“It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the President, and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics.”
I’ve been re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel about what happens when a Christian fundamentalist movement takes power and establishes “The Republic of Gilead” in the old continental U.S. I’m having trouble getting into it, though. I find myself easily distracted, intermittently compelled but ultimately unconvinced by her vision of our future.
When I first read the book, in 1986, when it came out, I couldn’t really articulate what I thought was wrong with it, why it didn’t grab me. “It’s too extreme,” I think I said to someone at the time. “It’s not believable.”
When I was at college in the mid ‘70s, my freshman roommate, Kathy Keck, was from Lubbock, Texas. She went on and on (I thought) about how much she hated the fundamentalists who’d dominated her childhood. “These people are dangerous,” I remember her saying, while I politely chuckled. “You watch out. They hate people like us. They want to finish us off.” Yeah yeah. I’d never met one single person like the people she described, in the northeastern college town where I grew up. I thought of them as a diminishing number of isolated crackpots, wingnuts, people who couldn’t tie their own shoes. People who couldn’t say “nuclear” or spell “education.” I thought there were probably as many Hari Krishnas in the U.S. as there were hard-core evangelicals—the Krishnas were certainly a lot more visible to me.
This was the 1970s, for chrissake! You know, as in after the sixties? The Jeannie was long out of the bottle, already in reruns, helping Larry Hagman subvert the stuffy U.S. military while wearing décolleté from Frederick’s of Hollywood. One of my favorite “old” (1960) movies was Inherit the Wind, Hollywood’s version of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Long-suffering Dick York (later the ineffable Darren of Bewitched), a school teacher who dares to teach evolution in the twenties, gets his butt saved from Southern reactionaries by Spencer Tracy’s Clarence Darrow, and enlightenment values convincingly triumph. The Dark Ages recede forever, thanks to the U.S. justice system…
But God is not mocked.
The mills of the Lord grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small.
And so forth.
My problem with the Republic of Gilead now is no longer, I would say, with its remoteness or extremity as a concept. Rather the devil, if you’ll allow me to phrase it that way, is in the details. They’re all too Canadian somehow. I live in the geographical region some wag recently designated one of the “sideburns” of Canada, surrounded by relative affluence, urbanity and education, and after all these years I still don’t personally know any Christian fundamentalists, nor have I ever even encountered them at a friend’s house or in any of my workplaces over the years—so what do I know? Manhattan is no longer the only urban island in the U.S. All our urban areas have been revealed to be islands in the new Red Sea.
(Red, by the way, is the color that the titular Handmaids of the novel must wear, the women who are forced to serve as childbearers for sterile couples. The Republic commands everyone to breed and multiply, but most of the population is infertile, because of nuclear accidents and uncontrolled toxic dumping, and other undescribed environmental catastrophes.)
But since the number of people in our own pre-Gilead U.S. who have been born more than once has reached more than one in three, and a two-thirds majority knows Jesus personally or impersonally, no Manhattan can be an island forever, one supposes. With all three branches of government to use as tents, the fundamentalists could be on the verge of the biggest revival movement in U.S. history.
While so far, and possibly at my peril, I have remained isolated from the Christian right and its reality on the ground, I still don’t believe that what Margaret Atwood describes is a convincing scenario for the U.S. Partly because Gilead just doesn’t look or sound like the kind of cowboy Christian homeland I’ve come to visualize somewhat better, since I laughed off Kathy’s concerns, if only through listening to the President’s speeches. The Handmaid’s Tale is full of passive-aggressive people who speak softly, with muted emotion, in full sentences. The Commanders live in Victorian-looking sitting rooms with pressed flowers and needlepoint cushions. At one point the narrator mentions some kind of candies from the old society called Humbugs. I’ve never heard of those, have you? Why wasn’t it Mars Bars? This character, ostensibly a 30-year-old woman in the early millennium, remembers Tennyson while having no real concept of World War II. That’s just plumb un-American.
