The Hidden Lesson of The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale has returned with a second season. I finished the second new episode. It offers much food for thought. The story itself is wonderfully told, partly because it is based on a fine piece of literature, but credit is due to the screenwriters and main actresses.

Also, it is one of the most plausible and compelling dystopias of the near future. That can’t be doubted. Still, it could be doubted that it is the most probable dystopia, as there are so many other possible dystopias. Some would argue we are already living in a dystopia, the only issue being how bad can it get. That isn’t to say we should fool ourselves that recent events have been as important as they seem in how they loom in our immediate public imagination. The shit storm has been brewing for a long time.

As I watched the beginning of the second season, it occurred to me that The Handmaid’s Tale is the nightmare of a specific demographic. I think it’s an awesome show, but as a working  class white guy I’m not the target audience. It doesn’t speak to my personal fear-ridden fantasies about the world I see around me. Nor does it speak to white working class single mothers, poor rural Christians, homeless veterans with PTSD, recent immigrant families, Native Americans on reservations, young black men targeted by police, etc.

I’ve talked about the haunted moral imagination of the reactionary mind. Well, this show is the haunted moral imagination of the liberal class. To be more specific, I noticed that all the lead roles are professional white women or were before the theocrats took over. Both seasons focus on various professional white women who in the pre-catastrophe world were moving up in the world. The actresses by profession are of the liberal class with most of the main actresses being Millennials and so the show points to their experience.

An older gay guy tries to warn a younger lesbian to be careful at the college where they both work, but she dismisses him as trying to “hide the dykes” and she acts tough. Like most liberal class Americans, she has never lived in a world where there were severely dangerous consequences for people like her. The toughest battles were fought in the past and it was assumed that society was permanently changed and continuously improving, the liberal class’ version of Whig history.

What exists outside of the liberal class moral imagination is the fact that, for many Americans outside of the liberal class, this society has been horrific for a long time. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about those suffering the consequences of their complicity in what has been done to others. Minority women and poor white women in the United States have been experiencing continuous oppression, including sterilizations in recent history. Middle-to-upper class white feminists maybe thought, at least prior to Donald Trump’s presidency, that the worst battles have already been fought and won with only some cleanup to eliminate the last of the misogynists in power, but as for other women the worst battles are yet to come and they’ve long known the risks of continuing to lose the fight.

The fear of American theocracy isn’t entirely unrealistic, obviously. Yet the origins of the fear come from within the dark heart of American liberalism itself. All those secular societies that the United States destroyed and replaced with theocracies along with other forms of authoritarianism, that was done with the full support of Democrats like Hillary Clinton who laughed at the suffering of Libyans (and ask Haitian-Americans in Florida why they didn’t vote for Clinton and helped swing the state and hence the entire election to Trump). A vote for the Democrats, no different than a vote for the Republicans, is to support the exploitation, oppression, dislocation, and killing of hundreds of millions of mostly poor brown people in dozens of countries around the world (the war on terror alone has involved the US military in more than 70 countries).

The Handmaid’s Tale is the shadow cast by American actions worldwide, actions supported by both parties for generations. The liberal class has been fine with promoting theocracy elsewhere, just as long as they don’t have to think about it or admit their own responsibility. What is portrayed in this show is not speculation. It is what we Americans have already done to untold numbers of women elsewhere. Within the haunted moral imagination of the liberal class, there is a seething guilty conscience that fears its own moral failure.

What The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t show is how a society becomes like that. It never happens with no presentiments and precursors. In a previous post (But Then It Was Too Late), I shared a passage from Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free (ch. 13). Like one of the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale, Mayer’s was a good liberal college professor, someone who meant well but wasn’t a fighter and wasn’t prone to radicalism. He didn’t protest or revolt when he had a chance, waiting and waiting for the right moment to speak out until it was finally too late:

“Your ‘little men,’ your Nazi friends, were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed better. Pastor Niemöller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something—but then it was too late. […] It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait, and you wait.

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.”

That describes America this past century. And economically well off white liberals have been part of the problem. When bad things happened to the poor, they weren’t poor. When bad things happened to rural and inner city residents, they weren’t rural or inner city residents. When bad things happened to minorities, they weren’t minorities. When bad things happened to immigrants, they weren’t immigrants. When bad things happened to foreigners, they weren’t foreigners. And so most liberals did nothing. The liberalism (and feminism) they fought for was one of privilege, but they didn’t realize that once all others had been targeted by oppression they would be next and then no one would be left to stand up for them.

