My wife and I are working our way through the first series of the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale at the moment. It makes for disturbing, and at times harrowing viewing. Thought-provoking on many levels. And the thoughts it provokes can be dark, indeed. Comparisons will doubtless be deemed invidious. But, as a study of power relationships, it is for me very reminiscent of Orwell’s Animal Farm. But The Handmaid’s Tale is very much more affecting. It will make you angry. It will make you afraid. It will lead you to despair of humanity. Because, for all it’s extremes, Atwood’s vividly imagined dystopia is horribly credible.
One of the things that struck me as most frightening about the TV dramatisation was the the way in which the descent into this dystopia is portrayed as happening almost unnoticed by people intent on the pursuit of what quickly come to seem ludicrously trivial gratifications. It was this, too, which put me in mind of Animal Farm. Each stage in the process of moving from democratic civilisation to barbaric totalitarianism appears, in isolation, perfectly reasonable. Or a passing phenomenon. Later, extraordinary measures are deemed necessary to deal with exceptional circumstances. Acceptance of each step in the process paves the way for tolerance of the next. Until there is no way back. Too late, the realisation dawns that what has been so casually squandered can never be recovered.
How fragile it all is!
Could this happen in real life? Is it already happening? If Margaret Atwood is right, we may be unaware. We may already have accepted too much. We may already have developed the tolerance which will allow our rights and freedoms to slip away from us. Not wrenched from our grasp, but given up without demur. Almost as if we were relieved to be freed from the responsibilities which are the necessary corollary of those rights and freedoms.
Brexit looms! Scotland is about to be forced out of the EU against the democratic will of Scotland’s people. That is serious. It is an outrage. And yet we see in the meek acceptance or dutiful rationalisation of this outrage precisely the dumb, fatal complacency that is so powerfully conveyed in The Handmaid’s Tale. We see the same failure – or refusal – to look beyond and beneath immediate events. As ever, we are distracted by talk of economic consequences. Brexit will destroy jobs! Brexit will cost each of us £2,456.76 per year! Brexit will mean empty shelves in the supermarkets and delicatessens! We are constantly encouraged to focus on those gratifications that we have yet to see as ludicrously trivial. Will we learn before it is too late?
Will we lift our eyes and see beyond Brexit to see the dismantling of Scotland’s democratic institutions and the decimation of our public services and all the other extraordinary measures that will be deemed necessary to deal with exceptional circumstances? Will we look beneath the seemingly benign bungling and entertaining eccentricities of the British political elite foisted on us by the Union and discern through the fog of media distortion a regime with motives hardly less malign that that portrayed by Margaret Atwood?
Will we remember that, only a few short weeks ago, the idea of the UK Parliament being prorogued to allow the British executive a free hand would have been, if not unthinkable, then hardly the topic of serious political discourse? Will we realise that the mere fact of the ‘suspension’ of democratically elected parliaments being discussed is part of the process by which the public consciousness is prepared for the actuality? Today’s fodder for political anoraks imperceptibly metamorphoses into tomorrow’s inevitability. And it’s somehow OK because we knew it was going to happen.
Will we think to follow this chain of developments even further? Perhaps to the invoking of the Civil Contingencies Act, with all that this entails? Or will we tell ourselves, and each other, that there is no chain; no connection; no linkage leading from one to the next? Will we see only isolated developments, each of which can be comfortably ignored or readily rationalised?
Will we all wake up one day to find ourselves in a world of nightmares, and wonder how it could have happened?
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