Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale And The Gilead Nationwide

I’ve read Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale late; in fact, I’ve only just finished reading it–by way of preparing to watch the new television series currently being aired on Hulu–some twenty-five or so years it was first recommended to me by an ex-girlfriend (who was then an office bearer with the National Organization for Women in New Jersey.) I might have read it too late; the issues broached in Atwood’s dystopian classic of speculative fiction–the rise of a totalitarian theocracy in the US, the forcing of women into sexual and reproductive subjugation, the curtailing of women’s bodily freedoms under the guise of protecting ‘conventional’ morality, a harsh penal regime, and environmental degradation notable among them–have been at the forefront of a great deal of political and moral discourse in the intervening years. The issues Atwood philosophized about–using the literary vehicle of a novel–have had their many complexities articulated and analyzed and theorized threadbare; they are now exceedingly familiar to us. For all of that, they are not any less threatening, and it is small wonder that as the Trump Administration, aided and abetted by that cabal of nihilists, the Republican Party, continues its wrecking ball treatment of the American Republic, the novel (and its associated television series) continues to seem increasingly prescient and prophetic. Perhaps even a little too much so; at least two of my friends have informed me that they will not be reading the novel or watching the show any time soon, ‘at least as long as this administration is in office–it’s a little too real right now.’ Dystopian speculative fiction should not be too realistic, I suppose.

The problem, of course, is that Donald Trump is not the problem; the Republican Party is. The impeachment of Donald Trump would merely bring to the Oval Office Mike Pence, a drone-like creature best placed to emulate those folks who run the land of Gilead in Atwood’s novel. Moreover, Republican run state legislatures the nation over specialize in drafting and passing legislation that flirts with the codes operative in Gilead: their primary obsession has been, and will be for the foreseeable future, the control of women’s bodies, but attempts to control where and how they work and what they can read or write never seem too far behind. (To be fair, state level Republican Party leadership is always interested in controlling what everyone reads and writes.) Take a look at some of the pieces of work linked to here–a piece dating back to last year–and you’ll have a fair idea of the medievalist mindset, which would not be out of place in Gilead, that is par for the course among the Republicans of today. Matters have only worsened since the election of Donald Trump; while his antics provide a never-ending series of distractions that cause liberals to foam at the mouth and fantasize about impeachment, Republicans quietly proceed with shadow legislation–like the new version of the American Health Care Act, which is due to be voted on, apparently without being read by anyone in a position to stop it from being passed.

Gilead will not come with a bang, but with a whimper.

On Being Advised To Not Take A ‘Girl’s Role’

Shortly after I began attending a boarding school in the ninth grade, I was approached by our ‘senior master’ and asked if: a) I could ‘act’ and b) if so, was I interested in trying out for the annual school play. I had done some acting in school and youth club plays in the sixth and seventh grades, so I answered in the affirmative to both questions. On  hearing this, the senior master asked me to attend a ‘reading’ that night where we would go over the play’s script. I agreed. When I told my classmates about this invitation, I received many congratulations. Acting in the school play was a prestigious business; being invited to act in it was an honor not accorded to many. I was suitably pleased, and resolved to write home to my mother as soon as I could that I had begun to rack up laurels here in my new school.

That night, I showed up at time in the school library for the reading. I was handed the play’s script, and the reading began. (If I remember correctly, that year’s play was Joseph Kesserling‘s Arsenic and Old Lace.) The senior master pointed at me and asked me to read–again, if I remember correctly–Elaine Harper’s part. (I do know it was a young woman’s role, and Elaine Harper is the young woman in Arsenic and Old Lace. My school was a boy’s boarding school, and we did not import actors or directors for the school play.) I did not mind being asked to play a woman; I vaguely remembered my father telling me that: a) in Shakespeare’s time, boys and men often played girl’s and women’s roles and b) that he himself, in college, had played a woman’s role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the college Shakespeare Society. If my father–a man who would go on to fly fighter jets and fight in two wars–could do it, so could I.

Our reading went on for two hours. By the time I returned to my dorm, it was after ‘lights out;’ everyone in my dorm was in bed, and seemingly fast asleep. I quietly changed, went over to my bed, and lay down. As I did so, my neighbor stirred and spoke.

“What role did they offer you?”

“I”m supposed to be a young woman.”

“Are you going to take it?”

“Yeah, it sounds interesting.”

“So, this is just something I want to tell you. Every year there is a school play, and every year, someone has to play the female parts. The boys who play those roles, they become the sissies in school. No one ever lets them forget it. They get teased and bullied all the time. They get called ‘girls’; people copy them walking and talking and putting on make-up. Last year, X did the girl’s role, and no one has stopped teasing him since. You’ve just joined this school; you still haven’t made that many friends. Some people don’t even like you because you’re from the Rector’s old school, and they think you’re his pet. I wouldn’t do it. This is just my friendly advice.”

