April 29, 2017


No, 'The Handmaid's Tale' Is Not 'Unexpectedly Timely' (Megan McArdle, 4/25/17, Bloomberg View)

Fictional dystopia is sort of the photonegative of the movies produced by actual totalitarian regimes. Masses of people wearing identical creepy clothes, forming into precise lines, chanting the same things. Yes, in regimes like North Korea and Hitler's Germany, those mass rallies occurred. The men marched and the girls danced in eerily infinite lines. But afterward, most of them went home to the banal, the ordinary, and the familiar -- altered by political fear and economic shortages, but not wholly transformed into something unrecognizably inhuman.

In interviews since its publication, Atwood has emphasized that all the details in the book were based on things that really happened in the world (or at least, are recounted in tales; the "handmaids" of the book, concubines given to elite men of Gilead's theocracy in order to bear them the children their barren wives could not, is based on the story of Rachel and Jacob in the Book of Genesis). One sees the historical referents when reading, and yet the entire effect is completely unrealistic, because she's drawn details from too many oppressive regimes and collaged them all together. Thus a regime that is clearly supposed to be some sort of fundamentalist Protestant theocracy is enthusiastically adopting extramarital sex, infanticide and Tibetan prayer wheels. This makes for some dramatic imagery, but not for what Mary McCarthy, in her review of the book, called "the essential element of a cautionary tale": "...recognition. Surprised recognition, even, enough to administer a shock." Dystopian regimes in real life have common features, yes, but they are not actually interchangeable; indeed, they are surprisingly specific.

Reading accounts of those actual regimes, I'm always surprised at how culturally embedded they remained, even as they proclaimed that they were enacting a new world order in which everything would be different.

People still got married and settled into family domesticity under communist regimes that were supposed to be sweeping away all the vestiges of private lives in favor of creating "new Soviet man" or his many cousins; people in theocratic states still had considerable variance in the level of religious observance; theoretically internationalist ideologies fell back on nationalist sentiment to motivate the masses. All of which is to say: The Taliban certainly existed, but it could not exist in America, because it would have no popular base from which to launch its attacks, no historic practice of burqa-wearing to ratify bringing them back.

Nor could such a movement gain power here along the lines that Atwood outlines. I've seen her praised for actually thinking through the mechanism by which her fictional state might emerge, and kudos for the effort, but we must also acknowledge that, as written, it doesn't really make all that much sense. The inciting event is a lightly fictionalized version of the Reichstag fire, but a careful student of history would note that a decade after the Reichstag fire, most of German society still looked pretty much like it had in 1925. No, I'm not excusing Nazi atrocities in any way shape or form, nor discounting the sweeping changes that Hitler did make. But they didn't gut-renovate the economy, wipe out all religions that competed with the state, and completely reorganize society in the space of a few years; they left much of the economy and the culture alone. For structural reasons -- she needs her handmaid to remember the world before as an adult, and yet still be young enough to be fertile -- Atwood needs changes that are both unrealistically sweeping and ludicrously fast. 

To the contrary, it's hard to see how its anti-life/anti-religious politics could be any more timely: 

How Democrats Got Mired In A Nasty Internal Battle Over Abortion : The party's unity tour reopened wounds from the primary. (Daniel Marans, 4/29/17, The Federalist)

National reproductive rights groups counted it as a major victory last week when the Democratic National Committee doubled down on its commitment to abortion rights amid anger at its support for Heath Mello, an anti-abortion candidate for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska.

But the groups' pointed criticism of DNC chair Tom Perez, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) for embracing Mello sparked a bitter public debate about the Democratic Party's values ― one that continues to simmer, overshadowing the large crowds the party drew on its cross-country tour and muddying efforts to present a united front against President Donald Trump.

Now even the DNC is clarifying that it never meant to suggest it would not back Mello or other anti-abortion Democrats.

Bill Nye, the Scientism Guy (KYLE SMITH, April 27, 2017, National Review)

An even more horrifying moment occurred in episode 13, which is devoted to the supposed problem of overpopulation. Nye featured Travis Rieder, of Johns Hopkins University, as a guest panelist ethicist. Rieder said that because people in poor countries (being poor) don't consume much energy (even though overpopulation is a driver of climate change), we should direct our population-control efforts at the rich world, where the population isn't growing, instead of at the poor world, where it is. This would, he reasoned, be the best way of reducing global energy demands.

Even though in Niger the average woman has seven children, Rieder said, "our two kids are way more problematic!" Congratulations, Travis Rieder's children, your dad thinks your very existence regrettable. Next time you're standing on a ledge, don't let Dad sneak up behind you.

"So should we have policies that penalize people for having extra kids in the developed world?" Nye asks. "I do think that we should at least consider it," Rieder replies blandly. "'At least consider it' is, like, 'Do it!'" Nye responds, a demonic glint in his eye. Another panelist, Dr. Nerys Benfield, director of family planning at Montefiore Medical Center, spots a whiff of eugenics here: "We've gone down that road before and who winds up being penalized? It's poor women, minorities, disabled women. . . . So we really have not come at it from a place of justice necessarily in the past."

Posted by at April 29, 2017 10:08 AM