Fearful Familiarity

| May 12, 2017 | 0 Comments

Earlier this week, I decided to start reading The Handmaid’s Tale. For those who don’t know, the novel describes a future version of America — a Christian theocracy in which women are treated as second-class citizens, and divided into castes. Margaret Atwood made sure that everything she wrote about was not only relevant, but had at some time and in some society actually happened.

I thought the book was brilliant, but I didn’t get far.

I hesitate to call my reaction to the first half-chapter a panic attack, because I know people who suffer from clinical anxiety, but certainly it was like drowning. I found so much of fearful familiarity, in the way they described the women, and the way the Christian extremists took over the government, that I needed to sit down. They’d blamed the attack on Congress on Muslim terrorists, then taken over —  just for a little while, they said. People’s rights disappeared slowly, so slowly as to be, at first, unnoticeable.

And what about 1984? Certainly, the surveillance state has exceeded Orwell’s expectations, and who better to illustrate primitive doublespeak than a president-elect who can contradict himself in the same sentence?

The nationalist rhetoric, the imposed Christianity in the rallies, the threats to the press, the violent and objectifying way Trump treats women — I have seen this in a class I took on Spain’s fascist era. Different times and different languages disguise the same evil.

I called my sister. I meant to ask, How likely is it that we will become an autocracy? But I had been reading The Handmaid’s Tale, and so what came out was, “How likely is it that we will be put into camps?”

Cowardly, I know.

“It’s very unlikely there will be a genocide,” she had replied, answering a question I hadn’t asked. “The rhetoric is wrong,” she adds, and I remember she used to work for a genocide prevention center. “He wouldn’t speak about Muslims as terrorists, he would describe them as cockroaches, things that needed to be squashed. He would begin to remove Muslims from places of power. They would be relocated to a single part of the city. It would happen slowly, but there would be signs.”

I am more selfish than my sister. I can still see the line of barbed wire around the handmaid’s compound, the windows of bulletproof glass that cannot be used to cut wrists. “Would they come after us?” I ask. “As… writers, and… dissenters.” I hesitate to suggest that they might put women in camps. Notable, how the only feminist gesture of the Trump administration has been their childcare policy — supporting women only when they conform to the expectation of motherhood.

“Not first, and only to get us out of the way,” she replies. “And honestly, we’re not that important. Neither of us are leaders.”

I am ashamed to be relieved, and at the back of my mind, there is a whisper, a soft and uncertain not yet. Now I know the signs to watch for, though the Trump administration has given us plenty of signs. If registration is a pre-step, then we will trip them there, preventing another step towards autocracy, theocracy, genocide — whichever dark road this election has set us on. I will avoid reading about dystopias and focus on preventing them, using whatever privilege I have to help those they will go after first.

photo credit: lacygentlywaftingcurtains Night Ride via photopin (license)

photo credit: lacygentlywaftingcurtains Night Ride via photopin (license)

There are utopias, too — the worlds in which we come out not only better, but better for our discord, our diversity. There are worlds worth waiting for, worlds worth building, worlds where hopeful idealism triumphs over despair.

You might be right, if you thought my daydreams as pitiful and selfish as my nightmares. For sometimes I imagine the people in those worlds reading my writing. I imagine them in despair, too. Every idealist will be disappointed.

They will ask, How can I continue, in a world where things like this happen?

And they will find solace in my words, and your words, for though generations have passed, we are working for that same, better world, the one all dream of and no one sees. When I am scared, I think of the heroes that will come, the ones from the stories — Jean Luke Picard being a particular favorite — imagined people, idealized people, people better than I will ever be. I choose to be brave, for them, so that they will be brave too, so that they will exist in the first place.

I tell myself that they, too, will need their heroes.

Featured photo credit: pni Barbed Wire 2 via photopin (license)

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