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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Handmaid’s Tale Is a Collectivist Dystopia

The political left has claimed a monopoly on dystopian story-telling.

Ever since Donald Trump took office in January, the political Left has rediscovered their dread of state power.

The potential for tyranny is hardly a monopoly of Right-leaning politicians.

After the bombastic billionaire was elected to what is arguably the most powerful office in the world, many on the Left began warning of an imminent dystopian future. In fact, following Trump’s win in November, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 skyrocketed to unprecedented levels as comparisons between present-day America and Orwell’s fictional nation of Oceania have become commonplace rhetoric.

Suddenly, any story featuring authoritarian rule has become symbolic of the Trump regime and the rights we will certainly lose under his reign.

But the potential for tyranny is hardly a monopoly of Right-leaning politicians; it comes from all ideologies based on compulsory government. This means the Left is not immune to claims of authoritarian rule.

But now, a popular new series is adding to the Trump hysteria while neglecting to recognize that without government force, no such dystopian society would be able to exist.

A Handmaid’s Tale

Based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, Hulu’s new series The Handmaid’s Tale has become the latest sensation in a culture obsessed with watching a series and then discussing the show’s content on social media.

In the series, fertile women are forced to become birthing vessels for the state.

Set in the not-so-distant future, the series takes its viewers to an unrecognizable America. Like the masses in the story, the show’s audience is not entirely sure how the situation got so bad. Reflecting reality, viewers do, however, understand that whatever initial crisis led to this totalitarian takeover, the situation was worsened by perpetual war.

Somewhere along the line, America was plagued with infertility due to a toxic environment, leading to a population crisis. At the same time, a cult-like group of religious zealots have begun blaming modern “degenerate” culture for the problem and calling for a return to a more puritanical era.

As fertility continues to decline, this riotous collective begins to rise in influence in what was formerly known as Cambridge, Massachusetts. Continuing to blame society’s uninhibited and free loving culture for the inability to procreate, the radicals believe that in order to remedy the problem, women who are still deemed “able” to bear children must be forced into procreating for those at the very top of society.

After the United States government is ultimately overthrown, a new theocracy is born where the Bible is used to justify what is essentially rape of the worst kind. Not only are these selected handmaids expected to bear children for important and well-established men and their wives, they are also told that they should feel blessed to have been given the privilege to do so.

The premise of this new society is built on the biblical story of Rachel, Jacob, and Bilah. The story tells of Rachel’s desire to have children with her husband Jacob, only to find that she is unable to conceive. In desperation, Rachel asks Jacob to go into their servant Bilah’s room and conceive a child with her which will be raised as their very own.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, this allegory is put into practice and all fertile women are taken from their former lives and forced to become birthing vessels for the state.

Pop Culture Parallels

For those who fear that Trump is some sort of principled ideologue, and not just a power hungry lover of attention, they have made parallels between the show’s content and the culture of fear that is so prevalent now that the country has a new president.

Shortly after the series began airing, various articles were written, explaining how the show’s content reflects the reality we are now living with in the era of Trump. Even the book’s author has chimed into the discussion and given her thoughts on how the story relates to the new leader of the free world.

Since the plot focuses on women being oppressed in an outdated patriarchal hierarchy, the theme of the story resonated with the many on the Left, who fear that the Trump Administration will pass restrictive laws against women’s reproductive rights. Even though there has been little evidence to support this claim, the popularity of the recent women’s march proves just how real this perceived fear has become.  

When Atwood originally wrote the book, she was residing in West Berlin surrounded by the Berlin Wall. Having traveled behind the Iron Curtain during this time, she was no stranger to the dangers of the Soviet police state and the heightened surveillance so prevalent in collectivist regimes.

This dystopian rhetoric seems par for the course, at least for the next four years.

Yet, even though the Soviets were more closely aligned with Left-leaning ideologies that, once again, focused on the collective and not the individual, somehow any oppressive regime is now a historical warning against Trump.

