Image Source: Getty / Rich Fury
Margaret Atwood knows a thing or two about authoritarian governments. She was living in West Berlin in the 1980s at the time when she wrote The Handmaid's Tale, her classic novel about a dystopian America under the rule of authoritarian Christian men. During her time there, the German city was encircled by the Berlin Wall and the Cold War raged. Under the circumstances, she experienced some of what her main character, Offred, encounters in the republic of Gilead: namely, the feeling of being spied on and the clever ways people trade information under duress. But her research didn't stop there; she turned up several other instances of man-made oppression as she wrote like bans on reading and education, public executions, gag orders, slavery, the history of American polygamy, and the children of Argentina's "disappeared."
"When I wrote The Handmaid's Tale, American exceptionalism was prevalent, but it's less so now. With Trump, people are starting to see it can happen here."
In light of her seminal book becoming a new TV series on Hulu — and the uncomfortable parallels we're seeing between the story and our own political environment — we connected with the author to talk about literature, power, and the Populist movements sprouting up around the globe.
The Inciting Incident
Atwood hails from Canada, but legend has it her heritage can be traced back to Mary Webster, a woman accused of witchcraft in Massachusetts during the Salem witch trials. She says this personal history motivated her to write a story about a society that rounds up its women and strips them of their basic rights. And she was keen on sending Americans a message: don't think it can't happen here, because it already has. "When I wrote The Handmaid's Tale, American exceptionalism was prevalent, but it's less so now. With Trump, people are starting to see it can happen here." Atwood's dystopian tale, something of an oracle, does feel as — if not more — relevant now than it's ever been.
The Recipe For a Dictatorship
In The Handmaid's Tale, there's a running theme throughout: a tug of war between the freedom from and the freedom to. Curious about this distinction, we asked Atwood which of these freedoms is most conducive to a healthy society. "People often think that one of these freedoms is preferable to the other," she said. "But each has their drawbacks when taken to the extreme. The key is finding a balance between the two."
She went on to describe the difference by sharing her recipe for a dictatorship. She asked us to draw a diagram as part of the exercise.
Following her instructions, we . . .
- Drew a large circle in the middle of a sheet of paper and dissected it with a line running from top to bottom, drawing arrows at both ends of the spectrum.
- Then, we labeled the arrow pointing upward "Dictatorship: Freedom From" and the arrow pointing downward "Anarchy: Freedom To."
- Next, we found the middle of the spectrum — which is also the center of the circle — and we marked it with a bullseye, labeling it "Center: A Balance of Both Freedoms."
- Finally, we wrote the words "Left" and "Right" in their respective halves of the circle.
With the diagram in front of us, she explained that a dictatorship promises its citizens the freedom from, which is a type of freedom best described as protection and security. On the opposite end of the spectrum, anarchy promises the freedom to, which is the freedom to do anything without consequence. A pair of quotes taken from chapter five of The Handmaid's Tale put this in context:
"There is more than one kind of freedom. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Women were not protected then. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it."
"Now we walk along the same streets, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles."
Atwood went on to say both the Right and the Left are capable of creating either a Dictatorship or Anarchy, although we can avoid these extremes by striking a balance between the ideologies. The bullseye — or sweet spot, as she calls it — is a perfect state of harmony where we enjoy our own individual freedoms without infringing upon others' freedoms. When we asked her how a government could achieve this balanced state, she was quick to reply: "A more equitable distribution of money in society."
She noted that in the US in the 1950s, for all its faults concerning civil and women's rights, there was a more even distribution of wealth than we have now. The result was the strongest middle class the world has ever seen, and in turn, a period of relative stability. Family units were more stable because they had savings in their coffers and the fear of ending up on the street was less of a threat. It's well documented that money (or the lack thereof) is the leading cause of stress in relationships, so for all the talk about "family values" in this country, it would behoove both the Right and the Left to put their money where their mouths are. Atwood says that when Trump talks about "making America great again," he's referring to this previous golden age of the American middle class, yet the policies he's proposing are in direct opposition to making this a reality.
Image Source: Netflix
The Thing That Will Save Us All
Our conversation with Atwood was sobering but not without brightness. We asked the author to share her thoughts on the role literature plays in society, and her response was hopeful:
"A novel is the closest you will ever get to being inside another person's mind. With film, it's visual; you're watching a character go through an experience, just as we do in our daily interactions with people. But with a novel, you are reading and processing a character's direct thoughts as they go through the highs and lows of the human experience. You are literally thinking their thoughts, therefore, it's the closest we can get to standing in another person's shoes. Studies have shown that reading literary novels increases our ability to experience empathy. No other art form can give you this same experience."
Empathy is hot topic right now. Educators at every level — from preschool teachers to college professors — are touting the benefits of social emotional learning and emotional intelligence. It seems they are catching on to what Atwood already knows: empathy may be our best hope for a healthy, unified society, and fiction is the conduit. Indeed, in a time rife with political uncertainty and an Us vs. Them way of thinking, literature — and the TV shows inspired by it — may be the thing that saves us all.