The Handmaid's Tale: A Literary Civics Lesson

Hunter-gatherers tell stories, in part, to teach their children civics--the principles and rules of their society. One of the most important lessons these stories teach is that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: the best way to ensure that one’s own rights are respected is to respect the rights of others. Literature plays a similar role in modern societies, exploring the rights and duties of individuals vis-à-vis their fellow citizens.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a case in point. When I first read the novel in grad school in the 1980s, I found it disturbing not because of the bleak totalitarian existence it depicted, but because of the glaring light it shone on the societal mechanisms by means of which the rights of the individual are preserved. Years later, I still remember the words that stopped me in my progressive ideological tracks: “It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time. . . . It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen? That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary” (Atwood 1985:225).

How did it happen, indeed? Until I read those words, I had seen the Constitution as an inviolable and enduring feature of the political landscape. I now saw representative government for the fragile social contract that it is. Representative democracy entails the voluntary surrender of power by the people to those who represent them. This includes not only the power to enact legislation, but the power to enforce it. In effect, then, our representatives include not only elected officials, but also the judiciary and armed forces, whom we trust to preserve our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To say that this is an irrational amount of trust to place in total strangers is an understatement. Our entire government rests on the tacit agreement that it is in everyone’s best interest—including those in positions of power--to abide by the Constitution.

Even the most cursory glance at world history shows that this is an eminently rational agreement. But consider the following thought experiment. Suppose that the American people elected a leader who, once in power, showed every sign that he sought office only to line his own pockets and advance the interests of his cronies, and would stop at nothing to do so. Suppose that, in the name of foreign threats, this leader issued “temporary” orders curtailing freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Suppose that, while issuing these orders and appointments of questionable legality, this leader distracted the public by playing Jenga with our political and trade alliances. Suppose that this leader attempted to erode freedom of the press and information by accusing the media of lying and fomenting distrust of facts among the populace. Suppose that this leader threatened to “destroy” private citizens who dared to criticize his policies. And suppose that the dominant political party in Congress stood by and let all this happen. If that party did not realize that its own rights were in jeopardy, what recourse would we the people have?

Another work of literature provided me with a startling answer. About the same time that I read Atwood’s novel, I read Scott’s Waverly, which was my first literary acquaintance with the Jacobite uprisings of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. England had spent much of this period attempting to “pacify” the Highlands of Scotland. After the Jacobite uprising of 1715, Parliament passed the Disarming Act, which made it illegal for anyone in the Highlands to possess, “use, or bear, broad sword or target, poignard, whinger, or durk, side pistol, gun, or other warlike weapon” without authorization. Because the Highlanders managed to hide their weapons, the act was largely ineffective, so in 1746 the Act of Proscription was passed, along with the Dress Act. Together, these legislative mandates required Highlanders to surrender all swords to the government and forbade the wearing of traditional clan dress. These measures, immediately following upon the defeat of the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden, effectively ended the ability of the Highlanders to defend themselves. These events occurred a mere thirty years before the American Revolution. Given the level of erudition among the founding fathers, it seems unlikely that they were unacquainted with these policies and their implications for self-rule.

On the contrary, the founding fathers were not Pollyannas—they well knew the history of human governance and the frailties of human nature. After the failure of the Articles of Confederation, they saw the need for a strong central government, but they also saw its potential dangers. Accordingly, they took steps to prevent tyranny by establishing the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances. What The Handmaid’s Tale taught me is that they also established a fourth branch of government: the people. Like the other three branches, the fourth branch is armed with its own set of checks and balances against the other three: the Bill of Rights. Without these rights—particularly the Second Amendment--the American people would be like the disarmed and dispossessed Highlanders, incapable of defending themselves against the predations of a tyrannical leader and a legislative body that is unwilling or unable to restrain him.

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