[Or something like that.]

I lay there in bed, listening to that seemingly disembodied voice whispering at me in the dark. The vision it conjured up for me was equally gloomy; I knew exactly what he meant. I had already seen examples of how quick and efficient and cruel my school’s bullying and teasing was; many boys were permanent outcasts, shunned and sent off to the margins for faults imagined and real. I knew X was an outcast; now I knew why. I lay under a thick blanket, but I shivered nonetheless. I didn’t want to be a girl in a boy’s school.

The next day, I told the senior master I couldn’t do the role. It went to a boy a year younger than me. He was a wonderful actor and brought his role to life. For the next year and a half, every time my class mates and I walked past him on campus, someone would wiggle their hips, giggle, put on a falsetto, and call out his name. He never returned our gaze.

The Words We Mutter Under Our Breath

Some years ago, as I waited to be served food by a prickly employee of an eating establishment, I sensed my temper flaring. She and I had had run-ins before; she had always seemed unnecessarily querulous and brusque in her interactions with me; the  milk of human kindness seemed to have curdled long ago in her. I anticipated more trouble in this encounter; I was on edge, wondering which pronouncement of mine would be met with curtness or indifference. I wasn’t mistaken; a few seconds later, I was subjected to a familiar, rage-inducing rudeness. I placed my order, picked up my food, and walked away. As I did so, I muttered under my breath, “Fuck you, you fucking stupid bitch.” My short and bitter rant was loud enough to be overheard by someone–not a complete stranger–standing next to me, who promptly did a double-take and said something to the effect of “Wow, that’s harsh.” Now mortified, I mumbled something about having a bad day and walked quickly away. (I was especially embarrassed because I had just interacted with a service worker, someone who at the best of times is underpaid and overworked.)

It wasn’t the first time–and sadly, I don’t think it will be the last–that I will say something quite unhinged, in a hushed tone of voice, in words only audible to myself. On various occasions over the years I’ve deployed almost exactly that same line above on the conclusion of an aggravating social encounter–with ‘bitch’ replaced by some other derogatory term, sometimes racist, sometimes homophobic, sometimes sexist, sometimes fat-shaming. In the encounter I make note of above, I had been detected and called out; on most occasions, I am the only audience for these private expressions of my feelings.

I do not know if this history means that deep down at heart I’m a sexist, racist, misogynistic, homophobic person; I do know that I’m afflicted with many kinds of implicit bias, and they play a role in my understanding of the world and my relationships with those who inhabit it; I do know that being exposed to all those strands of thought as I grew up, and living in societies that still suffer from those afflictions predisposes me to fall back, lazily, in the cauldron of unfavorable circumstance, to those very same attitudes when I express anger. They suggest themselves to me as the right kind of ammunition to deploy against my imagined foes, the only balms that will assuage my psychic wounds. (Conversely, with probability one, someone has referred to me in precisely the terms above after an aggravating encounter with me, with their favorite prejudiced expression for folks of my ethnic persuasion inserted into the schema above.)

These are not flattering reflections on oneself; my utterances are only partially excused by being made in a fit of anger. Perhaps I can congratulate myself on having found a ‘safe outlet’ for my frustrations; after all, all I did was rant a bit to myself. My words did not lead to prejudiced action or violence or politics or some form of systematic discrimination against those who, unknown to themselves, had been subjected to abuse my me. But perhaps that lets me too easily off the hook; and perhaps it lets off our societies and our times too easily as well.

Donald Trump’s ‘Hot-Mic’ And Men Talking About Sex

A friend offers the following reaction to the latest ‘sensational’ disclosures about Donald Trump’s misogyny:

To all the guys on my feed posting their shock and outrage over Trump’s hot-mic comments about women: give me a break. “How could America possibly elect someone who talks like this about women??” you ask. Do you honestly think we haven’t elected guys who talk like this about women before? Do you think Bill Clinton never talked like this? George W Bush? Come on. This is quintessential Americana, right here. Boys talk like this about girls in ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, for pete’s sake. Men have talked about women like this for EVER. And you’re so shocked that **Donald Trump** talks this way? One of you posting your shock once forcibly blocked my entrance to a restroom and shoved your tongue in my mouth, some years ago. I bet you don’t even remember, because it was a total non-event or you felt like, because you liked me, it was OK. This is normal, every day behavior. Yes, it sucks, but please don’t pretend this is your first time experiencing this reality. Your b.s. outrage is an insult to those of us who have been aware of this reality since we were children.

