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Handmaid’s Tale

Back in the 90’s when I worked at Northern Secondary and we had something called OAC to replace Grade 13, one of our novels for study was Handmaid’s. Even now I shudder at the brilliance of teaching a novel so ahead of its time, a work that stood at the crossroads, linking and drawing from actual documented Totalitarian events in the past- for each storied event in the book: from the wall hangings that occurred as warnings in Auschwitz to the prescribed dress and demeanour of women covering their bodies and faces. Child stealing, Salem witch trials, even women betraying women, and male-  dominations been lived out again and again.

At the same time, the book was prophetic in terms of banning travel, allowing for toxic waste, or in our present day, the pollution of air. At the heart of the novel is the control over women’s bodies, as seen by the laws that have passed in the US, supported and driven by Vice President Pence and his sanctimonious brethren, rights to abortion at the heart of the issue.

I don’t think my students recognized the book as momentous back then, for along with Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure or Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, these were the texts that the english department had decided were important to the development of thinking, critiquing and engaging curriculum. But clearly our department head was way ahead of his time. The themes covered in these prescribed studies were the farthest reaching in terms of power structures, freedoms, approaches and interpretations of moral structures, rebellions, silence, repression…

The test of a book is its ability to transcend time, to keep it current and relevant and so the book Stoner, or the authors Orwell, the Bard, Copperfield and many others are names ever recognizable to our young populations. Interestingly as I read David Shribman’s column this morning in the Globe, he encourages Trump to read: Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson, Tyler Anbinder on City of Dreams, Barbara Tuchman ‘s Guns of August, Buchman’s Pilgrims Progress along with presidential biographies that reflect on the difficult tasks a president must encounter. In Offred’s forced tryst with the Commander, her jaw falls open to see his walls lined with books, a commodity now burned and vanished from society for their dangerous power to assuage, critique, demonstrate and change minds. Wicked, wicked books, pen to paper that empowers. How can one not think back on the book burnings pre and during the holocaust, and revisited in Fahrenheit 451 or the destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan by the Taliban…as if beauty and wisdom like a viral infection will corrupt. But of course, it does.

The timeless quality to transcend has made The Handmaid’s Tale a thrilling television production with Elizabeth Moss. Perfect as Offred, she embodies the repressed but still hopeful personality of the protagonist. Her name although a prefix to the name of the commander, Fred, also suggests she is “ offered”, and of-red, the colour of the clothing she must wear as a potential bearer of children, signifying first blood or the onset of fertility.But mostly a possession, deserving no name. Standing by a window, she murmurs her own real name, longing to resume an identity of her own, untouchable by forces that would diminish her.

The society shown in the television production appears at first far fetched with its restrictions, each class of women delineated by colour.Simple freedoms such as Offred’s game of scrabble is a delight made palatable. That she is still able to resist, as she spits out the macaron offered to her by Serena Joy, the commandeer’s wife, in defiance, bolsters her/ our hope she may be able to escape. Yet almost as quickly as her spirits soar are they extinguished when she realizes her walkmate has been exchanged, or more likely silenced in a nefarious way. She is precariously perched on a tenuous tightrope of emotions twisting her as she attempts some independence where there is none.

 Along with Handmaid’s in OAC, we taught Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and. Lawrence Thornton’s Imagining Argentina that spoke to methods of resistance in terrible times. In most, it was the mind that allowed one to survive the here and now: so to live in the head, obliterating the slings and arrows set against the body provided the escape hatch. Just as Nelson Mandela somehow resisted in his 17 years in Roblen island, with a few smuggled in books such as Shakespeare as his treasured companions .Those dangerous, dangerous books that preach and teach. Mandela’s favourite poem by Henley from 1875 Invictus inspired him:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Hopefully we the viewers, the  population who still cares about liberties, can chant – even today- with the  mantra of the Handmaids,” Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

Immigration, news papers and poetry 

On Meet the Press last week, Chuck Todd asked Reince Preibus why the specific naming of the Jews and antisemitism had been omitted by Trump on the day of Holocaust Remembrance in Washington. No apologies or expression of regret was given except for Trump’s spokesperson to murmur, how terrible it all was and to acknowledge there are Jewish people in Trump’s own family( his son- in- law Jared Kushner and Trump’s daughter who is a convert to Judaism). In deed, Ivanka issued a photo of herself and husband that evening as they preened for their night out in dazzling clothes. She might have underpinned it with “ Let them ( the refugees) eat cake”. People believe that it is no mistake that the ban of Muslims from countries identified as dangerous such as Yemen, Syria,Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Somalia on the same day as the holocaust statement was not just a coincidence- for, Steve Bannon, chief strategist for Trump, supports the alt right which lauds white supremacy and of course, antisemitism along with it. But not just Jews and Muslims are in his purview, he also repeatedly excoriates the Press to keep quiet.

I always find it ironic that one who insists on his own voice being heard has no problem silencing all the other voices: Might makes Right, and as Trump, so incredibly demonstrated during his debates, keep repeating your words louder and more often until you drum out and silence your opponents. Bannon, a former navy man, also worked at Goldman Sacks as a banker and profited from royalties from Seinfeld. So cry me a river of how both Trump, and Bannon can empathize with the forgotten in America! From their monied positions , they define themselves as outcasts. But perhaps, they are correct, if the criteria for being an outsider means social misfit whose elevated status means ignoring real and basic needs. With the arrogance of the rich, and hard done by attitude , Trump and Bannon only listen to the their own misguided selfish, egotistical voices bouncing in their heads. And terribly, ironically, their voter base was mainly composed of the actual poor- whose resentment of their societal condition put into power the very bankers and billionaires responsible for their condition.