The saddest part of an authoritarian takeover is how easy it is to see coming decades in advance. Radical left-wingers have been warning the liberal class for generations and they would not listen. The Handmaid’s Tale does make the liberal class sit up and pay attention. But do they learn the most important lesson from it? That lesson is hidden deep within the story and requires soul-searching to discern.

Depths of Darkness, Glimmers of Hope

If you keep track of the religious right, you’ve heard of Christian Reconstructionism. It’s a subset of Dominion theology and advocates a particular kind of theocracy, what is known as theonomy.

Dominion theology is far from uncommon, although most support a milder form of it, not going as far as theocracy. Instead, the most popular variety is Christian nationalism. Dominionism is based on the belief that the American founders were Christian and so intended Christianity to dominate or at least define all aspects of society, maybe even the government itself (presumedly until the End Times; and, once the good Christians ascend bodily into Heaven, the Pagans would likely be allowed to takeover what is left of the world). Some Dominionists see the Constitution as a Christian document with the Bill of Rights as akin to an extension of the Biblical Ten Commandments.

They take this seriously. And they don’t see the claim of the Constitution being a slave document as being a criticism, per se. Nor that this contradicts it also being a Christian document. They do see racialized slavery as unbiblical, but not slavery itself. In fact, some of them argue for Biblical slavery.

According to the Old Testament, slavery is allowed under certain conditions. The intended audience, of course, were ancient Israelis; but that is a minor detail to the Fundamentalist mind. Anything and everything from the Bible must be applied to modern Christianity, except the parts that are inconvenient and problematic. The religious right believes they inherited the Jewish tradition and so the Israeli label. Also, in this framework, Pagan translates as non-Christian.

It is stated that Israelis aren’t as a general rule allowed to enslave other Israelis, but there are exceptions. As such, according to Christian Reconstructionism, it logically follows that Christians can enslave other Christians under precise circumstances, as long as it is voluntary servitude, except for criminals or enemies captured in battle who can be forced into servitude.

This is vague about whether a Christian captured in battle can be treated this way. In the ancient world, an Israeli was simply one who lived in Israel, as a Jew originally was one who lived in Judea (although over time such terms came to have other meanings), which leaves uncertain the labeling and treatment of various populations (such as Jews who weren’t Israelis or Judeans along with Israelis and Judeans who weren’t Jews); as another example, ancient Samaritans also used the same Holy Bible but weren’t considered Jews as they lived in Samaria, what was once the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Not that the fundamentalist mind cares about such complications. Anyway, none of this applies to Pagans (i.e., non-Christians) who can be enslaved involuntarily and permanently by their Christian overlords.

A number of things are disturbing about this. First of all, it is shocking to see slavery being discussed in this manner. Even among those who advocate Biblical slavery, there is disagreement about details, about who is allowed to be enslaved and in what way. But it’s messed up that this is discussed at all, as if moral laws and social norms in a modern pluralistic democracy is to be determined through legalistic minutiae decreed by priests of an ancient religion.

Even worst, this isn’t being discussed just by right-wing loons. Or rather right-wing loons have made major inroads into the mainstream. Many politicians and political candidates have been aligned with this Dominionism and related worldviews, including several recent candidates such as Ted Cruz.

Even Donald Trump, despite lacking any evidence of being a Christian or caring about Christianity, has won majority support of white Evangelicals and their leadership (prone, as they are, to Dominionist rhetoric that resonates with Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”). But to be fair he wasn’t their first choice. The Tea Party was taken over by this hardcore religious right, by way of the influence of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, and that is the movement that Trump rode to the Republican nomination. It was Beck, in particular, who brought the Tea Party into alignment with the old religious right, the paranoid reactionaries and Christian nationalists (e.g, the Mormon W. Cleon Skousen). It matters little that Beck now fears this monster he has helped to create.

It’s not just the fringe Evangelicals. I know some local Christians who read Stephen McDowell’s Monumental in their Bible study group (by the way, they used to regularly watch Glenn Beck). Living in the same respectable liberal college town as I do, they go to a mainline church with a liberal minister who recently began promoting gay acceptance. Their Bible study group is a mix of people, mostly moderate and mainstream as is found in a middle class Midwestern town — unlikely any Reconstructionist theocrats among them. Yet they were reading this text that comes out of the right-wing Dominionist movement, a text written by a guy who has advocated for Biblical slavery.

