It’s early April 2020, and it feels each day like we’re living out some dystopian novel’s future anew.
Already plenty has been written about the Orwellian qualities of the totalitarian controls and constraints being placed on people across the globe by regimes both authoritarian and democratic in the name of containing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Comparisons to Ling Ma’s 2018 novel Severance, where a virus originates in China and upends the known world, and to Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 come easily.
What hasn’t been as clearly articulated—and maybe that’s because we are never comfortable talking about sex (and power, and bodies)—are the ways in which the crisis is being used in order to further limit reproductive rights and bodily sovereignty in the United States.
Those rights are, of course, at the core of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, arguably the novel that best predicts our present future.
Reading Atwood’s novel through the lens of the novel coronavirus makes it feel like there’s no real novelty here.
This semester, in an English class at a large public college, I’m teaching a course I’ve taught a number of times before, “Literature as Witness.” Our theme is witnessing the future, and the course blurb I wrote at the end of last year reads in part:
“This semester we’ll read literature that imagines the future from the current conjuncture…. We’ll make connections from the literary works to current events, thinking about how the texts, by predicting the future, inform us about the social, political, and economic present. And, in witnessing these future visions, we’ll see into our actual, potential futures.”
Little did I know.
Atwood’s first sentence reads, “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”
Ian Bogost, the author of The Atlantic’s “When the Checkpoints Come,” notes that the novel starts in the gymnasium because it’s “a sign that something has gone terribly wrong”—but we also start there because it’s a reminder that in some ways things aren’t that different from the way they’ve always been: An institutional setting being used to produce regimented team players could equally be an American school gym or a Gileadean reeducation center.
Offred, our handmaid narrator, remembers how, before things went terribly wrong, “[w]e yearned for the future.” That future—the one that was already embedded in the past moment of basketball games and school dances—has arrived for her.
At the end of the chapter, Offred deadpans, “We still had our bodies. That was our fantasy.”
The fantasy of bodily sovereignty predates Gilead. It’s a fantastical idea even before Gilead has fully taken hold, even before Alma, Janine, Dolores, Moira and June have become handmaids.
The future has also arrived for us—and it’s completely on a continuum with the past.
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June Medical Services v. Russo—the first major abortion case to be heard by the Trump-stacked Supreme Court—could leave Louisiana with a single abortion provider, effectively gutting Roe v. Wade’s promise of unfettered abortion access.
In early March, when the Court was still hearing cases, the judges seemed split over whether to mandate that abortion providers have admitting privileges at local hospitals, a proviso which would boost the anti-choice movement’s efforts to undo Roe by de facto rather than de jure means.
As of March 16, the Supreme Court indefinitely postponed oral arguments because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Presumably, June will be heard sometime in the future—but meanwhile reproductive rights continue to be undermined, with the pandemic as justifying premise.
Elective surgeries around the country are on hold due to overwhelmed hospital systems, a critical lack of PPE (the acronym for personal protective equipment, which we all suddenly know) and drastically overworked care providers—not to mention fears of contagion.
Republican lawmakers, seeing an opportunity, are arguing that abortion counts as a “nonessential” procedure and taking actions like executive orders to ban it. This has already happened in Alabama, Ohio, Oklahoma, Iowa and Texas.
By framing abortion as elective, this strategy perverts the idea of choice, making abortion sound like something a woman might choose, or not, something on par with, say, a nose job or a tummy tuck. Choice is easy to take away when it appears optional, discretionary.
“We were a society dying,” says Aunt Lydia in Handmaid, “of too much choice.”
Atwood drops hints throughout her novel about how Gilead came to be. The first thing to go terribly wrong is a sequence of environmental calamities: “The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells.”
The nation’s birthrate plummets as a result of this constellation of causes, and repopulating becomes the sole obsession of the newly installed, patriarchal, totalitarian government.
Ecological disaster as a precipitating event should sound familiar. We find ourselves in the spring of 2020 at the receiving end of a chain of events that goes something like this:
Greed and globalization increase fossil fuel consumption, causing pollution and climate change. That leads to ecological disturbances for humans and animals, pushed out of their habitats—putting, for instance, bats and hungry people in close proximity. This then causes viruses which have not been killed off by cold winters, as in the past, to cross over from one species to another. They’re then spread everywhere by greed and globalization.
In medicine, a precipitating event turns a latent condition into a manifest one. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the lingering latencies of a poisoned planet suddenly manifest themselves in a government takeover:
“That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.”
In America two weeks ago, the Department of Justice “quietly asked Congress for the ability to ask chief judges to detain people indefinitely without trial during emergencies—part of a push for new powers that comes as the novel coronavirus spreads throughout the United States,” Politico reports.
We live in a country governed by men who do not respect the sovereignty of women’s bodies—our President and a Supreme Court justice have been credibly accused of sexual assault—or of the body politic. I have lived under states of emergency before, and I do not doubt that Donald Trump, Mike Pence and William Barr would be delighted to declare one here, thus accruing to themselves powers like the ones the apartheid regime in South Africa enjoyed.
When I was a child in Johannesburg in the 1970s and ’80s, I did not know that at least eight political prisoners died in that timeframe at the John Voster Square police station downtown—having been detained without trial, interrogated and tortured.
Regimes that fancy themselves righteous (like those Americans who want to save the “unborn,” or better yet, the “preborn,” words as euphemistic as the “Unbabies” of Gilead) or simply crave authority (like Serbia’s strongman, Aleksandar Vucic, who has used the coronavirus as a excuse to seize control of the state) repeatedly show themselves willing to undo civil society to advance their own interests.
The BBC this week congratulated South Africa on its handling of the virus, while admitting, that “[o]f course, there have been mistakes, and worse. The police and army have, at times, acted with thuggish abandon in their attempts to enforce the three-week-long lockdown, humiliating, beating and even shooting civilians on the streets of the commercial capital, Johannesburg, and elsewhere.”
Israel deployed mass surveillance measures weeks ago.
France, a nation long in love with bureaucracy, now requires that its citizens carry an Attestation de déplacement et de voyage certificate in order to leave their homes during this outbreak.
Under apartheid, one of South Africa’s most effective instruments of inequality was the use of the pass, a document that claimed to certify whether people were in their proper place. The pass was a kind of domestic passport that regulated “influx control,” which was code for importing black South Africans from their purported “homelands” to work in urban centers and in mines—but only when needed.
If it sounds like a leap to get from viral containment policies to racist practices, it might be worth pointing out that evidence rapidly accrues to show the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on African Americans and other people of color who are more likely to be among the health and wealth precariat. The Handmaid’s Tale barely mentions race, which may be because Gilead is a white supremacist nation.
It ends with a commentary from a snarky academic from a fictional future who points out that Gilead’s “racist policies … were firmly rooted in the pre-Gilead period.” Those policies included the creation of “homelands” and “colonies,” where “portable populations used mainly as expendable toxic-cleanup squads” were sent.
On tonight’s evening news, in yet another segment on how we are handling the coronavirus, a so-called “essential” worker, a grocery store checkout clerk, said that she felt more like an expendable worker. Certainly she would see the parallels.
In Gilead, when the collapse came, “People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.”
Rather than cuing up yet another Netflix series, or even the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, rather than more talk about “the invisible enemy,” let’s intervene.
It’s the literary imaginary that allows us to think beyond ourselves, to generate new models of comprehending and contesting catastrophe. It’s literature that lets us think of novel futures.
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