Without the Press to question, probe and investigate, people are pawns in the game of dictatorship, mindblown by the alternative facts and lies, the “ beliefs” that the master puppeteers hold. What America has enshrined is freedom of speech, encouraging public discourse, debate, collaboration and an impetus towards building on the diverse ideas of the public. At least, that was the slogan emblazoned  in their propaganda. The Press is the watchdog, the canary in the coal mine that tweets the warnings of looming disaster.

Yet too often these days, the Press sensationalizes, exaggerates and employs hyperbole to dramatize and entertain, alert to raising ratings. However, without the attention of the Press , Trump might not have been successful in his bid for presidency. Perhaps he is too well aware of their power and would prefer them silenced now just as in countries where dictatorship has overrun freedom of speech- and worse. Seen as the critics rather than heralding an era of the next doom, the Press has rebelled, written and challenged those who would prefer to lock them up and cut out  their tongues.

The lacuna in the holocaust statement reminded me of Harold Troper and Irving Abella’s book, None is Too Many, that described the refusal to allow Jews into Canada during World War II, and the shame of it. Trump’s barring refugees is likewise horrifying. I recall stories that my mother told of Poland before the war, and those who were not allowed to leave – and perished. And who does not remember the SS St. Louis in June 1939, its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, refused entry to the port of Miami, circling and circling aimlessly until it was forced to return to Europe .Again shamefully. The United States has had a poor track record offering asylum.(Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/us-government-turned-away-thousands-jewish-refugees-fearing-they-were-nazi-spies)

In the Globe again, Pulitzer Prize winner on U.S. Politics, David Shribman remarks on the chaos sown by Trump.Alluding to seven short days, Shribman compares the beauty of creation with the quick demise of society by juxtaposing the two bible- thumping Trump with the miracle of the world. And even the Pope has denounced Trump on immigration, but obviously Trump only respects his own gold- plated views and deems himself above all who would criticize, bestowing upon himself the right to decide who shall live and who shall die as a god on high- above all religious clerics and moral philosophers and common sense. Shribman highlights the symbolism of the statue of liberty, and the Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the welcoming statue to New York,

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…”

 

I think too of Walt Whitman celebrating diversity in Leaves of Grass and his tribute to Lincoln in Captain, my Captain.  

Russell Smith in Thursday’s Globe and Mail also aligns artists’ works protesting the evils of mankind with Trump’s America, admitting art exerts little impact, except to rally the spirit and underline through gesture and design protests. Yet Picasso’s Guernica that dramatized the atrocity of Nazi bombing of innocent civilians in 1937 on the Basque town in Spain stands as a monument to all human suffering, underlying the brutality of the place, the time, the perpetrators: a forever record. But as Russell Smith set out, art can do little to change minds. I fear that at the end of this destructive time, when the henchmen are called on to account for the ruination of society, they will demure,” I was just following g orders.”

 I imagine too Sally Yates’ refusal to sign Trump’s order will also stand as a rebuttal, a forever statement to the gross abrogation of rights. And when the world surveys its lists of who stood up to Hitler as Schindler did, Guernica and Yates and the Women’s March and even the mayor of Provence, Rhode Island will be carved into the minds and hearts of people who will scorn a regime that deprived rights and safe passage to those in most need. 

And once more, On Meet the Press, a participant held up the IPhone declaring the son of an Arab immigrant , Steve Jobs, created it. A Syrian filmmaker of an Oscar nominated film, The Salesman based on Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman will be included in the ban of Muslims from Syria and will not be able to attend. Scholarship students to Yale and Harvard from many of these identified countries are now nomads, unable to return to their classes. And think of the families stopped midtransit after two years of vetting, now turned away. At least the” sanctuary” cities at this point are not willing to comply by providing names for deportation.In seven short days, the world has come loose, and those famous lines from WB Yeats in 1919, come to mind,

 Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

 Trump’s ability to tell lies and promulgate fear are his special talents. This is fear mongering, echoing FDR’s “ All we have to fear is fear itself” in his inaugural address. By saying this, FDR was telling the American people that their fear was making things worse. He went on to say, “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror … paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

 

That is not to say, that terrorists such are not pursuing terrible outrageous crimes against innocents , and destabilizing the world. One remark from 60 Minutes has stayed with me, a comment made by a pastor in Georgia : Who is more likely to turn to terrorism, someone welcomed by a country or spurned by it?

And Marie Henein( yes defender of Jian Gomeshi) likewise reminds us in The Globe on Wednesday, of George Orwell’s take on political thinking in 1945, when he wrote “… the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome …people seem capable of schizophrenic beliefs regarding plain facts, of evading serious facts with debating society repartee or swallowing baseless rumors and of looking on indifferently while history is falsified…”

She adds that few people are actually hurt or killed in terrorism attacks ( well, 9/11), but many many more by guns. Yet there is no move “ to make America safer” by passing more stringent gun laws or even preventing them from being sold.

The last bastion of hope exists with those who have power to overturn or stop the avalanche of Trump’s tide. Maybe thinking Republicans will join with Democrats , protestors, women, refugees, those truly forgotten souls to prevent the tragedy that awaits. My husband, the lawyer, always optimistic continues to tell me that the justice system is embedded with safeguards that will not allow rights and freedoms to be trampled.

 I hope so.

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