In her article written for the New York Times titled What “The Handmaid’s Tale” Means in the Age of Trump, Atwood herself even attempts to make parallels between the book’s premise and the election of Donald Trump.

In the wake of the recent American election, fears and anxieties proliferate. Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades, and indeed the past centuries,” Atwood writes.  

Since both the book and the series it inspired are narrated as if the main character, a handmaid named Offred, is recording her story in hopes that others will find it, Atwood attempts to draw comparisons between her story and other similar historical and literary instances by saying,

Robinson Crusoe keeps a journal. So did Samuel Pepys, in which he chronicled the Great Fire of London. So did many who lived during the Black Death, although their accounts often stop abruptly. So did Roméo Dallaire, who chronicled both the Rwandan genocide and the world’s indifference to it. So did Anne Frank, hidden in her secret annex.

This rhetoric seems par for the course, at least for the next four – possibly eight – years. But this is nothing new.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the good of the state is put ahead of the individual.

The same comparisons were used by the Tea Party during the early Obama Administration years, proof that neither side is immune to hypocrisy.

Squashing the Individual

For any tyrannical government coming to power, destroying any semblance of individuality is the first step to establishing authoritarian rule.

One would be hard-pressed to find any fictional dystopian setting where the individual is protected ahead of the collective. In fact, in many instances, a crisis is used to convince the masses that national security and personal security can only be obtained through the sacrifice of one’s own self.

The same is true in The Handmaid’s Tale, where the good of the state is put ahead of the individual. True, this new form of government may be centered around a false interpretation of the Bible and not a constitution, but at the end of the day, religious tyranny escalating to the point where rule of will is dictated by a select few is still state abuse.

The Right is just as guilty of political hyperbole as the Left.

Upon being kidnapped by the state, handmaids are stripped of their former identity and are forced to take on the name of the whichever commander they have been assigned. Ofglenn, for example, “belongs” to a commander named Glenn. By taking away each woman’s unique identity, they have taken away any semblance of the lives they had spent their lives building. 

Each handmaid must also wear the same red, Puritan-style dress, making them easily identifiable if caught fleeing or found somewhere they ought not to be. Just as with their names, forcing them each to wear the same dress reinforces the idea that the collective is more important than the individual.

Oddly enough, the Left has historically been champions of collectivism, frequently claiming that individuals should be forced to give tax dollars to fund programs that favor the general public welfare. In other words, the group is more important than the individual.

Blame the State

To be sure, there has never been – and will most likely never be – an American president who has not tried, in some capacity, to strip citizens of their rights. After all, as the old saying goes, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

For example, many of those who are nervous about the current Administration were defensive of former president Barack Obama. This is the same President who was caught with a secret kill list and who continued the indefinite detention of American citizens. These acts were so blatantly oppressive it is hard to understand why the Left cannot see the hypocrisy.

As the old saying goes, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”Likewise, the Right has also neglected their principles when “their guy” makes these same mistakes. When this happens, the same rhetoric is used against the left and many on the Right have no issue compromising individuality for collective “safety.”

But the Right is just as guilty of this as the Left.

George W. Bush frequently put the collective ahead of the individual by placing us in a perpetual state of war and suspending Constitutional rights in the name of national security. Suddenly, any criticism of Bush and his post 9/11 policies were shouted down by those who favored safety over liberty.

Traces and warning signs of dystopian regimes will always be found so long as the state exists. While the Left may currently be attempting to monopolize the entire dystopian genre, the truth of the matter is that dystopias would not be possible if individuals, and not governments, called the shots.   

Instead of arguing amongst each other and using hyperbole to further political agendas, the American people would be wise to realize that the mere existence of state power will always leave individuals open to an oppression that reeks of dystopia.

  • Brittany is a writer for the Pacific Legal Foundation. She is a co-host of “The Way The World Works,” a Tuttle Twins podcast for families.