Indeed. Men talk like this about women all the time. Many conversations like this take place when men get together to talk about women, about sex, and about their sexual ‘conquests.’ The distinctions that many are seeking to draw between sexual assault and sexual ‘conquest’–which, supposedly, makes these conversations worse than normal ‘locker room banter’–is easily blurred precisely because for so many men this line is blurred in their ‘locker room banter’ about sex and their sexual partners:

[M]en, when talking about sex, cannot drop the language of conquest and domination, of conflating sex and violence (‘Dude, I fucked the shit out of her’ or ‘I was banging her all night’) [they] imagine sex to be a variant of rough-and-tumble sport (‘scoring touchdowns’), [and] associate weakness with womanhood (‘Don’t be a pussy’ ‘Man up’ ‘Put your pants on’).

Men have been used to talking like that about women for a very long time. It’s how they’ve learned to talk about sex and women in the company of men. In general, when men brag to other men about their sexual conquests, they do not describe how they generated intimacy–physical or otherwise–with conversation; rather, they speak of how they ‘overcame’ the barriers that the woman had put up between herself–as a sexual target to be attained–and sex. In these circumstances, getting a little pushy goes with the territory; don’t you have to get women drunk before you can have sex with them? And if a women doesn’t resist your advances, then men can talk about what a ‘whore’ and a ‘slut’ and a ‘dirty bitch who really wanted it’ she was as she got ‘down and dirty.’

To this toxic mix, add a little entitlement and arrogance and you get the Trump conversation. Indeed, with probability one, hot mics would reveal conversations like this in most public figures’ portfolios. It is not just ‘deplorables‘ who ‘talk like that.’

Brock And Dan Turner: Rapists And Their Mentor Fathers

Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman. This All-American hero, well-versed in the rituals of manhood that center around heavy drinking and sexually assaulting women, had to be interrupted by two Good Samaritans (also male), who unlike Turner, did not find anything remotely sexy in his violence. Brock Turner found himself in court, and there, facing a judge who thought it more important to take care of his future than that of the woman Turner had raped. That male judge–and a legal system which works hard to preserve sexist and patriarchal structure–sentenced Turner to six months, worrying as he did so that any more time would be too harsh a penalty on this ‘star athlete.’ (The moral lesson that should have been imparted by the judge to this champion swimmer was found instead in the powerful letter that Brock’s victim wrote to him.)

But even that sentence was too harsh for the man who educated Brock Turner in the Way of Rape: his father, Dan Turner, who wrote a revealing illumination of how a rapist got to be that way:

As it stands now, Brock’s  life has been deeply altered forever by the events of Jan 17th and 18th. He will never be his happy go lucky self with that easy going personality and welcoming smile. His every waking minute is consumed with worry, anxiety, fear, and depression. You can see this in his face, the way he walks, his weakened voice, his lack of appetite. Brock always enjoyed certain types of food and is a very good cook himself. I was always excited to buy him a big ribeye steak to grill or to get his favorite snack for him….Now he barely consumes any food and eats only to exist. These verdicts have broken and shattered him and our family in so many ways. His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of the 20 plus years of his life.

Brock Turner didn’t start out a rapist. He was turned into one by his father, a man who can describe rape as ’20 minutes of action.’ Such an understanding is indubitably grounded in past experience and conceptual clarity; it must have formed the basis of an education presumably imparted to his son through his happy childhood, one in which he indicated girls as members of a demographic constituting possible marks when suitably intoxicated. Or perhaps they discussed the tits-n-ass qualities of the neighbor’s girl next door even as Dad worried whether his son would get as much ‘action’ or ‘tail’ as Dad did back in the good ‘ol days when you could just have any woman on campus. Dad must have been ecstatic at the thought that his son was going to campus as an athlete; those guys always get laid. All the time. Woe betide the woman who doesn’t comply with their demands–they have a rep to protect.

Rapists don’t start out as rapists; they are educated and acculturated into that role. They need mentors and coaches. Brock Turner’s was his father, Dan.

‘Straight Outta Compton’ And Ambivalence

A couple of weeks ago, I finally watched F. Gary Gray‘s Straight Outta Compton, the cinematic biography of N.W. A. (More accurately, I saw the ‘Unrated Director’s Cut,’ which features an additional twenty minutes not found in the theatrical release.) Since then, many tracks from the N. W. A, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy E oeuvre on my Spotify playlist have received extended playtime; the music is as astonishing as it ever was. And yet, as I listen to these tracks I’m reminded again about my deep and abiding ambivalence about gangsta rap, and the unease it perennially stirs in me.

