Nine times out of ten, if someone asks me if I’ve seen a trendy movie/TV show, the answer is “No, but I read the book.” (Assuming there is one.) Outlander (sort of, I read all the books but stopped watching the series because Caitriona Balfe can’t act). The Man in the High Castle. Speaking of Dick, Bladerunner (but we’ve been through this, and rest assured, your outcry has been heard and I will, at some point, watch it). The Handmaid’s Tale.
Now, I did see a few episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale with my mom, but I was more interested in the source material because I thought it would be interesting to know how much liberty was taken in the creation of the show in Trump’s America, considering how left-leaning the industry tends to be. The answer is, unsurprisingly, lots. But what I found most interesting in reading The Handmaid’s Tale was how unbelievably libertarian it was– and how unaware Margaret Atwood, the author herself, seems to be of this angle. But I think it’s beyond vitally important to understand this aspect of the book, and that’s what I’m going to write about.
Before I begin, though, two things: First, a clarification of terms. By “libertarian,” I refer to the preference for small government as an arguably unavoidable predecessor to the personal liberty that is libertarianism’s defining feature and a vital aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s setting. Second, I will endeavor to actually make this entire thing spoiler-free, because if you haven’t already read it, I do consider it an excellent book and a valuable reading experience and I don’t want you to feel like you shouldn’t bother.
For those of you who haven’t read the book or seen the show, The Handmaid’s Tale is about a woman who lives in a dystopian “near future” America (the book was published in 1986) in which women are thoroughly subjugated under men, and fertile women, such as the narrator, are “Handmaids” who are forced to have sex (read: raped) with their “Commander” once a month with the goal of getting pregnant. Super yikes.
Now, because of the emphasis on religion and what could be seen as “traditional values,” The Handmaid’s Tale is beloved by leftists as an anti-right wing story. Because to them, it’s hard to spot the difference between enslaving and raping women and believing that women and men are, though deserving of the same rights under the law, fundamentally different. That’s important to keep in mind.
Of course, there are currents of rebellion, and the mode of storytelling is actually quite brilliant in a way that you don’t fully appreciate until you read the “Historical Notes” at the end. But the most pressing question, in my opinion, is how the United States of America, a land of liberty and individuality, became the Republic of Gilead, in which women are at worst property and at best brood mares. Luckily, Atwood elaborates, and since it has little (or nothing) to do with the actual plot of the book, I feel alright quoting a few lines from the book. Lest I risk copyright infringement, the following quotes (with emphasis added by me) come from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Anchor Books edition, page 174, beginning after a musing on paper money and credit cards, “before everything went on the Compubank”:
I guess that’s how they were able to do it, in the way they did, all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand. If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult.
It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.
Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.
. . .
That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.
. . .
Things continued in that state of suspended animation for weeks, although some things did happen. Newspapers were censored and closed down, for security reasons they said. The road-blocks began to appear, and Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful. They said that new elections would be held, but that it would take some time to prepare for them. The thing to do, they said, was to continue on as usual.
The parts that I have bolded highlight the importance of libertarian/conservative thought in the America of today on two fronts. Think of the four bolded phrases as two pairs, in which part one is what the powers that be did wrong and part two is what the people did wrong. And, further, think of the second pair (“Newspapers were censored” and “everyone approved of that”) as an example of the main point made by the first pair (“they suspended the Constitution” and “there wasn’t even any rioting”).
The fact that this ultra-oppressive society required the suspension of the U.S. Constitution is of paramount importance. Our government was built to prevent totalitarian rule. It was designed, at its core, to work for everyone– of the people, by the people, and for the people. It is literally impossible for ANY extremist group to take control of America as long as our founding documents remain in place. That matters. That’s a gift. That is what makes America great.
But, okay, for the sake of argument let’s say that the entire governing body at a national scale is erased, shot, gunned down. And let’s say that there’s a party prepared to take over by overriding the laws and rules most dear and valuable to the American people. Then what?
If your answer is anything other than “FIGHT BACK,” you’re part of the problem. That is our responsibility as citizens of this country (and, by the way, WHY THE SECOND AMENDMENT EXISTS). That’s what the people of The Handmaid’s Tale did wrong. They sat at home. They were complacent. They ALLOWED the most fundamental protector of their individual rights to vanish. Who cares if it’s “temporary?” Is there a single second of your day that you’re willing to suspend your most fundamental, basic human rights? If there is, then we have less in common than I thought.
My point is that, despite what impression the author, the fans, or Hulu might intend to impart, The Handmaid’s Tale is a harrowing example of why the Constitution matters, and why individual liberty and responsibility matter. If we shirk the latter, we will lose the former, and we will suffer as a result. There’s no way around it.
The irony of it all is that, of the two main political parties in America today, only one is advocating any sort of changes to the Constitution. The Democrats alone are seeking to redefine or, at their most extreme, to repeal the Second Amendment. Democrats alone are seeking to rewrite the Constitution’s definition of the judicial branch. Democrats alone are seeking to make some speech illegal, despite the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. But Democrats see themselves in the victims of Gilead’s oppressive regime, and they see Republicans as the oppressors.
Meanwhile, the right-leaning among us are fighting back. We are not complacent. We have things to say and we say them– as bloggers, as commenters, and, most importantly, as citizens. The fact that roughly half the country can be counted on to rebel against totalitarianism and demand the continuation of our Constitutionally guaranteed liberties is heartening. Especially since that’s the half that believes in gun rights.