Archive | November, 2010

We cannot wait for heros: on reading The Handmaid’s Tale

6 Nov

I want to be held and told my name, I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable.

This is from A Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, copyright 1985. My immediate attraction to the book was spurred by the previous attraction to the movie. It can be extremely depressing reading an Orwellian tale, especially if the author is prone to un-prose-like detailed description in the beginning and allows only the barest minimum of the protagonist’s cutting wit to adorn the book.

I had discovered the movie among a stash of my mother’s illicit DVDs several years ago. She goes through stages of collecting activities. Once it was embroidery, then cream puffs, then cheesecake, then patchwork, then garish handbags, then ballroom dance. I used to make it habit of raiding her old stores when I was seeking amusement. The handmaid’s tale was an extremely old movie, and the content shocked my tender mind. It speaks of an age where a majority of humanity has become infertile due to pollution, a regime that believes women’s place is in the house has taken over the world, and systems are established to ensure ignorance and compliance.

In one of their more odd systems they use the story in Genesis that speaks of Rachel’s use of her handmaiden as a surrogate for herself. This story, of course, ends badly, but that part is conveniently left out. To deal with low birthrates, the system uses extreme measures to acquire fertile women (if you are a single mother or if this is not your first marriage, they break up your family and take away your child), indoctrinate them, and then put them in privileged families to act as surrogates for the wives.

The handmaid's tale, movie 1990, featuring Natasha Richardson

If anything, the book paints males in a very bad light: as creatures incapable of feeling as deeply as women do, alienated from the sensibilities of the female matrix. It also brings forth some of the rather fascinating and oppressing aspects of a matriarchal society that exists as a sub-current in this system of apparent ‘men-in-charge’. Personally being unwilling to unfavorably categorize and thus dismiss people easily, I am occasionally impressed at the descriptions of characters that are attached with stronger emotional connotation. Hatred. Stupidity. Immaturity. Tackiness. I believe people have multiple possibilities of characters within themselves, and that they are capable of evolving. But sometimes I feel in agreement with the verdicts of others, and it was upsetting to note that I had personally encountered such a character as, what might be termed, the villain in this book. The behavior of this character was pathetic. And it is only through reading the book that has allowed me to see him in such a light. That is sad.

What I find particularly sad is that we may be true to nature. That sometimes the myriad possibilities of our personalities cannot outrun certain categorizations. And also that the system the book describes is not an exaggeration – it is possible, plausible, and in existence right now. The thing that the book is talking about is massive disempowerment – that, even when the majority of a society disagrees with the system, they can still live in a manner that augments and justifies its authority. We submit to an unreasonable power that destroys us. We play it safe, with game-theory passivity. Why throw yourself on the line when you have no assurance that the rest of the malcontents will play honorably?

It is as though we need others to put into words what our distress is about, others to articulate our needs, to suggest a way out, to start constructing a way out. And maybe, if we think it will cause the least risk to us, we will join it. In these scenarios, the least risk usually means that there are a great deal of committed members, and that the group has a sizeable resource.

It exists now, in our society, this mass feeling of disempowerment: When an educational bureau refuses to respond to the requests of proactive parents, or even consider the complaints of students, when scholars are denied grants if they attempt anything close to ‘telling the government how to mind their business’, when, besides a dazzling smile and catchy slogans, we really have no idea what a candidate is about, when the senate blocks a bill to give their own accounting practices accountability, when financially well backed lobbying can drown out the voices of concerned citizens, when a nation of people are not allowed to name themselves as they see fit…

And it is hard to look at yourself, if you’re not prepared to fight. It’s hard to look at yourself when your opinions are so liberal they sometimes have a hard time indicting people. It’s hard to look at yourself when you’re afraid to invest yourself because no one may support you. A lady I met today said, “Well, what can we do? It’s the system. We should just mind our own business.”

But think about this. You are member of society. ‘The system’ is composed of members of society as well. They’re not aberrations of human design, alien from our common sensibilities. Rather, what sets them apart is their task – of public service, for us and for themselves. If we think of ‘the system’ as composed of a similar selection of individuals as what you might get if you wanted to do a random selection from the general civilian population, there should be a similar composition of those who are enthusiastic about their job and those who do the minimum necessary. Granted, the way they get into this system would make this selection not so completely random. But when we’re looking at the level of human motivation for service, over the years, in the same office, I believe the selection process will influence this portion very little. Now, think of these individuals as possible passives, like yourself – people who feel disempowered by the system they work in as well. It takes audacity to lead with authority, and bravery to augment that with accountability. Not many people are willing to take these sorts of risks. They blame it on the system, just like you do.

Now imagine if most people are willing to take that extra step, andassume responsibility.

Imagine that we stop appropriating blame, tracing it 50 years back, as though that could solve our issues today.

Imagine loving our world, believing in justice, and acting on these beliefs.

This concept, I believe, is best illustrated by this passage from Bill McKibben’s 1987 article God Within the Shadows where he talks about Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement:

Since King was killed in the late ’60s, another question arises: how vital was King, as an individual, to the movement? Garrow (…) argues that, in the words of a civil rights colleague, “the movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement.” This is important, another civil rights worker is quoted as saying, because “if people think that it was Martin Luther King’s movement then today they – young people – are more likely to say, ‘Gosh, I wish we had a Martin Luther King here today to lead us.’ If people knew how that movement started, then the question they would ask themselves is, ‘What can I do?’ “

In this day and age, we cannot wait for our heros to be born – for they already are. We are the heros.