Tracks like ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ ‘Fuck tha Police,’ ‘No Vaseline‘ ‘Ain’t Nothing But A G Thang,’ ‘Real Compton City Gs‘ are exhilarating. There is defiance and unbridled energy, mordant social commentary (no one is better on police brutality), some exquisite verbal styling and delivery of lyrics, a dazzling fusion of varied musical styles–the whole package. These tracks–and many others like them–are irresistible in many dimensions. (If you feel like getting charged up for a tough day at work, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ or ‘Fuck the Police’ are great tracks to play as you get dressed and head out the door; woe betide that annoying co-worker who tries to get under your skin that day. Lyrics like “Boy you can’t fuck with me/So when I’m in your neighborhood, you better duck/Cause Ice Cube is crazy as fuck” will do that to you.) It is small wonder they found so much playtime on radio stations and television channels–even if in some venues they had to be sanitized. Which brings us to an enduring problem with them.

Quite simply, there is little room to maneuever, to offer exculpation, when confronted with lyrics like these:

Now I think you a snitch,
throw a house nigga in a ditch.
Half-pint bitch, fuckin’ your homeboys.
You little maggot; Eazy E turned faggot.
With your manager, fella,
fuckin’ MC Ren, Dr. Dre, and Yella.
But if they were smart as me,
Eazy E would be hangin’ from a tree.
With no vaseline, just a match and a little bit of gasoline.
Light ’em up, burn ’em up, flame on…

Or:

I find a good piece o’ pussy, I go up in it
So if you’re at a show in the front row
I’m a call you a bitch or dirty-ass ho
You’ll probably get mad like a bitch is supposed to
But that shows me, slut, you’re composed to
A crazy muthafucker from tha street

Such examples can be multiplied effortlessly. There is misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, violent death threats–another comprehensive package of sorts. The defense of these lyrics is a familiar one: these tracks are not promotions or endorsements of the lifestyles and attitudes noted in them; rather, they are reports of an existent state of affairs, a grim reality, in precincts unknown to most Americans. The contestation of this defense has resulted in an enduring debate, one facet of which was visible in the the sharp accusations of misogyny that made the rounds once again during Straight Outta Compton’s theatrical release. That case is damning, and rightly so.

And so, I find myself perplexed once again: the musical qualities attract, but many ‘messages’ within it repels; there is no way to listen to this music without that tension present.

Mass Shootings, Gun Control, And Masculinity

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. There is a great deal of truth in this, er, truism. But having acknowledged that, one can then move on to ask: why do so many people kill people in the US? What are the factors at play in the network of actors and causes and effects that produce, as a grim unblinking result, an epidemic of shootings–two campus shootings so far on this Friday–and a steadily growing heap of corpses?

Gun control advocates–and I am one of them–think that the answer must include the ready availability of guns of all kinds in the US. The NRA and its allies would have us look everywhere but the regulation of guns. I’m going to join them today. What else could it be then?

One pat conservative answer–as typified in Bobby Jindal‘s verbal assault on the father of the Roseburg shooter and Wayne LaPierre‘s response to the Sandy Hook massacre–is the kind of moral degradation conservatives have been bemoaning for years: unwed mothers, children with missing fathers, teenage pregnancy, drug use, video games, the ‘gay lifestyle,’ atheism, premarital sex–the usual harbingers of the apocalypse. In this theoretical framework, the mass shooter is merely the end product of a social pathology which disdains individual responsibility, which is self-indulgent and narcissistic, and which finds ultimate violent expression in nihilistic assaults on the social order. Cure these social ills; bring back prayer in schools; strike the fear of God into all; and then watch these mass shooters fade away quietly, content to read a holy book and go for long walks with their large families.

I agree with this diagnosis in part. Social pathology is to blame for the itchy trigger finger. (The lack of gun control supplies the gun for the finger.) But the pathology I have in mind has other shades to it. There is here, a masculinity that is reared on violence, on an understanding of itself that is dangerously limiting and limited, and which is always fearful of failure in the sexual dimension. The kinds of men this masculinity produces are all too often, angry, lonely, misogynistic, resentful, and scared.  In the pathology I have in mind, these men see themselves as mere atoms in a sea of other human atoms; they are told, relentlessly, that they must be ‘heroic individuals’ and ‘self-made men’; they are instructed that to take help–or give it–is a sign of weakness; it is not in keeping with the ‘frontier spirit’ which made this nation. Militaristic images surround them; soldiers–men with guns–are heroes; war, just another contact sport, is a testing ground for manhood; combat still a rite of initiation;  violence is pornographic. Their imagination finds ample inspiration in this imagery.  They experience an acute dissonance; this world provides as much evidence for its most sympathetic understandings as it does for its cruelest. They still crave the gentlest of human sentiments, but they know that to manifest this need will be considered evidence of failure as a man.

They have failed; they are strangers in a strange land. They have no more need of it, and those who live in it. They won’t go quietly; they’ll let everyone know how this world failed them. Because it made them feel like failures. And kept guns handy for them.

Note: On re-reading some of my older posts on ‘gun control’ I realize I’m reiterating themes I have touched on before. So be it. These shootings repeat themselves too.