The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood in 1985, is soon to be an original series on Hulu. This 30 plus-year-old story portrays a future world that takes the current attacks on women’s freedoms to a frightening conclusion—and shows us the importance of remaining vigilant and persistent, now more than ever, in pursuit of justice.
The narrator describes her daily existence in the Republic of Gilead—formerly the United States—under a totalitarian regime that places all women in highly restrictive roles. She is a “Handmaid” whose only job is to get pregnant and bear a child. Other female roles include the “Wives” assigned to powerful men, the “Marthas” as servants and the “Aunts”—who indoctrinate young women into their respective roles.
While this may seem farfetched, what’s not so implausible is the way the leadership successfully implemented Gilead’s oppressive system. The narrator describes a coup, blamed on Islamic fanatics, that took the lives of the President and entire Cabinet. But long before that direct attack, people weren’t paying close enough attention to the government’s smaller steps towards diminishing individuals’ rights. “We lived, as usual, by ignoring,”Atwood writes. “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”
What are people ignoring today?
Does the focus on the new President mean that people are missing opportunities to stop local efforts to undermine our democracy? Are all the outrageous cabinet nominations and hastily scribbled executive orders making it difficult to know where to focus your resistance?
Consider the successful maneuver by North Carolina Republicans to strip their incoming governor of numerous powers immediately upon taking office. Consider the Arizona bill that would ban schools from teaching about social justice—which was killed in committee, but will likely be revised and re-introduced. Consider the governor of Mississippi signing into law a bill that allows businesses to refuse service to gay couples.
The new President’s executive order restricting aid to foreign organizations that offer abortion-related services has frightening international implications. Yet this should not allow people to ignore the new bill in Ohio that prohibits abortion after 20 weeks—with no exceptions for rape, incest, or fetal anomalies.
The executive order that bans immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries resulted in demonstrations. At the same time, Idaho legislators proposed a law that cuts off funding for sanctuary cities and heightened the requirement of law enforcement officers to check immigration status on people who get arrested.
There are so many more examples of this type of legislation in play that Human Rights Watch has claimed that the United States “poses a dangerous threat to basic rights protections while encouraging abuse by autocrats around the world.” And all of this is happening even as the new administration is taking every effort to undermine the work of the media responsible for keeping the public informed—another tactic used in Gilead. The “newspapers were censored and some were closed down,” and the news that was available could not be trusted—“who knows if any of it is true? It could be old clips, it could be faked.” (Yes, Margaret Atwood wrote of fake news decades before Mr. Trump hurled the phrase at a CNN reporter.)
Of course, many will say that our society is smarter than the people of Gilead, more sophisticated than other countries where even today human rights abuses are commonplace. Yet how many reading this are scared by the political landscape—yet sighing in relief at what they have yet to lose?
Atwood tells of how “the newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others… we were the people who were not in the papers.” This is how humans exercise their ability to deny their very reality. Any animal in the wild will not survive if it does not pay attention to immediate threats and take defensive action. Humans, on the other hand, get to choose where to focus their attention.
For millions of people around the world, the attention has been on Washington D.C.—and rightfully so. We have a lot to be proud of on that front: The Women’s Marches were a massive show of peaceful resistance by many who had never participated in such a demonstration before, and there has been a show of clear resistance to Trump’s agenda by civilians and elected officials.
But in the days after the inauguration, as the new president got to work on his repressive agenda, how many marchers went home to their previous lives, maybe even hoping for a return to the ordinary? “Ordinary,” writes Atwood, “is what you get used to.”
Nothing is ordinary about this new administration. There are immediate threats breaking out on the local level. A new “ordinary” must include persistent efforts to pay attention and avoid becoming so overwhelmed by the national scene that you lose sight of your own community. “Ordinary” must mean refusing to get distracted by the Twitter wars and acting where there is the potential to make the greatest impact in your own community.