If someone like McDowell gets discussed in a Bible study group from fairly liberal church in a very liberal town, imagine where else in the country this gets a foothold. It’s not that these local Christians are going to seek to enslave me and my Pagan friends. But the Dominionist theology has many aspects that are as disturbing or simply problematic. The very premise of Dominionism is the opposite of a free democratic society. Still, you don’t need to go as far as Biblical slavery to see the dangers of reactionary politics, right-wing authoritarianism, and historical revisionism.

It makes one wonder how close we could easily come to the world portrayed by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale. This doesn’t require the majority of the population to be right-wing Evangelicals, much less ranting apocalyptic theocrats. Most authoritarian governments don’t come to power through majority support. The conditions just have to be right and the population has to be in a great enough state of fear, distress, and uncertainty. Some divide and conquer could help, along with perceived enemies to scapegoat, foreign and internal. Even the slow creep of authoritarianism is bad enough, as we’ve seen in recent decades. The stage has been set for a full authoritarian takeover.

It’s happened many times before in many countries. The United States isn’t immune to authoritarianism. And as it has been said, “When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Or as religious right leader, Russell Moore, recently put it, “The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about.”

I didn’t want to end on that note, though. I don’t feel like countering fear with fear. My motivation was more simple curiosity. It can be surprising to see what ideas make their way into the mainstream. If you look closely, you can see many possible futures we are facing. Ideas are seeds. They may or may not grow. But once planted it is unsurprising to see them sprout, as has happened with the growing power of the religious right over the past half century.

Still, there are other seeds that have been planted. If tended, those other seeds could grow. There is nothing inevitable about the path we’ve been on. The world could shift in any number of directions. Trump may be doing us a favor by giving voice to one specter of authoritarianism, his fascist-and-fundamentalist-tinged proclamations of making America great again. But that leaves other varieties that might be even more threatening.

Sometimes it’s the fears we don’t see coming that get us. While we worry about the religious right’s support of Israel, as part of their Apocalyptic aspirations of bringing on the End Times, we can forget that the mainstream political left has its own designs for Israel that may lead us to an apocalyptic World War III (or simply an ever more destabilized, violent world). Pick your apocalypse. Or maybe it’s the same apocalypse, with different rhetoric.

We create the future we imagine. Peering into the American psyche at the moment, one can see dark visions. The few glimmers on the surface of the dark depths only offer the smallest of hope. Still, there may be real reason for hope, however tentative, so it seems when looking at demographic shifts.

Among white evangelicals, the young have never been fond of bigotry and intolerance. The same goes for young Catholics. There is a generational divide that cuts across all religions. Also, because of revelations, white women Evangelicals are abandoning Trump. All that the Trump has left are older white male Evangelicals, but old white male Christians in general have always been stalwart Republicans, no matter how far right crazy the party gets.

I doubt the religious right was ever the “moral majority” in this country, at least not in living memory. But United States has a long history of political and economic power being held by various minority groups. Even WASPs have never been a majority. Looking back to early America, it wasn’t just a minority of rich white male landowners that controlled government; also, the federal government was initially dominated by the Southern states, some of which were majority black. How did this plutocracy that was a minority even in their own communities manage to take over political power of a vast country? Never doubt the power a minority can wield.

For this reason, it’s good to see these fractures forming among the religious right. And it is good to see younger Christians turn toward a kinder vision. Still, we are far from being safe from the threat of authoritarianism. Entire societies can turn authoritarian quite quickly when fear comes to rule people’s minds. And there are many fears looming on the horizon.

In the end, my own motivation is more that of curiosity. I don’t have it in me to sit around worrying about theocracy or whatever. But I am always fascinated by society and what is to be found, when one goes looking. It’s simply strange to see these kinds of ideas floating around in the main currents of thought, like any other idea.

What most interests me is the fantasies that play out around these ideas. The human imagination is a powerful thing. And those seeking power realize this. But imagination has a way of taking on a life of its own. It’s not easily controlled or predicted. We can try to force imagination to serve our ideology or we can allow our ideology to be guided by imagination, the former is rhetoric and the latter makes possible the visionary.