What I mean to say is that maybe in Canada a fundamentalist society would hark back to Victorian England. But here, no, I don’t think that would be the model. And so while elements of it are brilliantly realized, Atwood’s future vision fails to provide more than an intermittent chill of recognition, because it doesn’t proceed from a real understanding of the cultural talismans and the social dynamics here in the U.S. It would have been more successful, perhaps, if she had left the country unspecified and allowed herself a more universal exploration of the nature of fundamentalism. Utopian and dystopian tales are moral tales, there’s no two ways about it. They exist to warn of a possible future or inspire one to construct it. They are always socially engaged in some way, however philosophical they may seem. So in order to take the warning or the inspiration seriously and act accordingly, you first have to buy into the vision. It has to ring true. As much as any imaginative literature, such stories must be, in Marianne Moore’s words, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
But beyond the lack of cultural competence, the main thing that makes The Handmaid’s Tale unbelievable to me is that Atwood makes no attempt to envision how the economic forces of the day would have permitted her Republic to exist. Such a society would, of course, be disastrous for big business. Look at the actual examples of communities in the U.S. that are governed by Biblical law if you want to understand this: groups like the Amish, the Hutterian Brethren, some of the Mennonite sects. In every case there is total distrust for the corrupting force of consumerism, there are no great disparities of wealth, there is collective ownership of much if not all the elements of production. Women are submitted to men’s authority, children are chattels, there is little or no personal freedom—but there’s not much room for Wal-mart or Blockbuster Video either.
As Mussolini correctly guessed, for a fascist state to be “sustainable” it has to be delicately attentive to corporate interests. If attempts to dictate individual behavior become too extreme, business withdraws its support, because people must be able to consume with latitude even if they are allowed to do nothing else. But for Atwood to make her points, big business has to somehow simply evaporate, corporate power simply disappear.
So what could be worse than dystopia?
For a view of evangelical Christianity in the American context that’s neither utopian nor dystopian, but timelessly accurate, hitting all the right notes in its ballad to this peculiarly American form of hypocrisy and delusion that just keeps going and going, Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry is the best book by yards. You’ve got to read this. Lewis wrote the novel in the twenties, after doing extensive research in mid-west churches and revival meetings. He even took a group of Kansas City evangelical pastors out and “got them drunk enough to tell the truth about themselves,” as part of this research. His Elmer Gantry is a brilliant creation, a man who is not at all bright, but very, very shrewd, with an unfailing ability to say what God-fearing people want to hear, and to simulate conviction with such intensity that it becomes conviction, for all intents and purposes.
Elmer drinks, and screws around, and gets in trouble, but he repents—so, so convincingly, and publicly, each time, and each time he rises further in the echelons of the evangelical movement. Elmer’s journey is indeed somewhat parallel to the rise and fall and rise of religious boosterism in this country. There is never a final downfall for him. At times, having been caught out in some crime or other, he seems on the verge of ruin, but he always comes back. After his greatest set back, when the church of Sharon Falconer, his lover and his mentor in messianic evangelism, burns to the ground and she is killed, he flounders for a while, but he rallies. He even has a flirtation with a movement called New Thought, which strives to bring together elements of various religions, Rosicrucianism, Hinduism, etc., in service to self-improvement and personal prosperity. (Somehow making New Age spirituality not seem so new after all.)
Elmer survives and thrives from beginning to end, because he has boundless energy and optimism, understands innately the motivating and manipulating force that religion can be, and no scruple about his own hypocrisy ever troubles his conscience. His only true conscience, his real gospel, is his own survival, and thus he can always find a sufficient justification for his actions. He knows a man may be forgiven anything as long as he invokes the Lord. And he knows you can attack any perceived personal vice and get a following, but money makes the world go around, and so what Main Streeters want to hear most is that Jesus wants them to do good by doing well.
In the last third of the book, Lewis interweaves Elmer’s story with that of a conscientious but doomed colleague, Frank Shallard, a minister who, in spite of his doubts about the literal truth of the Bible, actually sets himself to practice what the gospels preach. He ends up being pilloried and martyred as a socialist by goons.
In the end, Elmer Gantry’s world is more devastating than the Republic of Gilead. Atwood’s book ends with her nameless title character finding the inevitable resistance, the resistance that such totalitarian states will always generate, and pace Orwell, the resistance that will always ultimately destroy them. But in Gantry’s world, the true American formula has been identified, and the mixture of elements is perfect, for, even if they must submerge for awhile, they can seemingly recur in any era. God gets the widow’s mite, Caesar gets what is Caesar’s, and Elmer Gantry gets the rest.
Christy Rodgers is the editor and publisher of the What If? A Journal of Radical Possibilities, a magazine with a teeny weenie circulation but lots of big ideas. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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