right to control their bodies, travel or even work, the relentless push for mandatory vaccination threatens to deprive all Americans of the right to make an informed choice about their bodies — and those who fail to comply may soon pay a price. Cruise ships, sports venues, restaurants, bars, and other establishments are restricting access to unvaccinated patrons, and it’s not inconceivable that airlines, banks, grocery stores, and other vital public services may follow suit. Employers are debating whether to require employees to be vaccinated. One major university has made vaccination mandatory for all students.
These are shocking developments in a country that values a woman’s right to choose, yet penalizes people who opt to avoid a first-generation vaccine the FDA has authorized for emergency use only. This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t get vaccinated; there are plenty of compelling and legitimate reasons to do so. But it’s a decision we should be allowed to make voluntarily, without fear of repercussion. In a free country, we shouldn’t be coerced or intimidated into doing anything to our bodies.
Recently, Hillary Clinton laid out the stark choice Americans face in a Tweet: “It’s pretty simple. Get vaccinated. Get your life back.” The implication, of course, is that our way of life will be held hostage until we agree to comply. While some may see this as an acceptable way to control a disease, it also opens the door to depriving us of rights and privileges for other reasons in the future.
And this is where the slope gets very slippery, my friends.
If we can be coerced or (or gently threatened) into getting vaccinated, what else could we be pressured to do to our bodies? In the relentless effort to weed out domestic terrorists and other undesirables, could the government require us to implant non-invasive tracking devices that monitor our movements? Would we consider this a small price to pay to keep society “safe”?
The idea of something like this happening under a Biden administration may sound preposterous to some of you, but what if a different president is sitting in the White House? We may be willing to give up rights to fight a pandemic, but would we surrender them for any reason tied to “safety”, no matter how loosely? Because in theory, there could always be a reason to keep us “safe” — from terrorists, from racists, from viruses, from…well, anything.
These are questions we need to ask ourselves because the precedent we’re setting now could allow anyone in power, regardless of ideology or political persuasion, to restrict our rights in the future in the name of “safety.”
Many Americans can’t see what’s happening because they don’t want to see it. Others see what’s happening but aren’t concerned enough to appreciate the implications or strong enough to speak up. That leaves the rest of us, my friends. It’s up to us to take action, and that action must come in the form of resistance.
We still have the power to refuse to be coerced, pressured, or intimidated into surrendering rights our ancestors fought for. We can insist on keeping what belongs to us. We may not be the majority, but I assure you, there are more of us than we think — and together we are more powerful than we imagine. If enough of us summon the courage to take a stand, we can put on the brakes and keep America from careening down this slippery slope.
But we can’t wait. We must resist now, before it’s too late.
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