The best antidote is to imagine other visions, to explore other possibilities. And to do so with humility. The future will become what it will, no matter what we may wish. But in coming to term with our own imaginings, we can find meaning. The one thing that can overcome fear is a sense of meaning. Christianity, at its best, also offers that vision.

* * *

What is Dominionism? Palin, The Christian Right And Theocracy
by Chip Berlet

DOMINIONISM RISING: A THEOCRATIC MOVEMENT HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
by Frederick Clarkson

KIRK CAMERON’S MONUMENTAL REVEALS SUBTLE INFLUENCE OF CHRISTIAN RECONSTRUCTIONISM
by Julie Ingersoll

BECK’S “DREAM”—OUR NIGHTMARE
by Julie Ingersoll

Cruz Super PAC Head Promotes ‘Biblical’ Slavery for Non-Christians
by Bruce Wilson

Mike Pence on the “American Heartland” and the Holy Land
by Shalom Goldman

Cruz Super PAC Head Promotes ‘Biblical’ Slavery for Non-Christians
by Bruce Wilson

“Biblical Slavery” For Non-Christians? Yes, Suggests Website of Mike Huckabee’s Favorite Historian David Barton
by Bruce Wilson

David Barton’s Plan for Biblical Slavery for America
by Hrafnkell Haraldsson

* * *

Books about Culture by Christians

Avatar: Imagination & Culture

Psychology of Politics, Development of Society

When Nation Was Deified And God Was Nationalized

The Pledge of Allegiance was written by Francis Bellamy. That was in 1892. Then, in 1941, Congress officially made it into the pledge. There was no ‘God’ in the wording for 64 years of its existence and for the first 13 years of its official use.

The Man Who Wrote the Pledge of Allegiance
By Jeffrey Owen Jones
Smithsonian Magazine

“I first struggled with “under God” in my fourth-grade class in Westport, Connecticut. It was the spring of 1954, and Congress had voted, after some controversy, to insert the phrase into the Pledge of Allegiance, partly as a cold war rejoinder to “godless” communism. We kept stumbling on the words—it’s not easy to unlearn something as ingrained and metrical as the Pledge of Allegiance—while we rehearsed for Flag Day, June 14, when the revision would take effect.”

That wasn’t that long ago. It was about 20 years before I was born. My father was 12 years old and my mother was 7 years old when God was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.

I asked my father about it. He says he remembers when he had to learn the new wording. It was in Boy Scouts when he was in 6th grade.

The Scout leader told them that it was “One nation under God” with no comma and so he explained they weren’t to pause between “One nation” and “under God”. I suppose the implication was that nation and God were to be treated as a single entity. But my father notes that everyone pauses between the two, and so apparently most Americans came to disagree with that scout leader.

As for the issue of adding God, many diverse Americans have disagreed about ending the clear separation of church and state, as the founding fathers intended (for those who genuinely care about original intent):

“Atheists are not the only ones to take issue with that line of thought. Advocates of religious tolerance point out that the reference to a single deity might not sit well with followers of some established religions. After all, Buddhists don’t conceive of God as a single discrete entity, Zoroastrians believe in two deities and Hindus believe in many. Both the Ninth Circuit ruling and a number of Supreme Court decisions acknowledge this. But Jacobsohn predicts that a majority of the justices will hold that government may support religion in general as long as public policy does not pursue an obviously sectarian, specific religious purpose.

“Bellamy, who went on to become an advertising executive, wrote extensively about the pledge in later years. I haven’t found any evidence in the historical record—including Bellamy’s papers at the University of Rochester—to indicate whether he ever considered adding a divine reference to the pledge. So we can’t know where he would stand in today’s dispute. But it’s ironic that the debate centers on a reference to God that an ordained minister left out. And we can be sure that Bellamy, if he was like most writers, would have balked at anyone tinkering with his prose.”

What the media too often ignores is the major divides in our society aren’t between conservatives and fundamentalists on one side and secularists and atheists on the other side. No, the deepest cut in public opinion happens within religion itself. Most Americans on all issues are Christians. It was originally Evangelicals who pushed strongly for a strong separation of church and state, for they understood in their own experience the dangers of that lack of such a separation. It’s a shame that Christians on the political right have such a short historical memory.