What will America become if, as reported, the five most conservative members of the US Supreme Court angrily and emphatically overrule Roe v. Wade and then move on to impose the rest of their narrow theocratic vision of the Constitution on the country? The short answer is that Roe is in some ways the least of it. Indeed, as I explored in Part One of this two-part column, misogynistic theocracy is only incidental to the larger autocratic power grab that Republicans on the Court and elsewhere could pull off.
Even so, it is important not to skip past the central aspect of this week’s news, which is that women in this country are on the precipice of losing entirely the ability to control their bodies and make private reproductive decisions without being controlled by the government. That alone is cataclysmic. It is also part of why I have referred to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a “pre-documentary.”
What do I mean by that, and if we are in fact looking at a Handmaid’s Tale-like future, what might it entail?
The (Possibly) Non-Literal Documentary Aspects of “The Handmaid’s Tale”
I am hardly the only person to have made references to Atwood’s masterwork this week. Just a bit of casual TV viewing on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings saw Congressman Jamie Raskin and late-night host Stephen Colbert invoking the story to make the point that Republicans and the judges they have installed on the bench seem hell-bent (pun intended) on imposing a stultifying religious dogma on their unwilling fellow citizens.
In Part One, I stipulated that I am using as my reference not the novel but the TV adaptation, also called “The Handmaid’s Tale,” that has aired for four seasons thus far on the Hulu streaming service. Readers who observe in my description any deviations from the original source should so note. In any case, some readers might not be familiar with either source, so I will offer a short description of the relevant aspects of the story here.
The nightmare is set in Gilead, a country that was created after the United States government was overthrown. Gilead does not include the entirety of what used to be the United States, but that aspect of the story is not pertinent to this discussion. Gilead is a Christian theocracy in which privileged men and their wives keep what they call handmaids as sexual slaves for purposes of reproduction. At some point, there had been a sudden decline in fertility among many women, and handmaids are still-fertile women who are enslaved for the purpose of being impregnated by the privileged men, carrying the pregnancies to term, and then having their babies taken from them to be reared by the rapists and their wives.
Because this is so nontraditional, even as Gilead’s social practices hail back to Victorian-type traditional gender roles that are supposedly based on Christian scripture, the theocrats found it necessary to turn the serial rapes into religious rites, with wives praying as they hold down the victims during the sexual violence. This attempt to sanctify the horrors extends through the pregnancy itself, even to the point where the wife of the man whose victim is giving birth goes through an elaborate false labor and birth, surrounded by the cooing and supporting wives of other serial rapists—complete with Lamaze-style breathing techniques and faux delivery. The entire society is set up to perpetrate an inhuman abomination, but it is treated as if it had been ordained by God.
Is that literally what will happen if Roe is overturned in the non-fictional United States? It hardly seems likely, of course, if for no other reason than the motivating premise of the story—a human fertility crisis—has not happened here. So, if “pre-documentary” is taken to mean “a depiction of exactly what will happen in the US in the near future,” then this is obviously no such thing.
Because I am using the term pre-documentary nonliterally, however, my point is that “The Handmaid’s Tale” offers chilling examples of the kinds of ways in which brutal autocracies (often driven by religious zeal, but not necessarily so) can quite easily destroy people’s lives without remorse or pity. Although I initially coined the term for grimly humorous dramatic effect, it is more accurate than anyone should want it to be.
One of my nephews once wanted to talk to me about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which he had read in his high school English class. He wanted to know if I thought it was “accurate.” I told him that I thought it was, and he immediately objected that there is no real-life Big Brother or “two minutes hate,” that the world has not been divided into three superstates (Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia), and so on. All of which is of course true, but that is because the book is a chillingly accurate allegory (just as Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” was a barely disguised critique of McCarthyite witch hunts), not a newspaper.
And we have seen how many once-outlandish notions from Orwell’s classic have emerged in our lives, with language being manipulated (“War is peace” becomes “alternative facts”), monitoring of our lives becoming more intensive by the day, and “memory holing” turning inconvenient history in nothingness. Just as Orwell’s warnings have come to life in many ways, some literal and some not quite, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a story that communicates warnings about how power can be abused without necessarily being accurate about the specific types of abuses that might be visited on innocent people.
The difference between an allegory and my conception of a pre-documentary, then, is essentially a matter of degree. Whereas “The Crucible” makes a larger point with a mildly concealed analogy, Nineteen Eighty-Four and “A Handmaid’s Tale” provide insight after insight into the various ways that an all-powerful state can wreak havoc. They are not newsreels, but we can hear echoes of both stories again and again in our nonfictional world.
How Real is the Possibility of Autocrats’ Ruining Their Opponents as Political Payback?
In Part One of this column, I noted the show’s insight into how fragile our financial system is, and how it is ultimately a creation of the state. People who think of themselves as financially “set” can be summarily stripped of everything that they think they own, in ways both blunt and subtle.
I noted specifically that the US government already has the power to do many things that could be abused. I mentioned, for example, that the government has frozen and seized assets that the government of Iran claims it owns. The power to do this is not, however, limited to extreme examples (such as a real-world theocracy that happens not to be based on the favored religion in the United States). The government can seize the assets of suspected drug dealers, with “asset forfeiture” being abused to seize property without due process. This country also has laws that force the authors of certain books to give over their profits to others, where the authors are perceived to be profiting from their own crimes.
