Author’s note: this essay is an updated and expanded upon version of one published in May of this year.
There was a part of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, that is perhaps the most unsettling to me. The protagonist, Offred, is walking past the notorious Wall in the Republic of Gilead. This Wall, once part of a prestigious university in Cambridge Massachusetts, is now being used as a place of public execution, where corpses are left hanging for days to send a message of compliance and terror to the citizens of this authoritarian, theocratic state. Defy “God’s law” and you will suffer the punishment for doing so.
When Atwood penned her famous book in 1985, she could not have imagined just how prescient it would be seen decades later. Then the Hulu series was produced. It differed in many significant ways from the book. The character of Offred, for instance, did not have the same agency or defiance as the one in the television series. She was a witness to the brutality of the Republic of Gilead, but she didn’t actively participate in resisting it as Elizabeth Moss’ portrayal did. Although the series was powerful, well written and well acted, the book presents us with a more universal experience of a person living under authoritarian cruelty.
But it came in the time of Trump. A time of unmasked misogyny. Resistance, or even the facsimile of it, became a popular rallying call. Now, we watch stupefied at the continuing resurgence of fascism, dressed up in the guise of Christianity, in the same nation that would eventually become Atwood’s fictional Gilead. The decision by the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade may be one of those prophecies foretold.
With the admission of some of the most far-right, religiously conservative justices, the writing was on the wall for the SCOTUS to eventually overturn the historic Roe v Wade case. When it did this, the national right to abortion for women ended and several states automatically made abortion illegal. Many others will follow. It isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine an eventual national ban on all abortions coming down the pike relatively soon, and the reversal of other landmark cases, including marriage equality.
To reduce this all to only one or two issues would be missing the broader picture. To be sure, the war on women’s rights, primarily the right of a woman to control her own body, is a fundamental feature of fascism. Misogyny is a central tenet. But this Supreme Court has wasted no time in bolstering other elements of fascist terror. Now gun owners and the police state, thanks to the neutering of Miranda rights, have more rights than women.
These decisions aren’t mismatched. They are intentionally placed obstructions to democracy. When a public is terrorized by armed gunmen in ordinary settings like a grocery store, a school or a parade, they often become paralyzed by fear. And this plays into the hands of any authoritarian government.
American fascism isn’t following the same course as in pre-World War 2 Germany. It is more akin to Franco’s Spain or Pinochet’s Chile, where far-right mobs were emboldened with the task of terrorizing the general public, while the church and the state worked hand in hand to design a framework of oppression; culturally, legislatively and judicially. From both above and below, Americans are being subjected to an unprecedented attack on their basic freedoms, liberties and civil rights.
Without a doubt, fascism has always been a current running just under the surface in American culture, religion and politics. As anywhere it surfaces, fascism has characteristics unique to the society it rises in. And American fascism has always cloaked itself in white supremacy and Calvinistic theology. It is an ideology grounded in racism, exclusion, rigid gender roles and fear.
When Offred saw the bodies on the notorious execution Wall she remembered something her brutal overseer Aunt Lydia once said: “Ordinary, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.” This speaks to the things we come to accept as just part of ones day in the society in which we live. The normalization of things we might once have thought inconceivable, or even horrifying.
The US isn’t at this point yet. But it is worth taking into account Offred’s thoughts on how life was before this reign of terror began, and the feelings of complacency many of us share with her, even as the world around us rapidly morphs into something unimaginable:
“Is that how we lived, then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now. We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. Nothing changes instantly: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”
Offred reflects on her complacency often. She thinks about not attending rallies or marches. And of her mother who did. But, like so many of us, she simply wanted to get her and her family through life hoping it would all work itself out. Our place in history, however, doesn’t function like that. We are participants in it whether we like it or not. And the biggest danger we face is our apathy in the face of authoritarian brutality and violent repression.
Fascism is intentional. It is intentional in its obsession with a fictional and romanticized past. A sentimental vision of a history that never happened. An addiction to the glorification of nationalistic militarism. It is intentional in its drive to silence voices that criticize its narrow understanding of history or the place and treatment of women or of minorities. It is intentional in its misogyny, its racism, its homophobia, its xenophobia, its violence. And given the right circumstances, like economic disparity, ecological crises or institutional rot, it can sweep through any society like a flood. And it can create a new normal in the blink of an eye, leaving us grieving for the life we once thought was simply ordinary.
Kenn Orphan, July 2022