The point is that there are already laws on the books that allow the government to turn your money or property into not your money or property. Those laws are used regularly, but we do not think of them as scary—if we think about them at all—because we do not perceive them to be threats to regular people like us. They are only for Bad People, you see.
But what happens when the state decides that what we thought of as regular people are suddenly, from a legal standpoint, Bad People? A person who assists a friend seeking an abortion is subject to being sued. Parents of a trans child are investigated for child abuse if the parent lovingly tries to help their child live a happy life. Why? Because a government has decided that it knows what a happy life is, and being trans is not it.
In Part One, I pointed out that even mega-corporations are now being targeted for political retaliation, with Disney’s longstanding status as a government-like entity (a status that I oppose on other grounds, but that is a different matter) having been quickly ended by politicians who decided that the company was to be punished after it declared its opposition to a repressive anti-gay bill that those same politicians had recently passed. The attack on “woke corporations,” in fact, is simply Republicans’ effort to tell companies that they have to say and do what they are told, or the companies will be made to suffer.
At what point might we see certain prominent Democrats or liberal celebrities targeted for asset seizures? What if Congressman Adam Schiff, or gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, or actor George Clooney is suddenly declared to be subject to being stripped of their assets, because they have made the wrong people angry? If The New York Times suddenly had its lights turned off (in both senses of that term), lawsuits would ensue, but if this is done as part of an emergency decree, or if the judges on the courts are willing to allow it all to happen, key points of opposition to an emerging autocracy are neutralized.
And that is what “The Handmaid’s Tale” is ultimately all about. In the story, the people who seize power after a Reichstag Fire-like attack on the US Capitol (sound familiar?) change norms, use existing powers as they have never been used before, and create new powers as needed. That they are doing so for theocratic reasons that line up with the commitments of today’s Republican Party is almost irrelevant to the larger point about unchecked power
The basis in bigotry is, however, directly the point about how the Republicans plan to use the autocratic powers that they are trying to put in place. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is notably odd in depicting its post-apocalyptic world without any apparent racism, the only example of such bigotry being a passing reference to one couple who resisted adopting a child of color (but even the theocrats treated that couple as an outlier). The creative choice there, however, seems to be to focus on the sexism to the exclusion of other concerns, as a narrative device. In the real world, we know that it is not only women who will be treated much worse in the coming post-democratic America.
What Else Resonates from “The Handmaid’s Tale”?
Two further points are worth noting about how “The Handmaid’s Tale” could be predictive of future events in the United States—and indeed, how it already has been in surprising ways. In one of the flashback scenes to the days when the new Gilead government is radically transforming the society that people had come to take for granted—suddenly turning women into second-class citizens, forbidden to hold jobs or even to read or write—there is understandably a great deal of social unrest.
Again, these are people who grew up in an America that they did not understand was ceasing to exist, and they naturally thought that one way to resist was to take to the streets to protest injustice. The protagonists are shown at such a gathering, where they are suddenly confronted by a phalanx of heavily armed riot police. Thinking that this is nothing more than the usual show of force, the protesters continue to shout and chant. At that point, however, the helmeted forces open fire, shooting innocent people dead in the street.
We have seen an early version of this already, when Donald Trump’s administration responded to protests in various cities by sending in unidentified officers and pulling people off the streets in unmarked vans. Trump also had the police violently remove protesters from Lafayette Square in front of the White House in 2020 when he wanted to stand before the cameras and hold up a bible (upside-down, but what can one expect from a pseudo-religious poseur?). Trump’s people justified this as a response to lawlessness, which is exactly what tyrants have always said. Republicans have even passed laws allowing anti-protesters to run their cars and trucks into protesters without civil liability. And because the Republicans also make decisions about whom to prosecute criminally in those states, one suspects that drivers who kill disfavored protesters are more likely to receive a medal than a criminal summons. (And if they do face a trial, they will likely be acquitted, as Kyle Rittenhouse was in Wisconsin.) A repressive government getting protesters killed: Is it real, or is it fiction?
Finally, I cannot help noting that “The Handmaid’s Tale” includes a prominent role for Canada as a haven for American refugees. Earlier this year, I wrote two columns in which I argued that Canadian officials in the real world have every reason to worry about the social breakdown of the US, because even if only a relatively tiny percentage of their southern neighbors show up on “the longest peaceful border in the world,” Canada’s immigration system could quickly be overwhelmed. And even if the people who arrive are relatively well off economically (getting out without their assets having been seized by the newly-autocratic US government), the sudden need to accommodate so many new people could disrupt Canadian society—which, unlike in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” where Canada maintains its humanitarian spirit through years of difficulty, could lead to Canadians deciding that maybe being friendly is not such a great thing after all.
My larger point in both Parts of this column is that people should not take for granted that bad things are impossible merely because they seem unlikely or farfetched. When people like me warned that Trump’s words in 2020 could lead to a violent coup attempt, a common response was that that was simply not possible.
But it was. Russia would never launch a ground war against Ukraine, except it did. Voters in the UK would never vote to leave the EU, and then they did. The French would never elevate neo-fascists to be the leading opposition party in a country that suffered under Nazi rule, but they did that, too.
In the US, the mechanisms are already in place for much of what I have described, and the rest can be changed at will, so long as there are people who are willing to “go there.” And as we have seen, far too many people in the US are positively eager to see how far they can go. No, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is not a prediction of what literally will happen in the US, but it is almost spooky how well it describes America’s shift toward becoming a dystopia.